Rape by Fraud: Inside the Fight to Criminalize Lying About Who You Are to Sleep With Someone

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Joyce Short was 24 years old when, in 1972, she met the man she thought she wanted to be with forever.

He shared her same values, was professionally driven, had a sense of patriotism she admired and was devoted to making her happy. He was a dedicated father to his children from his first marriage, which had ended on good terms and developed into a strong friendship. 

“He introduced himself as 32 years old, he said he was in menswear business, that he was a graduate of NYU [New York University] and had an accounting degree, that he was my religion — I’m Jewish — he fought for our country in Vietnam and that he was single, that he was divorced,” Short, now 70, told InsideEdition.com. 

He was everything Short hoped for in a partner, and she was in love.

But none of what he told her was true, she said. 

“He wasn’t Jewish … the woman he was married to was Jewish,” Short said. “He wasn’t 32 years old. He didn’t have a bachelor’s degree in accounting; he was a high school dropout. He didn’t serve in Vietnam … everything he told me about himself was a complete lie.” 

His story unraveled in bits and pieces, Short said, noting her first glimpse at the truth came only after she had terminated a pregnancy he didn’t want. He claimed his ex-wife was battling cancer and it would be too much for their children to welcome a new baby. 

“My own mother was very ill at the time; she had cancer, and my father was cheating on her … it was very ugly … I empathized with his children,” she said. “We went to the hospital together, he brought me home and then he left. I got a call later in the evening and of course I thought he was calling to see if I was OK … he said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ He was actually married.”

Short was floored by the admission. “I remember vomiting, I passed out, and when I came to I felt worthless,” she said. “I wanted to be with my unborn child, so I went to the medicine cabinet, swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills, laid down on the couch and waited for God to take me.”

But Short lived. She and the man separated, but eventually reconciled and went on to have a relationship that, in total, lasted about eight years. They married and had a son, but the lies continued to unravel and Short struggled to reconcile that what attracted to the father of her child was never true. 

“He completely mischaracterized himself,” she said. “He lied in order to have sex with me and lied in order to convince me to have an abortion….

"What he did was rape."

Short's husband was never charged with a crime. Rape by fraud, or sex induced through fraud, deception or impersonation, is often considered a gray area where the law is concerned. In more than three-quarters of the United States and its territories, “consent” is not defined by law, making rape by fraud not a prosecutable crime. Short wants to see that changed. 

“The key to conquering sexual assault is for society and legislatures to understand what consent really means,” she said. “In order to shut down rape mentality — and that goes for every type of rape — we need to define consent.” 

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Consent, as defined by Short and other advocates, is freely given, knowledgeable and informed agreement to an act. It shouldn’t be confused with assent, which is an agreement on the face of something, or acquiescence, where an agreement is assumed because a fight wasn’t put up, Short said.

But in many states, laws addressing sexual assault don’t address such nuances.  

“If you murder someone, it doesn’t matter how you killed them; they’re dead,” she said. “When you rob somebody, it doesn’t matter how you walked away with their assets; it’s still theft. But our laws don’t punish sexual assault or look at sexual assault as they look at murder or look at robbery. You’ll have to commit the assault in a very, very specific way in order for that crime to be prosecuted.”

Rape laws were often designed to address and punish behavior in the extreme margins and as a result, actually privileges a lot of conduct that survivors and advocates recognize as assault, according to Patricia Falk, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law who has written extensively on the subject. 

“Rape by physical force is outlawed,” she said. “That leaves a whole bunch of scurrilous conduct untouched … rape law, or sexual assault law, should evolve as the notions of acceptable and unacceptable behavior evolve. Rape as it was defined two centuries ago is inadequate … women are no longer [considered] the property of their husbands and their fathers.

States and jurisdictions that address versions of rape by fraud or rape by coercion in their laws include Alabama, California, Tennessee, Missouri, Idaho and Puerto Rico. In Colorado, rape by fraud is a felony only if the suspect pretended to be the victim’s spouse. 

“At its core, what we’ve never really done well is design rape law to promote the autonomy of every person as the thing to be protected,” said Wendy Murphy, a Massachusetts-based attorney and adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England School of Law. “If you look at it through that lens, fraud on the part of the offender is a serious factor. It’s not just sexual negotiation that got a little sour.”

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In some instances, laws are catching up to punish the many forms of sexual assault advocates say exist. In 2017, a Kansas man was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a scheme in which he conned women into having sex with him. Mario Ambrose Antoine told two dozen women they would be paid to star in nonexistent porn films, but first he had to “audition” them on camera.

“Antoine perpetrated this depraved scheme on dozens of women throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area and beyond,” federal prosecutors said at the time. 

Many of the victims were in desperate financial situations and believed they would be paid tens of thousands of dollars for the films they would go on to star in. But none of the women were ever paid in the scheme, which had been going on since at least 2011. 

Advocates say other cases highlight loopholes in rape laws that allow an alleged perpetrator to walk free. 

Abigail Finney was asleep when she felt who she thought was her boyfriend grope her chest from behind in his darkened dorm room at Indiana’s Purdue University in February 2017. Finney had fallen asleep in her boyfriend’s dorm room while several of his friends had been over, but when she felt who she thought was him at her back, it seemed everyone else was asleep. She allowed him to touch her and slide his hand down her pants, and she inserted his penis into her vagina.

They had sex for about a minute before she stopped the intercourse because she had to use the bathroom. When she returned, she realized that the man in the bed wasn’t her boyfriend, but instead, one of his friends. 

Donald Grant Ward, 19, allegedly admitted to Finney’s boyfriend and to the police that he knew she would assume the man behind her was her boyfriend. Police said he admitted to waiting until Finney’s boyfriend, who ultimately decided to sleep in her bedroom because there wasn’t enough space in the twin bed for the both of them, left the room before he climbed into the bunk and began touching her, BuzzFeed News first reported.

Ward was charged with two counts of rape and during his trial, his attorney Kirk Freeman reportedly argued that while his behavior was “ungentlemanly,” it wasn’t illegal under state law. Because Ward did not say or do anything to make Finney believe he was her boyfriend, Ward’s actions could not be constituted a fraud, Freeman said. The jury agreed. Ward was acquitted and his record was expunged. 

“I was pretty angry. I felt like I’d wasted a year of my life because I could’ve been trying to heal, but instead I was reopening the wound over and over again,” Finney told BuzzFeed News. “My therapist even called the trial a second trauma, so I guess I felt like I had done all that for no reason.”

But Falk said she was encouraged by several points surrounding the case.

“The fact that it went to a trial, is a positive thing, because a lot of rape cases — the vast majority of rape cases — never see the inside of a courtroom,” she said. “The police believed her, the prosecutor believed her, they brought the case to trial. What a jury does [with a case], you never know.”

There are several schools of thought when it comes to combating this issue. Murphy noted that putting cases like Finney’s in front of a jury is the first step to bring about changes.

“I don’t think [the issue of rape by fraud] requires a law change,” Murphy said. “I don’t think it requires a lot of intellectual energy … file the charges and argue to the jury that this is obviously covered under the law

“If you consent to purchase a car, give money because you’re planning to purchase a 2012 Volkswagen Jetta and find out it’s got the engine of a Yugo … that’s against the law,” she continued. “We already know it’s against the law. You don’t have to pass a specific law.” 

However, authorities must ensure the laws on the books do in fact recognize that concealing one’s identity vitiates consent, Falk said.

“We have some really good examples [of laws] already out there,” she said. “We need to have more states adopt more of these examples.” 

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It took the birth of her son for Short to find the courage to leave her husband.

“Once I became pregnant, somehow I was able to put my child before me,” she said. Short said distance in the form of time and location helped her recognize what happened to her as a form of rape, and she set out to help others who suffered from similar incidents. 

She has written three books on the issue of rape by fraud and on consent, including a self-published autobiography, “Carnal Abuse by Deceit: How a Predator's Lies Became Rape.” She's also delivered a TED talk on the issue and hopes to get the hashtag #fgkia, which stands for consent freely given, knowledgeable and informed agreement, trending on social media. 

Encouraged by movements created to confront sexual assault, including the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, Short said she thinks the time has finally come to recognize rape by fraud for what it really is: rape. 

“We’re having a discussion about it; that’s progress,” she said. “Five years ago, when my book came out, there was nothing [published] on this issue. When the book came out, people contacted me all over the world with their stories.”

In recent years, Short has also become an advocate for putting laws on the books to address the act she said should be a prosecutable crime. She has worked with lawmakers across the country, including Sally Siegrist, an Indiana Republican assembly member who attempted to change her state’s law after Finney’s case. She’s also worked with assembly member Rebecca Seawright, a Democrat who is working to outlaw the act in New York.

“This is a crime that has no bias in who the targets and the victims are,” Short said. “Assemblywoman Siegrist is a Republican from a red state, Assemblywoman Seawright is a democrat from a blue state. How much more bipartisan can we get?"

Short last year was honored as a Woman of Distinction by the New York State Assembly for her work on the issue, but she said she’s nowhere near ready to slow down. 

“I’m on a mission,” she said. “I have a purpose that I’m pursuing and that is to have society recognize what consent really is and to really conquer sexual assault, hopefully in my lifetime.”

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