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FBI considers redefining rape to improve law enforcement

Protesters stand outside of a Manhattan court as former IMF director  Dominique Strauss-Kahn exits the court on August 23, 2011 in New York City.
Protesters stand outside of a Manhattan court as former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn exits the court on August 23, 2011 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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For the first time in 80 years, the FBI is considering whether to redefine the federal definition of rape.

"Their definition is quite narrow," Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley told Patt Morrison. "To a certain extent, given the other forms of very serious sexual assault, [it] is misleading when you're trying to track crime trends and compare them from location to location, or time period to time period," he said.

The current 1927 definition legally defines "rape" as the forcible male penile penetration of a female.

Critics say that definition is too narrow and think broadening it to include cases involving oral and anal penetration, cases in which the victim is drugged or under the influence of alcohol, and cases in which the victim is male will improve tracking of these crimes and change the attitudes of investigators.

"I think it's crucial that the definition of rape match the reality of rape," said Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. "By not counting or including all of these other types of sexual assault, it really obscures the reality of this kind of violence against women. The national picture of rape in this country that's presented by the FBI report just grossly underestimates the real number of sexual assaults that women suffer."

DA Cooley agreed the update is overdue: "The FBI, to their credit, is finally getting on board and coming up with a more realistic definition of a form of crime, which will be a benefit to all of us in the future as we deal with this social phenomenon."

He also offered some ideas for how it should be altered.

"I think not using the word 'rape' as a part one offense would be a good start. How about just 'forcible sexual assault?' That would pick up many of these offenses that are just as bad, just as harmful as the offense of penile, vaginal rape. So, I think change of definition is good. Those people in law enforcement positions or prosecutorial positions can explain that 'Hey, we have a new broader category, a more accurate category, and one that truly reflects man's inhumanity to man, or in this case, primarily women.'"

Sexual assaults have long been among the most underreported crimes, with an estimated 80 percent of assaults not reported to police.

The FBI meets to discuss the change tomorrow.

Weigh In:

Will changing the legal definition change reporting or the resources allocated to investigate the crime?


Steve Cooley, district attorney, Los Angeles County

Gail Abarbanel, licensed clinical social worker, Rape Treatment Center, Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center