Commentary: FBI's definition of rape aligns stats with real world

The Kansas City StarJanuary 13, 2012 

Last week, the FBI’s crime database joined reality.

The agency issued a new definition for the crime of rape, rectifying a policy more than 80 years behind the times.

The old definition had long contributed to skewed data and damaging attitudes.

Here’s the definition that had been in place since the late 1920s: “The carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

Rape, the new wording acknowledges, happens to more than just women. Men and children are also victims. And the crime can involve a range of assaults where consent is not given, not just vaginal sex.

Also, a victim can be rendered unable to consent by drugs and/or alcohol. Think date rape, already a common phrase because thankfully, courts, police and the general public recognize it occurs.

It’s not that the FBI, or any level of law enforcement, was ignorant of the way sexual violence plays out in America. The new definition doesn’t alter federal, state and municipal laws, charges or prosecutions.

But because the FBI definition was out of sync with how police see the crime occur, crime statistics didn’t add up. City, county and other law enforcement all feed their data into the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.

Chicago didn’t report any rapes in 2010, because the city’s data was far broader than what the FBI allowed to be included.

In 1995, the American Medical Association asserted that rape was the most underreported of all violent crime. The new definition will go a long way toward making it less so. With more data, the true range and nature of the assaults can be tallied, better understood and in time, prevented.

A lot of myths could start to unravel with the improved information. Too many people still think of rape as being primarily about sex, rather than violence. Part of that attitude is derived from thinking of it solely as a sex act between a man and woman.

Men and children as victims will be less easy to discount.

And the penchant for some people to see women as the willing participant, either by how they were dressed or poor decision-making, will also be undercut. As if wearing a short skirt or doing shots at a bar suddenly gives any man in the vicinity the OK to attack.

That attitude is demeaning to men, portraying the entire gender as sexual predators with no self-control or moral aptitude to remain within the law.

How men will be perceived as the targets of rape will challenge perceptions of gender and likely sexual orientation. Yet just because men can also be victims, that doesn’t negate the large societal issue of violence against women in general. More minds just might open to that conversation, too.

Time will tell. But the lack of solid data has allowed far too many distortions to flourish unquestioned.

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