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July 10, 2013

Semantics matter when talking about rape

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The Daily Star

---- — Rape is rape.

Except, apparently, when it isn’t.

Confusing? You bet, especially if you live in New York state, whose Legislature — in this case the Senate — failed miserably in the recent session to define rape as anything beyond vaginal penetration.

Last year, the Obama administration changed the way the FBI compiles crime statistics to define “forcible rape” to include anal and oral penetration, and to include men as victims. It was the first change in the definition since the 1920s, but it did nothing to change the way states define what is rape and what isn’t.

In its recent session, New York’s Assembly passed a bill similar to the new FBI regulations, but despite intense lobbying by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state Senate did not.

Sen. Catherine Young, R-Salamanca, was an early supporter, then changed her mind and introduced a bill that made a distinction between vaginal, oral and anal rape, saying that district attorneys would have an easier time getting consecutive sentences for rapists under her plan.

“The Senate bill defeats the entire purpose,” Cuomo said. “They’re saying for some reason, vaginal rape is different than oral and anal rape when the point should be it’s all the same crime. Their bill didn’t speak to what I wanted at all.”

We understand how reluctant many politicians are to discuss the subject of rape. Congressman Todd Akin seemed a shoo-in for a Missouri Senate seat last year until he made this inane statement: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Akin lost by more than 15 percentage points against unpopular Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill.

Several other Republicans, among them vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, have gotten into political difficulty for comments trying to define rape, its degree and how often it might lead to pregnancy. So we understand that the Republican-led state Senate might be wary.

In New York, even if rape isn’t defined as such — “criminal sexual act” and “predatory sexual assault” have similar sentences for conviction — it’s important to call rape what it is. Ranking different types of unwanted penetration on a scale of importance can make the aftermath of an assault even more difficult for survivors.

“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.”

So do we. Rape is indeed rape. We urge our local state senators to call it — and vote it — what it is.