With Expanded Definition, Rape Is Reported More Often

Two years after the Justice Department rewrote the official definition of rape, reports of rape have increased in most cities. Under the old definition, however, the number of rapes between 2012 and 2013 were down.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

The FBI released its semiannual uniform crime report last week. The study tallies crime statistics submitted from local law enforcement agencies across the country. Overall, violent crime decreased about 5 percent between 2012 and 2013. Reports of rape, increased. But the numbers don't tell the whole story.

SCOTT BERKOWITZ: The reality of rape hasn't changed. We're just doing a better job of recognizing it.

RATH: Scott Berkowitz is with the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, an organization that provides support for survivors of sexual violence. He says the increase in reports of rape has to do with a change in the FBI's long-standing definition of the crime. Before last year, the definition of rape for the FBI was carnal knowledge of a woman by a man forcibly and against her will.

BERKOWITZ: They took out the word force. Most rapes are committed without a weapon and often just with threats. And I think the bigger part of the change is that under the old definition, only rapes of women were counted. Before last year, when a man was raped, for federal purposes, it didn't count. Under the new definition, the FBI is now saying, send us all your reports, men and women. We're going to count them all.

RATH: So with the expanded definition, the number of rapes are up in most cities. Berkowitz says that since the definition excluded male rape for so long, it's hard to know the full scope of the issue, but there are some estimates.

BERKOWITZ: Other studies the Justice Department has done suggests that about one out of every 33 men will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. And that compares to about one out of every six women.

RATH: And since this is a new definition, can we even talk about trends? You know, does this become the new baseline and now we have to sort of start over again in talking about understanding sexual violence?

BERKOWITZ: Pretty much, but there's actually two different ways that the federal government measures sexual violence. One is this FBI study, which tallies the number of police reports that are made in local police departments around the country. The other is a broader study where they interview a random sample of tens of thousands of households and ask them a series of questions. And if someone answers yes to one of the sexual violence questions, they'll ask follow-up questions like did you report it to police?

So from that study, which gives us a much broader picture of the problem because it counts unreported rapes, that shows us that there's been a significant decline in sexual violence over the last 20 years. It's fallen by somewhere around half, but that that decline has really leveled off in the last few years, and the numbers have stopped going down.

One of the unique things about sexual violence is that it's one of the most underreported crimes. According to the Justice Department, only about four out of 10 victims report their rape to the police.

RATH: And do you think a new definition, you know, the different wording, is it possible that could reduce the stigma to an extent and increase the reporting?

BERKOWITZ: I think so. We've heard from lots of men who've contacted the National Sexual Assault Hotline who have a feeling that by expanding this definition, by recognizing that they're real victims - I guess is how they often put it - it helps validate their experience. It makes them feel like what happened to them is understood by authorities.

It's interesting, ever since the Penn State story broke a couple years ago, which was focused, of course, on boys who had been abused, we saw a huge increase after that in the number of boys and men contacting the hotline. And that has continued to grow.

RATH: The new language that the FBI uses, obviously, you consider that an improvement, but are there other changes that you would like to see or other information you'd like to see the FBI collecting?

BERKOWITZ: You know, I think that what we still need a really - a better understanding of is why are six out of 10 rapes not reported to police. What's stopping people? Because the only way we're ever going to really put a big dent in sexual violence is once more rapes are reported to police and more are prosecuted.

RATH: Scott Berkowitz is the founder and president of the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. This is just the first year that the new definition of rape has been in place. And not all local police departments are using it.

The Police Executive Research Forum has been working to help local agencies with the change. Chuck Wexler is the executive director.

CHUCK WEXLER: I hope by the end of this year, you'd have 100 percent or close to 100 percent participation. But the definition had not changed in 100 years, so sometimes it's challenging to get bureaucratic organizations to change.

RATH: As more law enforcement agencies use the new definition and more data become available, we may start to have a clearer picture of sexual violence in America.

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