In early 2012, for the first time in more than 80 years, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was changing how it defined rape in collecting crime data from around the country.
Since 1927, the department narrowly described rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”
But the archaic definition excluded a number of sexual assaults, including attacks on males. The new definition, which went into effect Jan. 1 this year, is broader: “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.”
The Austin Police Department is among the law enforcement agencies nationwide that voluntarily report crimes and arrests to the federal government to measure crime trends in the United States. The data also appears in the Police Department’s annual crime and traffic reports, which have reflected the Justice Department’s historic definition of rape.
Next year’s reports will count Austin rapes under the new definition, and it is likely to appear that there has been an increase in such attacks in Austin, said Gena Curtis, a lieutenant over the Police Department’s sex crimes unit.
“The numbers are going to be higher only because, now, the definition is broader, but really it’s going to be a reflection of what we’ve had all along,” she said.
In June 2012, for example, there were 21 cases of rape reported in Austin according to the historic federal definition and 41 cases of sexual assault that didn’t meet that definition’s criteria. Under the new definition, 62 cases would have been reported to the federal government for that month, a nearly 200 percent increase.
The number of sexual assaults, including rapes, has remained relatively steady in Austin over the years, according to the Police Department, and the majority of such attacks occur between people who know each other.
The change will have no bearing on how such crimes are prosecuted, Curtis said, adding that the new federal definition is similar to how sexual assault is already defined in the Texas Penal Code.
The state law says someone commits the offense if the person intentionally or knowingly causes the penetration of the anus or sexual organ of another person by any means without consent; causes the penetration of the mouth of another person with a sexual organ without consent; or causes the sexual organ of another person, without consent, to contact or penetrate the mouth, anus or sexual organ of another person.
Curtis said the change in the federal definition is “decades overdue.”