Erections Aren’t Consent: What the New FBI Definitions Might Tell Us About Male Victims of Rape

Last week, to considerable fanfare, the FBI announced it was updating and expanding its antiquated definition of rape. Though rape is generally punished by criminal statutes in individual states, the feds are in charge of gathering crime data based upon a working definition of what constitutes a particular crime. Last updated in 1929, the FBI’s definition of rape had been “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” Rape that didn’t involve physical force didn’t count—and neither, of course, did rape against men. This didn’t mean that men weren’t legally protected from rape; it did mean that sexual assaults against males (by either women or men) were not as easily tracked. 

The FBI is not the only federal agency that tracks sexual violence. The CDC also monitors rape and assault statistics, and just last month released a troubling and  exhaustive report. According to its authors, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be victims of rape or attempted rape. Rape, as Soraya Chemaly wrote recently, “is in our air.”

The FBI’s long overdue acknowledgment that men can be raped and the now infamous 1 in 71 figure from the CDC, have been subject to intense criticism from men’s rights activists. Some point out, for example, that while both male and female victims often don’t report rape, men may well be even less likely than women to speak up about their assault. In the case of male-on-male rape (most rapists, regardless of the sex of their victims, are men), guys often fear physical retaliation, especially in correctional settings, if they report what they endured. And when men or boys have been sexually assaulted by women, men’s rights activists suggest that their fear of being ridiculed—or simply not being believed—keeps them silent. 

Without getting mired in the tiresome debates over statistics, it’s safe to conclude three things from the recent data and the changed FBI definition. First, men make up a heavy preponderance of those who commit rape, though a significant minority of women does commit acts of sexualized violence. Second, women are statistically at much greater risk of rape than are men. Three, acknowledging these first two truths doesn’t diminish the reality that more men and boys than we realized are victims of rape and sexual violence. We need to avoid the twin errors of claiming false equivalence on the one hand, or denying the reality of male vulnerability altogether on the other. 

Since I started volunteering as a peer sexuality educator as a 19-year-old Berkeley undergrad more than 25 years ago, I’ve heard many painful stories of sexual abuse from both men and women.  Not infrequently, I’ve listened to college-age guys tell me stories of sexual encounters with women that, as they reported it, fell fall short of the gold standard of “enthusiastic consent.” These weren’t confessions of having assaulted women. These were accounts of being pressured to go “farther” than they wanted to go. 

I never heard a story from a college guy of being held down and forcibly raped by a female peer. I didn’t hear about guns to the head or knives to the throat. But I’ve never forgotten the story of “Ian,” an 18-year-old whom I worked with when I was a Cal senior back in 1989. Ian came from a conservative Christian family; he wanted to be a virgin until marriage. Like many, Ian had a rather literal definition of abstinence: He was willing to do “anything but” penis-in-vagina intercourse. 

Shortly after returning from winter break, Ian had hooked up with a female friend in his dorm room. Both had been drinking a little bit; clothes came off. While they were fooling around, this young woman told Ian she wanted to “pop his cherry” and take the last vestige of his virginity. He reminded her (they’d known each other for a while) that intercourse was off limits. But at one point, she suddenly straddled Ian, grabbed his erection, and slid his penis inside of her. He ejaculated within seconds. 

Ian was devastated with shame. Though he was never sexual with this woman again, he couldn’t name what had happened to him as rape. Neither could I. He and I—and, from what I could tell, the woman involved—all operated on the assumption that when it comes to heterosexual sex between adults, an erection is evidence of consent. When I shared this story with one of the mentors for our peer outreach program, a nurse practitioner, she shook her head. “That was a very selfish and manipulative thing to do,” she said, describing what this woman had done to Ian. Selfish and manipulative yes, but not rape. She couldn’t call it that.

A lot has changed since 1989. For one, we’re more open about the reality of male vulnerability. I’ve told Ian’s story many times in classes and workshops. More than once, I’ve heard from women afterwards who’ve related anecdotes about pressuring male partners for sex. I’ve been asked, more than once, by voices charged with fear and horror and incredulity, “Is it possible I raped my boyfriend?” Friends of mine who work as full-time sex educators report hearing similar queries quite frequently. 

Rape is, as we were reminded by the FBI this month, a word with a specific but evolving meaning. I’m leery about applying the term too quickly to Ian’s story, or to similar incidents that I’ve heard about from students of both sexes. But I have no problem saying that what happened to Ian fell well short of the enthusiastic consent standard that ought to be the sine qua non of every sexual encounter.

Ejaculation is not evidence of enthusiasm. Orgasms (both male and female) can be coerced. Those are truths that bear repeating. They are worth remembering not because we’re witnessing an epidemic of female-on-male sexual assault. They’re worth remembering not only for the sake of preventing the rare but real incidences of female on male rape, but for teaching all of us— especially men—that a partner’s physical arousal is not a sexual blank check.   

I still hear the witticism that “a hard dick has no conscience.” This belief that men “think with their dicks” serves to make men (like Ian) vulnerable to sexual assault, just as it serves to excuse away the rapes that aroused men commit. For the sake of the small but suffering number of male victims—and for the far greater number of women who are the victims of men—we need to shatter this pernicious myth about the male body. Men are not so tough that they can never be sexually assaulted by women. And by the exact same token, they are not so vulnerable to lust that rape becomes physiologically inevitable.

Men, we need to acknowledge, are both much stronger and much more fragile than most of us were raised to believe.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

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