It’s a crime that few of its victims are willing to talk about – the men who are coerced by women into having sex. But a ground-breaking study is bringing their experiences to light and looking to change the law. Anna Moore reports…
Picture this: a woman on a night out with her boyfriend. He orders shot after shot, always urging her to drink one more. By the time they’re in the taxi to his place, she’s so drunk she can barely see. She collapses on the bed, fully clothed, craving oblivion but her partner starts kissing her and fumbling with her zips. She gently tells him ‘no’ then passes out – only to wake later to find she’s naked and her partner is under the covers, performing a sex act on her. Again she pushes him away, says ‘no’ and passes out. When she next wakes, he’s on top of her, holding her arms down, having sex. At the end, he kisses her passionately and says, ‘See? That’s better.’
Clearly this is sex without consent – rape in the eyes of the law. But now switch the roles around – because that’s how it happened. In this case, it was the man who collapsed on his girlfriend’s bed, said ‘no’ to sex and then passed out. It was his girlfriend who had sex anyway. Unsurprisingly, for years he told no one. He didn’t have the words. Now, though, he’s added his voice to a ground-breaking study – the first of its kind in the UK – which set out to examine men’s experience of non-consensual sex with women. The paper has the awkward title of Forced-to-Penetrate Cases – because in the UK, there’s no legal term to describe it. By law, ‘rape’ is something only men can do, yet most of the men in this study believe ‘rape’ is exactly what happened to them.
The author is legal academic Dr Siobhan Weare of Lancaster University Law School. She became interested while teaching the law around sexual offences as set out by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act. ‘I was wondering why it had been decided that “forced to penetrate” cases shouldn’t be included in the definition of rape,’ says Dr Weare. ‘Where was the evidence to suggest it wasn’t as harmful? When I looked, I found there wasn’t any. There were no studies at all – just a massive gap in knowledge. I was interested to learn more about these men’s experiences.’
The first hurdle was to accept that it’s even possible. ‘Disbelief is incredibly common,’ admits Dr Weare. Penetration requires physical cooperation, which some see as evidence of consent. ‘But an erection is purely a physiological bodily response,’ says Dr Weare. ‘It does not denote arousal or consent.’ In fact, it can also denote fear or pain. Just last month, it was reported that Samantha Mears, a 19-year-old from Montana in the US, hid in her ex-boyfriend’s house with a machete and forced him to have sex. She was charged with aggravated burglary and assault. Indeed, such cases often betray a dubious ‘double standard’. When a 47-year-old German woman held a man prisoner during a one-night stand, forcing him to have sex repeatedly until he escaped from a balcony, she was labelled by a UK tabloid a ‘nymphomaniac’ who had forced her victim to ‘make love’ eight times. (If the perpetrator had been a man, he’d surely be a ‘sex offender’ not a ‘nymphomaniac’. It would be ‘rape’ not ‘making love’.)
The 154 participants in Dr Weare’s study were recruited through word of mouth, social
media and men’s support groups. For most, the incidents took place when they were between the ages of 16 and 25 – though all ages were covered and the oldest victim had been 61. Most perpetrators were partners, ex-partners, friends or acquaintances. While verbal pressure, manipulation, lies or blackmail were the most common methods, some men were incapacitated by alcohol or simply overpowered. The accounts make harrowing reading.
‘She started trying to have sex with me and I told her I did not want to as I was drunk and very tired and felt sick,’ writes another male victim. ‘She didn’t take no for an answer and started hurting me, forcing herself on me, hands around my neck, telling me I would do it or she would kill me. I didn’t know how to face her the morning after. I felt shameful and violated; I didn’t know what to do or how to act around her. I have a fear of ever seeing her again.’
Another writes, ‘I had told the girl in question that I wished to end our relationship. She became extremely emotional and began saying that she was going to commit suicide because she couldn’t handle it. I’ve never seen someone so distraught.’
Sex took place, but it was not what he wanted. ‘I spent the rest of the evening thinking about what had happened and running through it time and time again in my head,’ he continues. ‘I couldn’t explain it but it felt as though I’d been made to have sex and been raped. I’ve never talked to anyone about it because they wouldn’t understand how I could have sex against my will, but it happened.’
The impact on some was no different to the impact we expect when a woman is raped. ‘The “lucky boy syndrome” is such a powerful stereotype,’ says Dr Weare. ‘The belief that all men are studs, always happy to get sex.’ While some men in the study were not badly affected by the experience, most had been. When asked to rate the emotional impact from one to ten, ten was the most frequent response – though only two men reported the incidents to the police. (And neither resulted in prosecution.)
‘A lot of men felt isolated and ashamed,’ says Dr Weare. ‘It impacted their sex drive, their ability to develop relationships or maintain an erection. Some have never dated since. Several felt angry at themselves for allowing it to happen. At the most extreme end, there was clinical depression, self-destructive behaviours, drug abuse and suicidal thoughts.’
All this is backed up by wider research, especially from the US. At the University of South Dakota, psychology professor Dr Cindy Struckman-Johnson has been looking at this area for more than 30 years, having stumbled into it by accident.
‘In 1985 I was a new professor at the university and date rape was in the media a lot so I decided to do a survey on campus,’ she says. ‘I asked 500 students if they’d been pressured or forced into sex on a date.’
Though the survey reached everybody, she was really aiming her question at women. The results surprised her. While 22 per cent of the women said yes, so did 16 per cent of the men.
Dr Struckman-Johnson decided to dig deeper, asking both sexes if they’d ever persisted with sex after a partner had told them ‘no’. Again, 43 per cent of men admitted they had – but so did 26 per cent of women. (Their most common tactic was persistent kissing and touching, telling lies, threatening to break up or questioning the men’s sexuality.) When she looked at how men were impacted, there was a proportion who didn’t care – but one in five felt violated in much the same way as the women.
Duncan Craig, CEO of Survivors Manchester, a support group for male survivors of sexual abuse, isn’t at all surprised. Craig helped Dr Weare recruit men for the study. ‘It feels so cutting edge but the truth is that sexual assault and forced-to-penetrate cases have gone on since time immemorial,’ he says. ‘We just haven’t recognised it.’ Craig recalls one victim whose ex-partner insisted on sex before allowing access to their young children. When he turned to friends for support, they told him he was lucky. ‘He thought there must be something wrong with him,’ says Craig. ‘If he wasn’t ready for sex, he couldn’t be a real man – but he used the word “rape” for what took place. That’s a big word and men such as him deserve to feel the world is listening. Shame grows in dark places. When victims are believed and taken seriously, they can start to feel valued.’
This is Dr Weare’s first hope – that her study kickstarts a conversation about men as victims. ‘This isn’t at the expense of the conversations we’re already having about women victims,’ she adds. ‘It should happen alongside them.
‘Maybe further down the line, there should be changes to the law,’ she continues. ‘But at this point, I hope it creates a space so that men feel more able to come forward, put what happened into words and find support.’
In fact, raising awareness has never been more important. New research reviewed by Dr Struckman-Johnson suggests that the women most likely to force sex from an unwilling man are those who believe in the stereotype that men always want sex with any woman at any time.
Most shocking of all, it’s also on the rise. Two pieces of research from Dr Struckman-Johnson suggest millennial women are more likely to have coerced men into sex than previous generations. One sample found 37 per cent of millennial women admitted to coercing sex, compared to 17 per cent of baby boomers and generation X.
‘I think casual sex, sexual freedom and gender equality has made young women more likely to cross the line,’ says Dr Struckman-Johnson. ‘There’s a huge push for “consent education” for young men right now. We’re all aware it’s an issue – but women need to know they must have consent, too.’
From my own perspective as a mother of three daughters, the eldest now at university, I’ve always felt well-informed and up to date on the issue of sexual abuse and coercion. Time and again we’ve discussed their freedom to choose, their control over their body, their right to give no for an answer. I’ve never thought to mention their need to accept no for an answer as well. Maybe it’s a conversation we all need to have.
The facts about male consent
- In the UK, women are not legally recognised as capable of rape except as accomplices to men.
- A forced-to-penetrate case could be tried as ‘sexual assault’ or ‘causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent’ – lesser offences with different sentencing structures and parameters when compared with the offence of rape.
- In contrast, rape cases are heard in crown court and the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
- While there are no UK statistics, a US survey of 16,500 adults found 4.8 per cent of men reported being ‘made to penetrate’.
- The most common emotional impact on male victims is anger, guilt and shame.
If you are a man who has been affected by the issues discussed, and are interested in sharing your story as part of Lancaster University’s research, please click here.