By Jean Reynolds

Your police training will include a discussion of how rape is defined in your jurisdiction. Between the 1970s and the mid-1980s, most states changed the definition of rape in their statutes. Formerly the prime consideration was whether the victim had consented. Current statutes, however, emphasize the behavior of the alleged assailant. This change has important implications for you because police officers often help decide whether to prosecute a particular case.

Consent is an important factor in determining whether a victim (usually a woman) was raped—so important, in fact, that it used to be the primary factor. Statutes traditionally defined rape as unlawful sexual intercourse with a female without her consent. If a case went to court, juries carefully scrutinized the alleged victim’s clothing, behavior, sexual history, and past contact with the alleged assailant for signs of implicit consent.

But in the 1970s, legislators began to rethink the way that rape was defined in statutes, shifting the emphasis from the victim’s behavior to what the assailant had done. Rape was redefined as “an act of sexual penetration by the use of force or the threat of force,” and juries were instructed to focus on the behavior of the assailant. Defense attorneys were prohibited from questioning the alleged victim about her sexual history.

This change has important implications for police investigations of rape. Be aware that rape is a crime of power, not sexual desire. If you’re dispatched to the scene of an alleged rape, you need to look for evidence of the use of force. Was there a weapon? Were there signs that the victim was frightened? What about injuries? Be sure to scan the scene for signs of a struggle and record any evidence in your police report. Of course you should also make sure that the victim receives medical treatment and a referral to a victim-support organization.

A legal definition of a crime can seem far removed from the realities of offenders and victims whom police officers deal with every day. A study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence confirms that there can be a disconnect between what legislators think and what police officers experience firsthand.

The Journal study asked 91 officers to write their own definitions of rape. Only half the officers used the terminology found in revised rape statues, such as threats and use of force. The other half employed terminology like “penetration” and “consent” that harked back to older, discredited definitions of rape. Comments from this second group showed that some officers continued to think of rape as a form of sexual gratification rather than a crime of power. For example, one officer defined rape as “Men taking what women really want at that moment but decide they didn’t the next morning when they sober up.”

As a police officer, you need to be familiar with the legal definition of rape used in your jurisdiction—and to be sure that your actions are consistent with that definition if you are called on to investigate a rape allegation.

Campbell, R., & Johnson, C. R. (1997, April). Police Officers’ Perceptions of Rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 12 (2), 255-275.