Editorial: Missouri legal definition of rape needs to be expanded

The legal definition of rape in Missouri is outdated, based on negative social stigma and limiting. It leaves countless victims of rape helpless to pursue justice.

Although the definition of rape at the federal level has, following the obvious logical course, expanded from its 82-year-old definition to be gender-neutral and include other types of rape, the Missouri definition is unfortunately narrow. We recently advocated for the federal expansion, and now we urge Missouri lawmakers to take the same action.

For now, our state is far behind the rest of the nation.

In Missouri, rape is defined as “any penetration, however slight, of the female sex organ by the male sex organ, whether or not an emission results.” This archaic definition closes pathways for many survivors of rape to pursue justice against their attackers. Unlike the federal definition, the Missouri definition implies rape can only be committed by men against women and also excludes statutory rape, rape with an object and forced anal or oral sex.

Missouri needs to expand the legal definition of rape to a more accurate representation of the issue of sexual violence. Doing so would empower rape survivors to pursue justice and allow for accurate, effective tracking and eradication of sex crimes. Funding and resources devoted to fighting rape would increase, and law enforcement would have more ability to reduce the incidents of sexual violence.

A problem can’t be solved without adequate knowledge, and with the present definition, a huge amount of information regarding the truth about rape never reaches the ears of law enforcement or the public.

The student in the story "Sexual Violence at MU: effects on students and where to go for help" said she felt powerless to pursue a legal case following her assault because it did not fit Missouri’s narrow definition of rape. Why should someone who was victimized by rape through digital penetration have to suffer in silence because the justice system doesn’t agree the trauma they endured qualifies as rape?

A survey of six schools in Indiana and Illinois found only 12 of 171 investigated sex crimes since 2005 resulted in arrests and only four in convictions, according to the Chicago Tribune. Here at MU, Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center coordinator Danica Wolf said she’s worked with 17 individuals from January to June of 2011 alone who were victims of sexual assault, rape or some form of domestic violence, yet only six arrests were made on charges related to sexual offenses. These low numbers of arrests are astonishing and discouraging, but could be helped by an expanded definition of rape that would give prosecutors greater ground on which to convict rapists.

The fact is rape occurs in many forms and can affect anyone, regardless of one's sex, gender, race, class, age, size, appearance or sexual orientation. For example, the false idea that men cannot be victimized by rape needs to be eradicated. The U.S. Justice Department reports one of 10 rape victims are male, though only 5 percent actually file a criminal report.

Having such a constricted definition of rape allows for many forms to go undetected and contributes to the stigma survivors already feel. How can survivors process the trauma of what happened to them when the government doesn’t even define it correctly?

Students must fully educate themselves and be open-minded to all of the possible ways in which rape might occur to be better equipped to stop it before it happens. Though a broader definition is the first step to increased awareness and education, it isn’t the final solution.

We know society in general wants to support and help survivors of rape, but a narrow, limiting definition sends the wrong message. If Missouri wants to work toward eliminating rape and help victims achieve justice, it needs to make a broader definition official.

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