When the verdict was announced, Cuomo said she just lost it. [Trigger warning ahead for discussion of rape.]
“It was like, oh my god. I’ve sat through this. I’ve waited for this. And this jury just told me ‘you were sexually assaulted, but you weren’t raped because you couldn’t remember the color of a car.’ Apparently there was a car in the alleyway. I honestly don’t remember a car at all. I was in shock. There was a gun pressed to the side of my head. I don’t need to justify it. It’s just insulting. It was offensive. And it was just devastating to think ‘I might have to relive this again.’”
Lydia Cuomo was just 25 years old when Michael Pena, a city police officer, forced her by gunpoint into an alley and forced his penis into her vagina, anus and mouth. Because of semantics in New York law, rape is defined as forcible vaginal penetration. Cuomo told the jury that she knew she had been penetrated because it hurt. Now, one would think it would seem logical to call all three of these terrible acts rape and charge Michael Pena with three counts of it. Instead, he was charged with rape, criminal sexual act, and because he held a gun to her head, predatory sexual assault.
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.” But New York lawmakers are showing a lot of support for a new bill that is poised to change that. Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D), inspired by Lydia Cuomo’s brutal attack and courageous attitude, first introduced the legislation last year, shortly after Pena’s trial. The proposed law would add forced anal and oral sex to the state’s rape statutes, toughening current laws that classify the vile attacks as criminal sex acts, not rape.
The FBI changed the definition of rape for the first time in 80 years last January by widening the definition to include oral and anal penetration, and it allows for the victim or perpetrator to be of either gender. It also has no requirement of force. Whereas before the definition was “carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” This unfortunately has no effect on Federal laws and is primarily used for criminal statistics. It is, of course, a step in the right direction when we have anti-choice politicians seeking to narrow the definitions of sexual assaults to “forcible” or “legitimate rape”.
A new federal definition of rape, coupled with a more standardized definition state by state, could lead to a more open conversation about rape in this country. Lydia Cuomo believes that talking about and sharing her experience for what it was has been therapeutic. She also believes that other people need to be able to talk about it, too — and to not be afraid of using precise language. “I think a lot can come from calling something what it is and talking more openly about it,” said Cuomo. “Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s just semantics.’ And I do think it is semantics at the end of the day, right? But I think the semantics are important.”