Just What, Exactly, Does The FBI Consider To Be A Rape?

Illustration for article titled Just What, Exactly, Does The FBI Consider To Be A Rape?

We know that since sex crimes often go unreported, statistics on rape are even worse than they appear. Federal data on rape, which is used to allocate resources for catching rapists and helping victims, is even more inaccurate because the FBI isn't counting a huge number of sex crimes. The agency uses an archaic definition of rape, and thus thousands of crimes are excluded from national statistics.


The Feminist Majority Foundation launched a campaign to update the FBI's definition of rape in April, and the agency has finally agreed to address the issue. In the FBI's guideline on Uniform Crime Reporting, forcible rape is described as:

The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Rapes by force and attempts or assaults to rape, regardless of the age of the victim, are included. Statutory offenses (no force used―victim under age of consent) are excluded.

This excludes statutory rape, same-sex rape, forced anal or oral sex, rape with an object, and male or transgender victims. Every year, local authorities send crime statistics to the FBI to be included in the annual federal report. Since many of the rapes they investigate don't fit the FBI's narrow definition, which was written more than 80 years ago, they aren't included in federal statistics.

The New York Times reports that according to federal data for 2010, which was released last week, sexual assaults are down 5%, with 84,767 occurring in the last year. However, that number excludes many sex crimes that took place in New York, and all sexual assaults in Chicago. From the Times:

In Chicago, the Police Department recorded close to 1,400 sexual assaults in 2010, according to the department's Web site. But none of these appeared in the federal crime report because Chicago's broader definition of rape is not accepted by the F.B.I.

The New York Police Department reported 1,369 rapes, but only 1,036 - the ones that fit the federal definition - were entered in the federal figures. And in Elizabeth Township, Pa., the sexual assault of a woman last year was widely discussed by residents. Yet according to the F.B.I.'s report, no rapes were reported in Elizabeth in 2010.

In a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, 80% of responding police departments said the federal definition of rape needed to be changed. The FBI has finally agreed that the description needs to be rewritten, but it's still hard to understand how the definition has gone unchanged since 1929. Part of the reason the agency didn't move faster may involve politics. Presumably, once the FBI writes a more inclusive definition for rape, the crime rate will shoot up, particularly in areas that currently use the federal guidelines when reporting their own crime statistics. Though this is easily explainable — a higher number, in this instance, reflects an increase in reporting crime, not the crimes themselves — if you've seen The Wire you can understand why police departments are so worried about seeing crime rates increase. But, in a move that may help affirm one's belief in god, FBI is moving ahead with the revision anyway. The agency is planning to rewrite the definition of rape at a meeting on October 18. Here's hoping they get it right, because apparently we'll have to live with it for several decades.

Rape Definition Too Narrow in Federal Statistics, Critics Say [NYT]

Earlier: Thanks To Outdated Definition, FBI Still Only Counts "Forcible Rape"

Image via Ivelin Radkov/Shutterstock.



I think the definition should be changed, but, you know, there IS a non-corrupt reason why it hasn't been for so long. Part of the value of these kinds of statistics is, not only to measure crime rates now, but to measure how things have change over time. If you keep changing your instrument, keep changing the definition of "rape," you're not going to be able to make any meaningful comparison of results and trends over time.

The two major US crime statistics are the FBI Uniform Crime Report and the Bureau of Justice Statics National Crime Victimization Survery (NCVS). The NCVS is a self-report survery, which asks people more broadly about rape or any kind of sexual attack. I think this is part of the reason the FBI has not had much incentive to change their statitistcs. Data on rape is being collected, in a more broad fashion, by the Dept of Justice. It's just done by a different branch.

The FBI has a rigid, out-of-date definition of "rape" and I actually do think it is time for a change, but I also think we should recognize that we will losing some of the value of the FBI's statistics by making that change. It's not just "oh, police think it will look bad." There are practical research methodology reasons why change is not easy.

I can see other implementation concerns as well. Every state's law agrees that forcible carnal knowledge of a female is rape. But it's only been in the past few decades that states have liberalized their rape laws to include men, penetration by foriegn objects, etc. in their definitions. If you're trying to get a nationwide baseline, it makes sense to me to keep the definition as simple as possible, because you can be more sure every state is, at least, recording the simplest version of the crime. It may vary wildly whether states call other acts "rape" in their laws. This is another reason it hasn't changed since 1929