New Legal Definition of Rape Shows Changing Attitude Towards Masculinity


Over 80 years after its conception, the 1927 definition of rape used by the Department of Justice was finally expanded last Friday. Hallelujah. The previous definition: “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” meant rape was defined strictly by forcible male penile penetration of a female vagina. Men, under any circumstances, could not be raped.

The new definition, “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex of another person, without the consent of the victim,” clearly encompasses a much wider range of actions, and more inclusivity for who can be both a perpetrator and a victim.

Though long overdue, the alteration is a huge step in addressing the perception of rape in the United States, especially in regards to men. The new definition represents a changing attitude toward masculinity that will ultimately affect the way rape is both treated and committed. 

In reality, the change of definition only has two effects. One is in the way the federal government records data on rape statistics. Under the previous definition, states that had already expanded their definition of rape were only sending the federal government a fraction of reported incidents in order to comply with the federal standards. The change in federal records, which will be transitioning to the new standard over the next several years, will impact the way rape patterns are studied and the distribution of federal and state aid to victims of rape. These changes will be able to increase the effectiveness and implementation of preventative and support programs for sex crimes, for both men and women.

Nevertheless, the new definition will not change the way rape is prosecuted, since each state maintains its own legal definition. While most states were ahead of the federal government in updating the definition of rape, inevitably some states are still behind. Georgia and Idaho, for example, both maintain the previous definition of rape and can only prosecute perpetrators under those terms.

The other effect, more important in many ways, is symbolic. Lynn Rosenthal, the White House adviser on violence against women, rightly said, “It’s a change of our understanding of rape and how seriously we take it as a country.” Hopefully this will apply to men as much or more as it does to women.

There has been a lag in the U.S. about the acceptance of male rape, which Thomas Matlock writes about in his editorial “Breaking the silence on men and rape.” He writes that underlying the old definition of rape was the belief that real men don’t get raped.

He also adds that, “there is the misperception that men's sex drives are so high that they ‘must have liked it’ when forced to have sex with a woman or even another man. There is a completely antiquated and inaccurate assumption around male sexuality and how damaging forced sexual contact is no matter who you are.”

Such conceptions of masculinity not only harm male rape victims’ ability to prevent and overcome instances of rape, they also contribute to the occurrence of rape. In The Truth About Rape, the authors write that, “Following the expected behavior [of gender roles] makes it less about the victimizer and the victim and more about something a “real” man is supposed to do.” As a nation, through media and discourse, we constantly see and contribute to such stereotypes that equate masculinity with sex. The invocation of the “real man” in both texts illustrates the problematic perceptions of masculinity and the way they relate to rape from multiple perspectives. 

The question of whether the change in the legal definition of rape will affect public perception of males and rape is better answered by a more fundamental question: Does law shape public opinion or does public opinion shape law? In this case, I think it goes both ways. Most states have been operating under the expanded definition, yet the new definition also offers hope that awareness of rape will continue to grow –– and how we decide to define as masculinity will continue to change with it.

Photo Credit: mac.rj