FBI Needs a Modern Definition of "Rape"

Last week, the FBI was considering redefining the federal definition of rape. The current definition is outdated; it was written more than 80 years ago for a different world – one where the U.S. was in the Great Depression and Jim Crow laws were in full effect. Therefore, redefining rape to match the last 80 years of social growth is necessary and overdue. 

According to the FBI, “Forcible rape, as defined in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, is the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” This definition is insufficient and misleading, reflecting and perpetuating an overall social misunderstanding of rape.

The definition creates the misperception that men cannot be victims of rape, neglects to properly define the word forcible, and excludes various types of sexual assault, thereby creating a skewed statistical set for the number of rapes that occur in the U.S.  

First, the definition has to be broadened to include men. Though women are more often the victims of rape, the implication that only women are rape victims is an insult to the men and boys who make up nearly 10% of rape victims. Right now, the FBI crime statistics count the rape of men and boys as aggravated assault or sexual offenses, but the failure to classify the rape of males as forcible rape is irresponsible. The absence of males in the definition of rape promotes a heterocentric and patriarchal social and legal environment and strips male survivors of their voice while perpetuating gender stereotypes.  

Also advancing the mythology about rape is the fact that the FBI chooses to define "forcible rape" as opposed to defining just "rape." Just a few months ago, The Daily Show’s women’s issues correspondent Kristen Schaal did a segment on the definition of “rape-rape” vs. rape when the topic of abortion funding was being debated by the House. In the segment, host Jon Stewart stated that “all rape is forced.” Though the segment was meant to be humorous, it addressed the myth that rape is always physically violent, which seems to be the implication of the word “forcible” in the FBI definition. Stewart clarifies that rape can be forced by using various types of duress (i.e. physical, mental, emotional, and financial) and includes victims who are not legally given the ability to consent, which includes those who are under the age of consent, those who are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, and the intellectually disabled.

The exclusions of males and those not legally able to consent in the FBI definition are not the only exclusions in the definition. The definition also excludes anal and oral rape, as “carnal knowledge” refers specifically to vaginal intercourse. Additionally, this definition does not include instances of homosexual rape. Also, many sexual assaults are committed with fingers or foreign objects (poles, dildos, etc.), and under the current definition, the FBI would not count those assaults as rape.

All of these exclusions make FBI crime statistics concerning the number of rapes in the U.S. hugely inaccurate. This statistic is already unreliable because nearly 60% of rape that occurs in the U.S. goes unreported, therefore, the added inaccuracy of the FBI definition only further skews the crime statistics. 

The current definition of rape proves that we live in a society where issues of sexual assault go unexplained and remain misunderstood, since it allows for a wide array of methods of rape and a large number of survivors to go unnoticed and unaddressed. It only enables these issues to be swept under the rug. The FBI definition of rape embodies this ignorance — it reflects the general misunderstandings that society has about rape. 

Yet, as angry as I am as a woman, human rights advocate, and human being about the institutionalized ignorance surrounding rape, I am glad that these myths are being talked about. Dialogue is the first step toward change, and though this change is long overdue, it is welcome.  

Photo Credit: WeNews

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Anupama Selvam

I am 25, from Chicago and graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. My expertise is in international human rights law-- specifically surrounding genocide studies and gender equality. Currently I work as a Research Assistant at Northwestern University School of Law where I assist with international human rights cases that focus on genocide litigation. I also work as a Medical Advocate for Rape Victim Advocates where I advocate for survivors of sexual assault.

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