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Federal Bureau of Investigation Updates Outdated Definition of Rape

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller has approved significant changes to the agency’s definition of rape in its Uniform Crime Report (UCR) guidelines. The definition had not been updated in over 80 years. The UCR guidelines previously defined rape as “[t]he carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” This definition ignored the numerous rapes that do not involve the use of physical force, such as cases when the rape survivor was unwittingly drugged or was coerced into having unwanted sexual intercourse.[1] The definition also disregarded any rape other than “penetration of the sexual organ of the female (vagina) by the sexual organ of the male (penis),” such as attacks perpetrated on males or by females, those employing an inanimate object, and anal or oral penetration.[2]
Following months of consultation with state and local law enforcement officials and victim rights advocates, Mueller signed off on the revised definition of rape on December 14, 2011, and Attorney General Eric Holder announced the adoption of the updated definition on January 6, 2012. The new definition delineates rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by the sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” This new definition will result in a more accurate depiction of the thousands of rapes that occur each year and more federal, state, and local funding devoted to rape prevention efforts and providing support to rape survivors.[3]
Victim’s and women’s rights advocates have been pushing for the FBI to adopt a new definition of rape for the last decade. In September 2001, the Women’s Law Project sent Mueller a letter urging him to update the definition of the UCR. Describing the existing definition as “narrow, outmoded, and steeped in gender-based stereotypes,” the organization stressed the need for a new federal definition of rape that would not understate the incidence of sexual assault, “confuse and hamper” law enforcement agencies, and discourage rape survivors from reporting their attacks to the police.[4] Mueller did not respond to that request, and the Women’s Law Project continued its campaign for the next ten years. Ms. magazine and the Feminist Majority Foundation also spearheaded a campaign called “Rape Is Rape” that raised public awareness about the outdated definition and generated over 160,000 emails to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI.
Calls to change the archaic definition also came from inside the federal government, most notably from Vice President Joe Biden, who authored the Violence Against Women Act when he served in the United States Senate. Biden praised the FBI’s decision, saying, “Rape is a devastating crime and we can’t solve it unless we know the full extent of it. . . . This long-awaited change to the definition of rape is a victory for women and men across the country whose suffering has gone unaccounted for over 80 years.”[5] Susan B. Carbon, director of the DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women also reflected on the importance of changing the definition, commenting, “[the] message that we’re sending to victims . . . if you don’t fit that very narrow definition, you weren’t a victim and your rape didn’t count.”[6]
For years, the FBI’s outdated definition of rape has been much narrower than those of most police departments, which has led to thousands of rapes each year being excluded from federal statistics. For instance, the UCR reported that 84,767 rapes occurred in 2010.[7] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, estimates that over one million women and men are raped each year.[8] While the enormous discrepancy cannot completely be attributed to the FBI’s archaic definition of rape—the CDC’s estimate is based on a survey rather than reports from law enforcement officials, and rape is the most underreported violent crime—the FBI’s number does not reflect complete statistics from many cities across the United States.[9] For instance, none of Chicago’s nearly 1,400 reported rapes were included in the UCR in 2010, as the city declined to report only those rapes that fit the FBI’s narrow definition.[10]
In addition to portraying a more accurate depiction of the incidence of rape, the new statistics will result in the expansion of prevention efforts and benefits to rape survivors. Federal, state, and local law enforcement funding is allocated based on the statistics in the UCR. An increase in the number of reported rapes will lead to a greater proportion of funding being devoted to police prevention efforts and to apprehending and prosecuting rapists. In addition, rape crisis centers and other organizations that provide critical support services to survivors, as well as community prevention efforts, can use the FBI’s numbers when applying for public and private funding.

[1]U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook (2004), accessed 2 February 2012, <>, 19.


[3]Women’s Law Project, “Women’s Law Project Applauds FBI Director Mueller for Acting on Recommendation to Change Rape Definition,” Press Release published 15 December 2011, accessed 30 January 2012, <>.

[4]Women’s Law Project, Letter to Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert S. Mueller, III, 20 September 2001, accessed 30 January 2012, <>.

[5]Amanda Terkel, “Eric Holder Expands FBI’s Narrow, Outdated Definition of Rape,” Huffington Post, 6 January 2012, accessed 2 February 2012, <>.

[6]Erica Goode, “Rape Definition Too Narrow in Federal Statistics, Critics Say,” New York Times, 28 September 2011, accessed 30 January 2012, <>.

[7]Charlie Savage, “U.S. to Expand Its Definition of Rape in Statistics,” New York Times, 6 January 2012, accessed 30 January 2012, <>.

[8]“National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey Fact Sheet,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,2010, accessed 2 January 2010, <>.

[9]Clifford Krauss, “Crime Survey; Rape Was Underreported Because No One Asked,” New York Times, 20 August 1995, accessed 8 February 2012, <>.

[10]Savage, “U.S. to Expand Its Definition of Rape in Statistics.”