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The Narrow and Limited Federal Definition of “Rape”

November 30, 2011

by Jude Foster, Hennepin County Systems Change Program Manager

The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) definition of rape used by the FBI, is “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will”. This definition has not changed since its inception in 1927. This definition only recognizes female victims that have experienced vaginal penetration by a penis. It has been called archaic and even re-traumatizing for victims/survivors that feel their victimization outside of the UCR definition just doesn’t count.

Due to the narrow UCR definition, many sexual assaults are not included in the national crime report. In Minnesota, for example, the criminal sexual conduct code in our statutes does not use the term “rape” once. Instead, the statute defines criminal sexual conduct in five separate degrees, recognizing non-consensual sexual contact, as well as penetration, as illegal behavior. Penetration is not limited to a penis in Minnesota state law. The law accepts that penetration can occur with other parts of the body and/or objects. The statute is also gender-neutral, acknowledging people of all genders can be victims or perpetrators of sexual violence. With such a limited UCR definition of sexual violence, law enforcement agencies simply cannot report to the FBI many of the sexual assault cases that have been reported to them. This results in national crime statistics reflecting a fraction of sexual assaults that are reported to law enforcement.

The UCR is used to produce national crime statistics, giving a slanted view to the public about the prevalence of sexual violence in their communities. In some jurisdictions, sexual assault cases that do not meet the UCR definition are lumped in with ‘unfounded” cases, which can easily be misinterpreted as false reports. Although false sexual assault reports are low, this is a common misconception held by the public. The under-reporting caused by the UCR not only minimizes the issue of sexual violence, it limits access to the needed resources by law enforcement and rape crisis centers. It becomes difficult to justify funding for sexual assault investigations and advocacy groups, when only a small piece of the problem can be cited.

The United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs held hearings last year to re-examine the UCR definition. The Police Executive Research Forum held a Critical Issues summit this past September in Washington, D.C. where leadership in law enforcement and victim advocacy from all over the country convened to discuss the UCR definition. The FBI is currently working with a panel on writing a new definition for the UCR.

Click here for support in reporting a sexual assault to law enforcement.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Antoinette permalink
    December 7, 2011 5:14 pm

    A wonderfully written article and very informative. Once we know better, we do better.

  2. Ari E. permalink
    January 6, 2012 8:40 pm

    Good news: the FBI’s new definition validates the experience of a lot more victims.

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