For the first time in 80 years, the FBI has changed its definition of rape. This won't change state or federal laws or how rapes are prosecuted. It will change how rape and attempted rape are counted in national statistics. So, if this is just an accounting change for a report most of us will never see, why should we care?
The word "rape" has power. You can't fight or heal what you cannot name.
When I was in college, I told this guy I was dating about a bad thing that had happened the year before with someone I thought was my friend. He said, "Nancy, that's rape. What you just described is called rape."
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right ... and I wondered why I hadn't figured it out for myself. Now I know that lots of survivors don't realize what happened counts as rape. Or the idea is too painful and we take refuge in denial.
Thirty years later, I'm the one giving the word "rape" to others. I tell my story on college campuses. During the Q&A, students who want to stay anonymous write their questions down and pass them up. I get these little pieces of paper with one- and two-sentence horror stories on them.
"I was roofied & woke up covered in puke, my pants undone, & I hurt. I know there is nothing I can do now, but could I have?"
"Who do you go to if you can't find the word for what happened to you?"
"What qualifies for the actual act of being raped...do you have to have intercourse ... do you need to be 'penetrated'??"
Here's what most of those little slips of paper are really asking: "Does this count? Do I count?"
Until now, according to FBI statistics, for many of them the answer would have been "No." Rape was narrowly defined as "carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will." Anything else didn't count.
Rape against a man? Didn't count.
Rape committed by a woman? Didn't count.
Rape without physical violence? Nope. Not really rape.
Oral rape, anal rape, rape with an object? Hard words to hear, awful to live through — but they didn't count.
The Penn State case? Nothing done to those boys would have counted.
This change is way overdue. It will affect money and other resources for prevention and victim assistance. But to me, what really matters is being able to say to survivors, "Yes, rape is rape. What was done to you is wrong. It is a crime. You count."