Charlie woke up to a blank-faced girl straddling him. He had been disrobed, was erect, and as her hips began to shift in short, quick movements, he realized he was inside of her. Frozen with disbelief, Charlie laid still. He faked climaxing, hoping it would prompt her to dismount and leave the room. Eventually she did, but only after he rolled to his side and pretended to sleep.
The next morning Charlie wasn’t sure what to think. Had an underclassman he knew only by name really entered his dorm room and had her way with him as he slept? It all seemed so absurd, like the makings of an awkward wet dream. Except Charlie had zero interest in this girl. He had never spoken to her, kissed her or even tried to catch her eye. He felt neither lucky nor flattered, just extremely perturbed.
“The most traumatic part was the complete assumption of consent,” he tells me nearly two decades later. “I was physically revolted by the experience. It just felt so shockingly wrong.”
The concept of a woman forcing a man into a sex act can seem paradoxical, if not physiologically impossible. The assumption, likely shared by Charlie’s abuser, is that guys are always in the mood and an erection constitutes consent; but there’s a uniquely afflicted class of male victims who would strongly disagree. Lost in a cultural blind spot, they have been left to suffer in silence without resources and often without the empathy of family or friends.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s national survey on sexual violence, more than 5 million men in the United States have been “made to penetrate” someone else in their lifetime, whether by coercion, intimidation, or because they were incapacitated. In a largely overlooked study focusing exclusively on college males, 51.2 percent of participants reported experiencing a least one incident of sexual victimization, including unwanted sexual contact (21.7 percent), sexual coercion (12.4 percent) and rape (17.1 percent). Of course, most men assume they’ll be ostracized for reporting such emasculating violations, so the real numbers are likely at lot higher.
Since that initial morning-after, Charlie tried his best to shrug off the whole thing. He was in college after all, a time when sexual encounters are habitually fleeting. But the more he replayed the story in his head, the more he realized it was actually wearing on him. “I didn’t really have the mental framework to encapsulate it as a violation at the time,” he says. “It was just a really invasive experience. All I could think was, How can I get this to end? How can I get this to end without hurting her?”
“Made to penetrate” cases are all the more complicated because of a man’s lack of autonomy over his own penis. “It was too late to tell her I wasn’t interested in having sex, because she was already having it with me,” Charlie says. “It was all so unexpected.” Just because a man gets hard doesn’t necessarily mean he’s enjoying it. As with female victims, sexual arousal can be involuntary. Even ejaculation in cases of male rape is often the result of a mechanical biological response—not a sign of hot-blooded desire.
Charlie and his abuser never spoke after the incident, and he says he spent the rest of his senior year in fear of the story getting out. He would see her whispering with her friends as they looked his way, and he grew paranoid by what she might say. “I had this worry that if anyone heard about it I would seem like a monster or a predator,” he says. “I was 20. She was 18. I was a guy. She was a girl. It was my understanding that only men can commit sex crimes, so pretty much anything would have been more believable than the truth.”
And he’s probably right. Of the 20,100 suspects arrested for forcible rape in 2010, less than 1 percent were female, a victim-perpetrator gender divide that’s all but cemented in public perception. Gender roles may have evolved in the years since Charlie’s ordeal, but our assumptions about who takes advantage of whom remain rigid, despite evidence to the contrary: A recent study of sexual violence found that women by age 18 were almost equally as likely as men to commit sexual abuse (at 48 percent and 52 percent, respectively).
It took Charlie, now a 41-year-old software developer, 15 years to start talking about what happened to him, and when he finally told a few friends their reactions went something like this: “Weird. I guess she thought you were hot.”
Reddit users, however, were more sympathetic: “Same boat as me brother,” wrote user Kuljika in response to Charlie’s confessional post. “Sleep-rape fistbump.” Forums like the often controversial Men’s Rights subreddit have become a haven for emotionally battered victims (and frustrated men in general). Like group therapy, it’s a place where they can share their stories anonymously and connect with others without feeling vulnerable. “It was really the first step towards healing for me,” says Ben, a 23-year-old male victim I spoke to who posted about his own nocturnal boner-turned-living-nightmare. “It’s good to know there are others out there.”
There are hundreds of threads dedicated to victims of female-on-male sexual abuse, many of which read like locker-room rap sessions, but with a little more empathy and advice: “Try and let go of that shit holding you back, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy,” “Good to hear that someone else has this problem” or “That’s rough. Do feel. Don’t suck it up.” Unfortunately, as with any subreddit, the conversation can get bogged down by extremists and in this case more than a few misogynists. “Some people use their experience as a crutch to hate women,” says Ben. But with few alternative resources, the Reddit community will have to do. “There’s not really another home for guys who want to talk about these things,” Charlie says. Though there are sites like MaleSurvivor.org and 1and6.org, female-on-male sexual abuse is still a marginal topic.
Male victims were actually excluded from the legal definition of rape until the Department of Justice updated it in 2012, 85 years after the fact. Even now, it only accounts for those men who were anally or orally raped by males. In other words, an ill-intentioned penis and a vulnerable orifice are imperative to a rape indictment. Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary maintains that only “a man who commits rape” can be called a rapist. While quibbling over the semantics might seem petty, there are real implications, not only for victims, but also for the way statistics are influenced.
In the CDC’s national survey of sexual violence, for example, “made to penetrate” is not included as a form of rape. If it were, incidents of male rape would rise from 1 in 71 to a staggering 1 in 16 nationally (female rape is just under 1 in 5). The majority of the offenders of male victims would also be female.
The authors of the survey, which is sponsored by the Violence Against Women Act, maintain that being “made to penetrate” is a form of sexual victimization unique to males, and therefore independent of rape. As a consequence, “made to penetrate” cases seem less criminal, and certainly less provocative. In a situation like Charlie’s, the distinction appears to make sense: “Most people think of rape as a violent attempt to hurt another person. I don’t really know what was going through this girl’s head at the time, but I don’t think she was there to traumatize me. I guess she just wanted to have sex with me and assumed that’d be ok.”
Of course, for even the gentlest male sleep-rapist, “I assumed she’d be into it” doesn’t exactly fly in court. Consent reigns supreme, and to pursue a female without it is to invite culpability. In “made to penetrate” cases, the line is often far more ambiguous. Still, there are plenty of female aggressors who don’t leave much to interpretation.
“I didn’t call it rape at the time because it didn’t even occur to me that I could be raped,” says Ben, who agreed to speak with me over Skype. “All I knew was that what happened to me was not ok. It was a horrifying situation.”
Ben was sexually assaulted by an ex-girlfriend three years ago after she broke into his home in the middle of the night. Like Charlie, he woke up to his intruder sitting on top of him, his penis stiff and penetrating her.
“It was a uniquely violating experience because between morning wood and what she was doing to me, I couldn’t keep myself from getting hard,” he says. “I just felt completely helpless.”
Ben’s ex had been abusive throughout the relationship, both physically and verbally. She would often threaten suicide in order to force him to do various things, from abandoning his friends to pleasuring her. The night she broke into his house she had slashed up her legs in a fit of psychotic rage, screaming that she would kill herself if he didn’t satisfy her every wish. By morning there were bloodstains splattered across his sheets.
Just as with female victims of sexual violence, more than 1 in 4 men are abused at the hands of an intimate partner. According to the CDC, of the 5,451,000 who report having been “made to penetrate,” 45 percent were victimized by a current or former girlfriend, 45 percent by an acquaintance, and just 5 percent by a stranger. But while male abusers tend to achieve their ends through physical means, women often employ more psychological methods, like extortion: I’ll say you hit me. I’ll divorce you. I’ll kill myself. I’ll kill you.
Women also pursue their victims in situations when they’re more vulnerable, whether drunk, sleeping, sick, drugged or demoralized by psychological venom.
“When I realized what was happening I was paralyzed both mentally and physically,” Ben says. “She had convinced me that everything was my fault. That I was the one hurting her. It was awful. I just felt really alone.”
Ben’s ex also threatened to tell the authorities that he had raped her if he dared tell anyone about what had happened, a variation on an intimidation tactic commonly associated with male-on-female rape. Victims are often told, “No one will believe you.” However, only female abusers can say, “Not only won’t anyone believe you, but they’ll believe me because I am a woman. There’s proof that we had a sexual encounter, and I can use that against you.”
Even without diabolical exes to worry about, it’s pretty hard for the average American male to know how to process the mental shrapnel. Bro culture can exacerbate the feelings of denial and shame victims often experience—guys are told to man up, don’t be such a pussy, grow some balls—and in the end, they’re a lot less likely to seek help.
According to the CDC’s survey, men who have been victimized by an intimate partner experience poorer physical and mental health than those who haven’t. And recent studies of sexually victimized college males show increased instances of hostility, depression, substance abuse, sexual risk-taking behavior and its opposite, sexual dysfunction.
Jake, a 39-year-old video game developer, hasn’t had sex since he escaped a sadistic relationship two years ago. “Hell, I can’t even masturbate sometimes because I get too upset,” he wrote in a candid post on Reddit.
Like Ben, Jake’s girlfriend assaulted him verbally and physically, and she often refused to take no for an answer. “She extorted sex from me on multiple occasions and threatened to kick me out,” he says, in a conversation over Skype. “I felt really ashamed, but it wasn’t a situation that brute strength could have gotten me out of.”
Jake had also been abused as a child and had spent a lifetime trying to move past it, only to get derailed by someone he thought he could trust. Facing clinical depression and severe intimacy issues, he sought professional help, but couldn’t find a therapist who would take him at his word. “There was this overwhelming idea that because she was ‘giving me sex’ that I should be inherently grateful no matter what,” he says. “It was like people couldn’t see me as a human being who could in fact be hurt.”
Ben’s life went down hill too. He would wake up to get stoned and then drink himself to sleep, self-medicating in an effort to cope with his mounting anxiety. “The thing that really stood out to me was how little support there was and the amount of disbelief,” he says, noting that his current girlfriend was holding his hand “for moral support.” He eventually stopped bringing up the abuse altogether, even with the therapists he saw to deal the consequences. “It’s hard to speak about it openly without getting shamed,” he says.
Learning how to navigate relationships has been especially difficult. “It’s like you’ve got this siren going off that is drowning out all of your rational thoughts,” he says. “All I can hear is, Be careful, protect yourself, she’s going to hurt you.” He also has trouble performing in bed and describes sex as something like “wandering a mine field,” always wary of the negative triggers it could set off.
Though Charlie’s symptoms were less severe, he says he’s “certainly less interested in sex than most men are” and tends to react strongly towards aggressive women. Recently, when a girl grabbed his crotch underneath a table, he jumped up and left.
“It was completely involuntary,” he says. “There were probably more graceful ways I could have handled it, but my body just did what it wanted to do.”