A new study reveals that men are often the victims of sexual assault, and women are often the perpetrators.By Hanna Rosin
Last year the National Crime Victimization Survey turned up a remarkable statistic. In asking 40,000 households about rape and sexual violence, the survey uncovered that 38 percent of incidents were against men. The number seemed so high that it prompted researcher Lara Stemple to call the Bureau of Justice Statistics to see if it maybe it had made a mistake, or changed its terminology. After all, in years past men had accounted for somewhere between 5 and 14 percent of rape and sexual violence victims. But no, it wasn’t a mistake, officials told her, although they couldn’t explain the rise beyond guessing that maybe it had something to do with the publicity surrounding former football coach Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State sex abuse scandal.
Sexual assault is a term that gets refracted through the culture wars, as Slate’s ownEmily Bazelon explained in a story about the terminology of rape. Feminists claimed the more legalistic term of sexual assault to put it squarely in the camp of violent crime. Bazelon argues in her story for reclaiming the term rape because of its harsh unflinching sound and its nonlegalistic shock value. But she also allows that rape does not help us grasp crimes outside our limited imagination, particularly crimes against men. She quotes a painful passage from screenwriter and novelistRafael Yglesias, which is precisely the kind of crime Stemple worries is too foreign and uncomfortable to contemplate.
I used to say, when some part of me was still ashamed of what had been done to me, that I was “molested” because the man who played skillfully with my 8-year-old penis, who put it in his mouth, who put his lips on mine and tried to push his tongue in as deep as it would go, did not anally rape me. … Instead of delineating what he had done, I chose “molestation” hoping that would convey what had happened to me.
Of course it doesn’t. For listeners to appreciate and understand what I had endured, I needed to risk that they will gag or rush out of the room. I needed to be particular and clear as to the details so that when I say I was raped people will understand what I truly mean.
For years, the FBI defined forcible rape, for data collecting purposes, as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” Eventually localities began to rebel against that limited gender-bound definition; in 2010 Chicago reported 86,767 cases of rape but used its own broader definition, so the FBI left out the Chicago stats. Finally, in 2012, the FBI revised its definition and focused on penetration, with no mention of female (or force).
Data hasn’t been calculated under the new FBI definition yet, but Stemple parses several other national surveys in her new paper, “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions,” co-written with Ilan Meyer and published in the April 17 edition of the American Journal of Public Health. One of those surveys is the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, for which the Centers for Disease Control invented a category of sexual violence called “being made to penetrate.” This definition includes victims who were forced to penetrate someone else with their own body parts, either by physical force or coercion, or when the victim was drunk or high or otherwise unable to consent. When those cases were taken into account, the rates of nonconsensual sexual contact basically equalized, with 1.270 million women and 1.267 million men claiming to be victims of sexual violence.
We might assume that if a man has an erection he must want sex. But imagine if the same were said about women.
“Made to penetrate” is an awkward phrase that hasn’t gotten any traction. It’s also something we instinctively don’t associate with sexual assault. But is it possible our instincts are all wrong here? We might assume, for example, that if a man has an erection he must want sex, especially because we assume men are sexually insatiable. But imagine if the same were said about women. The mere presence of physiological symptoms associated with arousal does not in fact indicate actual arousal, much less willing participation. And the high degree of depression and dysfunction among male victims of sexual abuse backs this up. At the very least, the phrase remedies an obvious injustice. Under the old FBI definition, what happened to Rafael Yglesias would only have counted as rape if he’d been an 8-year-old girl. Accepting the term “made to penetrate” helps us understand that trauma comes in all forms.
So why are men suddenly showing up as victims? Every comedian has a prison rape joke and prosecutions of sexual crimes against men are still rare. But gender norms are shaking loose in a way that allows men to identify themselves—if the survey is sensitive and specific enough—as vulnerable. A recent analysis of BJS data, for example, turned up that 46 percent of male victims reported a female perpetrator.
The final outrage in Stemple and Meyer’s paper involves inmates, who aren’t counted in the general statistics at all. In the last few years, the BJS did two studies in adult prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities. The surveys were excellent because they afforded lots of privacy and asked questions using very specific, informal, and graphic language. (“Did another inmate use physical force to make you give or receive a blow job?”) Those surveys turned up the opposite of what we generally think is true. Women were more likely to be abused by fellow female inmates, and men by guards, and many of those guards were female. For example, of juveniles reporting staff sexual misconduct, 89 percent were boys reporting abuse by a female staff member. In total, inmates reported an astronomical 900,000 incidents of sexual abuse.
Now the question is, in a climate when politicians and the media are finally paying attention to military and campus sexual assault, should these new findings alter our national conversation about rape? Stemple is a longtime feminist who fully understands that men have historically used sexual violence to subjugate women and that in most countries they still do. As she sees it, feminism has fought long and hard to fight rape myths—that if a woman gets raped it’s somehow her fault, that she welcomed it in some way. But the same conversation needs to happen for men. By portraying sexual violence against men as aberrant, we prevent justice and compound the shame. And the conversation about men doesn’t need to shut down the one about women. “Compassion,” she says, “is not a finite resource.”
HANNA ROSINHanna Rosin is the founder ofDoubleX and a writer for theAtlantic. She is also the author ofThe End of Men. Follow her onTwitter.
Is the US the only country where more men are raped than women?The figures on rape may be uncertain, but we could lower the sexual assault rate in American jails – if we had the political will
Jill Filipovic for Feministe, part of the Guardian Comment Network
theguardian.com, Tuesday 21 February 2012 11.18 EST
That's the claim in this n+1 piece, which is well worth a read.
In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That's 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.
Those numbers are not quite correct, but they are nonetheless horrifying. First of all, "sexual assault" is not always the same as "rape" and includes a variety of behaviour that wouldn't meet the legal standard for rape. So it's not clear that there are actually more rapes of men than women, or more rapes of prisoners than non-prisoners. Also, the number I found through the Department of Justice (DOJ) was 88,500 victims of sexual victimisation. This New York Review of Books article says that the DOJ revised those findings, getting to 216,000.
According to Rainn, there are 213,000 victims of sexual assault in the US every year. More than 9/10ths of those victims are women and girls. The numbers Rainn uses come from the DOJ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS, though, is clear that its methodology for gathering sexual assault stats is pretty limited, and probably doesn't present a 100% accurate picture of what victims experience. The NCVS also doesn't seem to include prisoners (at least as far as I can tell), but would include people who were sexually assaulted in prison within the past year, but were out of prison at the time the NCVS was taken. So there's likely some overlap, although very small, between the two surveys.
"Inmates" also does not translate to "men". There are a whole lot of women in jail, and female prisoners are twice as likely to experience inmate-on-inmate sexual assault (male inmates are slightly more likely to experience assault at the hands of prison staff). So again, not so obvious that more men than women experience sexual assault. It also looks like the NCVS statistics, which include "rape and sexual assault," are not calculated in quite the same way as the prison "sexual victimisation" statistics – that is, different kinds of behaviours are included in the prison survey that don't appear to be included in the NCVS. For example, from the New York Review of Books:
The department divides sexual abuse in detention into four categories. Most straightforward, and most common, is rape by force or the threat of force. An estimated 69,800 inmates suffered this in 2008. The second category, "nonconsensual sexual acts involving pressure", includes 36,100 inmates coerced by such means as blackmail, offers of protection and demanded payment of a jailhouse "debt". This is still rape by any reasonable standard.
An estimated 65,700 inmates, including 6,800 juveniles, had sex with staff "willingly". But it is illegal in all 50 states for corrections staff to have any sexual contact with inmates. Since staff can inflict punishments including behavioural reports that may extend the time people serve, solitary confinement, loss of even the most basic privileges such as showering and (legally or not) violence, it is often impossible for inmates to say no. Finally, the department estimates that there were 45,000 victims of "abusive sexual contacts" in 2008: unwanted touching by another inmate "of the inmate's buttocks, thigh, penis, breasts, or vagina in a sexual way". Overall, most victims were abused not by other inmates but, like Jan, by corrections staff: agents of our government, paid with our taxes, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.
So, for the record, I think that coercive sexual acts should be included in sexual assault statistics. I think acts like unwanted touching should be included in the stats. Blackmailing, pressuring or bribing someone into sex makes sex non-consensual, and that should be reflected in our understanding of sexual assault. Ditto for "willing" sexual interactions between people whose power differentials make consent an impossibility. But I don't think the NCVS numbers reflect those kinds of assaults, and so we're sort of comparing apples and oranges here. And I don't think it's possible to conclude from these numbers that the US is "the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women."
All of that said, both the n+1 article and the New York Review of Booksarticle are correct that the US prison system is a moral catastrophe. They are both correct that it is entirely possible to lower the sexual assault rate in American prisons, but that the political will is simply not there.
There are many reasons to be horrified by prison assault – and sexual assault generally – but the degree to which it's enmeshed in the American consciousness as just part of our system of "justice" is particularly disturbing. While it looks to me like more women than men are sexually assaulted every year, it is clear that entering the prison system greatly increases your chances of being sexually assaulted, regardless of your gender. And however you cut the statistics, it is clear that men in the United States are sexually assaulted in enormous numbers – they're just men we don't care so much about, or that society has decided deserves it.
There are big differences in social conceptions of sexual assault in the prison population versus the general population – even though one in 10 Americans will be imprisoned at some point in their lives, and the US imprisons more people than any other society in the history of the world. Comparing prison assault with non-prison assault is interesting and necessary, but it's important to keep in mind that they operate in very different contexts (which isn't to say that one is better or worse, just that if we're going to discuss them intelligently, it makes sense to address that fact).
One overlap, though, between prison rape of men and non-prison rape of women is the way American society views both as an inevitability. That plays out in different ways, but there's a sense that incarceration must naturally lead to rape (see, eg, "don't drop the soap!" jokes), and that femaleness is inherently sexually tempting and therefore also leads to rape if you're not vigilant about preventing it (see, eg, every rape prevention tactic that focuses on what women should or should not do – don't walk home alone, don't wear revealing clothing, etc). At the same time, inevitability is tempered by the perceived ability to prevent rape if you just do things "right" – don't commit a crime so that you end up in jail, don't break any of the Rape Avoidance Rules For Ladies. It's a convenient way to conceptualise assault – if you just behave yourself, you won't be a victim. For women, "doing things right" requires constant vigilance, and an understanding of oneself as inherently vulnerable; it keeps us fearful, and it inhibits our freedom of movement. For populations with high incarceration rates, "doing things right" also requires constant vigilance, and an understanding of oneself as perceived as inherently criminal; it keeps entire communities fearful, resentful, and unable to seek the protection of the police; and it inhibits freedom of movement and expression and speech.
But with the understanding that rape is an inevitability and an avoidable threat and an individual crime, there's also no reason to actually do something about sexual assault. As long as we pin part of the responsibility for assault on victims – whether it's people in prison or people in their own homes – there's less of an incentive to actually curb assault, and less of an understanding that it actually is possible to prevent sexual assault on the assailant side. As long as we understand sexual assault as inevitable because men are naturally sexually voracious and sexually violent, there's no logical argument for trying to prevent sexual assault on the assailant side, because the only real solution is for women to protect themselves from roving, uncontrollable beasts. How can one stop men from raping, the argument goes, if some men are "natural" rapists? It only makes sense to target women with "common-sense advice", even though that advice – which largely amounts to "don't go outside" – has little relation to how sexual assault actually functions. And so while we could actually do quite a bit to curb assault – and while sexual assault rates have decreased as female power in society has increased – the entire way we understand it makes efforts to curb it seem pointless.
It's also impossible to separate this issue out from racism, classism, ableism and homophobia. The US prison population (including ICEimmigration holding facilities) is disproportionately black and Latin American. Prisoners disproportionately come from low-income backgrounds. Prison populations also include many individuals with intellectual disabilities and untreated mental health issues, as well as histories of violent victimisation which can lead to mental and physical health issues. And we're imprisoning millions of people who are not actually violent and aren't actually dangerous. Among non-incarcerated victims of sexual violence, women with disabilities are far more likely to be targeted for sexual abuse than women who are able-bodied and/or don't have developmental disabilities. Native women have the highest sexual assault rates of any other racial or ethnic group in the US. Stats for trans women and men are slightly more difficult to come by, since as far as I can tell they aren't noted in the DOJ surveys, but every reputable study I've seen indicates that trans people experience sexual assault at significantly higher rates that cis people. Black trans folks in the prison system are assaulted at particularly astounding rates – around 30% report being assaulted while in jail or police custody.
Feminists have long argued that sexual assault is about power and not sex – it's about turning what should be a pleasurable act into a weapon and an expression of dominance. We've argued that the role of sexual assault in society isn't just about individual violence – one person wanting to do harm to another person for a specific reason – but that it's a broader form of gender-based terrorism, where women and girls are positioned as always vulnerable, and where rape serves as a pervasive threat which curtails our full freedom to move through public space. Those things are all true, and sexual assault of women and girls is still very much a social tool employed to keep us fearful and relegated to the private sphere.
But sexual assault is also used to put "undesireables" in their place. Misogyny plays into that, too. The language of prison rape reflects rape-related misogyny, from jokes about the rapist making the less powerful prisoner his "bitch" to our limited understanding of prison sexual assault as necessarily entailing penetration with a penis. Being raped in prison is largely (and falsely) assumed to be a crime with exclusively male victims and exclusively male perpetrators, both of whom are considered reprehensible. We don't make a big deal out of prison rape not just because Americans largely don't care – although Americans largely don't care – but also because it's part of punishing certain classes of people who we think deserve punishment, and who we think aren't quite as human. In the real world, we all know that almost every non-incarcerated female rape victim is put through the wringer, and we all get to weigh in on What She Did Wrong and What I Would Have Done to not bring rape upon myself like she stupidly did. But we can do that only because there's an ideal out there of the "real", truly innocent rape victim who really really did nothing wrong. We can conceive of an innocent non-imprisoned female rape victim – young, white, virginal, assaulted by a stranger. There are no innocent criminals.
And so sexual assault in prison – or the threat of sexual assault in prison – similarly keeps less-powerful classes of people living under the pervasive threat of sexual violation. It doesn't work in the exact same way that the threat of sexual violence operates with regard to non-incarcerated women, and both have very different dynamics and areas where they overlap or totally diverge, but the use of sexual violence to maintain power (male power, state power) and to keep a less-powerful group living in fear is a constant.
Whether there are more men than women sexually assaulted in the US every year is an outstanding question. What's clear, though, is that sexual violence isn't a random crime of passion; it's a crime that has clear social purposes. And just as we've seen sexual violence against women significantly decrease as women have made greater social, economic and political gains, we're not going to see prison assaults decrease until we radically restructure our punitive criminal justice system, and until there's the same kind of righteous moral outrage over our draconian laws, absurd incarceration rates and levels of state-sanctioned abuse of the people that same state is charged with holding as there is about, say, women thinking they might have the right to their own bodies.