Defining Rape is More Than Just Semantics

I don’t know about you but whenever I hear the term “forcible rape” (think back to January’s Republican driven attempt to curtail abortions that “inadvertently” would have limited the definition of rape), the hair on my arms stands on end and I cringe slightly. “Forcible” is a disclaimer that effectively downsizes and minimizes several different kinds of sexual assault. And that’s exactly what the FBI is doing when it relies on the Uniform Crime Report’s (UCR) definition of rape to compile national statistics on rape: “The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” That’s it. Is it archaic? Yes (and really, that answer wouldn’t be different, even back when the definition was formed in 1927). Is it insanely narrow? Yes. Sorry fellas, turns out you cannot be raped. Thank goodness for sodomy laws.

But thanks in part to the wonderful work of Carol Tracy, Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project, things might be turning around. Recently a committee of FBI officials and victims advocates came together with PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum, to discuss how defining rape only as the penetration of a vagina by a penis (“carnal knowledge”) is preventing a frightening number of sexual assaults and rapes to go uncounted (and therefore untried). The conversation is finally taking into account several important things that the current definition precludes:

  • Men are excluded from being counted as rape victims under the UCR
  • Any other type of forcible sexual assault (oral, anal, digital) go uncounted
  • “Forcible” makes even murkier the waters surrounding the rape of women who are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs
  • “Forcible” also magnifies the obstacles for prostitutes and sex workers to file charges on an assailant

So what’s the point of all this? The UCR is not the only method of counting rapes. Victimization reports such as the National Crime Victimization Survey do not just rely on what gets reported to the police and instead ask victims to report all forms of assault (not just the limited definition purported by the UCR). When we compare the numbers, the amount of rapes in 2009 counted by the NCVS is well over double the amount counted by the UCR (200,000 versus 88,000). Unfortunately, the UCR is what the FBI relies on and it’s what our cities and towns report back to us, so what we’re hearing isn’t always the reality. The current UCR definition of “forcible” rape allows police departments to under-report or downgrade what should sincerely be considered rape to lesser forms of assault.

In a time when our nation is cheering for the death penalty, one could argue our entire definition of justice is skewed. However, for now, we need to at least get our numbers right in order to provide the resources necessary for women to truly seek justice against their offenders. There are enough societal obstacles in place for women to report their rapes; they don’t need to hear that according to some antiquated definition their rape doesn’t even count on top of all that.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted October 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    What is the definition used by NCVS?

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      It’s more complicated because the NCVS is a questionnaire administered by a trained researcher. Depending on a respondent’s answers the researcher has follow-up questions. The follow-ups range from verbal or physical threat of rape to a distinction between “unwanted sexual contact without force” versus “unwanted sexual contact with force.” Additionally, when you look at the actual survey you can see that one potential answer to “How were you attacked” is simply “raped,” with no specifications for what that entails.

      Here’s a link to the pdf of the NCVS if you’re interested: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/ncvs209.pdf

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