Atlanta is reporting that the number of rapes in the city has doubled from a year ago.
That's not necessarily because the threat is sharply higher. It's because for the first time, city crime reports are including rapes where the victims are men or other people who were not counted before as rape victims.
In years past, Atlanta police included in the rape count only cases where the assailant is male and the victim is female. That's how rape is defined under Georgia law. If the victim is a man, or if a woman sexually assaults another woman, the assailant can't be charged with rape because different laws apply,
But for reporting purposes, Atlanta this year has switched to the FBI's gender-neutral definition of rape. "The new broader definition is resulting in a much higher number of cases being classified and reported as rape," Officer Lisa Bender explained.
Soon, the rest of Georgia may also be reporting a spike in rape cases. Under Senate Bill 145, sponsored by Sen. Donzella James of Atlanta, the state would also adopt a uniform definition of rape that is gender neutral. While the bill didn't win approval this last session, James hopes that by "rallying the troops" it can pass in 2018. "We need to educate some legislators and citizens who want to come up and stand with me," James said.
James said she introduced the bill in the past session after students from Spelman and Morehouse brought the rape law to her attention.
One of those was Amari Fennoy, a junior at Spelman who said she was shocked to find out about Georgia's definition of rape. She heard about it, she said, when she learned of a male student who had been sexually violated but could not file a rape charge.
The separate laws may indicate that these are not equal offenses, Fennoy said. "It says that a woman's violation is more important than the male's." In researching the issue, she also discovered that a rape charge couldn't be brought when a woman was raped by another woman.
Kaj Gumbs, a recent Morehouse graduate who has lobbied the Legislature to change the law, said the issue is one of equal protection under the law. "This is a women's issue. This is a men's issue. This is an LGBT issue," he said.
As the law now stands, when the victim is a man, the charge would likely be aggravated sodomy. There are few significant legal differences between that charge and a rape charge, said Russell Dean Covey, a professor of law at Georgia State University. "However, the punishment for rape includes a potential life without parole sentence, whereas the most severe sentence for aggravated sodomy is life with the possibility of parole," he said in an email.
"Beyond these relatively minor differences, however, is the symbolic significance," Covey wrote.
In the U.S., the term "rape" has a particular cultural salience that other labels, like aggravated sodomy, don't have, he said.
"Making the crime of rape gender neutral is an acknowledgement that the gender of the victim of a serious sexual assault is irrelevant to the harms suffered by the victim and to the moral gravity of the offense."
Many other states, he noted, have already modernized their laws to treat rape as a gender neutral crime.
In making the switch this year for its crime reports, Atlanta police are using the definition of rape the FBI adopted in 2013. It counts any sexual penetration without consent, regardless of the person's gender.
The count now also includes victims incapable of giving consent because of their age or physical incapacity, and physical resistance isn't required to demonstrate lack of consent, Bender wrote in an email response to the AJC.
For the year to date ending May 20, Atlanta reported 101 rapes. It reported 50 rapes for the same period a year earlier.