Rape myths take many forms, and male victims have their own myths to bust.
CONTENT NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS BRIEF BUT GRAPHIC DETAILS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE
Whenever an article appears about the sexual abuse of men and boys – especially abuse perpetrated by women – you can almost guarantee that a comment will appear saying something like: ‘well he couldn’t have been that unwilling if he got a boner.’
It is an incredibly damaging and harmful myth, for at least five reasons which I shall detail later in this post, but first let me do my best to convince doubters that it really is a myth.
As described by M. Zuckerman in 1971 and many times since, medical science knows that the body can respond to a variety of situations as if they were sexual stimuli. In men, this most obviously means getting an erection. Most men, of almost any age, will recognise the phenomenon of the unwanted erection, but it is especially common in adolescents and young men who are, incidentally, at the age when they are most likely to be victims of sexual assault. An erection can be triggered by physical vibration (the notorious rattling bus syndrome) or by the most innocuous stimulus, such as a medical examination.
Contrary to popular belief, many men can get an erection when they are too drunk to speak or to remember what they have done the next day. A man in a drunken stupor can sometimes be stimulated to erection without even waking up. An erection is quite a common response to an adrenalin rush as caused by excitement, anxiety or sheer terror. Soldiers talk of the phenomenon of a ‘combat boner.’
Perhaps more pernicious is the belief that even if a man did not want to have sex before he got an erection, he certainly will once it is in place. This is patently untrue. Men are sentient beings who (mostly) have conscience and self-restraint and make decisions about who they want to have sex with all the time, independently of their erectile engorgement (more on this one later.)
The academic literature describes how all of the above can play out in abusive situations. A study of 22 male-on-male rape victims by Nicholas Groth and Ann Burgess (1980)found that half of the victims maintained an erection throughout their assaults. The original, ground-breaking paper on adult male victims of female molesters by Sarrel and Masters (1982) described some of the assaults perpetrated on their subjects, described here:
In one case, a man was raped by two women at gunpoint. He was able to maintain an erection throughout severe physical abuse until he finally passed out. In another case, a seventeen-year-old boy was attacked by two men and two women and was able to maintain an erection and ejaculate three times before he was unable to perform further. Another man was drugged and awoke naked, tied down, gagged, and blindfolded. Approximately four women repeatedly raped him until it was difficult for him to maintain an erection. Threatened with castration, he was able to maintain an erection after rest periods until eventually he passed out and was left abandoned on a roadside.
I hope this just about covers every angle on explaining why an erection does not equal consent. The persistence of this pernicious myth, however, is perhaps the most harmful of all rape myths to male victims of sexual assault. Here are five reasons why.
1. It allows rapists and abusers to escape justice
In the Groth and Burgess paper mentioned above, the authors noted that many victims who maintain an erection during an assault are subsequently discouraged from reporting their assault as such evidence could be used to impeach their credibility at trial. That was back in 1980, but in the UK in 1999 Professor Sue Lees took evidence from a heterosexual man who had been raped in prison. “He reported it immediately, despite the fact that he was terrified,” she said at the time. “But because the man had got an erection during the attack, the judge stopped the case even going to jury – revealing how he saw rape as a sexual encounter rather than a form of violent humiliation.”
The judge in that case was following well established precedents in English Law. In Willan v. Willan, 1960, the English Court of Appeals held that a man who sustains an erection during intercourse must be deemed as committing a voluntary act. The wife in this case would frequently demand sex and would violently abuse her husband if he refused – pulling his hair, grabbing his ears, shaking his head violently or kicking his injured leg. The court ruled that by maintaining an erection, the husband had legally condoned the actions against him. The judge ruled “It might be otherwise in the case of a wife, but in the case of a husband who has sexual intercourse it can only be said of him that what he does he does on purpose, and that sexual intercourse with his wife must be a voluntary act on his part.”
One would like to think that courts and judges have modernised their attitudes slightly in recent years, but considering everything we know about English justice, particularly in sexual cases, that would probably be a wildly optimistic assumption.
2. It leaves victims feeling guilty or confused
Victims are not immune to the erection=consent myth, and for many it leaves them unable to resolve lingering post-traumatic attitudes that may include shame, humiliation, guilt and confusion. When I wrote about female abusers in the Guardian lately, I had the (too rare) experience of receiving comments that were not only complimentary, but which made me feel like writing about these kinds of topics really is worth the grief. A longstanding regular commenter on Comment is Free left me the following messages which, I think, make this point better than I could. Although he was using his pseudonymous moniker and the comments are still public record, he did not agree to this usage, so I’ve blanked out his nickname.
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3. It prevents victims from receiving support, help or justice
Many male victims of assault believe their erection and/or orgasm makes them an equal participant in their own abuse. They are therefore much less likely to report the assault to authorities or to seek professional help with emotional and psychological trauma arising. Worse, as Michael Scarce noted, “Others, including medical personnel, family, friends, and other support people, may be reluctant to believe a man who admits rape when he shares that he had an erection or ejaculated.”
4. It allows abusers to convince themselves they are doing nothing wrong.
Groth and Masters reported that male-on-male rapists commonly made efforts to stimulate their victims to ejaculate. They suggested two reasons for this. One was because it makes it lesss likely that the victims will report the crime (see above.) The other was to convince themselves that what they were doing was not rape.
As I’ve written before, when asked by researchers, an startlingly high proportion of women will admit to having forced a man to perform a sexual act against his will by means of coercion, threat or outright force. How many of these women do we think consider themselves to be sexual aggressors, sexual offenders or even rapists? I’d hazard a guess that the answer to that is very close to zero.
Women in our culture are raised with the false and damaging belief that pretty much all men are up for sex with anyone at any time, and that if he has or can get an erection he is therefore fair game. What’s the harm in giving him what he wants?
In truth (and this bears repeating) a significant proportion of men who have experienced forced or coercive sexual encounters describe negative consequences, of various degrees of severity. Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1994) found that most men who experienced unwanted female contact had ‘mild negative reactions’ however about one fifth of the men had strong negative reactions up to and including full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, relationship and attachment difficulties or sexual dysfunction.
Do the women committing these deeds realise what they are doing? How harmful their actions might be? I very much doubt it. Why? Because they believe that if the flesh is willing, so must be the spirit.
I don’t really blame women for thinking this, because who has ever told them otherwise? It is worth remembering this next time we are told that boys need to be better taught about sexual consent. They certainly do, but they are not the only ones.
5. It perpetuates the myth that a man’s brain and/or conscience is located in his dick
As I’ve noted many times before on this blog, whenever there are social attitudes that cause real, poisonous harm to vulnerable men and boys, you can almost guarantee you can trace it back to hegemonic patriarchy somewhere down the line. This is a doozy of an example.
You know all those jokes that say things like when a man gets an erection, all the blood drains out of his brain? All of that is (to drop down a few inches) a sack of steaming bollocks. Yes, of course human beings of any gender do silly, stupid and self-destructive things while in the throes of lust, just as we do when driven by love, anger, excitement, jealousy or any other strong emotion. However the old saw that men think with their dicks is a cynical lie, waved as a pathetic get-out-of-jail-free card by those who want to dodge responsibility for their sexual choices while playing to all kinds of sexual and gender double standards and hypocrisy.
So the erection=consent myth disempowers and damages victimised and vulnerable men, and at the same time it empowers and validates their abusers and attackers, both male and female. That makes it a uniquely malignant myth, and at least as far as men are concerned, perhaps the most damaging rape myth of all.
Credit and thanks: This post leans heavily on the excellent paper Male Sexual Assault: Issues of Arousal and Consent, Siegmund Fred Fuchs, Cleveland State Law Review 93 (2004)