The Definition of Rape

















In the United States, rape has long been a punishable offense, and now the possibilities for punishment are even greater.  Prior to a groundbreaking courrt case in California in 2003, the law read that rape did not occur when a woman initially consented and then later withdrew her consent.  In early January 2003, the California Supreme Court ruled differently; "We conclude that the offense of forcible rape occurs when, during apparently consensual intercourse, the victim expresses an objection and attempts to stop the act and the defendant forcibly continues despite the objection.”1

            In this specific court case, 17-year-old girl, Laura T. consented to engage in sexual intercourse with the defendant, John, but then later told him that she needed to go home.  While she never explicitly told him to stop, he continued for, "four or five minutes after Laura's first statement and for a minute to 90 seconds after her third and final one.”  John responded to Laura, "Just give me a minute.” While some people may not consider this case to be rape, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the teenage girl.  The Court took into account the defendant’s claim that he had failed to stop because of the "primal urge theory."  The primal urge theory is the idea that a person may not be able to immediately stop having sexual intercourse with another person because they are animals by nature.  People instinctually have the need to reproduce.  With this argument, a “reasonable time” rule for John’s failure to stop having sexual intercourse with Laura could be justified; he did not immediately stop because he biologically could not.  However, the Court later rejected this claim, stating that John had been given sufficient time to withdraw.  Humans are distinguished from animals because of their ability to reason, which was clearly neglected in this situation.  Thus, the law books would not allow for such a claim of "reasonable time.”4 Another reason why the defendant was found guilty of rape was because John physically forced himself onto Laura.  He grabbed her waist and pushed her down while she stating her need to go home.

            This case fostered an important ruling because it changed the definition of rape in a dramatic way.  This improvement and expansion of the definition has occurred not only in California, but also in Minnesota, South Dakota, Connecticut, Maine, and Alaska.4 It appears as though other states will follow this pattern of decision- making when they receive cases that may challenge the outdated definition.  Although the case described in this article involves a male raping a female, it is important to remember that males and females can both be perpetrators and survivors/victims.  All persons must be aware of consent laws, their rights, and the rights of others when they decide to engage in sexual activities, especially sexual intercourse.

            There is no federal, legal definition of rape.  In the case, United States v. Morrison, it was ruled that parts of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 were unconstitutional, meaning each state had to create its own laws in regards to sexual aggression.  For this reason, cases involving rape can be quite different in certain states since the definitions the states create are not identical.  Most of the definitions of sexual assault are broad, which is a factor as to why many cases involving rape are not able to go to court.














Timeline of Key Rape Definitions and Laws in the United States

1929: Rape is defined by the F.B.I. as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” by a man who was not her husband.

1976: The first spousal rape law is inacted in Nebraska, allowing legal recourse for women who were raped by their husbands.

1993: North Carolina is the last state to enact spousal rape laws.

2011: The F.B.I. expands the definition of rape, which now states “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part of object,” and “oral penetration by a sex organ of another person” without the consent of the survivor.


          If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, please visit this page to find out what available resources you may utilize near you.


Last Updated 11 November 2012.


1. Cooper, Claire. "Court: Rape begins when women says no." Sacramento Bee Newspaper ( Published January 7, 2003.

2. Cooper, Claire. 2003.

3. Cooper, Claire. 2003.

4. Cooper, Claire. 2003.