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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How Should State Laws Define Rape?

Rape survivor Lydia Cuomo is challenging the legal definition of rape. Pictured is a dictionary definition. (Here & Now)

Rape survivor Lydia Cuomo is challenging the legal definition of rape. Pictured is a dictionary definition. (Here & Now)

Warning: This piece contains descriptions of rape and sexual assault.

The legal definition of rape varies greatly across the U.S. Those differences can result in lower sentences for offenders and a more complicated healing process for survivors.

Much of the variation stems from a legal movement aimed at creating new definitions for the criminal acts considered to be rape, in the hopes that it would make them more quantifiable in court cases.

Twenty-five states don’t use the word rape at all in their definitions, including Michigan, which was the first state to remove the word “rape” from its laws in 1975.

“…for me as a survivor, the semantics of this and calling rape ‘rape’ is huge in how I move on and how I go forward.
– Lydia Cuomo,
rape survivor

From the 1920s up until last year, the FBI’s definition of rape – which it uses for the collection of crime statistics – was “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

The new definition put in place last year takes into consideration oral and anal penetration, allows for both women and men to be victims as well as perpetrators and does not require that that force be used against the victim. This is because many victims submit in fear of retaliation from their attacker for fighting back.

One case in New York has sparked a legislative movement to change the way the state defines rape.

Late last summer, Lydia Cuomo (no relation to the governor), was orally, anally and vaginally penetrated by off-duty police officer Michael Pena.

Rape survivor Lydia Cuomo (at podium) speaks at a press conference in Albany on Feb. 12, 2013 in support of a bill by Queens Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (standing on the left) to broaden the state's legal definition of rape. Anti-abuse advocate Andrew Willis is on the right. (Office of Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas)

Rape survivor Lydia Cuomo (at podium) speaks at a press conference in Albany on Feb. 12, 2013 in support of a bill to broaden the state’s legal definition of rape. (Office of Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas)

A jury found him guilty of the oral and anal contact, but not of the vaginal penetration. These specifics make a difference because in New York, only vaginal penetration is considered rape. Oral and anal penetration are considered a criminal sexual act. Pena later admitted to the vaginal penetration.

Lydia Cuomo is now working to get a bill passed in the New York legislature that would include oral, anal and vaginal contact in the definition of rape.

However, critics have expressed concern that including all of those acts under the definition of rape would make it harder to charge perpetrators with multiple counts of the crime.

Cuomo says even though it’s a definition, it matters to victims.

At an Albany press conference earlier this month she said, “You know, we don’t use precise terms. No one likes saying ‘oral’ and ‘anal.’ No one likes talking about it. But when you do use precise terms, it gives a lot of power. I do think it is semantics, but semantics are important. I think for me as a survivor, the semantics of this and calling rape ‘rape’ is huge in how I move on and how I go forward.”

Stephanie Hughes has written about the legal definition of rape for Salon, and told Here & Now’s Robin Young that Cuomo is brave to be so public about her rape.

“She’s really claiming this incident,” Hughes said. “She feels incredibly passionate about it. She feels it’s important for people to speak out.”


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  • bobthechef

    I suppose it’s a matter of semantics, and how one defines sex, but I think a history of human sexual practices and abuses can allow any penetration to be called rape. My goodness. These other forms of rape (at least one of them — I think you can guess which) are even worse than vaginal rape!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gary-Steele/1590878567 Gary Steele

    Rape should be defined as any sexual contact under coercion or threat of coercion. Being forced into any sexual situation is harmful and degrading and should be treated as such.

  • Lisa

    As a victim of oral rape at the tender age of 11 – I feel some sense of validation at hearing this piece today.  For thirty years I felt raped and no one to this day sees it that way – they just think of it as molestation.  But I feel like a rape victim.

    • no shame

      me to Lisa 2 times 12 and 15 but in the 70′s it wasn’t talked about

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ZD4QIKKZMUA2CPSG4C5AW3FO74 JennaC

    I think that we should call them oral rape, anal rape, and vaginal rape and charge them as separate crimes.  Then everyone wins.

    • NO SHAME


  • sara

    Ken Applebaum and Marjory Fisher from the Queens DA’s Office told victim of rape that if a woman goes to a bar and drinks she is asking to be raped.

  • no shame

    depends on the minor girls who go around calling themselves sluts/hoes and just want attention to get more boys in there pants.If they ask for it and show that they want it, then they should be held accountable for there actions around sexuality. They sometimes want allllllllllllll the attention no matter how they get it.

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