Finally, the Definition of Rape Gets An Update

I didn’t know about this until yesterday. And now that I know it, I’m angry I didn’t know about it sooner.

For decades now, when the government compiled national crime statistics, the number of sexual assaults reported was lower than it should’ve been. That’s because the FBI’s definition of rape — “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” — didn’t include penetration with an object, instances when someone was roofied, cases with male victims, the rape of women by other women, or anything that happened with Jerry Sandusky at Penn State.

Why is all this so important?

Many law enforcement officials and advocates for women say that this underreporting misleads the public about the prevalence of rape and results in fewer federal, state and local resources being devoted to catching rapists and helping rape victims. Rape crisis centers are among groups that cite the federal figures in applying for private and public financing.

The definition of rape has now changing under the Obama administration. Rape will now be defined in the Uniform Crime Report like this:

“Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

It’s still disturbing to hear that all reporting to the UCR is voluntary because it suggests the underreporting of rape will continue.

Lisa (LJonYT) just posted a heartbreaking story of why all of this is so personal for her:

That is serious courage and strength right there. To suggest that rape isn’t rape because of how it happened or who it happened to or the age of the victim is an injustice and it’s about damn time the government updated their reporting of it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Anonymous

    This new definition is exactly what I described recently in something I wrote (gratuitous linking at request). It won’t change what states do, but it will make reporting more accurate.

    Now we just need the CDC to get on board and stop defining molestation and other awful things as rape.

  • Michael

    FoxNews Headline (probably): Obama Administration Responsible For Creating More Rape Victims

    • Anonymous

      No. They don’t care about the victims, remember? It will be: Increase in Number of Rapists under Obama

  • Johannsone

    We let former president Bill Clinton redefine sex. I am not sure why we are surprised the FBI had no idea how sexual violence should be categorized. How about we call a spade a spade? Violence is violence as defined-Physical force or activity used to cause harm, damage or abuse. We keep sliding the scales of acceptability to assuage the upper echelon. As a side, I doubt this was Obama’s doing, so Fox and CNN can shut the hell up about it. Can’t it ONE TIME not be about politics and just about humanity?

    • Carrie Clark

      I’m a little confused, do you mean to suggest that rape is not rape if it does not include physical force? 

      • Johannsone

        no, rape is an act of violence in any form.

        • Brian Macker

          Bullshit. Statutory rape could be classified as tender lovemaking the next day depending on the arbitrary cutoff. If you classify all rape as violent then the rapist might as well beat you to a pulp while raping you because it won’t change the classification. Also with the nonsense about drinking causing an inability to consent you could come to the bizarre conclusion that a violent act was committed on a woman who just told her boyfriend that getting drunk makes her horny so let’s do it. Or worse, that two drunks pleasuring each other are actually committing violent rape on each other.

    • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

      You do realize the old definition of Rape goes back to the early days of the FBI right?

      • Johannsone

        I was waiting for someone to make that statement. Yes, I did.  It was more of a cursory statement. Even our recent history shows we can’t agree on something so simple. Sexual acts do not exclude everything that does not incorporate someone shoving a penis in a vagina. If sex was that easy to define, men wouldn’t be so confused about foreplay and the necessity of it.  :)

        • Anonymous

          Things can be sexual without being sex. Kissing can be sexual, but I don’t think anyone would classify it as sex. While sex is more than just penis in vagina, I think we should hesitate before expanding it to all sexual acts.

          And women are very concerned about foreplay because that is often the only way they can get sexually excited to the degree that the man can in seconds from just regular intercourse. We men hope against hope that this time we have sex the woman will be ready as quick as we are, but most of the time no dice! ;)

  • Silver Layna

    Lisa’a video is very powerful. It’s way past time they change that definition, unfortunately, I’ve known about this for a very long time. Today, things have changed and all Rape=Rape. I never liked it when people call rape of a child-molestation, like that’s not rape somehow.

    • Anonymous

      Isn’t child molestation different from rape though?  I mean inappropriate touching is molesting but rape is rape.  Both are clearly wrong but rape is more wrong and certainly more damaging.

  • Silver Layna

    Does this mean the U.S Justice Dept. will charge child “molesters” with rape of a child, despite the age of the child, instead of molestation?? *
    (Obviously if the child was violated as described by the New definition)

    • Erp

      Maybe but note that almost all such cases (rape and/or molestation) are under state jurisdiction so the US Department of Justice would rarely be charging anyone.   Each state has its own definitions.

  • Sware

    My guts are wrenching at this.  This makes me so furious I can hardly think straight.  And that video…if anything the penalty should be harsher for perpetrating against a child…certainly not minimalized. 

  • Anonymous

    Wow, so many enraging things in one single piece of news. So until now according to the FBI a man simply couldn’t be raped? Unbelievable.

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the idea that if you rape a child, it’s not “really” rape. Surely that can only be in terms of FBI statistics? My understanding this entire time is that raping a child is a much more serious crime, in terms of punishment, than raping an adult. Mind you, it’s still utter bullshit that the term rape was not accepted for minors in terms of statistics, but it would be mind-numbingly outrageous if this actually led to lighter sentences for perpetrators.

    Oh, and that therapist, that told a 13 year old girl that she wasn’t raped, she was molested? Maybe they need to find another line of work, like sewer cleaner.

    • Anonymous

      I think you’re right that it’s only for statistical purposes.  In any case rape is almost always a state crime.  Still overdue.

    • Anonymous

      I’ve read in other articles that this change in the FBI definition doesn’t change prosecution at all, simply how things are counted.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Jade-Brown/640358790 Tiffany Jade Brown

    I am very pleased with this. I am a survivor of child rape and though my perpetrator was charged with “sexual battery” in my state instead of rape, it’s nice to know that federally, it is recognized for what it is. And I have known so many male survivors of both male and female rape and female survivors of female rape that have not gotten the recognition they deserve. I definitely think this is a step in the right direction.

  • kit

    In Canada, legally, we don’t refer to it as “rape”. Legally,  the term is “sexual assault” and it encompasses a wider definition – we don’t require penetration at all, but contact with some sexual intent or nature. The leading case was from the 1980s when a neighbour visited the home of a 15-year-old girl and groped her while telling her things along the lines of “you know you want it.” The victim, fortunately, wasn’t home alone and ran upstairs to her brother and grandfather. The perpetrator was convicted of sexual assault although there was no penetration at all. Anyway, I think it’s interesting that in America you actually need penetration of some kind to get a sexual assault charge.

    • Anonymous

      No you don’t. You can be punished for sexual assault, but punishments for rape are higher.

      • Brian Macker

        Which is as it should be so that it doesn’t set up bad incentives, like “I already touched you and could be charged with rape so I might as well go all the way. Sexual assaults like sodomy should actually carry heavier penalties because the danger of injury, and infection with STDs is higher in some instances than vaginal rape. Roman Polanski, I’m taking about you, you bastard.

  • Ronlawhouston

    In the same vein, while we’re correcting definitions they should change the definition of “registered sex offender.”  The vast majority (I think about 70%) are not rapist or child molesters but statutory rape cases where, for instance, a 21 year old has sex with a 16 year old.

    • Anonymous

      The sex offender registry, as well as how we define sex offendors, needs a pretty massive overhaul. Never mind putting statutory rape on the same registry as hardened pedophiles, how is it that a 19 year old kid having consensual sex with his 17 year old girlfriend is a crime at all?

      How is this not an outrage? If you polled the number of Americans who lost their virginity as minors it will likely be in the tens of millions. Many of those lost their virginity to someone over 18. The law essentially states that we have millions of rapists who, ideally, would all be caught, go to prison and then go on the sex offender registry.

      I know that this is not universal, but I am aghast at places that make the age of consent 18 and legally make it so two people with birthdays months apart can turn one of them into a rapist. I understand that there is a possible abuse of power when someone of age sleeps with a minor, but surely this can be adressed in a more nuanced manner (say, by imposing age difference limits in the case of minors) that does not ruin the lives of teenagers who are universally recognized as having done nothing wrong.

      • Miciah

        Worse, doesn’t the new definition mean that sex between two minors constitutes rape?

      • Anonymous

        The age of consent is 18?  Is this just some parts of America?

        • Meika_b

          It’s by state. It’s either 16, 17 or 18 depending on which state you’re in. All the ones that I’ve lived in have been 18.

        • Anonymous

          By my count , 7 states have the age of consent at 18 for boys and girls, and an additional 5 have it at 18 for girls but lower for boys.

          Probably the most incredible rule is the one in Mississippi where sleeping with someone between the ages of 14 and 18 is ilegal but only if that person was “previously of chaste character”. That’s right, it’s ilegal to have sex with a minor virgin, but if someone else got to them before you, then fuck away!

      • Nena

        I do not know the details, but I was under the impression that there are clauses in most age of consent laws that make exceptions for individuals who are within a certain age difference. For instance, it is illegal for a 16 yo and a 30 yo to have sex, but not for a 16 yo and a 19 yo (provided it is consensual, of course).

        I could be wrong about this; it is something I remember, but I am not even sure from where I remember it.

        • http://twitter.com/KevinSagui Kevin Sagui

          That’s the case in New Jersey – if one party is between 16 and 18, the other can be no more than three years older.  Seems reasonable to me.

        • Anonymous

          If those exemptions exist at all (it depends on the state), they often are the result of outrage because the law was applied too strictly at first

      • Anonymous

        There should be separate lists for separate sex crimes. Right now, from my understanding, someone arrested for peeing in public (listed as indecent exposure) is put on the same list as someone arrested for raping a 2 year old. The only way anyone knows what the people on the list were arrested for is to go to their individual profile online and even then the definition of what they did is rarely longer than 2 words. Most of the time people just see them on the sex offenders list and assume the worst.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

    What about coercion?

  • Anonymous

    I’m sort of wondering if any one else is bothered that apparently there are/have recently been laws about crimes in which the victims are by definition children that have statutes of limitations that run out before the victim turns 18.  How is that fair to victims, shouldn’t all child related crimes have the statute of limitations be: statute of limitations + number of years for victim to reach legal majority?

  • Anonymous

    I think this change is a vast improvement over the old definition. All of the events listed above that weren’t counted (unconscious victims, victims penetrated by an object, male victims, lesbian victims, ect) represent a huge under counting of the crime.

    Still, I’m still a little disappointed that the new definition talks about penetration and oral sex rather than unwilling sex in and of itself. For example, cases like these would not be counted as rape:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_sex_in_chains_case

    I understand that these cases are very rare, but the victim was allegedly held against his will and the attacker allegedly forcibly had sex with him while he was unwilling (drugs or massage can cause erection without a person’s consent). If the claims are true, this should count as rape as well, though it wouldn’t under the new definition. While this would probably be prosecuted as sexual assault if found true, it might not be legally defined as rape and I think that is a problem.

  • Eivind Kjorstad

    The new definition still seems to assume that the perpetrator penetrates the victim somehow.

    Does the new definition consider it rape if a male is forced to against his will penetrate another person ? Is oral sex performed on a male without his consent rape ? The definition does not seem to indicate so.

  • Anonymous

    vayyy wctube

  • Brian Macker

    So a wedgy now becomes rape and therefore a more serious crime than kicking a male in the balls? Doesn’t the underwear ever so slightly penetrate the anus (or vagina) during a wedgy? Doesn’t this diminish the seriousness of rape which carries the danger of pregnancy and STDs by classifying ever so slight non-serious contact with the much more dangerous kind? Perhaps a new term or class of sexual assault is more appropriate.


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