According to new crime data from the FBI, U.S. crime in 2014 was down across almost all categories, including murder. But rape is one of two violent crimes (aggravated assault the other) for which states and local law enforcement agencies reported an increase last year, with the number rising 2.4 percent from 2013. What gives?
First, it's important to note that the FBI changed its official definition of rape just a few years ago. Until 2013, the agency used a definition put in place in 1927 which categorized rape as "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will" (emphasis mine). Under the old federal definition, men could not be raped.
Neither did the old definition count it as rape if a victim was asleep, drugged, threatened, or in some other way compelled to have sex without the use of physical violence. And forced oral and anal penetration or penetration with an object were also excluded. Because of these omissions, federal statistics on rape—compiled from data submitted by states and law enforcement agencies—have been for many years incomplete.
"Revising the definition of rape would result in a higher and more accurate number of rapes that are reported nationwide each year," Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said in 2011. And that's indeed true. Under what the FBI calls the "legacy" definition of rape, there were a total of 84,041 rapes reported in 2014. Under the revised definition, there were 116,645 instances of rape.
The new definition, announced by the Department of Justice in 2012, is "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 the consent of the victim." As you can see, the primary element in the new definition isn't force but consent, putting the FBI's definition more in line with modern views of sexual violence.
But not all entities reporting crime data to the FBI—which may be done directly by law enforcement agencies or may be compiled and submitted by a state agency, depending on the state—included rape info using the new definition, either in 2013 or 2014. How many did or if there was an increase last year over 2013 is not included in the new FBI crime data report. But because of the dual definitions, this year's report does include info based on both definitions.
Under both definitions, there were more rapes reported last year than in 2013. Under the old definition, the number of rapes was up 2.4 percent in 2014. Under the new definition, the number of reported rapes rose from 113,695 to 116,645. The rape rate last year, using the new definition, was 36.6 per 100,000 Americans.
Within the new definition, the FBI included both male and female victims and three separate state-reported sex offenses: rape (excluding statutory rape), sodomy, and sexual assault with an object. Still, "except where comparisons are made based on the same definitions of rape, readers are cautioned against assuming increases in rape numbers are due to an increase of violence or number of sexual assaults, but rather, the increase may simply be a reflection of the more inclusive definition," the FBI crime report states.
Using the pre-2013 definition, the number of rapes reported last year is down 10.9 percent from 2005 and still at one the lowest points in the past 20 years. The highest number of rapes reported during that period was 97,470, in 1995. With the exception of 1999, the number remained in the 90,000s until 2009, when it dropped to 89,241. Since then, it hovered between 82,102 and 85,593.