For the past year or so, any time I’ve written about men’s sexual aggression towards women, I could almost guarantee that someone would comment beneath about women’s sexual aggression towards men, usually referencing the US Centre for Disease Control’s Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010.
This huge victim survey made a surprising finding. It suggested that the rates of men being forced to penetrate women over the past year was identical to the rates of women reporting being raped, each 1.1%. Lifetime prevalence of the crimes were 4.8% for men and 17.8% for women. Meanwhile men reporting sex through coercion was 1.5% over the past year (6% lifetime) compared to 2% (13% lifetime) for women.
I’ll be honest that I was, for a long time, extremely dubious about these data. They fly in the face of everything we presume to know about sexual violence. They had to be a rogue result, either the product of some sampling error, a result of differing interpretations of coercion and compulsion by male and female respondents, or some unexplained bug in the methodology.
So I began to do what I always try to do, and find out for myself. For a long time I drew blanks, it seemed there simply was no corroborating evidence. Most of my usual criminology bibles and texts on sexual assault came up bare. Then slowly I began to catch glints of light – a reference in a paper here, a link in a discussion there. As is the way of research, suddenly the pieces began to tumble out in front of me. What I found astonished me. It turns out the CDC results are not unique or unprecedented. There is a raft of research going back to the 1980s making very similar claims.
I know many readers of this blog will be as sceptical as I was. So I will do something I don’t normally do, and post a whole bunch of academic references, with the relevant findings. You can check them to your heart’s content. Alternatively just skip to the discussion below.
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]
Where does this research lead us? Most obviously, to the conclusion that female sexual aggression in relationships is far more common than I, and I suspect most people, usually presume. It is a huge, and almost entirely invisible phenomenon with many, many unacknowledged male victims.. There are also enormous heffalump-traps here. Firstly, the research does not show that women are as likely to sexually aggress as men. Where there is a direct comparison (eg the very first reference) they tend to show that men are at least twice as likely to sexually aggress as women. Nor does it imply that a man’s experience of being sexually coerced or assaulted by a women is in some way parallel to a woman’s experience of being sexually coerced or assaulted by a man.
Let me bring in an anecdote. When I was at a student party once, around 25 years ago, a very drunk (and physically rather large) woman came on to me, very strongly indeed. I tried to escape with a tactical toilet break. She followed me into the loo, forced me up against the basin, pushed her tongue into my mouth and her hand into my jeans. I had to summon up quite a lot of physical strength to escape. This may sound strange, but my understanding of the incident, then and now, was not that I had narrowly escaped being raped by her, but that she had narrowly escaped being raped by me. She was in no state to be making such a choice. When her hand grasped my cock it reacted and for a moment I considered letting her have her wish. I refrained, partly because I knew I would regret it afterwards, but more importantly because I knew it was highly likely that she would regret it, if not immediately, then certainly the next day. (I was also pretty sure she was going to throw up any minute, and if I didn’t fancy her much to begin with, that certainly wouldn’t have helped.)
It was all a bit icky at the time, but minutes later she’d wandered off and passed out on an armchair, I sighed with relief, shrugged off the suggestive leers from my mates, grabbed a beer, rolled a spliff and all but forgot about it within minutes.
Had the details of the incident been the same, but the genders been reversed – had I been the obnoxiously drunken man who forced my way into a bathroom with a woman, thrust my hand into her pants and pinned her against a wall, it would have (very probably) been a far, far more terrifying, traumatizing experience for the victim. Nobody would have questioned that it was an attempted rape. Is this a double standard? Probably, but it is one born of thousands of years of cultural, sexual and gender conditioning, not to mention the political context, in which the ever present threat of rape has been used as a primary tool of male domination over women. We can question that, strive to move on from it, but we cannot simply wish it away.
That said, if I lacked either the strength or sobriety to extricate myself from the situation, I might well have had a very different recall of the event. In one of the many studies into this subject, Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1994), found that most men who experienced unwanted female contact had ‘mild negative reactions’ (a fair description of my feelings, I’d say), However about one fifth of the men had strong negative reactions – some were traumatised, damaged, psychologically harmed by the experience. That is of course far lower than the proportion of women who are seriously traumatised by sexual assaults by men but there is also research going back as far as 1982 (by Sarrel and Masters) demonstrating severely negative psychological and psychosexual consequences to male victimization. We are taking a long time to wake up to this problem.
It seems apparent (and I choose those words with care) that whatever the incidence of female sexual assault of adult males, our society is not teeming with men who have been seriously psychologically and emotionally damaged by experience of female abuse and assault. I recently asked a friend, a clinical psychologist, whether it was something that came up often, and he replied that in a 20 year career, he could only recall two clients who disclosed such issues, both of which had occurred as part of a broader pattern of partner abuse and domestic violence. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean serious casualties do not exist, nor does it invalidate the experience of men who were less lucky than me, more vulnerable than me, or more traumatised than me. Nor does it preclude the possibility that many damaged men simply never confess their nightmares to anyone, even their professional therapists.
What should we take from awareness of the extent of female sexual aggression? First, just that – awareness. Men need to be aware that there are women out there who will exploit them, not feel isolated or shamed if it happens to them, and be prepared to seek and accept help and support if they need it.
Society needs to be aware that it is a serious issue, not a joke, not always a trivial matter or something that belongs in the News of the Weird section. Abigail Rine at The Atlantic has written a couple of excellent pieces [here and here] about our cultural hypocrisy on the issue recently. We need many more writers like her.
Our mental health and social care systems need to be more alive to the extent of the issue, be open to the possibility that emotionally and sexually troubled men might be troubled for this very reason. And this might sound bizarre, but perhaps women need to be aware that they can and do assault and abuse men. I strongly suspect many women genuinely believe that any man will be (literally) up for it at any time, and will always be glad of a sexual thrill. This is as much of a rape myth as any other.
Above all, this knowledge should yet again give us pause to consider our collective understanding of the nature of sexual consent. I don’t think we can entirely untangle female sexual abuse of men from male sexual abuse of women. Both stem from a willingness to exert selfish power or sadistic cruelty, placing sex in a framework where we take what we want and get what we can, rather than give what is wanted. Perhaps greater enlightenment on this topic could help to further break down all abusive sexual behaviours, to the benefit of male and female victims alike.
UPDATE: SURVIVOR SUPPORT
Was just prompted by a chat on Twitter to realise that it might be useful for some to include links to support organisations.
If you are a male survivor of any form of sexual abuse and would like support or advice.
(if you can suggest any other organisations I should link to, please let me know below)