The night of August 18, 2011, 25-year-old Lydia Cuomo could barely sleep. The next day was her first day of work teaching second grade at an elementary school in the South Bronx. She’d just landed the job a few days before, and she was pumped. In the morning, she planned to get a ride with her new principal, who also lived in upper Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood. While waiting outside of the principal’s home, off-duty police officer Michael Pena approached her. He asked for directions to the subway, then showed her his gun, and pushed her into an alleyway, where he forcibly penetrated her with his penis — orally, anally and vaginally. (It’s usual practice to conceal the name of a rape victim in news reports, but in this case, Cuomo preferred to be identified. “I want to take the most negative thing that ever happened to me in my life and turn it into something positive,” she said. “At the end of the day this is my story and attaching my name to it allows me to own it and take back what happened to me.”)
It seems fair to call all three of those acts “rape.” But the legal definition is more complicated than that. Under New York state law, rape is defined as forcible vaginal penetration. Forced oral and anal contact both go under the term “criminal sexual act.” If the same crimes had occurred elsewhere, they might not legally be considered rape at all. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have stopped using the word “rape” in their criminal codes entirely and instead use terms such as “sexual abuse,” “sexual assault” and “criminal sexual conduct.” This variety of language exists in a country in which the word “rape” is becoming increasingly politicized and where politicians qualify rape as “forcible” or “legitimate,” intimating that other times it’s not. Because the laws — and many lawmakers — differ so wildly on the meaning of rape, it can be hard for us as a society to develop a shared understanding of what it actually is.