Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New York Poised To Pass ‘Rape Is Rape’ Bill To Update Definition Of Sexual Assault

As anti-choice politicians seek to narrow the definition of sexual assault to “forcible rape” or “legitimate rape,” lawmakers in New York State are taking the opposite approach — and actually may be prepared to advance a bill that would expand the definition of rape to encompass additional acts of sexual violence.

Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D) first introduced the legislation last year after Lydia Cuomo, a Bronx schoolteacher who was raped by a city cop, discovered that her assaulter wasn’t going to be charged with “rape.” Since Cuomo’s rapist didn’t vaginally penetrate her, his crimes fell outside of New York’s current definition of rape — but Simotas’ bill seeks to change that by widening the state’s rape statues to officially include forced oral and anal sex. Cuomo traveled to Albany on Tuesday to use her own personal experience to help advocate for the proposed legislation, urging state lawmakers to make sure an outdated legal definition won’t continue to deny survivors the justice they deserve:

Cuomo wants to use what happened to her to spur lawmakers to act this year. The legislative push is also part of her healing process. [...]

Last week, she recounted how she sat nervously with her family in the 15th-floor office of the district attorney that day last March when she found out the 12-person jury couldn’t agree that she had been raped — an option she said never once entered her mind as a possibility.

“When we found out the reason why, it just seemed so ludicrous to me,” Cuomo now says. “I think, quite frankly, it’s insulting.”

“Ultimately I was being told, ‘Oh, you were anally raped and orally raped, but we don’t believe you were raped; you were sexually assaulted.‘”

At the beginning of 2012, the FBI updated its definition of rape for the first time in 80 years to include forced anal and oral acts. But, while that’s an important step to update the way the agency measures trends in crime, it doesn’t impact federal or state legal codes. Twenty five states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have eliminated the word “rape” from their codes in order to use the more inclusive terms “sexual assault” or “sexual abuse” — but in the remaining states, including New York, the official definition of what’s considered to be rape can vary widely.

Cuomo wants to encourage all policymakers to use more specific language because, even though it may seem like quibbling to them — in New York, the crimes defined as a “criminal sexual act” and a “predatory sexual assault” both lead to essentially equivalent sentences — it can mean all the difference in the world to survivors of sexual violence. Creating distinctions between different types of penetration ultimately serves to rank sexual crimes against each other, which can make survivors feel like their individual experiences are also being ranked on a scale of ranging levels of seriousness. Cuomo and Simotas want to emphasize that “rape is rape.”

“I think a lot can come from calling something what it is and talking more openly about it,” Cuomo told Salon. “Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s just semantics.’ And I do think it is semantics at the end of the day, right? But I think the semantics are important.”

As the the New York Daily News reports, state lawmakers are beginning to agree. Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein (D) said the legal code “definitely needs to change” since, as it’s currently written, it represents “an insult to not only the victims of these horrendous crimes, but to our legal system.” And Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D) confirmed that he’s “inclined” to pass Simotas’ bill.

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