Warning: This piece includes description of sexual assault, which may be triggering for some readers
Dave* was a fresher in his first year of university. He had been getting on with a girl who was 19, like him, and lived just across the corridor in halls. One night the pair got close and Dave says it became evident that she believed, over the course of their friendship, he had promised a romantic relationship or, at the very least, sex. He says he might have flirted with the idea at one point but no longer felt that way. He told her he didn’t want to have sex.
But the woman insisted. She was both taller and physically stronger than Dave so when she started giving him oral sex to try and coax an erection, he struggled to stop her. He didn’t want to restrain her advances in case he hurt her. Now, almost 20 years later, he tells HuffPost UK he felt he was “getting what he deserved” for leading her on. Instead of fight or flight, he simply froze.
Rationalising the situation, Dave decided the quickest way to end things would be to reciprocate oral sex in the hope she would orgasm, then stop. It didn’t work. She sat on his lap and forced him to penetrate her. He says she said things typically associated with male perpetrators of sexual assault, using phrases like “you must want this”, and he felt frightened to push her off.
“I could have done but she was strong enough it would have been a fight,” he says. It triggered flashbacks of being bullied as a teenager and being held down by a girl while two boys kicked him in the head. As he puts it: “I couldn’t fight back then either.”
If the gender roles were reversed, Dave’s experience – being forced to have penetrative sexual intercourse against his will – would be legally classified as rape. But the Sexual Offences act in England and Wales makes a key gendered distinction on rape. Current legislation states that a person can be found guilty of rape if “he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with his penis”, without that person consenting to penetration and without the accused having a reasonable belief consent has been given.
This specificity of pronoun and body part in the legislation applies to the perpetrator, not to the victim – i.e. anyone can be raped, but not everyone can rape. And it means that Dave’s case, known as a ‘forced to penetrate’ case, cannot be prosecuted as rape – only as an offence of ‘sexual assault’ or ‘causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent’ (Scotland and Northern Ireland have the same gendered distinction, if not the exact same legislation). Crucially, Dave cannot be recognised as a rape victim.
Both rape and sexual assault have a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. However, while the minimum sentence for rape is four years in custody, the minimum sentence for assault is a community order and comes without the associated social stigma of being named a rapist. Dave believes the law shouldn’t be gendered in this way. And he is not alone.
Alan Robertson, from Survivors UK – a support service for male, non-binary and trans survivors of sexual abuse (mainly by men, but occasionally women) – agrees. “I think there is a gap in the law at the moment that leaves out men who’ve experienced what would currently be called sexual assault by a woman, but for them might feel like rape. Language is important when we talk about sexual violence. If you go to the police and are told from a legal perspective this isn’t rape, what long-term impact is that going to have on you?”
Not only does the law say men cannot be raped by women but societal assumptions also undermine their testimonies: that, for example, men can always fight back or must have been aroused to be erect in the first place, unlike women who can be penetrated against their will and desire.
In fact, having got an erection while enduring trauma is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for victims struggling to make sense of an assault. NHS guidance for victims of sexual abuse says erections, or visible signs of arousal, are not exclusive to positive sexual experiences. “When stimulated, it is not possible for someone to consciously control whether or not they become aroused,” the guidance reads. “Arousal is the way the body responds to touch, not emotion.”
Dave says such misconceptions, coupled with the gendered legal classification, meant he didn’t consider what had happened to him as rape until six months after the event. Even then, he didn’t report it to the police. As with other types of sexual violence, reporting figures for ‘forced to penetrate’ cases are low.
Rape Crisis and End Violence Against Women (EVAW), both of which support and lobby for female victims of sexual violence, each told HuffPost UK they have yet to develop an official position on a potential change in the law. A spokesperson for Rape Crisis did say: “Any experience of sexual violence or abuse is extremely serious, can be traumatic for the person subjected to it, and can have wide-ranging and long-lasting impacts on their lives, health and relationships.”
Rape Crisis explained that its focus is elsewhere: “Our current focus is putting pressure on government both to sustainably fund specialist support services, and to fix the criminal justice system, which is routinely failing victims and survivors of all forms of sexual violence and abuse in multiple ways and at every stage of the process, rather than on [this] legislative change.”
Dr Siobhan Weare, from Lancaster University Law School, has conducted the first academic research into ‘forced to penetrate’ cases in the UK – previous research was done in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, but the voices of British men speaking about their experiences had never been published, she says.
Weare conducted an online survey of more than 200 men in 2016-2017 and one-to-one interviews with 30 of those men from 2018-2019. She found that men were reporting the same consequences of rape as female victims, including negative mental health, inability to trust and form relationships, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and suicide attempts.
More than 50% of the men Weare spoke to would like to see ‘forced to penetrate’ cases considered as rape. John*, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is one of them. His interview transcript, in which he describes being raped by a long-term partner, was shared with HuffPost UK.
John and his partner had been together for 15 years. Soon after they started their relationship, she got pregnant. They didn’t know whether or not John was the father, but the couple stayed together, bought a house and became parents. It wasn’t until John’s partner fell pregnant again that she revealed the first child was not biologically his. John stayed and the second child was born.
One Saturday night, after a week of John working away from home, his partner went out to the pub while he stayed home with the children. Around midnight, she called to say she was coming back. “She made it very clear she expected me to have sex with her,” John said. “She wasn’t going take no for an answer. She was angry and obviously drunk.”
John hoped she would have forgotten by the time she got home, but she hadn’t: ”[She] said she was going to have me, I pretended to be asleep and she pawed at me and turned me over. I said I didn’t want to, and she carried on anyway.”
“She made it very clear she expected me to have sex with her. She wasn’t gonna take no for an answer.”
As in Dave’s situation, John was shorter and smaller than his partner. She would sometimes put her weight against a door so it was impossible to open, he says. “Often I used to end up running from the front door to the back door and back again, and back again, and back again, until eventually she got tired. One time I had to climb out the kitchen window... she picked up a kitchen knife.”
On this occasion, John considered his options: he didn’t want to fight back in case he hurt her, he didn’t want to argue for fear of waking the children; and he didn’t feel he could run away or leave the house because he was naked. “I didn’t really have a choice,” he said in his testimony.
“She’d broken me down to that point where after all those years there was nothing I could do,” he said. “Any option I had to stop her would have made things worse, either for the kids or for me. So, she got a condom, she put the condom on me and, proceeded to have sex with me, holding me down.” John did not report the incident. It would not been recognised as rape if he had.
The current rape laws in England and Wales, as set out in the Sexual Offences Act, were based on a Home Office consultation paper called Setting The Boundaries. Conducted in 2002-2003, it examined the issue of gendered legislation. While the consultation recognised that men could be forced into having penetrative sex, the paper concluded that such instances did not carry the same risks as rape of women and as such, shouldn’t be the same in law.
“We did not discover sufficient [evidence] to convince us this was the equivalent of rape,” wrote the paper’s authors. Not only was rape “clearly understood by the public as an offence that was committed by men on women”, but they “felt the offence of penile penetration was of a particularly personal kind, it carried risks of pregnancy and disease transmission and should properly be treated separately from other penetrative assaults.”
Robertson from Survivors UK believes this conclusion is wrong and plays into misconceptions about assault being less traumatic for men than women. He says: “It’s really dangerous for us to get into discussing sexual assault in terms of hierarchy like this. People misunderstand how traumas impact survivors. We’re not talking about getting over physical injury. We’re talking about forming relationships, how you feel about your body, your autonomy being taken away from you – that can happen to men or women.”
The paper, authored by civil servant Betty Moxton with the help of 30 inquiry members listened to evidence from 27 different experts across a 16-month period and did not cite the exact evidence that led to its conclusions. But, as a result, lawmakers retained the definition of rape as penile penetration.
“Rape and sexualised violence should not create a rivalry. But while compassion and concern are not finite resources, column inches and donor dollars often are, which can leave many anxious that more attention for one means, inherently, less for the other,” wrote journalist Kerry Paterson in 2013 for the Women’s Media Centre, the US non-profit organisation founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem.
Current statistics in England and Wales show only one in every 65 female rape cases reported to the police result in suspects being summoned or charged – just 1.5% of all cases. The annual Violence Against Women and Girls report from the Crown Prosecution Service showed that 3.3% of all reported rapes ended in a conviction.
The major drop in the number of prosecutions for rape in England and Wales – coupled with record volumes of cases being reported to police – has prompted some campaigners to call out the “effective decriminalisation of rape”.
Support services are also facing increased cuts. Since 2015, nearly half of all Rape Crisis centre have been threatened with closure due to a lack of funds.
Claire Waxman, the London victim’s commissioner, said women also have to fight against deeply entrenched myths and stereotypes around rape. “A victim almost has to prove they’re not lying,” she told the BBC. Recently, it has been reported that some women are enduring additional trauma by having their therapy notes as evidence against them in rape trials.
“Recognising the possibility of female-to-male abuse should in no way take away from efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and domestic violence against women, who continue to account for the vast majority of victims,” Hillary Margolis, senior researcher of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, says. “This includes support for women’s refuges and other specialised services, of which there are far too few.”
Robertson, who works regularly with Rape Crisis centres as a consultant, says he understands the immense pressures on existing services for women, but doesn’t believe this is a reason not to change the law if it needs doing. “There shouldn’t be a hierarchy of who gets support – there’s not enough funding or services for survivors of any gender. And that’s wrong but I don’t think this group of people isn’t getting enough support should be a reason to disqualify others,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“We totally acknowledge more women experience sexual assault and rape then men do. That’s a fact. We don’t dispute that.”
If the law were to be changed to recognise ‘forced to penetrate’ cases, Robertson supports adopting something similar to the law in Sweden where ‘enforced sexual intercourse’ is illegal for any gender. He says he does believe that support services and centres should still be gendered, because women need safe spaces in this field. “We recognise there should be women-only spaces but that’s not the same issue as the law,” he said.
Based on her research of ‘forced to penetrate’ cases, Dr Siobhan Weare agrees. “There should still be gendered responses to both cases and gendered service provision, but they should be the same under the eyes of the law.” She adds: “In recognising the harms done to men and boys it doesn’t mean I am, by any means, anti-women or reducing the harms done against women and girls.”
A further concern is that men’s rights activists campaigning for law change are only doing so in order to “bring feminists down” rather than out of a genuine concern for male victims. This was seen in a 2014 incident at Occidental College in Los Angeles where members of the so-called Men’s Rights Movement bombarded a sexual assault reporting site for women in protest at what they believed were over-inflated female rape statistics and false reports.
Dave worries about this, but says these men are not representative of those campaigning for a change in legislation and should not be a deterrent. “These people are a problem for men, too,” he says.
Robertson says his charity has attracted men’s rights activists, but insists that it’s “not the approach we take”. He says: “We as an organisation totally acknowledge more women experience sexual assault and rape than men do. That’s a fact. We don’t dispute that and the response should acknowledge that.”
When John looked back on his experience in his testimony, he said he still struggled to see himself as the victim and his female partner as the guilty party. “Men are seen as abusers and so I found it hard to even see her in the context of being an abuser because that’s not what we’re told happens. To me she couldn’t be an abuser because she was a woman.”
* Some names have been changed.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Rape Crisis services for women and girls who have been raped or have experienced sexual violence - 0808 802 9999
- Survivors UK offers support for men and boys - 0203 598 3898
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.