MANCHESTER, N.H. -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has revised the way the FBI defines rape, the first update to the federal definition in nearly a century.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Report has defined rape as the "carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will." This definition was narrower than the one used by many police departments around the country, and women's rights advocates said it led to the under-counting of thousands of sexual assaults each year.
"Rape is a devastating crime and we can't solve it unless we know the full extent of it," said Vice President Joe Biden, the author of the landmark Violence Against Women Act. "This long-awaited change to the definition of rape is a victory for women and men across the country whose suffering has gone unaccounted for over 80 years."
This new definition expands the old one by taking out the requirement of a "forcible" assault and the restriction that the attack must be toward a woman. It also now includes non-vaginal/penile rape and rape by a blood relative.
"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," Holder said. "This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes."
The change comes after years of efforts by the women's rights community.
The Feminist Majority Foundation 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. And a decade ago, the Women's Law Project began a campaign to change the definition of rape used by the FBI in its Uniform Crime Report.
"The Women's Law Project is pleased that our advocacy has been successful," said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project. "Police Chiefs, sheriffs and other high ranking law enforcement officials have thoroughly reviewed the issue and have agreed with us that change is necessary. We are grateful to Vice-President Biden for his ongoing support to take violence against women seriously and to put the full weight of his office behind reform efforts."
Police departments nationwide submit data on reported crimes and arrests to the FBI's UCR. The data are used to measure and understand crime trends. The old definition created complications for law enforcement agencies around the country because they could not report all of the rapes they prosecuted for inclusion in federal statistics if their state or locality had a broader definition.
A statement by the Justice Department also said that the UCR program will "collect data based on the historical definition of rape, enabling law enforcement to track consistent trend data until the statistical differences between the old and new definitions are more fully understood."
This article has been updated to include comment from the executive director of the Women's Law Project.