In U.S., a New Definition for Rape

Obama administration updates the FBI's official definition of 'forcible rape' to include men and other types of sexual assault.

The new definition of rape acknowledges that it's not just women who are being sexually assaulted. (Photo: Cara.org)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Bowing to pressure from victim advocacy groups, the Obama administration announced on Friday that they will be updating the federal government's 85-year-old definition of "forcible rape" to include men and other types of sexual violence.

“These long overdue updates to the definition of rape will help ensure justice for those whose lives have been devastated by sexual violence and reflect the Department of Justice’s commitment to standing with rape victims,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement. “This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes.”

The old definition, established in 1927, covered only “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” There was no mention of any of the other permutations of sexual assault: forcible anal or oral penetration, the penetration of the vagina or anus with an object or other body part, the rape of a man, or the rape of a woman by another woman. The new definition not only includes these variations but also nonconsensual sex acts that take place without physical force—for example, when the victim is unable to grant consent because they are drugged, very drunk or younger than the age of statutory consent in their state.

“The revised definition of rape sends an important message to the broad range of rape victims that they are supported and to perpetrators that they will be held accountable,” said Susan B. Carbon, Justice Department Director of the Office on Violence Against Women, in a statement. “We are grateful for the dedicated work of all those involved in making and implementing the changes that reflect more accurately the devastating crime of rape.”

The long-overdue update comes at the heels of a turbulent year for sex crimes. In November the nation was rocked by the Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State, crimes that would not have qualified as rape under the old definition. And in April, Jesse Ellison wrote in Newsweek about the growing problem of men being sexually assaulted by superiors in the military—nearly 50,000 male veterans screened positive for “military sexual trauma” at the Department of Veterans Affairs last year, up from just over 30,000 in 2003. What was once characterized as a "woman's health issue" by the Pentagon is now being openly discussed and acknowledged as a serious problem for both sexes, one that can severely impact the rest of their careers.

“Many men and women will experience symptoms like PTSD or depression after experiencing sexual assault. But the experience seems even more detrimental for men’s mental health,” said Amy Street, a psychologist with the Boston VA hospital, to Newsweek.

“The way I make sense of that is that women, for better or worse, live their lives with this idea that they might experience sexual assault at some point. There are public models of how to recover from rape. Men don’t have any expectation that this might happen to them. It’s very difficult to figure out how those experiences fit into your sense of self as a man.”

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