In a few weeks, an FBI subcommittee will begin the long-overdue work of changing the bureau’s definition of rape. The current definition, which is more than 80 years old, has long drawn criticism for its restrictive language, which excludes a number of kinds of rape and distorts the FBI’s national statistics. That distortion not only warps the public’s perception of the scope of the problem; it also leads to an insufficient allocation of resources to organizations that address it. The prospect of a new definition raises the question: Just how far off are the current statistics?  

A 2007 study funded by the Department of Justice suggests that they are very misleading indeed. The study notes that rape prevention and intervention services, as well as federal policy, cannot be truly effective without an accurate picture of the incidence of the crime. And on that front, they state, there are significant problems: “procedures for detecting rape incidents … are not sensitive and therefore fail to detect many cases that would be characterized as rape under the federal criminal code.” Interviewing 5,000 women, the authors find that about 20 million women in the U.S. have been raped during their lifetime, and that only 16 percent of rapes are reported to law enforcement. Their study does not gauge the total increase that might occur after a new definition is adopted (for example, it does not survey male rape, which will likely be included in the new wording). Nonetheless, it provides important information on what to expect if the FBI changes its definition—a move which the authors strongly advocate. “We need to get this right,” they conclude, “because sound policy requires accurate information.”