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When Women Sexually Assault Men

How gendered cultural scripts help conceal and laugh away a legitimate problem.
(Photo: mcgraths/Flickr)

(Photo: mcgraths/Flickr)

In news coverage of campus sexual assaults in recent years, scenarios with male victims aren’t depicted too frequently. When they are, the language often looks something like this:

This may seem bizarre that a guy who is presumably laying back and having oral sex and one assumes enjoying it—or at least tolerating it—is not consenting simply by doing that, but under that definition if he didn’t say 'yes,' she’s a sexual violator.

That’s the way George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf spoke to U.S. News & World Reportabout the new California law requiring colleges and universities to adopt a "yes means yes" standard for their sexual assault policies. Banzhaf's selection of this particular hypothetical is an obvious one. A description of a man performing sex acts on an unresponsive woman would have raised a lot of red flags for most of us: Is she conscious? Is she too drunk or too afraid to speak up? If the supposed victim is a man, these questions vanish or become a sort of tired parlor joke. The assumption that men always want sex and that women are inevitably more reluctant is so universal in our culture that the unambiguous rape of men by women can serve as a punch line in popular movies.

However, the reality is not humorous: Women do sexually assault men on college campuses, on a regular basis. Each year, according to an estimate in a literature review, roughly 19 to 31 percent of male college students experience some kind of unwanted sexual contact, and researchers say the vast majority of that is perpetrated by women. These men's experiences usually aren't as horrific as those of women who are assaulted, but they represent a clear, and mostly hidden, problem. They also contradict standard assumptions and cultural scripts about male aggression and female passivity.

Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of South Dakota, has studied male victims of sexual assault since 1985. Studies showing widespread sexual coercion and assault by women against men, on college campuses and elsewhere, have trickled in consistently for decades, but they haven't entered the public discussion of sexual violence, she explains. "It's so contrary to the stereotypes of female behavior," Struckman-Johnson says. "When you talk to the general public, there's the idea that this can't happen. They just can't put it together."

THE NOTION THAT SEXUAL assault of a man by a woman is impossible, and even laughable, rests on the same gendered assumptions that are also used to downplay assaults on women by men. Even after decades of feminist activism, many discussions of sexual violence still center on telling women to stay sober and be cautious around men. The ideas behind that advice—the image of men's sexual desires as constant and all-consuming and of women as the gatekeepers to sex—also makes it impossible for many people to imagine men as victims. If men are always seeking sex, and frequently shot down by disinterested women, then they should be grateful—or at least not traumatized—by any kind of sexual attention from a woman. Taking sexual coercion against men seriously gives us even more reason to fight against those stereotypes.

"For one male that I interviewed it was devastating. He wanted his first time to be with somebody he deeply cared about, that he chose. And she took that away from him."

Assumptions about male and female sexuality are deeply engrained in the way with think about sexual encounters. Research consistently shows that Americans are more likely to find coercion of men by women acceptable, compared with the reverse. We're also more apt to label an incident of heterosexual sex as rape if it involves a male aggressor and female victim, perhaps in part because men are seen as more threatening. In some cases, people code coercive behaviors by men as aggressive but coercion by women as romantic and seductive.

News reports and training programs on sexual assault may acknowledge that it's possible for men to be victims, but they typically focus almost entirely on male-on-female assaults rather than the reverse. "It reinforces the old stereotypes of men being the sexual predator, always sexual, always wanting something," Struckman-Johnson says.

But, if dismissing sexual assaults against men goes against the evidence, assuming that their experiences are the same as women's does too. While coercion and assault are surprisingly common experiences for college men, they're still much more common for college women. A 2003 study that Struckman-Johnson led found that 58 percent of college men had been pressured for sex after saying no (since age 16), but for women that rate was 78 percent.

Women also typically use less violent tactics than men to push for sex. The paper, which considered "post-refusal tactics" including repeated touching, emotional manipulation, intoxication, and violence, found that 22 percent of women and nine percent of men had been physically restrained by a member of the other gender demanding sex.

IN A 1985 SURVEY of University of South Dakota students, Struckman-Johnson asked victims of coercive tactics to describe what happened. In this sample, 55 percent of the female victims reported having physical force used against them, compared with 10 percent of the men.

Among the men's descriptions is one of a woman who "came over out of the blue just to talk. She started getting fresh, I pushed her off 3-4 times. I said no and told her I didn't want to do it with her. I gave in. End of story." Another man described having a woman lock her car door when he tried to leave and said she was able to pressure him into sex partly because they were a distance from town and she was driving. A third wrote: "She layed on top of me when I was drunk and took my clothing off and went to work." One of the few descriptions of serious violence by women came from a man who wrote that a first-time date grabbed his penis and refused to let go until he had sex with her.

Men who experience sexual assault or other violence by intimate partners are less likely than women to report the incidents to the police. They frequently think no one will believe a woman sexually assaulted them, are embarrassed at not being able to fend off an attack by a woman, or harbor fears of being perceived as "gay" or not masculine for not wanting to have sex, Struckman-Johnson suggests.

The reported effects of coercive experiences are also markedly different for men than women on average. More than a quarter of the male students in the 1985 survey said they had good or very good experiences with the sex despite their initial refusals, while none of the women did. Another 27 percent of the men called the experience bad or very bad, compared with 88 percent of the women. Only 22 percent of men reported bad long-term effects, compared with 78 percent of the women.

Some of the difference in long-term trauma may be related to the lower levels of serious violence faced by the men, but there's also evidence that men may not always give accurate accounts of the impact of sexual coercion on their lives. Particularly when women are the perpetrators, assumptions about appropriate gender roles may make them less likely to acknowledge lasting effects.

The literature suggests that around one in five men who are sexually coerced experience long-term effects. For those who do, the fallout can be serious, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The negative effects are particularly common in cases where older women take advantage of teenage boys, especially when alcohol is involved.

"For one male that I interviewed it was devastating," Struckman-Johnson says. "He wanted his first time to be with somebody he deeply cared about, that he chose. And she took that away from him."

Assumptions about male and female sexuality are deeply engrained in the way with think about sexual encounters. Research consistently shows that Americans are more likely to find coercion of men by women acceptable, compared with the reverse.

Violent attacks are also likely to have long-term consequences. Even when a man is physically stronger than his attacker, Struckman-Johnson says, a woman trying to lock him in a room or hitting him can be traumatizing.

"Even if that woman is not terrifically strong, she's usually pretty terrifying to them," she says. "They report long-term effects of feeling nervous around women, staying away from relationships, not trusting women.... For both sexes, it can really turn them off of relationships."

WHO ARE THE WOMEN who commit these kinds of attacks? Some research suggests that sexual aggression in either gender is correlated with a history of sexual abuse, a tendency to see relationships with the opposite sex as adversarial, and higher levels of arousal to depictions of rape.

Struckman-Johnson says there's not a huge amount of research on female perpetrators, but popular perceptions of men and women's sexuality may make it easier for women to rationalize sexual aggression.

"Because of the idea that men are sexually oriented and wanting it all the time, it kind of lets them off the hook," she says. "They get to assume they've got a ready and willing partner here who would just love to have sex with them. That is not the case, that's denying individuality, it's denying personality, it's denying people's rights to choose their sexual situations."

In fact, college students sometimes seem surprisingly willing to downplay sexual coercion by either gender. In one 2006 study, researchers presented students with scenarios in which "John" and "Carla" are on a date and one of them clearly states that he or she doesn't want to have sex. The aggressor ends up having sex with the partner anyway, either by threatening to end the relationship, getting him or her drunk, or physically holding the other down. On a seven-point scale of victimization, students rated John at only 4.6 when he was held down, but even in the reverse scenario, the rating for Carla was only 5.18. In contrast, Carla was rated 6.02 for promiscuity in the scenario where she got John drunk.

The study suggests that sexual coercion isn't particularly worrisome to many college students. If that's a depressing conclusion, it isn't necessarily a surprising one. Our cultural stereotypes about men, women, and sex lead directly to that view. If men are constantly, ravenously seeking sex, then it seems as if it’s up to women to protect themselves by staying sober and keeping male friends out of their dorm rooms. And, by the same token, if women are uncharacteristically pushing, or even forcing, men into sex, then it seems like the only acceptable response is gratitude. Throwing out these traditional scripts could mean rethinking sex as something that can, and should, be sought and enjoyed by everyone involved.