The FBI (Finally) Updates its Definition of Rape

This spring, after 83 years, the FBI will be updating its definition of rape. The old definition, in use since 1929, defined rape as “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” The problems with this definition should be obvious to anyone who is even halfway enlightened: it excluded men from being victims of rape, excluded many drug-facilitated rapes, and created a grey area in defining what constitutes “forcible” rape. The new definition will be as follows:

“[P]enetration, 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.”

While the FBI’s archaic definition was not preventing prosecution of these crimes (that’s up to the state), and while drug-facilitated rape was recognized as a federal offense in other ways (the Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996 subjects those who use date rape drugs to federal sentences of up to 20 years in prison), the main impact of this will be to encourage more accurate and reliable reporting of statistics on sexual violence between local governments and the federal governments. This is a victory for the activists who pushed for this change, but it’s also a victory for all of us. Having access to accurate information about sexual violence in our communities is beneficial, and publicizing this change may help more victims to understand they are not alone and to come forward if they haven’t already. We still have a long way to go in creating a culture that fully recognizes and appropriately punishes rape and sexual assault, but it’s heartening to see a step in the right direction.

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