The US Justice Department defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, without the consent of the victim.” Penetrating the mouth with a sex organ without consent is also considered rape. The DOJ definition was updated in 2012 to include circumstances where an individual is unable to consent, due to “temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity”; the effects of drugs or alcohol; or being under the legal age of consent.
When reporting on rape, terms like “successful” or “unsuccessful” are misleading. “Attempted rape” or “rape” is clear and accurate.
Physical force is not required for an assault to be considered rape. The coercion can also involve emotional manipulation or threats. For example, a perpetrator may threaten to hurt loved ones unless the victim complies. A “yes” born from fear or self-preservation does not count as consent. Penetration of a person who is unconscious or temporarily impaired due to substances is also considered rape.
Rape and sexual assault can present unique challenges for reporters covering them: There is often a lack of physical evidence and witnesses, and victims often do not come forward immediately, because of a fear that they will be disbelieved or their own character called into question. Many victims never report the crime to law enforcement; even when an official report is made, trials and convictions are rare. In the absence of witness statements or court documents, reporters can use other means to verify reports of rape or sexual assault to the best of their ability.
Due diligence is especially important because people who come forward as victims or survivors of sexual assault are often subjected to intense scrutiny; careful reporting and fact-checking can help identify areas that need clarification and forestall surprise criticisms. In the absence of witnesses, many reporters in recent years have relied on contemporaneous accounts — friends, relatives, or others that the victim or survivor told about the incident at the time it is said to have occurred. In addition, the existence of others who report rape or sexual assault by the same alleged perpetrator can help bolster a victim or survivor’s account.
There are ways to report on the issues of rape and sexual assault without focusing solely on specific individuals and instances. Reporting on the prevalence of rape and assault and how institutions handle such accusations, for example, can also have an impact. As Nieman Reports writes: “By examining how rape and sexual assault are handled by institutions including universities, police, and the courts, journalists can shed light on processes that ordinarily operate out of sight of average citizens — yet can have tremendous impact on justice for women and men who have been subjected to sexual violations.”
There are several terms used to describe particular situations in which rape can occur, including (but not limited to):
Acquaintance rape is assault where the perpetrator and victim knew each other prior to the attack. It can occur between neighbors, classmates, coworkers, friends, and so on. If an assault occurs between two people who are dating, it is often called date rape. RAINN discourages the use of both terms, saying that they imply acquaintance rape or date rape is somehow a different category, when in fact eight out of 10 sexual assaults involve people who know each other. Instead, RAINN recommends using phrasing like “raped by a classmate” or “sexually assaulted by their boyfriend.”
Homophobic rape is a hate crime in which victims are targeted based on their perceived sexual orientation and/or gender. This can also be called “rape driven by homophobia/transphobia/acephobia/etc.” Terms like “corrective rape” or “curative rape” are considered highly offensive, as they can imply that there is something about the victim that needs fixing, putting focus on why the victim was targeted rather than why the perpetrator committed the crime.
intimate partner rape
Intimate partner rape occurs between people in a committed romantic relationship. It is sometimes called marital rape or spousal rape, but since not all committed relationships involve marriage, the phrasing “intimate partner rape” is inclusive of the widest range of situations it could apply to. Marital rape was not considered illegal in all 50 states until 1993, and even today, several states have loopholes that can make the crime difficult to prosecute.
multiple perpetrator rape
Any individual below their state’s age of consent cannot legally agree to sexual activity, as they are not considered developmentally mature enough to engage in it in a healthy manner. Even if the perpetrator convinces the minor to agree to sex, the perpetrator does not have consent, so any sexual intercourse between an adult and a minor is considered statutory rape.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics Assessment of the Rape and Sexual Assault Pilot Test (Bureau of Justice Statistics)
- The agonizing story of Tara Reade (Vox)
Rape is a type of sexual assault involving penetration of an orifice without explicit consent. When reporting on rape, terms like “successful” or “unsuccessful” are misleading. Rape and sexual assault can present unique challenges for reporters covering them: There is often a lack of physical evidence and witnesses, and victims often do not come forward immediately, or ever. In the absence of witness statements or court documents, careful reporting and fact-checking can help identify areas that need clarification and forestall surprise criticisms.