WASHINGTON -- The FBI took a step away from the archaic way it defines rape on Tuesday, when an agency panel voted to update the federal definition for the first time since 1929.
Currently, the FBI defines rape as the "carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will."
This definition 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.
On Tuesday, an FBI panel composed of outside experts from criminal justice agencies and national security agencies voted to broaden the federal government's definition.
The new definition would take out the requirement that the sexual assault be "forcible," remove the restriction that the attack be toward a woman and include non-vaginal/penile rape and rape by a blood relative.
The panel's recommended definition reads: "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."
Carol Tracy is executive director of the Women's Law Project, which has been pushing the FBI to change its definition for the past decade.
On Sept. 20, 2001, Tracy wrote a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller arguing that the current definition "seriously understates the true incidence of sexual assault in the United States today, confuses and hampers law enforcement, and discourages victims from reporting serious crimes."
"I think that although this change is long overdue, the fact that it is being vetted very thoroughly through local and national law enforcement is really important," Tracy said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
The panel that approved the change is a subcommittee of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board (APB), which will vote on the new definition at its Dec. 6-7 meeting in Albuquerque, N.M. If the APB approves the change, it will go to Mueller for final sign-off.
"I think a clear consensus is emerging, so I'm optimistic," Tracy said of APB approving the change.
The Feminist Majority Foundation has also been leading a "Rape is Rape" campaign, calling on the public to pressure the FBI to update its definition.
"This will ensure the crime of rape is measured in a way that it includes all rape, and it essentially becomes a crime to which more resources are allocated. It's intolerable the amount of violence against women, and we feel this will have a significant impact," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, to Ms. Magazine.
The FBI's current narrow definition of rape has also created complications for law enforcement agencies, who can't report all the rapes they prosecute for inclusion in federal statistics if their state or locality has a broader definition.
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."
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.
The FBI declined to provide a comment.
This story was updated with the FBI's response.
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