The Metropolitan Police Department reported a significant increase in reported rapes last year, coinciding with the department changing its definition of rape to match FBI-Uniform Crime Reporting’s definition in January 2013.
MPD’s previous definition of rape was “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will,” which was updated for the first time since 1927 to be more inclusive and clear by defining rape as “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 new definition better reflects the actual incidence of rape nationally,” Gwendolyn Crump, director of MPD’s Office of Communications, wrote in an email.
Reported rapes in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area increased by 67 percent to 393 incidents in 2013. According to Crump, 27 percent of these rapes fell under the new definition.
“Obviously the definition had a huge impact since it encapsulates what sexual assault is, and that is definitely is going to be increasing the number of reports,” Sexual Assault Peer Educator Chandini Jha (COL ’16) said. “I think the new definition is much better in terms of people understanding that rape isn’t just intercourse, but can be with other body parts.”
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network Founder and President Scott Berkowitz pointed out that the new FBI definition was changed to better categorize crimes.
“The Metropolitan Police Department did not change what was to be considered a crime, but simply the rules about how the police department reports these crimes to the FBI,” Berkowitz said.
Although the change in definition did correlate with the jump in reports of sexual assault, Women’s Center Director Laura Kovach said that the change in legal definition would not necessarily affect the way that victims interpret and report rape, but rather it would affect the legal procedure that ensues after an assault is reported.
“Survivors will use words like ‘abuse,’ ‘sexual assault’ and ‘rape’ based on their experiences and not by legal definition,” Kovach wrote in an email.
Instead, several student activists and non-profit organizations working on the issue credited the rise in reports to an increase in both services and awareness on a national scale.
“An increase in reports is not usually correlated with an increase in assaults, but the increase in survivors being aware of services and being comfortable using those services. So the increase in reports could be an indicator that things are going well and survivors are being helped,” Take Back the Night President Sarah Rabon (COL ’16) said.
Campus Project Coordinator Elizabeth Krauss from the city’s Office of Victim Services commented on the sudden growth in services for survivors and loved ones in the D.C. area.
“In the past two years, those services have become much more visible,” Krauss wrote in an email. “With the U-ASK DC, University Assault Services Knowledge, phone application and website launched in September of 2012, and the ASK DC phone application and website launched in September of 2013, more and more people have been made aware of the excellent services the District has to offer.”
The recent passage of the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act in May 2014 also guarantees that survivors will have the right to have an advocate present during police interviews and hospital exams.
“[SAVRAA] allows certain rights for survivors to feel comfortable and empowered to share their stories,” Jha said. “It confers confidentiality onto advocates and you can communicate with advocates without fear of being subpoenaed.”
Despite the great increase in reports in 2013, according to RAINN, 60 percent of sexual assaults nationally are not reported to the police and only about 3 percent of rapists will serve time in prison. These figures could be credited to discomfort that survivors feel when reporting to law enforcement — an issue that has been key for activists.
“There is still an issue and the actual rates of sexual assault and the numbers reported to police because sometimes survivors don’t feel comfortable going through the legal process since historically police have not been survivor-centric and have not provided trauma-informed care,” Jha said.