Politics Violence Against Women

President Obama’s Definition of Rape is a Sign of Progress

Following a White House press conference on the deal recently struck with Iran, President Obama was posed with a question about Bill Cosby and his admittance of using drugs to have sex with women. In response, he called the act rape, giving a modern definition of consent that has feminists across the country applauding.

Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com
Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com

“If you give a woman – or a man, for that matter – without his or her knowledge a drug and then have sex with that person without consent, that’s rape,” the President said. “I think this country, any civilized country, should have no tolerance for rape.”

This comprehensive definition of rape vastly differs from one used by the FBI a mere three years ago, which read “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will,” and had not been changed since 1929. Thanks in part to the “Rape is Rape” campaign led by the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. magazine, the new definition is much more broad, including persons of all genders, and says rape is “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without consent of the victim.” Although this FBI definition still leaves out some concepts of comprehensive consent, it was applauded as leap in the right direction.

Most progressive organizations have a more intricate notion of consent, and therefore a more complicated idea of rape and sexual assault. For example, Feminist Campus gives a much longer definition of consent in its Sex-Positivity Toolkit:

Consent is the expression of a mutual desire between parties to participate in a sexual activity. Sexual activity without consent is sexual violence. Period. Consent is fundamental in creating a sex-positive space. It is vitally important to respect other people’s consensual choices when it comes to their identity and body.

Consent can be withdrawn at any time and it is given without coercion. Someone saying “yes” because they are too afraid to say “no” is not what consent looks like. Someone changing their mind about a sexual desire and then being forced to engage in it anyway is not what consent looks like. Consent isn’t always spoken, but it should never be assumed. The absence of a “no” is not a “yes!”

The toolkit also reminds readers that minors, people who are mentally incapacitated or unconscious, and people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are unable to give consent.

The Obama administration has been clear from the beginning in making the prevention of sexual assault a priority. “Rape is rape is rape,” said Vice President Joe Biden back in 2011, leading up to the release of the It’s On Us campaign to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

Media Resources: Mother Jones 7/15/15; Feminist Newswire 1/9/12; Huffington Post 12/15/11; FeministCampus.org;

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