New York 'Rape is Rape' Bill Leads the Way in Ending Sexual Violence

There is power in words, in definitions. And when it comes to rape, the restrictive power of an outdated definition is especially powerful. Outdated legal and social definitions of rape limit understanding of what rape actually means and can cause further trauma to those who have been raped.

New York State’s current laws consider the act of rape only to be forcible vaginal penetration, but Lydia Cuomo is aiming to change that. A schoolteacher in the Bronx, Cuomo was raped by an off-duty New York City cop in 2011. But because her attacker violated her orally and anally, rather than vaginally, her jury could not agree whether or not she had been raped. As a result, her attacker was convicted of an attack other than rape. Three months later, he ended up pleading guilty to two rape charges, so Cuomo was not forced to sit through another trial.

In response to Cuomo’s story, New York Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas has sponsored a “rape is rape” bill, and Governor Cuomo (no relation to Lydia Cuomo) has also expressed support for the bill. Lydia Cuomo, Simotas, and friends and family members traveled to Albany on Tuesday to advocate for the bill, which would add forced anal and oral sex to New York State rape statutes. As of right now, those acts are classified as “criminal sex acts” rather than rape.

If the bill passes, it will continue a shift in the rhetoric around the word rape in America. In 2012, the FBI updated its definition of rape for the first time in over 80 years. In addition to only referencing vaginal penetration, the FBI’s old definition did not define the rape of a man as rape, or consider the rape of a woman by another woman.

But is the bill in New York just a question of semantics? What is the difference between calling an act of sexual violence a “criminal sex act” or “rape?”

To quote Lynn Rosenthal, the White House advisor on violence against women, expanding the way rape is characterized in America is “about more than a definition … It’s a change of our understanding of rape.”

The word rape has such a powerful connotation behind it that to expect survivors to say that they were “the victims of a criminal sex act” rather than they were “raped” is unfair to them and discounts the trauma they’ve gone through. Moreover, the issue of rape is endemic: A government survey of rape released in 2011 revealed that nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have been raped at some point in their lives. The idea that New York’s definition of rape implies that some of these women cannot say they were raped, that instead they were the victim of a somehow “lesser” crime, is outdated and should be changed as soon as possible

What’s the point of compartmentalizing violent sexual acts, when they are all an act of violation? You cannot rank acts of rape; you cannot give more significance to one act of sexual violence than another. To do so is to belittle the survivors of all of these acts.

Any forced sexual contact towards someone is rape, no matter how it happens or whom it happens to. Rape is rape, and laws today need to account for that.

“Semantics are important,” Lydia Cuomo says, and who are we to refute her? By calling rape what it is, no matter who perpetrates it and no matter in what way, we can move towards lessening the stigma around talking about rape and helping rape survivors heal. New York is taking a bold step by attempting to open up the definition of rape, one that will help develop a shared understanding of what rape is, and one that hopefully other states will follow.