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An Updated Definition of Rape
January 6, 2012 Posted by

The following post appears courtesy of Susan B. Carbon, Director of the Office on Violence Against Women.

In a victory for survivors of rape and their advocates, the Attorney General announced a newly revised definition of rape for nationwide data collection, ensuring that rape will be more accurately reported nationwide.

The change sends an important message to all victims that what happens to them matters, and to perpetrators that they will be held accountable.  It was because of the voices of survivors, advocates, law enforcement personnel and many others that FBI Director Robert Mueller was able to make this important change within the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) Summary Reporting System (SRS).

 “Forcible rape” had been defined by the UCR SRS as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”  That definition, unchanged since 1927, was outdated and narrow. It only included forcible male penile penetration of a female vagina.

The new definition is:

“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.” 

For the first time ever, the new definition includes any gender of victim and perpetrator, not just women being raped by men.  It also recognizes that rape with an object can be as traumatic as penile/vaginal rape.  This definition also includes instances in which the victim is unable to give consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity. 

Furthermore, because many rapes are facilitated by drugs or alcohol, the new definition recognizes that a victim can be incapacitated and thus unable to consent because of ingestion of drugs or alcohol.  Similarly, a victim may be legally incapable of consent because of age. The ability of the victim to give consent must be determined in accordance with individual state statutes.  Physical resistance is not required on the part of the victim to demonstrate lack of consent. 

The UCR is the national “report card” on serious crime; what gets reported through the UCR is how we, collectively, view crime in this country.  Police departments submit data on reported crimes and arrests to the UCR SRS.  Even though most states have more expansive definitions of rape in their criminal codes, they had to report the smaller number of crimes falling under the more narrow UCR SRS definition.  This meant that the statistics that were reported nationally were both inaccurate and undercounted.

Because the new definition is more inclusive, reported crimes of rape are likely to increase.  This does not mean that rape has increased, but simply that it is more accurately reported.  In addition, the UCR program will also collect data based on the historical definition of rape, enabling law enforcement to track consistent trend data until the statistical differences between the old and new definitions are more fully understood. 

The new UCR SRS definition of rape does not change Federal or state criminal codes or impact charging and prosecution on the Federal, State or local level, it simply means that rape will be more accurately reported nationwide.     

The Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) worked closely with White House Advisor on Violence Against Women Lynn Rosenthal and the Office of the Vice President, as well as multiple DOJ divisions, to modernize the definition.  The change was supported by external partners such as the National Sheriffs Association, National Association of Police Organizations, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Major City Chiefs, Major County Sheriffs, and the Police Executive Research Forum. 

For more information about the Office on Violence Against Women, visit ovw.usdoj.gov. We remind all those in need of assistance, or other concerned friends and individuals, to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.

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