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'Rape is Rape' law expands definition of the crime to include other forms of sexual violence

Gov. Kathy Hochul signs into law a bill that modernizes and expands the defintion of the crime of rape, on Jan. 30, 2024.
Mike Groll
/
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul signs into law a bill that modernizes and expands the defintion of the crime of rape, on Jan. 30, 2024.

Saying it is long overdue, Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday signed a measure that updates and expands the definition of the crime of rape.

Hochul said the bill, known as the “Rape is Rape” act, modernizes what constitutes rape to include additional forms of sexual violence and assault beyond the original legal definition of vaginal penetration by a penis. She said the acts are what would commonly be accepted as rape, but until now have fallen outside of that definition.

“Today is about the survivors. It's about aligning the letter of the law with the pain in their hearts,” Hochul said. “It's about calling out vile and horrific acts for what they are, so survivors can reclaim their power and dignity. It's about backing them with the full force of our justice system so those who commit rape are charged accordingly.”

The new law comes just days after former President Donald Trump was ordered to pay $83.3 million to journalist and author E. Jean Carroll, following a civil case where a jury determined that the former president sexually abused and then defamed her. Carroll had claimed that Trump raped her, but under New York’s former law, the assault did not fit the definition of rape.

“I want to take a moment to recognize E. Jean Carroll for her courageous efforts to make sure justice was done,” Hochul said. “And to bring a case against the former president whose defamatory and disgusting statements exacerbated a horrific situation.”

The Legislature approved the measure in 2023. In recent weeks, Hochul’s staff worked with the Senate and Assembly and the state’s district attorneys to refine the details of the bill in what’s known as a chapter amendment.

Senate sponsor Brad Hoylman-Sigal said the broader definition offers greater recourse for LGBTQ+ victims of sexual violence, who were prevented from seeking justice under the old, heteronormative definition of rape.

“Studies have shown that nearly half of transgender people in this country are sexually assaulted — nearly half — at some point in their lives. The numbers are similar for bisexual women and gay men,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “But before today, many of those assaults wouldn't be able to be classified as rape in New York state if the genitalia of the attacker and the victim didn't exactly line up with what was in our old legal language.”

Assembly sponsor Catalina Cruz, who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, said victims faced additional suffering under the old version of the law.

“For decades, survivors who already struggled to come to terms with what has happened to them have been told that the horrible criminal acts committed against them are not statutorily categorized as rape,” Cruz said. “This is because our state's current law is enshrined in outdated, gendered notions of rape.”

Hochul and supporters say they hope the new law represents a societal shift of how violent sexual crimes are viewed.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.