December 13, 2011 / Safety

It’s Unanimous! FBI to Change 82 Year Old Definition of Rape


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

On Tuesday, December 6, 2011 the FBI’s Advisory Policy Board voted unanimously to change their official definition of the word “rape.” Since 1929, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program has defined “forcible rape” as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” The Board’s new definition is: “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.”

The old definition has long been criticized as being archaic and misleading. Earlier this fall, data released in the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) showed a five percent drop in rapes reported from 2009 to 2010 (See “Overview”). However, most states have already adopted a broader definition of rape, one that has not been accepted by the FBI. As a result, fewer rapes are included in the UCR than are actually reported.  For example, in 2010 there were nearly 1400 sexual assaults in Chicago, none of which fit the FBI’s current definition of rape and, therefore, were not included in the national statistics. Twenty-four percent of the rapes reported by the police department in New York were not federally recorded for the same reason.

The removal of the word “forcible” is highly significant. Because the current definition says, “forcibly and against her will” (emphasis added), there has been a “resistance requirement” that, although dropped from most states, is still a common defense. Victims not only have to prove they did not consent, they have to prove they fought back as hard as they could to prevent the rape from occurring. The word “forcible” stigmatizes rape victims who were held down by someone bigger or stronger, rendering them unable to “fight back.” It also does not take into account a “freeze response” by those victims who are too terrified to move or because they feel even greater harm will come to them if they resist. A 2011 Washington State University report, “Force and Resistance Requirements” states “as the former Special Rapporteur has explained, judges, juries and prosecutors alike are more likely to believe that a perpetrator is guilty of sexual assault if the assault was accompanied by other physical injury.”

Having an object forced into a vagina or anus is no less devastating than unwanted sexual intercourse. Upon approval of the change in wording, these acts can be prosecuted as rape, rather than aggravated assault. The new language also ensures that a man will no longer be able to grab a woman by the hair and force her to perform oral sex on him without serious legal repercussions.

Currently, the FBI counts “sexual attacks” on men as “aggravated assaults or sex offenses, depending on the circumstances and the extent of any injuries.” One in ten rape victims is male, and one in thirty-three men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in his lifetime (Source: The new wording is good news for these men who have been victimized and suffered in silence.

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) wrote in an article for The Hill’s Congress Blog that she led forty-one of her Congressional colleagues in sending a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller  “urging him to institute major changes in the way the Bureau classifies rape.” In her article, she emphasizes that changing the definition will greatly impact key funding for critical programs that aid victims and puts rapists behind bars. The new definition is now awaiting approval by Director Mueller, and it is the hope of activist groups that it will go through in January of 2012.

This crucial change in wording will mean that rape statistics will increase as more sexual assaults are counted as rape in national reporting to the FBI. It does not mean that there are suddenly more rapists running loose in this country. It simply means the statistics are far more alarming than many may have ever realized.  Our nation could finally be awakened from its deep slumber and realize this doesn’t just happen in other places. Perhaps now we will begin to take greater action to prevent rape from happening, and to make coming forward more palatable for victims.

Join Our Email List

Be the first to know the latest initiatives from The New Agenda to improve the lives of women and girls.

Thank you for joining our list! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.