What’s in a name? Does defining a concept or person with a single word really capture its essence?
Until recently, no, especially words like “outrage,” “victim” and, until recently, “rape.”
However, on Jan. 6, the Federal Bureau of Investigation made a historic change in the national definition of rape that expands recognition to victims of a horrible crime that had previously been ignored.
The previous, narrower definition of rape limited victims to women and left out those who suffered through acts that weren’t expressly forcible vaginal penetration by the male sex organ. It was often criticized as outdated and failed to recognize male victims, those who suffered forcible anal or oral penetration, those who suffered from penetration by an object or other body part, or a woman raped by another woman.
The new definition is “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,” which includes these groups.
This is obviously a change for the better, but it certainly begs the question: Why did it take until the year 2013 for the United States to nationally recognize the fact that men can also be raped?
The answer is that our definition of “victim” is still inadequate.
For example, take the Duluth Model, which is a system some state courts have adopted as a base for domestic violence laws. It works in the cases where a man abuses his wife or kids. The only problem is that under this model, men are treated as aggressors in every domestic violence case, even when the man is the victim. Police officers that work under this model have to arrest the man, no matter the details of the case. This logic is based on sexist, outdated beliefs that fail to reflect reality: that anyone can be a victim, and that our knowledge of crime, too, has evolved.
The gender-neutral language of the new definition stands out and should serve as an example for other cases in which laws and precedents should be re-evaluated to rid them of outdated and exclusionary language. As a nation, we are now closer to a more just system of laws because of this definition, but we shouldn’t stop there. The precedent of gender-neutrality should be adopted more universally, for example, by re-evaluating the Duluth Model.
Opponents of the change say the new definition will lead to an increase of reported crimes. If the price of justice is more phone calls to the authorities, that is something our country should be willing to pay. The increase in rape cases would only more accurately reflect the actual number of sex crimes occuring in the United States, many of which went unreported in national statistics even if they were prosecuted at the state level, according to the New York Times. We owe these victims recognition.
Though rape is a an outrage, the tragedy of which we cannot hope to contain in a single word, we must try for the sake of justice to define the others as best we can. In order to protect vulnerable members of our society, our legal system must attempt to capture as much of the essence of these words as possible so that justice may be sought, a justice that excludes no one.