U.S. widens definition of rape crimes

WASHINGTON Fri Jan 6, 2012 5:15pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials are expanding the definition of rape to include men as well as women and any victim who is unable to give consent or who is violated with an object, long-sought changes aimed at collecting more accurate data about the sex crime.

The first major revision of the term in more than 80 years comes in the wake of high-profile sexual assault cases and follows years of pressure from women's rights and gay advocacy groups to broaden the definition. The Obama administration announced the revision on Friday.

The change will allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect better data on the number of rapes committed in the United States and give more accurate information to policymakers, Congress and researchers about the crime in order to help prevent and prosecute it, U.S. officials said.

The wider definition will have no impact on prosecutions, which are handled on a state-by-state basis, they added.

Each state has its own legal definition of rape, and Friday's announcement does not change how local and state officials prosecute a crime. Many states have already adopted a wider definition of rape, officials and experts said, although advocates hope the new federal standard will convince any remaining states with narrower laws to expand them.

"This major policy change will lead to more accurate reporting and far more comprehensive understanding of this devastating crime," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

"Without an accurate understanding of the magnitude of the problem, how can we effectively solve it? Definitions matter because people matter," she added.

Until now, the FBI's standard counted only forcible vaginal penetration of a woman as "rape." The new definition expands rape to include oral and anal sex acts against women as well as men. It also says if a victim cannot give consent for any reason, the crime is a rape even if force is not used.

That includes any victim who cannot consent due to alcohol or drug use, who is under the age of consent, or who is mentally or physically incapable of consent.

'MORE ACCURATE PICTURE'

"It's going to give us a better and more accurate picture nationwide of the incidence of rape and where it is occurring," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.

Experts agree that rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in the United States. And while the move on Friday only affects rapes that are actually reported to authorities, other advocates said that having a national definition would help raise awareness about what constitutes rape -- an important first step.

"This change is about properly measuring the extent of rape in America. We now need to direct our attention to preventing rape and aggressively pursuing sexual predators," said Carol Tracy, head of the Women's Law Project rights group.

While reports of rape to authorities are likely to rise under the new definition, the Justice Department said that will merely reflect more accurate reporting rather than an actual increase in the number of rapes. Officials said they expect it to take several years to see a truer picture of the crime.

Based on reports from law enforcement authorities, the FBI estimated in 2010 that there were almost 85,000 forcible rapes under the old definition, the latest raw data available, and that one occurs in the United States every 6.2 minutes.

Preliminary FBI statistics show that the forcible rape rate declined 5.1 percent in the first half of 2011 compared to the same period of the previous year.

For years, women's rights groups and others have been pushing for a change in the definition of forcible rape, which since 1927 was defined as the "carnal knowledge" of a woman, forcibly and against her will. That included penetration of a woman's vagina, but excluded oral or anal penetration and the rape of men.

The new definition is: "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 the consent of the victim."

Law enforcement officials also pushed for a wider definition, and advocates said the move could help states and local governments reallocate resources to combat the crime.

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