The lack of a universal definition of rape in the United States has blurred the lines of sexual assault in this country, leading to some very controversial and prominent criminal cases in recent years.
The most infamous of these is likely that of Brock Turner, the ex-Stanford student that went to trial and was found guilty of sexual assault, despite the fact that he penetrated his victim. This is because the law at the time in California stated that vaginal penetration by a penis is the only act that can be considered rape.
Another notorious case took place in Oklahoma, where an intoxicated 16-year-old girl was forced by a 17-year-old boy to perform oral sex. The state ruled that because she was “intoxicated as to be completely unconscious,” it did not fit the definition established by the Oklahoma.
Lawmakers there later moved to ensure that intoxicated and unconscious victims were protected.
In North Carolina, the laws regarding rape are also restrictive. Rachel Valentine, who serves as the community education director at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, explained just how damaging this can be and why.
“Most trauma-informed definitions of sexual assault are intentionally broad in order to capture the variety of experiences that can result in trauma,” Valentine said. “When states and institutions define sexual assault in very narrow terms, they invariably cut off opportunities for survivors to see their experiences reflected in law.”
The problematic nature is not only an issue with regards to legal matters, but it creates mental and emotional turmoil for the victims, as well. The statistics reported by the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network show that 13 percent of victims who did not report said it was because they believed the police would not be helpful.
The damning nature of these rape definitions has not been lost on some states, which are taking steps to make progress.
After the Brock Turner case, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 701 into law. This legislation expanded the state’s definition of rape to include all nonconsensual sexual assault.
The state of New York also moved to protect more victims after a 2011 victim’s attacker was not charged with rape because, while there was oral and anal penetration, there was no vaginal penetration. In 2013, they passed a bill to protect against all forms of such assault.
This more inclusive language is more in line with how the FBI now defines rape, which covers any and all penetration that the victim does not consent to. However, the FBI was not as accommodating until the Obama administration pushed for the change in 2012.
Before 2012, the FBI also limited rape to vaginal penetration by a penis. Applying this same updated logic nationwide could set a standard, avoiding any confusion and making all victims feel protected under the law.
As Valentine points out, unless the country begins to take more serious steps to protect all instances of rape, some Americans will be forced to live without justice or peace of mind.
“When these definitions are sex-specific (e.g. vaginal intercourse), it leaves entire swaths of the survivor population at a loss for legal remedy,” Valentine said, “not to mention the risk of invalidating their own feelings about what happened to them.”