The statutes that make up current laws on rape and sexual assault—what those terms mean, whether they are criminal offenses, and the seriousness of the crime—are built on origins that conceived of these as offenses against patriarchal inheritance rights and a female’s reproductive capacity. These statutes have changed significantly since the 1970s but have changed at different times and in somewhat different ways in different jurisdictions. The language and concepts are confusing, and in trying to understand survey results, it is critical to keep in mind that victims cannot be expected to respond “accurately” to questions using that language.
In reviewing the state statutes on rape and sexual assault, the panel identified a number of commonalities that would be important to include in uniform definitions of rape and sexual assault for a national survey:
• The victimization is not restricted by gender: both a male or female can be victimized, and the offender can be either male or female.
• “Rape” involves a broad range of penetrations, including penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth, and with a penis, tongue, fingers, or another object.
• The purpose is for sexual arousal or degradation.
• The offender uses force or threat of force, against either the victim or another person.
• The victim does not consent to the sexual activity or does not have the capacity to consent.
• “Sexual assault” includes a fairly wide range of victimizations that involve unwanted nonpenetration sexual contact.
The panel uses the information presented in this chapter to assess the current definition used by BJS in the NCVS and recommend an expanded definition (see Recommendation 10-7). The panel also uses the components listed above to help assess the current wording of survey questions and to devise improved wording about potential victimizations. Tracy et al. (2012, p. 35) stress the importance of wording questions for victims in ways that will allow the victims to better reveal their experiences, which in turn can help improve the justice systems’ responses to those crimes:
Although some jurisdictions’ laws have evolved to incorporate our ever-expanding knowledge of rape and sexual assault and offender behaviors, in other jurisdictions, the laws remain sadly outdated in either language or content. The disconnect between the law and reality can play a crucial role in individual victims’ perception of whether or not they were victims of a crime and whether they believe they will receive some measure of justice in the legal system. As a result, the ability to develop questions