What is considered ‘rape’? The public’s definition differs greatly from the law

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
March 14, 2023, 9:45 AM GMT+0

Britons say the definition should be expanded to include crimes by women, and not restricted purely to penetration with the penis

Under current law, the legal definition of rape is “when a person intentionally penetrates another's vagina, anus or mouth with a penis, without the other person's consent.” Sex crimes that do not involve penetration with a penis specifically cannot legally be considered rape, and will either fall under the category of ‘assault with penetration’ or ‘sexual assault’.

In 2020, the government rejected calls in a petition calling for the Sexual Offences Act to allow women to be charged with rape against males. In justifying their decision, the government cited that:

“issues surrounding the definition of rape were considered and consulted on prior to the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and, during the passage of that legislation through Parliament. In the consultation there was a considerable amount of agreement that rape should remain an offence of penile penetration.”

But this consultation is now two decades old, and may not reflect current public opinion – if indeed it ever did. So what do the public of 2023 think?

The results of a new YouGov survey show an overwhelming belief among the public that women can commit rape, and strong support for expanding the legal definition of rape to reflect this.

Can women commit rape? Most Britons say they can

As far as the vast majority of Britons are concerned, women can both rape men (77%) and other women (80%).

While 12% say they cannot rape men, and 7% say they cannot rape women, when asked why they thought this many give answers mirroring the legal definition that rape specifically involves penetration with the penis.

Leaving aside transgender cases, women can currently only be convicted of rape in the UK under ‘joint enterprise’ laws, or if they otherwise aid and abet the crime.

What do the British public think should be considered ‘rape’?

While the law currently states that rape has to involve penetration with a penis, between 73-79% of Britons say the legal definition of rape should be expanded to include forced penetration by body parts other than the penis (e.g. fingers, fists) or objects.

Around seven in ten also believe that the law on rape should incorporate a woman (68%) or a man (73%) coercing a man to penetrate them with their penis.

Notably fewer Britons (47-52%) would support changing the law to include cases where a man or a woman had forced their victim to perform sex acts on them that did not involve penetration (e.g. masturbating them). It is worth noting, however, that in each case the number of people who say that act should be made part of the definition of rape is higher than the number who say it should not.

The results also clearly show that the gender of the perpetrator and the victim has little to no impact on the level of support for including that act under the definition of rape.

It is noticeable, however, that in almost all cases, men are less likely than women to support expanding the definition of rape to include a given act. This is particularly the case regarding crimes that involve penetrating someone with an object or other part of the body than the penis, with men being 12-15pts less likely to be in support.

There are also noticeable generational differences for some of the crimes listed.

Older people are noticeably more likely to say that sex crimes that do not involve penetration should not be considered rape. They are also significantly more likely to think that a woman coercing a man into penetrating her should be counted as some other form of sex crime than rape (in contrast to if a man were to force another man to penetrate him, where their views align with those of other age groups).

To a lesser extent, older Britons are also more likely to say that cases of a woman attacker penetrating a victim with e.g. their fingers or fists should not be labelled as rape.

In cases where a man has forcibly penetrated a victim, the views of older Britons are consistent with those of the wider population.

These generational differences are closely replicated in the comparison between Conservative and Labour voters – unsurprising, given that age is the greatest factor in how someone voted at the 2019 general election.

See the full results here

Photo: Getty