Recognizing Rape: A Changing Definition Calls for Changing Public Attitudes

Expanding the definition of rape was a necessary step, but the impact it makes is up to us.

Recognizing Rape: A Changing Definition Calls for Changing Public Attitudes

Expanding the definition of rape was a necessary step, but the impact it makes is up to us.

-Diana Denza

Rape victim

In April 2010, a mentally disabled young woman left her apartment in Bronzeville, where she lived with her mother, to take out the trash. She was found by Chicago police one day later near the apartment building where her kidnappers brought her to be raped and tortured by a succession of men.

Her distraught mother told Fox News that her daughter returned with bruises covering her entire body and most of her hair pulled out.

This teen was one out of approximately 1,400 sexual assault victims on record at the Chicago Police Department from March 2010 to March 2011. But if you take a look at the F.B.I.’s federal crime report, not a single one of these rape cases are documented.

How could this even be possible? Here’s how: It happened because the city’s broad definition of rape wasn’t in line with the F.B.I.’s sexist, homophobic, and archaic one that reads “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

That’s right: a federal agency had allowed nearly 1,400 sexually brutalized victims to fall through the cracks. And these numbers are just from one city alone. In BettyConfidential’s home town of New York City, for example, more than 300 victims were left out of the F.B.I.’s report in 2010.

This harrowingly narrow definition of rape was enacted in 1929 and remained unaltered for eight decades…until now.

Last week, the Obama administration expanded the definition to include men and those who do not put up a physical resistance against their rapists. After 83 years, rape is now characterized as “the 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 his or her consent.

After far too long, these reports will now finally include men, gays and lesbians, and those who were drugged or intoxicated. But the fact remains that thousands of victims of rape–a devastating experience in and of itself– were then essentially told that the crimes committed against them didn’t count. They were overlooked and forgotten. These are wrongs that can never be righted –and we as a society are responsible for their suffering.

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“It’s really a reflection of how our culture doesn’t take rape seriously enough that the F.B.I. was still defining rape the same way it did in 1929,” Sonia Ossorio, the Executive Director of the National Organization for Women NYC, told us. “Law enforcement agencies around the country were forced to discount rapes when reporting their stats to the F.B.I., because the old definition was so narrow. It’s clear that thousands of rapes were not being counted.”

Information gathered by the Center for Disease Control only reinforces this fact. The organization found that about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped in their lifetimes. Take a good look around you: chances are, someone you know has been or will be victimized.

Though many states already use an updated definition, this broader version is significant because F.B.I. statistics directly affect the amount of funding that goes to preventative measures and support for survivors. “Now, the F.B.I.’s crime stats will more accurately reflect the epidemic of rape that is happening in this country, which should result in more resources for sexual assault services and prevention. We’ll certainly be watching to make sure that it does,” Ossorio explained.

But this change alone doesn’t mean that the stigma surrounding rape will cease. Ultimately, the silence will only end when we open our hearts and minds to those who have been sexually violated and start recognizing this act as the devastating crime it is. “All of this has an impact on how our society views the crime of rape,” Ossorio said. ”But we won’t see any major increase in survivors reporting rape until police, prosecutors, emergency rooms, and the general public do a better job in supporting them.”

It is glaringly obvious that we need to take a stand if we ever want to make rape a thing of the past. Luckily, organizations ranging from local crisis centers to women’s groups are committed to doing just that. “NOW-NYC launched a city-wide campaign to Take Rape Seriously to hold our criminal justice system accountable for how it handles sexual assault cases,” Ossorio said. “Through our advocacy and organizing we’ve been able to secure a better outcome for some survivors. Next, we’re focusing on empowering students to tackle sexual assault on campus and changing public policy to best support survivors that do report. Whether it’s calling out the press when they spend more time bashing a survivor than investigating a rape or demanding that Facebook remove pro-rape groups, we’re going to continue to challenge the myths and misperceptions that people have about rape.”

To learn more about how to get involved, visit the National Organization for Women’s website.

Diana Denza is a regular contributor to BettyConfidential.

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