Founded in 1974, the Women’s Center was established to:
Dismantle, from a feminist perspective, all forms of oppression, including but not limited to those based on ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Advocate for an equitable environment free from violence and harassment based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Create an anti-racist, non-sexist, queer-affirmative space where all people can feel valued and safe.
Facilitate and strengthen connections among people across lines of difference through programming and educational campaigns.
Integrate an appreciation of Women's Gender and Multicultural Studies across the disciplines.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Defining rape.

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.  


  1. Great post! You bring up a lot of legitimate points. What are some of your suggestions for what to say or do if a friend approaches you? I think sometimes people say the wrong thing because that's what they think they're SUPPOSED to say. And how can we continue to improve our legal system? There is a lot that needs to change, in general, and in the area of sexual assault, we have a long way to go baby.

    Keep up the great blog!

  2. Hi Jenna!

    Sorry for my late response. I always tell people who want to be a resource for a friend who is a survivor that non judging listening is key. When you do have to say things, empower the survivor with your language. "None of this was your fault. No one had a right to do that to you. I can't imagine what you're going through, but I am here to support you in any decision you make" Although for many people, the natural inclination is to get all the facts, when it comes to sexual assault, that isn't actually helpful for either of you. The person will tell you what they feel comfortable telling you, and it's important not to push for more information.
    As far as the legal system, I don't know how to improve it. The law will never be able to accurately reflect what a sexual assault is, because it is a complex issue. The very black and white definition is probably the best they can do for now, and I just keep the law where I feel it belongs; only applicable to people who choose to report.