Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario: Joe, a man, walks into a bedroom and finds Sarah, a woman, lying unconscious. He begins having sex with her. She wakes up and starts screaming at him to stop, but he continues. Is this rape? Obviously, it is, I don’t know anybody who would not call this rape. But now let’s imagine the same scenario, but with the genders reversed: Joe is unconscious, and it is Sarah who walks in and begins having sex with him (for those asking, yes, men can get erections while unconscious). Here, I would still call it rape… but many people would disagree with me, instead claiming that men can only be “raped” if they are forcefully sodomized.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a handful of regressives in our society that support this outdated view. Academics, government agencies, and even sexual violence organizations believe that a man can only be raped if he is sodomized. Two of the most commonly cited studies on rape statistics in the US are the NISVS from the CDC and the NCVS from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. These studies are also used by RAINN, the largest organization in the US advocating for victims of sexual violence. The definition of “rape” from the NCVS includes only “vaginal, anal, or oral penetration by the offender.” Under this definition, it is only rape if the victim is penetrated by the rapist; a man who is forcefully sodomized has been raped, but a man who was forced to have sex with a woman has not been raped. The NISVS uses a similar definition of rape.
Academics in the field of sexual violence overwhelmingly support this “penetration by the offender” definition as well. In 1985, Mary P. Koss, with support from the Ms. Foundation and sponsored by the National Institute of Health, began work on the first rape study conducted in the US. Published in 1987, the results of her study yielded the now-infamous figure that 1 in 4 college women had been a victim of rape. Dr. Koss, a professor at the University of Arizona, remains one of the most influential figures in the field of sexual violence research, having published almost 300 works on violence against women as well as serving as an advisor to the CDC.
In a paper discussing the definition of “rape” used in rape studies, Koss writes that “it is important to restrict the term rape to instances where male victims were penetrated by offenders. It is inappropriate to consider as a rape victim a man who engages in unwanted sexual intercourse with a woman.” She does not give any reason for why this definition should be used, simply that it is important to use this definition.
Other academics have largely followed Dr. Koss’s lead. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains numerous articles written by leading academic feminists. One of which, titled “Feminist Perspectives on Rape,” defines rape in the opening sentence, stating that “rape is generally understood to involve sexual penetration of a person by force and/or without that person’s consent.” It is rare to find an academic who openly disagrees with this definition of rape.
As troubling as it is for prominent sexual violence researchers and federal agencies to support such a backward definition of rape, perhaps most alarming is the fact that even sexual abuse organizations have adopted this view. RAINN, for example, uses figures derived from this definition. On their site, RAINN states that 1 in 33 men have been raped and that 9 in 10 rape victims is female. Yet RAINN makes no attempt to specify that these figures only include men who were forcefully sodomized, as the organization apparently does not believe that a man who has been forced to have sex with a woman has been raped. Unfortunately, most people who see these statistics are unaware of the definition of them. As a result, the general public severely underestimates the actual number of male rape victims and female perpetrators, giving us a skewed and overly gendered view of rape and further marginalizing male rape victims.
The number of male victims being erased with these definitions is by no means insignificant. As other MRAs such as Karen Straughan have pointed out, the NISVS does have a separate category for men ‘made to penetrate’ their offender. An analysis of these figures shows that if the CDC counted it as a “rape” when a woman forced a man to have sex, men would be approximately as likely as women to be the victim of a completed and attempted rape in a given year. These victims are buried and forgotten by the CDC’s deceptive definition of rape, and you will never see discussions of these figures by RAINN or other mainstream sexual violence organizations.
Arguably the most significant obstacle faced by males who have been raped by women is the simple fact that society often refuses to acknowledge their existence. This cannot change until the CDC, BJS, RAINN, and others driving our discussions of rape statistics to stop erasing male victims of rape through deceptive definitions. The issue of the exclusive definition of rape has been raised with these parties before, but previous attempts at addressing this issue have been, for the most part, unsuccessful. When questioned about their definition of rape, the CDC gives a rather tautological response: “Made to penetrate are incidents where the victim is forced to penetrate their perpetrator, so does not meet the definition of rape.”
Unlike the CDC and BJS, RAINN has at least shown some concern for gender-neutrality. Shortly after a 2014 email campaign by MRAs, RAINN did change their “What can men do [to stop rape]?” page to a gender-neutral “What can bystanders do?” However the larger goal of the campaign, which was to convince RAINN to support a more progressive definition of rape, was not successful. RAINN gave a response which was initially encouraging but ultimately amounted to naught. Although RAINN indicated that they would look into the definitions of rape used on their website, they ultimately only made minor changes and continue to promote misleading rape statistics and endorse biased sexual violence studies.
Instead of continuing to rely on private communications such as e-mail, which are repeatedly ignored and brushed aside, this Sexual Assault Awareness Month I encourage everybody who cares about male victims of rape to voice their concerns on social media through the hashtag #CallItRape. Sexual Assault Awareness Month should not, as it often has in the past, focus almost entirely on female victims while giving only token acknowledgment, if any, of male victims. It is time to stop using deceptive definitions of rape to erase female perpetrators and male victims, and time to start having a more inclusive conversation about rape.
Below are the Twitter accounts for RAINN, the CDC, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Please Tweet these organizations using the hashtag #CallItRape to demand that they use a modern definition of rape and give male victims the same attention and support afforded to female victims. Unlike the CDC and the BJS, RAINN does not conduct their own rape studies, but their continued promotion of these misleading rape figures is inexcusable.
CDC (publishers of the NISVS) @CDCgov
BJS (publishers of the NCVS) @BJSgov