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Obama Administration Formally Unveils More Expansive Definition of Rape

Obama Administration Formally Unveils More Expansive Definition of Rape

January 9, 2011 — The Obama administration on Friday expanded the official definition of "forcible rape" to include male victims and other types of sexual assault that will more accurately reflect the scope and volume of such crimes, the New York Times reports. Rape will now be defined 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" (Savage, New York Times, 1/6).

The former definition -- "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will" -- was written more than 80 years ago and remains the standard for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's annual Uniform Crime Report, which is widely cited as an indicator of national crime trends. Rape crisis centers and other groups rely on these statistics when applying for private and public funding.

Critics argued that the old definition did not account for cases that involve anal or oral penetration, penetration with an object, cases where the victim was drugged or under the influence of alcohol, or cases where the victim was male (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/16/11).

The new definition will increase the number of people who are counted as rape victims in FBI statistics, but will not alter federal or state laws or how rapes are prosecuted. Vice President Biden called the announcement a victory for those "whose suffering has gone unaccounted for over 80 years." He called rape a "devastating crime," adding, "We can't solve it unless we know the full extent of it."

Human rights advocates also commended the administration for broadening the definition. Linda McFarlane -- deputy executive director of Just Detention International -- said, "We've always had a broad definition of who is eligible for services, and the change could result in additional resources being made available for survivors of rape" (Yost, AP/ABC News, 1/6).

FBI officials said that it would take time for the nation's 18,000 state and municipal law enforcement agencies that contribute data to national crime statistics to adjust their reporting to account for the wider definition of rape. The agency anticipates the number of reported rape cases to rise over the next several years because of the new definition (New York Times, 1/6).