The new definition would increase the likelihood that cases in which victims are drugged or are under the influence of alcohol are counted. The definition also would cover cases that include "penetration, no matter how slight" by a body part or an object without the consent of the victim. And it removes specific reference to female victims.
Experts say many states already track and prosecute a wider range of sex crimes but don't submit them to the federal Uniform Crime Reporting data collection program because of its narrower definition. Chicago, for example, doesn't report rapes to the FBI at all, while New York City reported only 1,036 of a total of 1,369 rape cases last year.
Such reporting irregularities, experts say, mislead the public about the prevalence of rape and lead to fewer resources available to investigate the crimes and catch the attackers. The current definition, unchanged since 1927, refers to rape only as "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will."
Forty-one members of Congress sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller on Wednesday asking him to sign off on the changes. The proposal will next go to an advisory board for a vote in December before reaching Mueller's desk for final approval.
"The exclusion of this and other data could contribute to misleading conclusions about the incidence of rape, with serious consequences for the essential resources and tools we need to combat this crime," the letter said. "Better statistics are also critical to our ability to effectively evaluate our progress in reducing the scourge of sexual assault in America."
Women's advocates say they revived a push to update the definition last year in part because of reporting in The Baltimore Sun about how city police were dismissing rape claims at the highest rate in the country. That report, along with reports about similar problems in other cities, showed a continuing lack of understanding of the complexities of sexual assault, they said.
Carol Tracy, director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, said she was pleased with the proposal. "The new definition is what I wanted — for sure," she said.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said Tuesday that 80 percent of police chiefs supported a revision and said changes were a "huge step forward in accurately reflecting the number of rapes that are occurring in our society."