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Stephanie Hallett Headshot

Definition Of Rape Officially Changed, Impacts Men As Well As Women

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On Friday morning at 7:30 am PST, I dialed into a conference call with representatives from the FBI, the White House and the Department of Justice to hear them announce that the FBI will officially change its 83-year-old definition of "forcible rape."

Until now, the FBI has defined forcible rape as "The carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will." The new definition, which excludes the word forcible, defines rape as: "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."

This call was very important to me. Eight months ago, I wrote an article for Ms., magazine that exposed the FBI's faulty definition of rape to a broad audience and described the real-life impacts it has on victims, law enforcement practices and society at large. Feminists had been working to get the definition changed since 2001, but criticism of the FBI's terms had been largely absent from news reports.

In Ms., I wrote about all the sexual assault survivors who were excluded from the FBI's official count -- including all men and boys, those raped with fingers or objects, and women with physical and mental disabilities, among others

I wrote about how having the word "forcible" in the definition allowed police to exclude rapes of women who were intoxicated or unconscious when they were assaulted: Police told me that a woman who is out cold can't be "forced" into sex. This despite the fact that at least 22 percent of rapes are committed using alcohol and drugs, and some studies put that number as high as 77 percent.

I called on the FBI to take swift action for change, and asked readers to write to FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder demanding a more accurate definition.

On Friday morning, when White House representative Valerie Jarrett asked, "Without an accurate understanding of the magnitude of the problem, how can we effectively solve the problem?"
I thought about a young woman I met last year when I was writing my piece for Ms. She was raped by a football player in her first year of college in Florida, but because she knew her assailant, and she had no physical signs of force or resistance on her body, her rape wasn't taken seriously, and to the FBI, it didn't count.

The FBI's new definition means that all rapes will be counted. More importantly, it means that we as a society will finally understand the magnitude of the crime. The FBI's annual record of serious crimes is our only national metric for counting rapes, which means that, until now, we've only known about a small number of the rapes happening in this country.

The CDC estimates that one in five women, and one in 71 men, will be raped in his or her lifetime -- but last year, the FBI only counted 84,767 rapes. The numbers just don't add up. The FBI has finally recognized this, and said on Friday that they expect to see a marked increase in the number of reported rapes over the next several years as law enforcement agencies adopt this new definition.

The new definition also means that our understanding of rape, as a society, will have to change. Frequently, when rapes are reported in the news, the victim is called a liar or blamed for her own rape. Those judgments are informed by the FBI's definition, which until now excluded so many victims and encouraged society to do the same. The new definition will force us to talk about what rape really means, and understand that all victims are real victims, not just those who are violently forced into vaginal-penile penetration.

I'm proud of the more than 160,000 supporters who told the FBI: "Rape is rape." I'm proud of the many, many advocates and activists who worked to make this change happen. And I'm proud to have played a part. The definition might just be words on a page, but it dictates our cultural conversation on sexual violence, and we finally have a definitive answer for those who question the prevalence of this heinous crime.