Last week I heard two pieces of good news about rape—one local, one national. The local news: While Boston's serious crime reports dropped by 8 percent overall, rape reports spiked by 12 percent, according to police; the rise was especially dramatic in some lower-income sections of the city. So why is that good news? Well, no one believes more rapes occurred—primarily because there was no increase in reported rapes by strangers, which are most likely to be reported but only make up an estimated 20 percent of all rapes. Nope, the good news was that Boston women decided to report it when acquaintances, boyfriends, dates, friends, and family members forced them to have sex. Public-health and criminal-justice statistics folks know that's happening; according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recently released sexual violence survey, nearly one in five women is raped in her lifetime, and more than one million women are raped each year. Far fewer are reported to police. That's why an increase in reporting of non-stranger rapes is good news: It means more reporting, not more rape. Eighty percent of rapes are by someone the victim knows—and those are the ones that women are most likely to be shamed for enduring. More reporting means more treatment and greater potential for useful social- and criminal-justice-system responses.
The national good news: We're about to see an increase in reported rape nationwide. As Jaime Fuller reported here on Friday, the Department of Justice announced that it is instituting a much-needed expansion to the Uniform Crime Reporting system's definition of rape, which the FBI recommended in October:
The outdated definition that has been governing national rape statistics since 1929, “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” has been updated to "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.” According to Susan D. Carbon, director of the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, the previous definition “excluded an untold number of victims.” For the first time, men will be included in national rape statistics, as well as those raped while unable to give consent due to intoxication or other mental and physical incapacity.
You may recall that, during the 2009 Roman Polanski kerfuffle, Whoopi Goldberg defended the brilliant director by saying that what he did to that child wasn't "rape rape." Here's what I wrote about that at the time:
What do you call it when a middle-age man takes a 13-year-old child to an isolated house’s jacuzzi to take “art photos’’; plies her with champagne and Quaaludes; maneuvers her into a bedroom; and—against her explicit, terrified objections—repeatedly forces himself into her?
If the man is Roman Polanski, it’s not called rape. It’s called “sex with a minor,’’ which downplays the crime.
Notice to Whoopi (and to Mike McQueary): If it happened today, or if it happened to a boy, you could safely call it "rape."
This definitional update arrives, as I noted in October, because old-line feminist groups pushed hard for it. They now say they are going to focus on getting more criminal-justice resources for rape victims—faster testing of rape kits, more prosecution, and so on.
Now let me add a third bit of good news: Young feminists have launched a new anti-sexual-violence movement. While older groups are tackling the establishment, younger groups are back to changing consciousness. As Katha Pollitt explained last spring, SlutWalks have taken feminism by storm. They started when young women in Toronto were outraged that a police officer urged them to avoid rape by not dressing like sluts; the marches emphatically make the point (right down to their in-your-face title) that the problem is the rapist's behavior, not the victim's. (Um, who rapes whom, again?) The new movement's handbook (or one of them) is Yes Means Yes! by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, two leading voices of post-second-wave feminism. The book's key concept, if I understand correctly (and I do hope Jaclyn will correct me if I'm wrong), is that no one should proceed in a sexual act without both parties' active consent. In other words, it's not enough that she doesn't say no; if you're going to go forward sexually, you have to hear her enthusiastic yes. (Jaclyn has just started a column worth watching called "Unsolicited Advice." Check it out.)
Will the old feminists and the new feminists collaborate to end rape? Stay tuned.