rape, in law

rape, in law, the crime of sexual relations, often specifically sexual intercourse, without the consent of the victim, often through force or threat of violence. The victim is deemed legally incapable of consenting if she or he is known to be mentally incompetent, intoxicated, drugged, or below the age of consent at the time of the rape. Such cases are known as statutory rape, and evidence of consent is not deemed relevant in court. Although the term rape has traditionally applied to the male use of force in sexual relations with females, applicable laws have been revised in many jurisdictions to include possibilities where a male is the victim.

Issues surrounding rape and the law have been fiercely debated for years in the United States, and recent efforts—particularly by feminist groups—have had marked success in expanding victims rights. One important reform, which has been in effect in most states in recent years, has been the removal of statutes requiring that rape victims physically resist the attack. Prior to this reform, victims of rape were required to display clear signs of injury in order to prove that they did not consent to sexual relations. Another reform has made marital rape a crime in many circumstances, with South Dakota becoming the first state to institute such law reforms in 1975. In the 1980s, “date rape,” or acquaintance rape, became an important issue, particularly on college campuses. Victims of date rape contend that they were raped by an individual with whom they were acquainted. In many such cases, the establishment of guilt becomes difficult, particularly in cases where the victim displays no physical evidence of violence and there is only the testimony of the victim. In international law, rape was designated (2000) a war crime by the Yugoslav tribunal established by the United Nations at The Hague. Rape can cause profound psychological trauma in its victims.

See D. E. Russell, The Politics of Rape (1984); S. Tomaselli and R. Porter, ed., Rape (1986); Z. Adler, Rape on Trial (1987); S. Estrich, Real Rape (1987).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Crime and Law Enforcement