Published in partnership with Scarleteen.
I experienced two different sexual assaults when I wasn’t yet in my teens within just one year of one another. The second time I was assaulted, my experience ticked all of the boxes there currently are in our culture for what is so often — now, anyway, easily considered a “real” or “bonafide” sexual assault, or what Whoopi Goldberg, to my great disappointment, would call “rape-rape.”
I was a girl, and one with body parts universally recognized as “girl parts.” My attackers were guys. Even worse when it comes to the rape cliché all too often (misre)presented as universal truth, I was a white girl raped by guys of color. I did not know any of the perpetrators: they were all strangers. It was violent. It was forceful. I said no, I yelled, I tried to run, and I fought, but I lost. I was conscious until I was knocked unconscious. I hadn’t been drinking or doing recreational drugs, nor had I ever even tried either. I sustained physical injuries. I wasn’t a sex worker. I didn’t have mental illness or a developmental disability. I wasn’t dressed “provocatively,” (despite a police officer’s notion that any length shorts were provocative), I wasn’t wearing lipstick or high heels, I wasn’t on a date or at a bar, and beyond some very rudimentary, fully-clothed juvenile fumbling, I hadn’t been sexually active.
Get the facts, direct to your inbox.
Subscribe to our daily or weekly digest.
The first time around was different: I was much more confused about what had happened. I knew the person who assaulted me: he was the “sweet old man” who cut our hair. I froze in fear and shock: I wasn’t able to move or utter a sound, including “no,” despite feeling no loudly in my skin. I was wearing, that day, an outfit I thought was a “pretty” outfit. My attacker told me I liked what he was doing, and he said “nice” things to me, rather than calling me names. He told me how pretty I was. I didn’t get any injuries. It wasn’t violent. I threw up several times when I walked home: I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know it was wrong, or why. Nor did I know it was sexual violence. I didn’t even try to tell anyone.
But shortly after the second assault, it was clear what had happened, both times. I still didn’t have and wasn’t provided any sound words (nor help) for it at the time, but I knew that first incident was just as wrong as the second; knew they were the same at their core. Once I tried again to tell someone about the second assault a couple years later, I got the information and words I needed to better start to understand I had been raped, and all that could mean. I then realized what should have been obvious: I was raped that first time too, not just the second.
If that second rape had been more like most rapes, and if I had been anyone but someone with a vagina, given so much of the messaging out there then, and, though to a lesser degree, still out there now, I might not have figured out what happened to me until many, many years had passed, something which would have set me back immeasurably, and to my great detriment, in my healing process. I meet survivors like that, any of us who work in support for survivors do: it is so, so much harder for them to heal than it could be, than it should be.
This should all be so far past obvious to anyone by now. Even though some folks still lazily, callously, dangerously and sometimes even maliciously cling to and broadcast myths about sexual violence — plenty will likely do so in reaction to the terminology change I’m going to talk about — this should all be clear by now, especially from federal justice agencies who are supposed to support victims, not render them invisible.
There’s a lot that’s changed for the better around sexual violence and victim advocacy since I was assaulted in the early 80s, and plenty that’s changed since I started actively working with survivors over the last ten years. The mere fact that what happened with my second assault would now so readily be classified as assault, and most likely treated so differently than it was by police and everyone else around me speaks volumes. But one thing that really hasn’t changed, especially in lowest-common-denominator attitudes, attitudes which were very unfortunately still reflected in the longstanding definition of rape from the FBI, is the notion that only assaults like the second one I experienced were or are “real” rape; that only victims like I was then are “real” victims. That’s a strange and hurtful notion for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that that kind of assault is the LEAST common way rape occurs, not the most common. And that’s not late-breaking news: data and information has been gathered which makes that clear for decades: millions of survivors have bravely told their stories over the years which illustrates this clearly. And yet.
At the very least, our justice departments should be clear and inclusive about what rape and other kinds of sexual abuse are, and at the very least, those definitions should include and privilege the most common ways and contexts per how rape occurs, not just the least common to the exclusion of all else.
And now, we’ve finally got some of that important, needed clarity. The FBI finally dumped a definition of rape which had over eight decades of dust on it, and adopted a new, far sounder definition. To say I’m elated and deeply grateful is a pretty serious understatement.
Before you look at the new definition, take a look at the old one: The previous definition was “The carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” “Carnal knowledge” is a term that expressly and exclusively means penis-in-vagina intercourse.
Who didn’t that include? Often, people assaulted by those known to them, even closest to them, which accounts for the majority of sexual assaults of all people and most commonly doesn’t involve physical force, but coercion and other kinds of manipulation. Men and boys. Women who were not assigned female sex at birth. Women sexually assaulted by other women. People whose assaults did not involve vaginal intercourse. People who were assaulted sexually in such a way that did not involve a penis. People who were not conscious or fully conscious when assaulted. People who did not give their consent, or whose nonconsent was ignored. All of these victims and survivors and more were not included in the previous definition. That old definition didn’t include the majority of people who have been raped.
As someone who educates, counsels and supports a wide range of rape survivors every week, I all too often hear from survivors who can’t even get started healing because they feel they have “no right” to call their assault what it was, mostly either because they fear they’ll invalidate the experiences of “real” survivors and victims, because they do not want to hold someone else responsible for something they are not responsible for, and/or because one or both of those concerns dovetail all too nicely with victim-blaming, rape-enabling mentalities the world is plastered with. I’ll sometimes pull out my own experiences and say that I believe them, that I don’t feel invalidated because we did not have the same experiences with rape, and as someone who has experienced rape in different ways, I know all too well rape is rape is rape. But I shouldn’t have to do that, and no one should need me to, especially when I’m saying what I am to counter not just what they hear from uneducated people, but from justice agencies, who know all of this better than anyone.
Now it seems I just might need to have discussions like that a lot less, or have them only when backing up what our federal justice bureau says themselves.
Here’s the new definition:
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.
As the FBI explains (bolding mine):
The revised definition includes any gender of victim or perpetrator, and includes instances in which the victim is incapable of giving consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity, including due to the influence of drugs or alcohol or because of age. The ability of the victim to give consent must be determined in accordance with state statute. Physical resistance from the victim is not required to demonstrate lack of consent.
“The revised definition of rape sends an important message to the broad range of rape victims that they are supported and to perpetrators that they will be held accountable,” said Justice Department Director of the Office on Violence Against Women Susan B. Carbon. “We are grateful for the dedicated work of all those involved in making and implementing the changes that reflect more accurately the devastating crime of rape.”
The new definition is more inclusive, better reflects state criminal codes and focuses on the various forms of sexual penetration understood to be rape.
“These long overdue updates to the definition of rape will help ensure justice for those whose lives have been devastated by sexual violence and reflect the Department of Justice’s commitment to standing with rape victims,” Attorney General Holder said. “This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes.”
Police departments submit data on reported crimes and arrests to the UCR. The UCR data are reported nationally and used to measure and understand crime trends. In addition, the UCR program will also collect data based on the historical definition of rape, enabling law enforcement to track consistent trend data until the statistical differences between the old and new definitions are more fully understood. The revised definition of rape is within FBI’s UCR Summary Reporting System Program. The new definition is supported by leading law enforcement agencies and advocates and reflects the work of the FBI’s CJIS Advisory Policy Board.
It’s still not perfect, but it is so, so, very much closer then we have ever had before, and fine-tuning it from here should be a lot easier than it was getting from the old definition to this new one.
Not knowing something has happened to you when it has is often awful, especially with something like rape where feelings of confusion on the part of a victim are so often used to dismiss or deny assault. Feeling like you can’t even voice what happened to you or express what you’re feeling because your assault, compared to the rarest kind of assault so often seen as the only “real” kind is a horrible way to feel. Healing from abuse and assault is often a long, demanding and challenging process, but you can’t even really get started until you have some basic words for and sense of what was done to you, a clarity that what someone chose to do to you was a serious crime, a crime where you were a victim.
I really cannot express how grateful I am for this change: grateful to FBI Director Robert Mueller and to the many individuals and initiatives (like The Feminist Majority Foundation, Ms. Magazine and Change.org) who pushed and kept pushing tirelessly for more than ten years for this positive, important change.
Thank you. Thank you.
By all means, how the FBI defines sexual violence can’t control how everyone does, nor magically erase myths and misrepresentation of perpetrators and victims. We’re still going to all have to keep doing a lot of work to turn around the dangerous and damaging mythology about sexual violence, its perpetrators and its victims. We’re still going to have to do a lot of work to keep holding the line when it comes to consent and the necessity of real consent, and for everyone, not just certain individuals or groups: for everyone. We still have a lot to do to address and change bystanding and victim-blaming and a whole bunch of other stuff that’s going to take time and the efforts of everyone, not just one big agency or advocacy organizations, but absolutely everyone, to rid our world of rape culture.
However, I think having a standard set like this is going to make all of that much easier. This change is powerful for those who will report and seek justice. It’s powerful even for those who do not, but can know that if they choose not to report or press charges, it’s not because a crime wasn’t committed, but because they are making a choice not to pursue justice for that crime. Powerful because survivors can see, in clear language from a major justice organization, what what has happened to them as exactly what it is, not what those who want to deny it would call it. They can have a sense of what rape is which is current and based on all we know now, not an archaic relic from an era decades before the civil rights movement, and a time when women had only had the right to vote for less than ten years (and when raping a woman you were married to — including violently — was legal in every state of the union and not acknowledged as “real” rape at all, because wives were very much considered, legally and socially, the sexual property of their husbands). It’s powerful when it comes to doing a better job collecting data on sexual assault so that everyone can begin to have a very real sense of how big a problem rape is and what we need to do to most effectively keep working to end sexual violence. Powerful for anyone, as well, who needs to know how very important and integral consent is, and how very much harm it can do to suggest it’s irrelevant, or say nothing about it at all.
And having these words from an authority as powerful as the FBI? That has serious power. The power to answer statements like, “But I didn’t say no,” “But I didn’t fight,” “But I was drinking,” “But she didn’t have a weapon,” “But it was my boyfriend/coach/teacher/parent,” “But I’m a guy,” “But I was wearing a short skirt,” “But I froze and didn’t do or say anything,” and other common statements reflective of a wide range of victims and survivors with a so-about-time definition that makes perfectly clear how none of those things mean that someone who was raped was not.