What Is rape?

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Rape is a violent crime and a serious violation against another person. While the legal definition of rape varies by state, the trauma is unarguable.

Have I Been Raped?

It’s common for victims to think about what happened to them and wonder if it constitutes rape. From a psychological standpoint, if you think you were raped, you were raped.

Recognizing the gravity of what happened is the first step to healing and justice. Even if it turns out that the crime goes by a different name, it’s nonetheless a violation, and you deserve support.

Rape and Sexual Assault

Rape is a form of sexual assault. Under federal law, all rape is sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape.

The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.”

sexual act doesn’t necessarily mean penetration occurred. Any contact between the genitals, anus, and mouth is considered a sexual act. If the contact is unwanted, it counts as sexual assault.

In most cases, an assault qualifies as rape if it involves nonconsensual penetration. In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) updated its Uniform Crime Report Summary Reporting System (UCR SRS) to define forcible rape as:

“The 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.”

This update broadened the definition of rape beyond female penetration by a man. Now, a nonconsensual penetrative act counts as rape, no matter the individual’s gender. It also counts penetration with an object as rape.

Note that the definition of rape does not require physical resistance or a verbal “no.” If you don’t actively consent, it’s rape.

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Definitions of Rape Nationwide

States have the freedom to define rape for purposes of legal prosecution. Intercourse without mutual consent is always against the law, but there are some differences in how states define “without consent.”

Some states offer more detail on what counts as not giving consent. In Pennsylvania, for example, an act is rape if:

  • The perpetrator uses force or threat.
  • The victim is unconscious or unaware of the act.
  • The perpetrator has intentionally impaired the victim’s awareness or resistance.
  • The victim isn’t mentally capable of consent.

Some states leave more room for interpretation. In Massachusetts, rape happens when someone “has sexual intercourse or unnatural sexual intercourse with a person, and compels such person to submit by force and against his will, or compels such person to submit by threat of bodily injury.”

If the language in your state is similarly nonspecific, it doesn’t mean you weren’t raped. It means you need a lawyer to present the facts.

To research rape laws in your state, search for “rape definition” plus your state’s name. Be aware of the risks of internet research. Not all websites will be accurate.

For the most reliable results, look for content from your state’s general assembly or legislature. It will be a website that has .gov in its web address.

If you can’t find or don’t understand the definition, don’t worry — and don’t give up. It’s not necessary to understand the legalities of rape to seek justice.

Statutory Rape and Degrees of Rape

Statutory rape, or the rape of a child, is the act of nonconsensual intercourse with someone under the age of consent. That age, as well as the age of majority for the perpetrator, varies by state.

The victim’s and perpetrator’s ages might also determine the charge. As with murder, there are “degrees” of rape — first, second, third, and sometimes fourth. All are serious crimes and violations of the victim’s human rights and dignity.

What To Do as a Rape Victim

Rape is trauma. As a victim, your physical and mental well-being is of the utmost importance. The National Sexual Assault hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 800-656-4673 (HOPE).

If you’ve just been raped, the most important thing is to get somewhere safe. If you’re not able to get yourself to safety, call 911.

If possible, have a medical examination before you change, eat, or bathe. Your first instinct might be to clean up, which is entirely understandable. However, an immediate medical exam is best for your short-term and long-term health and safety.

The medical professionals who perform post-rape exams — also called sexual assault forensic exams (SAFEs) — are specially trained to work with victims. Their goal is to take care of you and respect your wishes.

If you need immediate medical attention, they’ll take care of that first. They’ll ask for background information about your health and perform a complete physical exam. The exam usually involves internal examinations of sensitive areas.

With your consent, the medical professional will also take pictures and samples to document the incident.

They’ll collect these samples in a rape kit and send the kit to a laboratory for review. Authorities will retain the documentation for a state-specified period in case you want to report the incident.

You don’t have to report the rape to receive a medical exam, nor do you have to decide right away whether to report the rape.

Minors are the exception. If you are under the age of consent in your state, mandatory reporting laws require the medical professional to report the incident.

If appropriate, the medical professional examining you will offer emergency contraception and preventive treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

It’s free and confidential. Sexual assault exams won’t cost you anything, provided you get them from a trained provider of medical forensic exams (MFEs). The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) can connect you with providers in your area.

It will help your case. If you decide to report the rape, medical evidence can increase your odds of success.

It protects your health. Rape and other sexual trauma can lead to future health problems. Medical examiners offer the preventive care you need to care for yourself.

Rape is a crime. As an adult victim, you can decide when and whether to report that crime.

If you undergo a medical exam, you can report the rape to a law enforcement officer at the hospital. Another option is to call or visit your local police station. If you choose to call, an officer will come to your location.

Most stations have officers who have received training in working with sexual assault victims. That officer will talk you through the process and take your report.

The officer will ask you about the event and what happened afterward. They may prompt you to tell them about anything you’ve been dealing with due to the rape. That includes any emotional distress and difficulties with day-to-day functioning.

If you’ve just been raped, the most important thing is to get somewhere safe. If you’re not able to get yourself to safety, call 911.

If possible, have a medical examination before you change, eat, or bathe. Your first instinct might be to clean up, which is entirely understandable. However, an immediate medical exam is best for your short-term and long-term health and safety.

Protect Yourself With Legal Representation

The laws around rape and sexual assault can be complex. Regardless of whether you’ve reported the crime, consider getting a lawyer.

Your lawyer will be your advocate throughout your case. They’ll help you press charges and coach you through what you need to do to pursue justice.

You’re not alone. Let us help you get the support you deserve.

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