I’ve had a revelation.
I don’t care what the law has to say about rape.
Yes. I understand why need to have laws. I understand that in order to punish individuals who break the laws, you have to have a pretty set definition of what has been broken and evidence to support it was. But in a society where the US Justice Department says that only 26% of rapes are reported to the police (and many advocacy agencies would say the number is lower than that) why is the legal definition of sexual assault the default definition we use when educating about rape?
Legally defining rape can be problematic. Sexual assault, often referred to as rape, is legally defined differently in each state. In New Jersey, the law defines sexual assault as "the penetration, no matter how slight, in which physical force or coercion is used or in which the victim is physically or mentally incapacitated". Penetration is defined as "vaginal intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio or anal intercourse between persons or the insertion of a hand, finger or other object into the anus or vagina by either the actor or upon the actor's instruction" (NJSA 2C:14-1).
This definition is not universal, nor is it complete. In terms of my advocacy and work with survivors of sexual assault, I use an entirely different definition. If someone feels as though they were sexually assaulted, then they were. As simple as that. I’m never going to tell anyone who believes that they might have been sexually assaulted that they weren’t. In the generation of CSI and Law & Order watchers, people often feel as though it’s their duty to examine the evidence and determine for themselves if someone else’s rape occurred by using the criteria set out by the law. Without even realizing it, people become victim blamers rather than support systems. I have witnessed and heard more times than I would like about someone who went to a friend/family member/partner and confided that they had been sexually assaulted only to be interrogated. Well did you say no? Did you push them away? Why haven’t you gone to the police? WHY DOES THAT MATTER? If you feel as though something happened to you, and it wasn’t okay, then it ISN’T okay! Our strict definition of rape often leaves survivors feeling as though what happened to them wasn’t legitimate, and therefore they have no justification for their feelings. There is no checklist you need to complete to have been raped. It may not fit neatly into the little box the law makes for what is a “real” rape, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real to you.
I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a police officer. I understand their roles in the reporting process of gathering evidence and proving guilt. But 74% of survivors aren’t going to them. They aren’t asking for evidence to be collected, they aren’t asking for their rapist to be prosecuted legally. If they’re telling anyone, they’re telling a friend, a relative, a partner. They’re telling someone they trust. And most times, they’re not telling you to investigate and ‘prove’ it or tell them your opinion on what did or did not happen to their bodies based on what our laws state. They’re asking for your support. Give it to them.