11/11/2011 05:02 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

What Counts as Rape?

A recent article in the New York Times brought into the public eye an issue that is all too familiar to those of us working on behalf of victims of sexual assault -- the lack of a clear definition of "rape."

Since 1927, the FBI has been using the same definition of rape, which only counts cases of forcible rape of a woman or girl by a male. Any instance of sexual assault that falls outside this narrow definition is not acknowledged by the federal government, which includes same-sex sexual assault, cases where victims were drugged or intoxicated and all male victims. As a result, countless cases of sexual assault are excluded from federal statistics each year. The FBI's antiquated definition of rape underestimates the impact of sexual assault in our community and, in turn, reduces the amount of resources available for survivors.

After heightened criticism from police chiefs, sex crime investigators, federal officials and advocates, a subcommittee of the FBI met in mid-October and voted to expand its definition of rape used for federal statistics and crime reporting. In the meantime, thousands of sexual assaults have not been accounted for at the federal level.

The FBI recently released the 2010 Uniform Crime Report, which recorded 84,767 sexual assaults in the United States last year, down 5 percent from 2009. But these numbers do not line up with the realities of rape culture and sexual assault. Flawed statistics, combined with the general underreporting of sexual assaults, lead to a deficient amount of federal funding allocated to support services.

This issue also impacts us locally in Chicago. The Chicago Police Department reported 1,359 criminal sexual assaults last year, but the FBI refused to count any of these sexual assaults in their annual federal report because Chicago uses a broader definition of rape not accepted by the FBI.

The Chicago Police Department uses gender-neutral language to define criminal sexual assault, which also includes any unwanted sexual act and protects victims who were drugged, drunk or otherwise incapacitated. The definition reads: "Any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person's will or not forcibly or against the person's will in instances where the victim is incapable of giving consent."

Tom Byrne, chief of detectives in Chicago, told the New York Times that conforming to the FBI's definition would take some "rapes off the books." No one should ever have to tell a sexual assault victim, "Sorry, but your rape doesn't count."

Despite Byrne's reservations, the Chicago Police Department does plan to make changes to their sexual assault crime reporting by creating a subset of rapes that meet the federal requirements. But, rather than push a city to conform to their outdated, narrow definition, the FBI should continue to pursue an expanded definition of rape. Simplifying criminal sexual assault to only include the forcible rape of a woman or girl by a male is an insult to the thousands of victims of acquaintance rape and other types of sexual assault.

Rape is a complex issue, and these complexities need to be acknowledged rather than pushed aside. I'm proud of our city for recognizing this and leading the way with a comprehensive definition of sexual assault. Now, we need accurate and complete federal reporting so adequate services can be provided to victims of sexual assault.

When victims fear they will be blamed for being sexually assaulted or think that their rape simply won't "count," do you think they will ever report the crime? No one should ever feel this way. No one should ever think that they don't count.

If the perpetrator is an acquaintance or even a significant other, they do not have the right to get away with rape. If a victim is drunk or "dressed a certain way," that doesn't give anyone the right to rape either.

Rape is rape. And it's a crime that it is not receiving proper reporting or prosecution. An advisory policy board for the FBI will vote on an expanded definition of rape in December, and I'm looking forward to finally seeing the many forms and faces of rape acknowledged.