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How many rapes in US? Depends on the definition

FBI uses narrow criteria written 80 years ago

By Erica Goode
New York Times / September 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Thousands of sexual assaults that occur in the United States every year are not reflected in the US government’s yearly crime report because the report uses an archaic definition of rape that is far narrower than the definitions used by most police departments.

Many law enforcement officials and advocates for women say that this underreporting misleads the public about the prevalence of rape and results in fewer federal, state, and local resources being devoted to catching rapists and helping rape victims.

“The public has the right to know about the prevalence of crime and violent crime in our communities, and we know that data drives practices, resources, policies, and programs,’’ said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, whose office has campaigned to get the FBI to change its definition of sexual assault. “It’s critical that we strive to have accurate information about this.’’

Tracy spoke at a meeting in Washington on Friday, organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, that brought together police chiefs, sex-crime investigators, US officials, and advocates to discuss the limitations of the federal definition and the wider issue of police departments not adequately investigating rape.

According to the 2010 Uniform Crime Report, released by the FBI last week, there were 84,767 sexual assaults in the United States last year, a 5 percent drop from 2009.

The definition of rape used by the FBI - “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will’’ was written more than 80 years ago. The yearly report on violent crime, which uses data provided voluntarily by the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, is widely cited as an indicator of national crime trends.

But that definition, critics say, does not take into account sexual-assault cases that involve anal or oral penetration or penetration with an object, cases where the victims were drugged or under the influence of alcohol, or cases with male victims. As a result, many sexual assaults are not counted as rapes in the yearly federal accounting.

“The data that are reported to the public come from this definition, and sadly, it portrays a very, very distorted picture,’’ said Susan B. Carbon, director of the Office on Violence Against Women, part of the Department of Justice. “It’s the message that we’re sending to victims, and if you don’t fit that very narrow definition, you weren’t a victim and your rape didn’t count.’’

In Chicago, the police department recorded close to 1,400 sexual assaults last year, according to the department’s website. But none of these appeared in the federal crime report because Chicago’s broader definition of rape is not accepted by the FBI.