Time to Change the Federal Definition of Rape

Remember awhile back when Republicans in the House tried to pass a law that would allow a woman who had been raped to have an abortion paid for only in the case of “forcible rape?” At the time, there was an uproar on-line and in the corporate media, and the wording of the bill was changed.

At the time, I somehow missed the fact that the official definition used by the FBI in keeping track of crimes statistics not only defines rape as forcible, but also only as vaginal penetration of a female. That leaves out anal and oral rape, rape with objects, and rape of a person who is unconscious, drunk, or drugged by the rapist. It also leaves out rapes of males. Here’s the FBI definition of rape:

“the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will”

There’s a story in The New York Times today about efforts to make that definition a whole lot broader and more realistic.

Thousands of sexual assaults that occur in the United States every year are not reflected in the federal government’s yearly crime report because the report uses an archaic definition of rape that is far narrower than the definitions used by most police departments.

This means that local police departments use one definition for their own records and the archaic FBI definition for federal reporting of crime statistics.

“The public has the right to know about the prevalence of crime and violent crime in our communities, and we know that data drives practices, resources, policies and programs,” said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, whose office has campaigned to get the F.B.I. to change its definition of sexual assault. “It’s critical that we strive to have accurate information about this.”

Ms. Tracy spoke Friday at a meeting in Washington, organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, that brought together police chiefs, sex-crime investigators, federal officials and advocates to discuss the limitations of the federal definition and the wider issue of local police departments’ not adequately investigating rape.

So when we hear from the feds that crime rates are dropping, we’re getting false or distorted information, at least as it applied to rape.

According to a September 16, 2010 article at Change.org by Elizabeth Renter, another problem caused by the FBI’s limited definition of rape is that forcible, vaginal rape is the only form of sexual assault that is defined as a Part I office in the FBI’s annual crime report.

While the FBI recognizes other acts as a form of sexual assault, rape is the only crime which they classify as a Part I offense in the Uniform Crime Report, an annually published record of crime rates across the country.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide submit data to the FBI for inclusion in the UCR. Despite this report being completely voluntary, there is said to be a 93 percent participation rate. And though there are always shortcomings and margins of error with any system designed to track crime, the UCR is considered the go-to report when politicians, reporters or other officials need to cite crime statistics. Because of this, it would be in the self serving interest of some agencies to show lower crime rates, to reflect that their crime control techniques are really working when they really aren’t.

But the police wouldn’t do that — would they?

Over the past few years, several metropolitan police forces have come under scrutiny for their handling of rape cases. Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Cleveland are just a few cities where law enforcement is alleged to have mishandled or completely ignored reports of rape.

Renter links to a series of investigative articles in the Baltimore Sun that demonstrated that Baltimore Police were discounting more rape reports than any other city in the U.S.

More than 30 percent of the cases investigated by detectives each year are deemed unfounded, five times the national average. Only Louisville and Pittsburgh have reported similar numbers in the recent past, and the number of unfounded rape cases in those cities dropped after police implemented new classification procedures. The increase in unfounded cases comes as the number of rapes reported by Baltimore police has plunged — from 684 in 1995 to 158 in 2009, a decline of nearly 80 percent. Nationally, FBI reports indicate that rapes have fallen 8 percent over the same period.

According to the NYT article linked above, an FBI subcommittee will begin considering a change of their definition of rape on October 18. The New York Times article is the only one I could find dealing with this issue today–except for a reference to the article at the Daily Beast.

Let’s hope other major media outlets pick up this story and run with it. Rape is already assumed to be greatly under-reported. Now we learn that it may not be so much under-reported, but instead minimized or not taken seriously by local police departments.

15 Comments on “Time to Change the Federal Definition of Rape”

  1. paper doll says:

    Excellent and needed post! Thank you !

  2. Branjor says:

    “Forcible rape” is redundant. Rape is forcible by definition, or else it wouldn’t be rape.

  3. Minkoff Minx says:

    Thanks for highlighting this BB, I didn’t realize the definition was so limited.

  4. janicen says:

    Fascinating post, BB. Thank you for bringing it to light here at SD.

  5. Fannie says:

    The other thing that needs to be strengthen is the rape shield laws……….in regards to past sexual behavior…………we are seeing those who want to do away with the rape shield laws, and
    we need to push back.

  6. B Kilpatrick says:

    Don’t forget this:


    If you call the NOPD and report a rape, it might just wind up in the miscellaneous category. Of course, they do that with LOTS of crimes, either reporting them as 21 or 107.