As April, which has been designated Sexual Assault Awareness month, winds down, numerous women’s rights advocates are calling attention to the FBI’s restrictive definition of rape -- a definition that they say inadequately encompasses all forms of the crime.
When Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) incited outrage by proposing to confine the definition of rape to instances of "forcible rape" in H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion" Act, it was a little-known fact FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) had been using this classification since 1929 -- making the definition, as Ms. Magazine points out, almost as old as sliced bread.
It continues: “Attempts or assaults to commit rape by force or threat of force are also included; however, statutory rape (without force) and other sex offenses are excluded.”
While organizations including the Feminist Majority Foundation and the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia have been petitioning to change this outdated definition -- which excludes incidences of oral or anal rape, rape with a foreign object, and discounts all rapes of men -- for over a decade, even testifying about the necessity of broadening the definition's scope to a Senate subcommittee last September, they have reignited their campaign after seeing the reaction to H.R. 3.
“We thought okay, that’s it, we are going to make it a big public issue,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. Magazine, which launched a “Rape is Rape” campaign earlier this month. “The fact that there was outrage when [Chris Smith] wanted to put forcible in, and that he actually backed down -- we thought it was important that we have more people see this issue.”
Critics see the exclusion of male survivors from the lexicon of rape as one of the UCR’s biggest inadequacies.
“The message that it sends out is that men can’t be victims, which is a terrible, terrible oversight,” said Chris Anderson, vice president of the board of MaleSurvivor.org, an online support system for men who have been assaulted. While men are the victims of approximately one in ten rapes and an estimated one in six men will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime, few resources exist that specifically focus on male victims. MaleSurvivor.org receives 50 million hits a year from unique IP addresses from around the world.
“There’s a very strong stereotype in our culture that shames men into silence,” Anderson said. “And [the FBI’s inadequate definition of rape] helps reinforce that unspoken stereotype that men are left to their own devices to deal with what happened to them, and if they can’t fight it off it is their own fault. They aren’t strong enough. They aren’t men.”
Other elements of UCR’s definition decrease the number of rapes that qualify for inclusion in its nationally distributed crime statistics report. Carol Tracy, Executive Director of the Women's Law Project, points to the inadequacy of the “hierarchy rule,” which mandates that if there are multiple offenses in one incident of crime, only the most serious offense is reported and is counted among the data. In a case where someone is raped and murdered, for example, only the murder would be counted.
Furthermore, if a woman is gang raped by three predators, only one incident of rape is counted, as there is only one victim. To put this in perspective, in the case of the 11-year-old girl who was raped by at least 18 men in Cleveland, Texas earlier this year, the UCR will document only one incident of “forcible rape.”
According to UCR statistics, the number of rapes nationwide has steadily decreased since 2005. The number of “forcible rapes” fell 6.2 percent between 2009 and 2010.
These statistics are gathered by 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and have nearly perfect national participation. That's partly because local police departments are eligible to receive grant money from the Office of Justice if they submit statistics to the FBI. Although most state penal codes recognize a broader definition of rape, they only send statistics that fall under the UCR’s measurement criteria. The FBI gives no incentive and does not require local enforcement agencies to participate.
But while UCR data counted 89,000 instances of “forcible rape” in 2008 -- with the FBI website hailing the figure as the nation’s lowest in 20 years -- the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) counted 203,830, more than twice as many rapes. The NCVS, which is administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, differs from the UCR in that it is a survey and it can count crimes that are never officially reported. Since approximately 60% of all rapes fall under that category, critics view the discrepancy as indicative of the UCR’s failure to properly represent the true scope of the crime.
“We should have faith in our statistics and data,” Smeal said. “The more we know, the more we can handle the problem, to cover it up doesn’t help any one.”
The FBI is not opposed to updating their definition and measurement of rape.
“We stand ready at the moment to address this issue,” said Greg Scarbro, a Unit Chief with the FBI who oversees the UCR program. Scarbro has been in communication with numerous advocacy groups in the past month and is waiting to hear back from them before a UCR committee meeting in August. “We added cargo theft to the UCR a few years ago after the rail, shipping and freight industry came to us and gave a presentation about why they needed it.”
Scarbro notes that there are currently two systems that the UCR uses to measure crime, the traditional summary reporting system, which measures “forcible rape,” and the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which was developed over two decades ago and uses a broader (gender-neutral) definition of rape in reporting the crime.
“Comparing NIBRS to summary, it is like apples to oranges,” Scarbro said. “[NIBRS provides] much more robust data.”
NIBRS accounts for a significantly broader scope of rape and sexual assault. Along with "forcible rape," it includes rapes committed "not forcibly or against the person’s will in instances where the victim is incapable of giving consent because of his/her temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity.”
Although the UCR gathers statistics from both reporting systems, it only publishes data that falls under the "forcible rape" criteria used by the more universal summary system. Whereas nearly all local law enforcement agencies report crimes using the traditional summary system, only 44 percent use the NIBRS.
“It’s a cost issue,” Scarbro said.
For example, New York has 550 reporting agencies. Of them, only 250 use NIBRS while 300 use the traditional summary system, according to New York State Bureau Chief of crime reporting Adam Dean.
“Depending on how big an agency is, [switching to NIBRS] could be anything from $50,000 to half a million dollars,” Dean estimates. Switching to NIBRS would involve buying the data submitting programs, retraining officers in how they report all incidents of crime (not just rape) and coordinating with other agencies.
“It’s hard to imagine that when they can’t even pay for police officers,” Dean said.