The Unsettling Truth About Rape Laws in North Carolina


Sexual Assault Awareness Month ended yesterday. But just because April is over doesn’t mean we can stop confronting the severe impact of sexual assault on thousands of North Carolinians. With rape crisis centers struggling to continue their work in the face of budget cuts, growing numbers of survivors in need of services, and a legal system that denies most survivors options for support and justice, it’s more important than ever to understand the landscape of sexual assault in North Carolina. So today, we’re going to dig into the legal definitions of “rape” in North Carolina.

Content note: This content may be difficult to read and may activate trauma responses. Please remember to take care of yourself when reading. 

For the majority of my lifetime, North Carolina’s laws around sexual assault have been problematic (to say the least). Until five years ago, if someone was raped in North Carolina after revoking consent to sexual activity, that person would not legally have been considered to be raped because they had initially given consent. In fact, in the 1979 case, State v Way, the North Carolina Supreme Court decided a defendant was entitled to a new trial because the judge had instructed the jury that consent could be revoked. To be clear, this means that if two people began having consensual sex and one of them said, “I would like to stop,” legally, it would not be considered rape if the other person ignored this and forced the person who had revoked consent to continue engaging in sexual activity.

In fact, this continued to be the law in North Carolina for the next 40 years until the General Assembly passed SB199 in November 2019, which allowed the experiences of people who were raped after revoking consent to be included in the legal definition of rape. This law made national news since North Carolina was the only state whose laws did not affirm that people who revoked consent could be raped. The bill did include some updates to other areas of laws related to sexual abuse and assault, and it passed with bipartisan support in both chambers. 

While consent can now legally be revoked in North  Carolina, the state continues to have a narrow definition of first and second-degree rape, where both state “forcible rape if the person engages in vaginal intercourse” according to state statues § 14-27.21. and N.C.G.S. § 14-27.22. That means that, as the law is written, if someone is forcibly penetrated orally or anally, they are currently not legally considered to have experienced rape, limiting the support resources and legal courses of action that a survivor can take. 

When a group of researchers were looking into the effects that rape has on women, the 2017 study they conducted allowed them to understand the myriad of ways in which rape can occur. Their study concluded that, “A total of 109 (12.6%) women experienced anal rape, 416 (48.1%) experienced vaginal rape, 318 (36.8%) experienced oral rape, and  368 (42.5%) experienced no types of rape. Two hundred and fifteen (24.9%) of women experienced one type of rape, 218 (25.2%) experienced two types, and 64 (7.4%) experienced all three types.”

While there have long been difficulties gathering complete statistics on rape and sexual abuse since many crimes are not reported to authorities and some do not share their experiences with researchers for a variety of personal reasons, it is clear from this study that many people who experience rape are orally and anally raped in addition to being vaginally raped.

In January 2024, New York updated their legal definition of rape “to include nonconsensual vaginal, oral, and anal sexual contact”, and the law is set to be effective later this year. While New York has a different political landscape than we face in North Carolina, this legislation was considered and passed over for twelve years before it passed both chambers and was sent to the Governor to be signed. 

Looking at bills that have been introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly, some bills discuss rape and/or the general statutes that define rape in our state but none of these bills seem to be an attempt to redefine rape for the state. 

When the New York law goes into effect later this year, we’ll be watching closely to see how it changes how sexual violence is reported to law enforcement and to gather insight into how changing the definition of rape affects the amount of and type of crimes that are reported. In the meantime, North Carolina should consider updating their definition of rape to include oral and anal rape to better reflect the experiences of rape survivors and send the message to North Carolinians that rape, in any form, is never okay. 

Based on the political landscape of North Carolina, updating the General Statutes will need bipartisan support. To reach your State Senator and/or Representative, you can find them here. With the short session beginning April 24th this year, reach out to your Senator and/or Representative to let them know you would like to see this update to our laws, while also encouraging people you know to do the same. This topic can be very personal for some, and if you or someone you know has experienced rape and/or sexual abuse, this could change the conversations you have with legislatures on this topic. Just remember that not everyone will want to talk about their personal reasons for supporting this change.

It is important to know that in North Carolina, if you experience oral and/or anal rape, you can still pursue legal action under the first and second-degree forcible sexual offense laws according to North Carolina General Statutes §1427.26 and N.C.G.S § 1427.27. Like rape, forcible sexual offenses are felonies in North Carolina and have no statute of limitations, meaning you can prosecute at any time. 

To find resources about sexual assault in North Carolina and information about your local rape crisis center, check out the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault at To look at laws related to sex crimes in various states, RAINN allows you to easily look at each state or compare some states here

Jessianne Pipkins is a Policy Analyst and advocate for democracy and women’s rights in North Carolina. She holds a Masters in Public Administration from Indiana University Bloomington.

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