FBI to Update Narrow Definition of Rape That Has Not Been Changed Since 1929

Today, the FBI will finally vote on a new definition of rape that will take the place of the current model, and antique from 1929.

The definition of rape used by the F.B.I. — “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” — was written more than 80 years ago. Photo: Dave Newman/Flickr

An FBI advisory board’s decision to update its definition of rape has been hailed a success by women’s rights advocates.

Currently, the FBI defines rape as the “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

This definition, which has not been updated since 1929, is narrower than the one used by many police departments around the country, and women’s rights advocates say it leads to the under-counting of thousands of sexual assaults each year.

At a meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the board changed the definition of rape to ‘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 words ‘woman’ and ‘forcibly’ have been removed, but it now includes non-vaginal/penile rape.

The Feminist Majority Foundation also recently led a “Rape is Rape” campaign, calling on the public to pressure the FBI to update its definition. More than 160,000 emails were sent to the FBI in support.

“It’s a great victory,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority Foundation, in a statement. “This new definition will mean that, at long last, we will begin to see the full scope of this horrific violence, and that understanding will carry through to increased attention and resources for prevention and action.”

The Pennsylvania-based Women’s Law Project has campaigned for 10 years to have the new definition made in the UCR.

Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Project, said: ‘Although long overdue, we are pleased that the FBI has vetted this change extensively with its local and national law enforcement advisors and a clear consensus has emerged that a more accurate definition will better inform the public about the prevalence of serious sex crimes and will ultimately drive more resources to apprehend sex offenders.’

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.

Although Tuesday’s vote was “a very big deal,” according to Tracy, the official definition is not yet changed. The recommendation — along with all the others agreed upon by the policy board at its meeting — now goes to FBI Director Robert Mueller for final sign-off, most likely in the new year.

According to the federal 2010 Uniform Crime Report, there were 84,767 sexual assaults reported in 2010, a 5 percent drop from the previous year.

In a recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, nearly 80 percent of the 306 police departments that participated said the federal definition of rape was outdated.

For example, in 2010, the Chicago Police Department reported nearly 1,400 sexual assaults. None of them, however, appeared in the federal crime report because they didn’t fit the federal government’s definition of rape.

“We prosecute by one criteria, but we report by another criteria,” Steve Anderson, chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, told The New York Times. “The only people who have a true picture of what’s going on are the people in the sex-crimes unit.”

“The data that are reported to the public come from this definition, and sadly, it portrays a very, very distorted picture,” said Susan B. Carbon, director of the Office on Violence Against Women, part of the Department of Justice. “It’s the message that we’re sending to victims, and if you don’t fit that very narrow definition, you weren’t a victim and your rape didn’t count.”

Greg Scarbro, the F.B.I.’s unit chief for the Uniformed Crime Report, said that the agency agreed that the definition should be revised and that an F.B.I. subcommittee would take up the issue at a meeting on Oct. 18.

“Our goal will be to leave that meeting with a definition and a mechanism,” Mr. Scarbro said. But he noted that law enforcement agencies would have to support any change.  [via Huffington Post, The New York Times and Daily Mail]

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