Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t think about it

The unstated rules for male victims of female-perpetrated sexual abuse and assault

I have a friend, an autistic man, who was ordered to have sex with a woman and was informed by her that he had no choice, and so even though he didn’t want to, he went along because he was doing as he was told.

That was how he lost his virginity: by being told he had to, that he had no choice—and he was laughed at by friends afterward when he said he didn’t really like it or want it.

But he had an erection. So that means he was asking for it, right?

Rape is a horrible experience and awful crime. We hear regularly that there is a problem with women, and men, being raped by men. A little less often, we’ll hear that women can rape women or even rape men, although usually everyone is quick to say, “But it’s very rare.”

Why do we believe that? Probably because most people assume “rape” means “unwanted penetration.” That is also in most statistics: a commonly cited figure is that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men is raped. But this statistic is based on “rape means penetration.”

Dictionaries do not always match reality, but if you look in most dictionaries, you will find that the word originally meant to take or seize against someone’s will, or to force a person into sexual intercourse against their will. Penetration was never part of the definition, which denigrates countless men’s and boys’ experiences.

If you peer closely, almost every study that shows massively more women raped than men are using “forced penetration” as their definition. In those same studies, if they ask about men’s experiences, it turns out that men have unwilling sex with women close to as often as women have unwilling sex with a man.

You may be laughing and saying this is impossible. If he had an erection and if he orgasmed, he must have wanted it, right? Yet almost every report on women’s experiences of being raped shows that most of the time they lubricated, in most cases they found their hips involuntarily moving with their attacker, and many experienced orgasm—so does this mean these women wanted it? Of course not!

Have we all forgotten the classes in basic biology we got when we were teenagers? Or what every man knows? Most erections are not voluntary. Much of a man’s sex life, especially when he’s younger, involves wishing he could get rid of an embarrassing erection. There are also physical ways to force an erection, some of them even painful, and drugs that can be used to force him to get one.

“But men are so much stronger! Most women couldn’t force most men!” But men can be overpowered with restraints, at the point of a weapon, by a gang of women, drugged, or even blackmailed into having sex.

I know another man who was blackmailed by his ex-girlfriend into having sex with him. She was threatening to withhold access to his children if he didn’t have sex with her, and this went on for nearly a year until she finally tired of the game.

I know more stories than this, and I’m willing to bet if you ask carefully and quietly and respectfully among your male friends, without using any emotionally charged words or sneering or laughing, you’ll find that you do too. The fact is studies show men have unwanted sex with women about as often as the other way around. The only exception is when you ask people if they’ve ever been raped in their life, far more women than men say “yes.”

But consider: statistics that ask if it’s happened to them in the last year or two, and the rates of forced sex are much closer than people realize. What’s going on?

I think it’s because we tell girls to watch out for rape, and tell boys that it’s their job to protect girls. Girls are encouraged to take it seriously, boys are encouraged to see it as “getting lucky” or to think about it as anything other than rape.

I’ve seen many social workers and psychotherapists in my life, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s that one even asked me—and even then she asked in a way that would have made me uncomfortable to say that a woman took advantage of me sexually.

Today, when I tell people I’ve been sexually harassed and, worse, by women, people laugh or call me a liar. It’s all happened to me—more than once.

Could it be that our tendency to see women as harmless and men as tough leads us to refuse to even think that the average woman is capable of harming a man—and that this is something we’re all in together, for each other?

For an interesting conversation I had about all this with Erin Pizzey, the UK’s pioneer in domestic violence, and Philip W. Cook, co-author of When Women Sexually Abuse Men: The Hidden Side of Rape, Stalking, Harassment, and Sexual Assault, see this link. It may surprise you what you hear!


Editorial note: This item originally appeared on Huffington Post. Kudos to HuffPo for being willing to tackle this issue. —DE

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