With Its ‘Tortured History,’ Rape Is Being Redefined by FBI, States


The New York Times examines “the rapidly shifting definition of rape,” a term with a tortured history. The FBI just this year changed its definition of the crime after eight decades, and a number of states have purged their criminal codes of it entirely, referring instead to levels of sexual assault. Many experts now believe that rape is best understood as an act of unwanted bodily invasion that need not involve force.

Aware that federal rape data are flawed, the Justice Department is studying how to better collect information, including interviewing victims out of the presence of family members to increase their comfort levels. According to the FBI, in 2010 there were some 85,000 “forcible rapes” — a term that the agency will stop using next year. But that number included only assaults reported to law enforcement authorities that involved vaginal penetration of a woman by a man through use of force. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that based on interviews with women, the number of men-on-women rapes in 2010 was 1.3 million. States have been adjusting their definitions of rape for the past 30 years, many moving away from the insistence on evidence of force because most rapes do not result in harm to the woman separate from the act itself.

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