For the first time in 83 years the United States Department of Justice announced a “major” change in the definition of rape towards one that took cognizance of male victims and also did away with ambiguities surrounding the question of consent.
Until now the legal understanding of rape came from a 1927 rule that defined it as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” a phraseology that included only forcible male penile penetration of a female vagina and excluded oral and anal penetration; rape of males; penetration of the vagina and anus with an object or body part other than the penis; rape of females by females; and, non-forcible rape.
Following the latest move by the DoJ rape is now defined as “The 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 change in the definition is at the level of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting system and not in the federal or state criminal codes. This implies that while the change will not impact charging and prosecution on the Federal, State or local level, “it simply means that rape will be more accurately reported nationwide,” according to the DoJ.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who has spearheaded some of the effort to end violence against women and is author of the Violence Against Women Act, welcomed the change saying, “Rape is a devastating crime and we can’t solve it unless we know the full extent of it.”
Attorney General Eric Holder reflected upon how the redefinition of rape was expected to impact law enforcement efforts. He said, “These long overdue updates to the definition of rape will help ensure justice for those whose lives have been devastated by sexual violence… This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes.”
According to White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who spoke with journalists on a conference call following the announcement of the redefinition of rape, one in five women and one in 71 men could expect to be raped in their lifetimes in the U.S. “Definitions matter because people matter,” Ms. Jarrett said, noting that the 2010 statistic of 84,767 people raped in the U.S. did not present an accurate picture of the extent of rape in the country.
With relatively easy access to alcohol, some types of drugs, and the greater exposure of younger persons to the risk of being raped experts had concurred that the older definition was no longer sufficient to ensure greater reporting of incidents of rape. The new definition accordingly takes into account victim incapacity owing to intoxication or age and also does not place emphasis on the question of victims’ physical resistance.
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