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What you should know about the rape fraud law

“Catfishing” — the act of lying about who you are in order to seduce someone else — has become such a hot topic these days. Most of us can agree that posing to be someone you’re not in order to get somebody to sleep with you is a real jerk move. But is it rape?

A proposed law in New Jersey would make “rape by deceit” a crime punishable by jail time. The idea is that if consensual sex is based on consent and if consent obtained under fraudulent circumstances isn’t really consent (see: Bernie Madoff), then lying to someone to get them in the sack would actually be rape.

That noise you just heard? OKCupid imploding. After all, people lie and they especially lie when they’re trying to impress someone. A study from Cornell University found that over 80 percent of people lie in their online profiles. So it seems like making sexual deception into rape would be too broad at best, (How would you even prosecute all those cases? “Well he said he was a doctor!” “And she said she weighed 110 pounds!”) and trivialize rape at worst, making it even harder for victims to get the help they need.

That said, consider these cases:

  • A Massachusetts man pretended to be a gynecologist in order to give women internal “exams” during which he sexually assaulted them.
  • A California man snuck into an 18-year-old’s window after seeing her boyfriend leave and had sex with her in the dark so she didn’t realize it wasn’t her boyfriend until the light caught his face.
  • A New Jersey woman found out the man she’d been married to and had a child with was actually married to two other women and that he wasn’t really a CIA agent like he’d told her.

All of the above women consented to the sex acts and none of them resisted or fought back and yet all of them were understandably devastated when they realized how horribly they’d been tricked. And it’s clear why they wanted to take legal action.

Joyce M. Short, the author of Carnal Abuse by Deceit, a book about her 40-year marriage to a man who not only lied about every detail of his life but was married to other women as well, understands. “As I began to write [the book] I discovered that a crime had been committed against me, and that my son had been conceived in rape,” she says. “Not the conventional form, but a kind that we rarely hear about, don’t recognize while it’s happening and one that is rarely punished. I was determined to try to change society’s perception of this extremely common crime that renders victims emotionally bereft; a crime that had literally undermined my joy.”

Legal experts are still split on the definition of rape and it remains to be seen whether New Jersey will join the handful of states that have similar laws on the books but in the meantime experts say there are a few things you should know to protect yourself:

1. Google is your bodyguard

While internet searches won’t turn up everything, many con artists or sex offenders have a surprising amount of information online. On the show Catfish, the first thing the producers do to help victims is to do a comprehensive online search. Women sometimes think that not Googling someone is a sign of trust or they don’t want to taint a new relationship but you need to protect yourself. You don’t have to believe everything you read online but it’s always good to have the information for future reference.

2. Check a photo using reverse image search

Instead of entering a search term into Google, you can upload a picture and search for other instances of that shot. Scammers who change their name or steal pictures from someone else are often outed this way.

3. Call the police even if your state doesn’t have a rape by deceit law

If you think you’ve been victimized in this way, you should still contact police even if you don’t have “rape fraud” laws in your state. Often offenders can be arrested for other aspects of the crime like bigamy, breaking and entering or wire fraud.

4. Seek psychological help

Abuse experts say this type of abuse can be just as traumatic as more “traditional” types of sexual assault and often involve a lot of victim blaming, so it’s paramount to find someone to help you work through your feelings.

More on sexual consent

The Mindy Project shocker: Was Dr. L raped?
Madonna reveals she was raped her first year in NYC
Rape: Lessons for surviving a sexual assault

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