Female-on-male sexual aggression isn’t something people take seriously, but the startling facts show that it’s far more prevalent than anyone wants to believe.
It’s understood that when someone refers to rape, unless otherwise specified they mean a man raping a woman. That’s just a given, it’s basically what rape means in common parlance.
That’s why some folks were surprised a couple years back when the Center for Disease Control’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (PDF link) came out, showing higher-than-expected prevalence of female-on-male sexual assault. The report was criticized for putting “being forced to penetrate” into a different category than rape; just another example of how attached we are to our assumptions about how rape works. (This report is also occasionally cited to push an erroneous claim that 40% of rapists are female; its data does not, in fact, support that conclusion, and there’s a thorough explanation of the math errors involved at this link.)
Writer Ally Fogg was one of many who found the CDC’s report surprising, so he did a little digging, and what he found shocked him. [Editor’s note: this sentence previously identified Mr. Fogg as a feminist writer, a label he prefers not to use.] It’s one thing to know intellectually that people will cling to their stereotypes in the face of data, and another to find nineteen separate studies across two decades, all showing that the conventional wisdom is wrong, none of them discussed. From Fogg’s citations:
Aizeman & Kelley, 1988 – 14% of men (and 29% of women) reported they had been forced to have intercourse against their will
Anderson 1998 – Survey of 461 women (general population) 43% secured sexual acts by verbal coercion; 36.5% by getting a man intoxicated; threat of force – 27.8%, use of force – 20%; By threatening a man with a weapon – 8.9%.
Anderson, 1999 – 43% of college women admitted to using verbal or physical pressure to obtain sex
Anderson and Aymami (1993) 28.5% of women reported the use of verbal coercion, 14.7% had coerced a man into sexual activity by getting him intoxicated and 7.1% had threatened or used physical force.
Fiebert & Tucci (1998) – 70% of male college students reported experiencing some type of harassment, pressuring, or coercion by a female
Hannon, Kunetz, Van Laar, & Williams (1996) – 10% of surveyed male college students reported experiencing a completed sexual assault perpetrated by a female intimate partner
Hogben, Byrne & Hamburger (1996) Lifetime prevalence of 24% for women having made a man engage in sexual activity against his will.
Krahe, Waizenhofer & Moller (2003) – 9.3% of women reported having used aggressive strategies to coerce a man into sexual activities. Exploitation of the man’s incapacitated state: 5.6% Verbal pressure: 3.2%. Physical force: 2%. An additional 5.4% reported attempted acts of sexual aggression
Larimer, Lydum, Anderson and Turner (1999) 20.7% of male respondents had been the recipients of unwanted sexual contact in the year prior to the survey. Verbal pressure was experienced by 7.9%, physical force by 0.6% and intoxication through alcohol or drugs by 3.6%.
Muehlenhard and Cook (1988) 23.8% of male respondents had engaged in unwanted sexual activity as a result of threat or physical force, and 26.8% reported unwanted sexual contact as a result of verbal pressure. For unwanted intercourse, the prevalence rates were 6.5% for physical force and 13.4% for verbal pressure.
O’Sullivan, Byers and Finkelman (1998) Overall incidence of 8% of women reporting sexual aggression for the academic year preceding the survey. Intercourse due to use of threat or physical force 0.5%, by use of alcohol or drugs 0.5% and attempted intercourse due to threat or use of physical force also 0.5%. Of male respondents, 18.5% reported having experienced sexual aggression. Specifically, 3.8% reported experiencing unwanted sexual intercourse due to use of alcohol or drugs, and 2.3% reported attempted intercourse due to threat or use of physical force.
Poppen and Segal (1988) 14% of women reported lifetime incident(s) of perpetration (including both verbal coercion and physical assault)
Russell and Oswald (2001) – 18% of women in a college sample reported engaging in sexually coercive behaviors, ranging from verbal threats and pressure to use of physically aggressive tactics.
Russell and Oswald (2002) 44% of college men in their sample reported being subjected to a sexually coercive tactic.
Shea (1988) Women’s reported lifetime prevalence – 19% for verbal coercion; 1.2% reported having physically assaulted a man.
Sisco, Becker, Figueredo, & Sales (2005) – A third of women reported that they had verbally harassed a person or pressured the person into performing a sexual act that the person felt uncomfortable with while roughly one in ten performed a coercive sexual act that would be considered illegal (e.g., sexual acts that involved a person who was unable or unwilling to consent)
Sorensen, Stein, Siegel, Golding and Burnam (1987) Lifetime prevalence rate of 9.4% and an adult prevalence rate of 7.2% for men’s sexual victimization (male self-reports).
Struckman-Johnson (1988) – 2% of 355 female college students reported they had forced sex on a dating partner at least once in their lifetime.
Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1998) – 43% of college men reported experiencing a coercive incident, of which 36% reported unwanted touch and 27% reported being coerced into sexual intercourse.
[As I was almost done completing this list, almost inevitably, I discovered that someone else – Martin Fiebert to be precise – had already compiled a similar one. The bastard. Anyway, it’s here, and contains many of the same papers plus many more]
The disconnect between the data and the conventional wisdom here is stark, and worrisome. It tells us that there are many, many more male survivors of rape, assault, and harassment out there than anyone talks about.
The problem is we have wildly, dangerously inaccurate cultural stereotypes of how men, women, and sex function. We pretend that men always want sex and women never do, and that right there feeds a lot of rape culture. As I’ve written before:
Male rape victims being mocked or disbelieved, or simply afraid to come forward? Arises from the same shit. Because after all, how could he say he didn’t want sex, when everyone knows all men constantly want sex? It’s on simply every sitcom! These poor guys may even tell themselves they must have wanted it, it couldn’t have been rape, because they’re normal healthy guys, right, so they couldn’t have not wanted sex. People will go a long way to rationalize something if it means finding a way to live with it.
Indeed, most of the male rape survivors I’ve known found ways, at least initially, of rationalizing it. “She just gets like that sometimes” or “I guess it wasn’t that big a deal” or “Doesn’t matter, had sex.” We simply don’t have a vocabulary, culturally, that allows for men to say “I was raped” or “I didn’t want it” or even, in too many cases, “No.”
It’s well documented that in fiction, female-on-male or male-on-male rape is treated as a joke or even cause for celebration. Abigail Rine at The Atlantic recently pointed out a particularly egregious example, when an adult character took advantage of a sick, vulnerable underage kid, who kept asking for it to stop. No worries, though, it was an underage boy, so:
I found that the vast majority of responses (including The Atlantic‘s) glossed over the encounter, benignly describing Dick as “losing his virginity” or having his virginity “taken” by Aimee. Even more disturbing were those that portrayed the exchange as something positive, even empowering. According to one participant in a roundtable discussion at The Wall Street Journal, Aimee “guides [Dick] through his first sexual experience.” A recap at The Daily Mail, despite recounting Dick’s protestations, underplays the interaction as a mere “tryst.”
As long as male survivors get only the occasional lip service acknowledgment, we’re going to continue to lack the vocabulary to talk about this problem. As long as we pretend that women can’t be predatory or inappropriate, we’re going to continue to lack the ability to engage with this problem. As long as we act like men are always up for sex or that erection implies consent, we are encouraging and enabling rape culture.
Fortunately, there’s evidence that rape education helps reduce the rate of sexual assault; it strips away the rationalizations and justifications that cover up rape. Unfortunately, due to the above-cited unspoken cultural pressures, almost all rape education programs are focused exclusively on male perpetrators. While male perpetrators are the bulk of the problem and a good start, the evidence we’re seeing indicates that education efforts aimed at helping men say no, and women hear it, will also spare a lot of people a lot of pain.
This isn’t about trying to minimize female survivors’ problems or win some kind of imaginary contest. Nobody who’s been raped or assaulted should be laughed off or ignored; we can all agree on that. Let’s take a good hard look at the data and work out how we can make things better for everyone.