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U.S. Redefines Rape, Updating an 80-Year-Old Characterization of the Crime

| January 10, 2012

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Susan Carbon directs the Violence Against Women Office at the Justice Department

The new definition, a major step forward in providing justice and tracking the crime, came after advocates launched a viral "rape is rape" campaign.

In a sweeping victory for survivors of rape and their advocates, the Justice Department has officially changed the definition of rape used by the FBI to track the crime. The new definition includes male victims for the first time and more closely follows existing criminal codes and state statutes.

The FBI has used the old definition of rape—“the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will”—to track the crime since 1927. Now, more than 80 years later, Attorney General Eric Holder has announced the Uniform Crime Report will define rape as “the 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.”

The old definition was “narrow, outmoded, steeped in gender-based stereotypes, and seriously understated the true incidence of serious sex crimes,” a Women’s Law Project Press Release stated.

The new definition counts unconscious or intoxicated victims, and notably includes oral and anal sex. Physical resistance isn’t required.

“These long overdue updates to the definition of rape will help ensure justice for those whose lives have been devastated by sexual violence and reflect the Department of Justice’s commitment to standing with rape victims,” Attorney General Holder said.

And given that the FBI’s annual record of rape crimes is our only national metric for counting this sexual violence, the revised definition will finally allow the bureau to properly measure and understand the extent of rape incidences in the United States.

“This change will give law enforcement the ability to report more complete rape offense data, as the new definition reflects the vast majority of state rape statutes,” the Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, wrote in a release. “As we implement this change, the FBI is confident that the number of victims of this heinous crime will be more accurately reflected in national crime statistics.”

Using the old definition, FBI statistics showed 84,767 rapes in 2010. But the Center for Disease Control, employing a much broader definition, estimates that 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 71 men, have been raped in his or her lifetime. It was this mismatch that framed much of the discussion for the revisions, said Lynn Rosenthal, the White House adviser on violence against women.

And thanks in large part to the dedicated advocacy of Philadelphia-based Women’s Law Project, Vice President Joe Biden and Director Susan Carbon of the Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women—as well as the thousands of supporters in the viral “rape is rape” campaign led by Ms. Magazine—the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board voted unanimously for the change.

The new definition is not only a vital part of accurately capturing crime statistics, but also marks a landmark moment in combating this historically minimized problem. The change means that rape will "become a crime to which more resources are allocated," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, in Ms. Magazine (which is published by FMF). “We feel this will have a significant impact,” she said.

Congress approved $592 million this year to address violence against women, including sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking, under the Violence Against Women Act and Family Violence Prevention and Services Act. Of that amount, $23 million is spent on a sexual assault services program and $39 million goes to a rape prevention and education program administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The revised definition of rape sends an important message to the broad range of rape victims that they are supported and to perpetrators that they will be held accountable,” the Justice Department’s Susan Carbon, said in a statement.

Now, as Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, wrote in the WLP release, “we need to direct our attention to preventing rape and aggressively pursuing sexual predators.”

And it’s about time.

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