A New Law in New York Will Make It Easier for Rape Victims to Seek Justice

The Rape Is Rape Act, which was signed by Governor Kathy Hochul on Tuesday, expands the legal definition of rape to include all nonconsensual sex crimes.

A New Law in New York Will Make It Easier for Rape Victims to Seek Justice
Photo:Courtesy of Governor Kathy Hochul (Other)

This week, Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Rape is Rape Act, a bill that effectively expands the legal definition of rape in New York. Currently, rape is defined only as vaginal penetration by a penis, but the new law (effective on or after September 1), will include nonconsensual anal, oral, and vaginal sexual contact—not only making it easier for victims to pursue justice against their perpetrators but broadening the once-binary legal scope of sexual violence. The bill’s language expansion is also hugely significant for LGBTQ New Yorkers who, historically (and in many cases), weren’t able to legally accuse their rapists of rape.

The Rape is Rape Act also has particular significance in the wake of the second defamation trial between E. Jean Carroll and former president Donald Trump, which ended with Carroll being awarded $83 million. That trial was based on what damages would be due to Carroll after Trump made defamatory statements about her in 2019 while he was president. The first trial, however, hinged on Carroll’s accusation that Trump raped her in a department store in the 1990s. In May, a nine-person civil jury concluded that though Carroll had been sexually abused by Trump, he did not “rape” her under its then-definition.

“Roughly 90 percent of rape survivors are women, but the problem is rape is very difficult to prosecute,” Hochul said on Tuesday. “That’s because New York’s archaic laws define rape in very narrow terms. Physical technicalities confuse jurors and humiliate survivors and create a legal gray area that defendants exploit.”

Needless to say, while the jury found Trump guilty of sexual assault and awarded Carroll more than $5 million, the verdict would certainly have been even harsher had the definition of rape been more expansive. Not to mention the trial itself would have been less invasive—and, at the very least, irritating—to Carroll. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan has since said that the jury’s decision was based on “the narrow, technical meaning,” but that the verdict didn’t mean Carroll “failed to prove that Mr. Trump ‘raped’ her as many people commonly understand the word ‘rape.’”

The act—which was first introduced in 2012—was inspired by Lydia Cuomo, a 25-year-old teacher who was raped at gunpoint by an off-duty police officer, Michael Pena. While Pena was charged with rape, predatory sexual conduct, and a criminal sexual act, he was only convicted on the lesser charges as the jury couldn’t agree on whether he had vaginally penetrated Cuomo. Ultimately, Pena was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison. Still, it wasn’t until 2023 that the bill passed in the state Assembly and Senate.

“This legislation is a sign that the voices of survivors matter here in New York,” Cuomo said in a press release following Hochul’s signing. “That our pain will no longer be ignored because of an antiquated law and that we can finally seek the justice we deserve.”

“I couldn’t help but notice a reoccurring theme in the headlines, influential men abusing their positions of power to inflict pain on women,” Governor Hochul said. “And though she couldn’t be here with us today, I want to take a moment to recognize E. Jean Carroll for her courageous efforts to make sure justice was done.”

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