Vanessa Grigoriadis: The changing definition of rape and why that matters.

Rape has been defined and redefined for centuries.

Greeks portrayed it as heroic conquest, as in Zeus in the guise of a swan enveloping Leda. For Romans, it was a narrative pivot point in the history of their kings, particularly the rape of Lucretia, the virtuous wife of a Roman prince whose rape led to the formation of a new Roman republic.

They called it raptus, derived from the Latin verb rapere, meaning to forcibly seize and carry off — it was kidnapping more than violation, women as the spoils of war.

According to The Encyclopedia of Rape, a comprehensive history edited by scholar Merril Smith, in Hammurabi’s ancient code from 1780 bc, virgins who were raped were considered innocent while their offenders were executed; however, if a married woman was raped, she was considered an adulteress, and both she and her rapist were thrown in the river unless her husband bestowed mercy.

In the Middle Ages, the rape of a virgin was a crime against a woman’s family, because her virginity had to be protected in order for her to make a prosperous marriage. If a woman who claimed she was raped became pregnant, she was often considered a liar; a woman’s orgasm was thought to be necessary to conceive, and she couldn’t have had an orgasm if sex was forced on her.

In the United States, legal and linguistic shifts continued well into the twentieth century. In 1940 an American husband was still legally free to force himself on his wife, and some states retained this law into the 1990s. The FBI’s definition of rape, formulated in 1927 — “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” — did not waver.


LISTEN: Vanessa Grigoriadis speaks to No Filter on why she put ‘Mattress Girl’ on the cover of the New York Magazine.

Eighty-five years later, the definition shifted and finally began to include male and trans victims. Today, our law calls rape “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 the consent of the victim.” Reasons consent cannot be given include the use of force, the threat of force, or incapacitation. Though universities have messed with the definition of incapacitation, in criminal law, those who can’t give consent are those who are unconscious due to drinking or drugs, asleep, physically or mentally disabled, or underage.

To qualify as sexual assault, an umbrella term that includes penetrative rape and nonpenetrative acts (the latter is, in law, sexual battery), definitions are much broader and can be far less carnal — basically, touching any sexual part of another person. A guy who grabs your butt on the street is committing a very low level crime (again, in the U.S., and in some states). But most people don’t know this. Some people use sexual assault as a synonym for penetrative rape; some call anything that’s not penetrative groping, not sexual assault.

Bringing common usage in line with the legal definition is an advance of the past few years. “Sexual assault is no longer about having a penis penetrate you — now it’s about being frisked, being touched, saying no, and still having a guy aggressively put his body on you,” Ariel Bershadskaya, a visual art and art history student in college in New York, tells me.


Wearing a mod look of silver hoop earrings and severely pulled back hair, she tells me she adores the 1960s — she’s even painted a picture of her idol, sex symbol Twiggy, directly on her Mac laptop, the apple glowing in the center of Twiggy’s face — though she’s talking about behavior that no one blinked an eye at back then. “The line has moved,” she continues. “We know now that sexual assault doesn’t mean that you were raped, doesn’t mean genitals pushing together. Personally, for me, that’s a change. Five years ago if a friend told me a guy groped her I wouldn’t necessarily have called that sexual assault.”

I like that girls have expanded their zone of safety and redefined crude collegiate predation often enabled by massive amounts of alcohol. I also like that a smack on the butt, a grab and kiss, denigration, and subjection to coercive speech like “I can’t feel anything with a condom on” and “just a couple strokes” is being taken seriously — much of it for the first time in history. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have necessarily called some of this assault either. Even today, not everyone in America would agree.

The Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis is out now and available on Booktopia.

LISTEN: No Filter: The Blurred Lines Of Consent with Vanessa Grigoriadis.