When the Law Won't Call it "Rape"
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Others also found the verdict preposterous. Jennifer Long, the director of AEquitas, an organization that studies laws dealing with violence against women, said the case showcases how bias can be present among members of a jury. “One can speculate the reasons why they chose to convict of maybe the perception of the lesser crime,” said Long. “Whatever the reasons were for the outcome, it really belies the evidence.”
In New York, the sentencing requirements for criminal sexual act and predatory sexual assault are just as heavy as what’s required for rape. Pena was sentenced to at least 75 years in prison, and he later pleaded guilty to rape. But the fact that the different forms of penetration went under different names angered some policymakers — specifically, Queens Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas. She’s in the process of introducing a bill to the state legislature that would place all forced sexual penetration under the term “rape.”
“Rape is a very emotionally charged word,” said Simotas. “It means a lot to victims and it means a lot, I think, just to society. People whom I’ve spoken to — victims and their families — they all, if they’re violated in this way, if they’re forced to engage in a sexual act against their will, the word they use is ‘rape.’ They don’t use ‘sexually criminal act.’ People don’t even know what that means.”
Simotas said the bill has bipartisan support, and she hopes to get it passed this session. But even if a wider legal definition of rape is adopted in New York, there’s no guarantee the public will understand rape better. “What the legislature does is a factor, but it’s not the only factor in how society conceives of the crime,” said Michelle Anderson, dean of the law school at the City University of New York and a scholar on rape law. “It’s an amalgam of popular media, consciousness being raised by non-governmental organizations and public interest organizations, sexual education — there are a lot of factors that influence how a society conceives of rape.”
Meanwhile, other states have purged the word “rape” from their codes entirely. The first to do so was Michigan in 1975 — it’s now one of 25 states, along with the District of Columbia and the federal government, that don’t use the word in their codes at all. The idea of the movement was to have the public think of these crimes not as being about sex, but about violent assault.
The differences between states’ laws go beyond the linguistic. For example, laws vary in terms of whether penetration is required to prove rape or if contact is sufficient. They also differ in how they define consent, and whether the victim’s silence indicates a lack of consent — or whether a person has to explicitly say “no.” Jennifer Long of AEquitas said codes can differ by level of complexity, as well. “Some jurisdictions have neater, simpler laws, and some are much more complicated — but they may all cover the same conduct.”
These variations in the law — and, consequently, how the crimes are reported in the media — can add confusion to a subject that’s already difficult to discuss. “I think people are uncomfortable talking about it. And they’re uncomfortable using the right language around it,” said Lydia Cuomo. “It’s weird — you don’t think ‘anal’ is a word you’re going to say in front of your dad a lot. But it happens. There’s nothing I can do to change what happened, and I’m not going to beat around the bush or not talk about it.”