The XX Factor

The FBI Finally Ditches Its 80-Year-Old Definition of Rape

The FBI is on its way to better sexual assault statistics.  

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

For nearly 80 years, U.S. officials have collected crime data from local, federal, and tribal law enforcement agencies in order to paint a statistical portrait of violent and property crimes reported across America. And for nearly 80 years, this Uniform Crime Reporting program has relied on the same old definition of rape: the “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

Last year, the FBI finally updated the definition for the modern era. Rape is now 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.” Now, the FBI hopes that the statistics will finally reflect “a long list of sex offenses that are criminal in most jurisdictions, such as offenses involving oral or anal penetration, penetration with objects, and rapes of males” that had previously been erased from the big picture. The new definition also drops the “forcible” qualifier in favor of “without the consent of the victim,” encouraging jurisdictions to report rapes perpetrated without a show of physical force.

Today, the FBI released Crime in the United States 2013, its first annual report to rely on this more inclusive definition of rape. The agency estimates that when crimes involving male victims, oral and anal rape, and sexual assaults committed with objects are included, the numbers of sex offenses reflected in the UCR program could increase by more than 40 percent. That hasn’t happened yet: Because “not all state and local agencies have been able to effect the change in their records management systems” to reflect the new terminology, the 2013 numbers actually reflect an estimated 6.3 percent decrease in rapes, as calculated by the old definition. (I’ve reached out to the FBI to ask how many jurisdictions are using the new definition in their reports and will update this post if I hear back. Update, Nov. 12: Of the 18,415 agencies that reported to the UCR this year, 10,000 of them are using the revised definition of rape.)

Even when all jurisdictions get in line, the UCR won’t fully reflect the rates of sex offenses committed in the U.S.: Assaults committed with the intent to rape are included in the FBI data, but statutory rapes are not, and the numbers only include rapes reported to the police, which could exclude a significant majority of offenses, including many on college campuses where some students file their reports straight to the schools. Still, the FBI has taken a big step toward recognizing that sexual violence takes many forms, and all of its victims should count.