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Federal government redefines rape, and who can be a victim

Jill Burke

On Friday, rape victims whose crimes have been overlooked by federal statistics gained new recognition. After more than 80 years, the federal government has changed its definition of rape for the Uniform Crime Report, the country’s report card for serious crime.

The change allows men and boys to be counted as victims and expands which assaults can be counted as rape.

“It kind of dispels the myth as to who are victims and what sexual assault looks like,” said Nancy Haag, executive director of Anchorage-based Standing Together Against Rape.

Alaska has the highest rates of rape in the nation. In Anchorage alone, from 1995 to 2007, the Anchorage police documented 3,914 sexual assaults. Of those, only 2,855 were reported the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report as rape, leaving more than 1,000 victims undocumented in the federal record.

Nationwide, 84,767 rapes were reported in 2010 under the old definition. “This estimate does not present an accurate picture,” Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama, told reporters Friday. “Definitions matter because people matter.”

While local crime statistics may be more comprehensive, counting as rape any non-consensual sexual contact involving penetration, the outdated federal definition only allowed a narrow segment of these rape victims to be officially recognized in the federal statistics.

The old definition classified rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” That means “forcible male penile penetration of a female’s vagina,” explained Susan Carbon, Department of Justice director of the Office on Violence Against Women.

The new definition includes penetration of the anus, rape with an object, and other forms of non-consensual sexual contact. Victim and perpetrator can be of any gender.

A definition change will aid public discussion of rape, in which people often focused on the old definition and failed to recognize other forms of assault as “real rape,” Carbon said. Excluding men and boys, and the use of other body parts or objects as the weapon, denied victims of such crimes legitimacy. It may also have caused them to miss out on support from family members and services that might otherwise have been available had the assault been defined as a rape, she said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com