Is Sexual Abuse A Male Monopoly? It's Complicated

In the wake of never-ending reports of high-profile male sexual predators in politics, media, and the arts, it has been suggested male pattern sexual assault and abuse could best be addressed by barring men from the paid labor force and confining them to housework. It is notable that not a single prominent woman to date has been the subject of reports of sexual misconduct even though women, though greatly underrepresented in positions of power and cultural status, are hardly absent from them. Is predatory sexual behavior exclusively a male thing? Apparently not, but it’s complicated.

In the early 1990s, the most comprehensive survey of the sexual lives of Americans since Alfred Kinsey’s was undertaken. Sociologist Edward Laumann et al.’s The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, employed a random sample representing all adults between the ages of 18-59. One part of the study addressed sexual abuse. About 22 percent of women and almost 4 percent of men reported having been “forced” to have sex, though the respondents were left to define the term according to their criteria.

The subjects were also asked if they ever forced anyone to have sex and the discrepancy, by sex, in acknowledging it was stark. The proportion of women who admitted coercing males to have sex was 1.5 percent, almost identical to the 1.3 percent of men who said they had been victimized by a female. By contrast, when males were asked if they ever coerced a female into having sex, only about 3 percent said they had, compared to the 22 percent of women who reported males had forced them. This anomaly can be interpreted in many ways, but undoubtedly the belief, so central to self-exonerating “rape culture,” that “no” doesn’t mean “no” helps us understand today’s headlines and why men are viewed as uniquely prone to being sexual abusers.

One small finding in the 1992 study, however, should have stimulated new lines of inquiry. When asked whether the person or persons who forced them was male or female 47 percent of the admittedly small number of male victims reported it was a female. Only 3 percent of women reported they were forced by other females.

Would research findings a quarter of a century ago be replicated today? Is more known about the experiences of men as well as women? Two trends are worth noting. First, despite the ubiquity of sex on the internet and all media, the frequency of actual sexual activity has declined since the late 80s. Violent crime rates, including sexual crime, also fell. The are many reasons behind these trends, and it is possible home entertainment and texting is playing a role in keeping young people at home, less apt to be sexually active, and potentially victims or perpetrators.

What about the disparity between male and female rates as victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse? In 2011, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in which estimates for lifetime prevalence of sexual crimes and misconduct was gleaned through interviews with 14,000 randomly selected men and women 18 and over. Unlike the 1992 study, the NIPSVS provided a much richer analysis of the data. Apart from rape, where 19 percent of females were victimized compared to just under 2 percent of men (and neither hardly ever by a female), disparities still existed, but were not as lopsided. About 13 percent of women reported lifetime victimization rates for “sexual coercion” (i.e., non-physical pressure) compared to nearly 6 percent of males. About 27 percent of women experienced “unwanted sexual contact” (e.g., fondling; kissing) compared to almost 11 percent of men. In addition, 32 percent of the females reported “unwanted non-contact sexual acts” (e.g., exhibitionism; forced to watch pornography), as did 13 percent of males. Fifteen percent of women reported being stalked; 6 percent of men. Finally, one category, was almost never reported by women, but by nearly 7 percent of men: “Being made to penetrate” (i.e., forced fellatio).

If males too, albeit at lower rates, are victims of sexually predatory behavior, are they only preyed upon by other males? The NIPSVS study, as well as other data from government research, indicate this is a misconception. When it comes to being “made to penetrate,” nearly 80 percent of the time the abuser was female. Women were also more likely than men to be the perpetrators of “sexual coercion,” and as likely to initiate “unwanted sexual contact,” “unwanted non-contact sexual acts” and stalking, when men were the victims.

The spotlight on male sexual predators, while affirming male’s greater proclivity for such behavior, obscures a more complex vision of heterosexuality. Men and women want sex with each other at times and do not at others. Moreover, they don’t necessarily agree on the menu of appealing sexual acts or when they want them. In most cases, consensual relations occur. In a minority of encounters, they do not, and women can be the perpetrators, not just victims. Over the course of a lifetime, a significant portion of both sexes is victimized, though women clearly far more so when it comes to rape.

The “rules” that have governed heterosexuality—men initiate sexual overtures---disadvantage women as well as men. Men are more likely than women to attempt what turn out to be “unwanted” sexual acts because they cannot invariably gauge women’s level of interest with accuracy if women’s role is to be relatively opaque or risk stigmatization. While women obviously suffer from these advances, men can as well, feeling humiliation if rejected. On the other hand, men are expected never to reject any woman whose desire is made known, because real men are always on call. Males contemplating reporting their victimization fear ridicule. Thus, they formally complain even less often than women.

Both men and women accept what should be unacceptable for reasons that are rooted in gender roles. It’s time for a new day which affirms the equal rights of women and men to initiate sexual activity and permits both to say “yes” or “no” at any point after that, with “no” taken at face value. Of course, “yes” and “no” often are multi-layered and ambivalence can make decision-making confusing for both sexes. But probably not all or even most of the time.

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