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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Gender Stereotypes of Rapists: Your Stories
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Spurred by Conor Friedersdorf’s piece “The Understudied Female Sexual Predator,” readers share a broad range of personal experiences around nonconsensual sex and grapple with their meaning. If you have something to add, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. (For related threads, see “On Rape and Empowerment” and “How Should Parents Talk to Their Kids About Rape?”)

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That’s the personal narrative this reader struggled with:

I’m a genderqueer and male-identified but assigned-at-birth female. I am so glad Conor is writing about this [“The Understudied Female Sexual Predator”], even if I don’t always agree with his writings (I’m much less of a libertarian than he is). Your reader stories by men were sad to read, but they also made me not feel so alone in terms of going through my own experience.

It was only after really dealing with, mentally, my rape (by a female) that I could even start to tackle issues of my own gender identity. That is, the predominant narrative of rape as “male perpetrator/female victim” really did a number on me in terms of thinking through my gender identity—deciding to transition to a more male body—because I was like, “Wait, what did this mean that I was raped by a woman? Can I really be the dude I think of myself as?” Etc, etc. My rape meant that actually devoting time and energy to thinking about my gender identity was delayed for almost 20 years, which is a shitty way to go.

In the end, I’m glad these dynamics are getting more covered by the mainstream press (versus just LGBTQ publications). Those of us who’ve been isolated for so long at least have more narratives to connect to.

Our reader’s own narrative started two decades ago:

I went to law school as a pretty confident person. I had done a lot of non-law-related stuff, and I was hoping legal training would allow me to be a more effective advocate in areas I cared about. The first part of my 1L year was fine. I met a lot of awesome people, broadened a lot in terms of thinking about the world, etc, etc. I also had a study group of people I mainly hung out with.

One of the people in my study group was X. I thought we were friends. We had a similar way of zippy dancing and a similarly energetic attitude towards life. We had the same birthday. Like I said, I thought we were friends.

Then came our law-student LGBTQ-group party. I drank too much, passed out, and woke up to X fingering me while I was slipping in and out of consciousness. I was not proud of the amount I drank that night. But, given my state at the time, I couldn’t stop what was happening to me, because I wasn’t particularly coherent.

And yeah, yeah, it’s the regular date-rape situation, I know that. It took me at least a day or three to realize it wasn’t particularly consensual. You might ask, “WTF, why didn’t you realize that right away?” But when you’re in that moment, it’s hard to understand. It’s a lot to process. It’s hard to figure out. It’s just, well, a lot at once, and if your brain is like mine, you would just rather think about other things (nerdy nerdy administrative law things) and just ignore it all. Which is what I did for a few days. Until I emailed X about it and was like, “You know, I really didn’t consent to any of that.”

Her response? “Yeah, if I were a guy, I guess it’d be rape.”

And so here was my response to X, which is enumerated because it’s easier to think about things in terms of enumerated lists:

A reader shares her thoughts over Conor’s piece, “The Understudied Female Sexual Predator”:

I am incredibly grateful to see research and coverage of this undiscussed epidemic. I was trafficked as a child and about a third of my rapists were women.

I cringe when I hear most people talk about rape culture, because the mere existence of female perpetrators and male rape victims is so rarely considered. And I am far more concerned with the gap in research and services for this demographic than whether or not I am cat-called. I feel so alienated by the feminist movement because so many feminists are very dismissive of my attempt to even discuss the existence of female perpetrators because it is so against the stereotypical image of what a rapist looks like. It is true that not all men are rapists, just as it is true that not all women are rapists. Just as not all humans are horribly predatory.

It is tragic to comprehend the lack of services and sympathy that are available to male rape victims, perpetuated by this stigma that men aren’t raped and women don’t rape. Female rape victims already face such obstacles in reporting—but almost all of the male rape victims I know faced complete incredulity from the police when they reported. It’s shamefully tragic that at least as a female, people are willing to believe that I might have been raped at all, regardless of why or whether a judge is willing to excuse my rapist’s actions.

I try to advocate for all victims of rape and domestic violence as much as possible, but it heeds yet another gap in research—very few longitudinal studies exist to show data on positive outcomes for rape victims. Part of this is due to the nature of the injury; you don’t exactly want to be poked, prodded, and monitored after being raped, but the current stigma for all victims is nothing good, and that makes recovery feel all the more hopeless.

Another reader dissents over the way I’ve framed this series thus far:

When I saw Conor’s article on sexual assault perpetrated by women, I was thrilled. This is, as is stated in the title, a vastly understudied part of experience that needs to be discussed more widely.

I think, though, that the headline for readers’ submissions changed between last night and today [the series was temporarily titled “Stories of Women Raping Men”—for reasons explained below], or, if not, I know the chosen subject matter didn’t match the broader headline: a discussion of “The Understudied Female Sexual Predator” turned suddenly into, exclusively, a discussion of men being raped.

This ignores one of the major points that Conor makes:

Our next three readers grapple with what their girlfriends did to them; they all use the word “rape” but are uncertain—to varying degrees—if that’s the right word to characterize what happened. The first reader was a virgin when his girlfriend forced sex on him—and he had been planning to wait till marriage:

I was surprised when browsing your site today to notice Conor’s article [“The Understudied Female Sexual Predator”] and thrilled to learn that there is research ongoing into this understudied phenomenon. In 2013, as a freshman in college, I was sexually assaulted by my then-girlfriend, and it was months before I even considered the possibility that what happened to me could have been accurately termed “rape.”

About six months afterwards, I was reading a personal story online by a female college student about her own assault when I paused and realized how similar the event that she described was to my own experience. I felt confident based on the details that she provided that what had happened to her was definitely rape, and yet a simple reversal of the genders of the characters threw that fact into question.

The story I read online described an incident of date rape. Here are the details as best as I can recall them: A female college student returned to her dorm room with a male friend after a night out together. She described the guy as a close friend with whom she’d spent a lot of time throughout college, but with whom she had never been physically intimate and to whom she had never previously indicated romantic interest. As they were sitting together on her bed talking, he began touching her (unsolicited). She described how surprised she felt because both were completely sober and he had never indicated an interest in sex with her.

She verbally objected to the physical contact, but he persisted. She described saying some variation of “no, not right now, I’m not in the mood, etc.” with no impact on his persistence. Finally, she stopped vocally objecting at all. She described lying on the bed stiff like a board in hopes that would indicate her disinterest, but it didn’t deter him; she contemplated some more violent form of physical resistance but worried about harming someone that she considered a friend. She never reported it as rape or told any of her friends about it, but wrote the blog post that I later read because the experience left her deeply rattled because she was convinced that it was nonconsensual sex.

Reverse the genders of the characters in her story, and you’ve basically got mine.

***

I returned to my dorm room after a dinner date with my girlfriend of several months (neither of us were under the influence of any substance). We began talking on my bed and then kissing, but I objected when she began to undress me.

Several readers are touching on that theme. One writes:

My first sexual experience was rape, in the sense that I was coerced and given drugs and alcohol. I was 14 years old, and the girl was 16. She was much more worldly, and very pushy. The whole experience was extremely unsettling, not least because I contracted a rather painful yeast infection from her, and visited several doctors who all told me I didn’t have an STD (VD, in those days). They told me to go away, that I was imagining things. Eventually, after a long time, it went away on its own, with me completely ignorant of what it was until many years later.

From a guy in his late twenties who got “black-out drunk”:

A few years ago I was at a small party with a few close friends and some other guests. I had been drinking prior to the party and so by midnight I was very intoxicated. Since it was a friend’s house, I decided to go ahead and fall asleep in the spare bedroom rather than continue drinking and get sick/embarrass myself. Around the time I decided to get into bed, I blacked out. I only remember flashes of what happened afterwards.

At some point I got out of bed to get myself some water. I remember having my shorts and shirt still on and going into the kitchen. As I am filling up a glass, I remember talking with a girl in the kitchen. I can not remember what we talked about at all.

I then remember being in the bedroom and her pushing me against the wall while kissing me. Then flashes of moments: I am pushed on the bed; my shorts are off and she is on top of me; and finally I am in the middle of the bed on top of her.

Yesterday my colleague Conor reported on new research into “the understudied female sexual predator.” Here he relays some of the conclusions from the peer-reviewed paper by Lara Stemple, Andrew Flores, and Ilan H. Meyer:

Stereotypes about women “include the notion that women are nurturing, submissive helpmates to men,” they write. “The idea that women can be sexually manipulative, dominant, and even violent runs counter to these stereotypes. Yet studies have documented female-perpetrated acts that span a wide spectrum of sexual abuse.”

They argue that female perpetration is downplayed among professionals in mental health, social work, public health, and law [...] And according to the paper, when female abusers are reported, they are less likely to be investigated, arrested, or punished compared to male perpetrators, who are regarded as more harmful.

Largely because of those female stereotypes and the stigmas feared by men, such stories of sexual assault are rarely told (James A. Landrith’s being a notable exception). But when we opened the hello@ door for reader experiences, several men came forward. The first story is from Down Under:

I’m an American living in one of the state capital cities in Australia, and I used to enjoy hosting guests on an online house-sharing site. I know how hard it is to find safe, reliable, and cheap accommodation while travelling, so I like trying to give back.

Back in August, I hosted a girl from China who was spending a “working holiday” one-year visa out here, travelling to my city as one of her first stops. On her first night I showed her around my neighbourhood and we went to a nearby bar for a drink. After one beer for me and one cider for her, she said she was feeling tipsy and wanted to go back to the house before going back out for dinner.

When we got home, I was setting out the sofabed for her for later when she suddenly grabbed me around the shoulders and told me how well we got along, how we were great together. (I had known her for about four hours at that point.) I took it as the effusive enthusiasm of a friendly traveller with somewhere between intermediate and semi-fluent English skills.

She said she was sleepy, so we ate in that night. During dinner she just sort of stared at me. I was starting to get uncomfortable but I went with it—cultural differences and all. It couldn’t be easy travelling through a new country for the first time, I thought.

In the middle of the night, I awoke to find her next to me in my bed (I hadn’t locked the door to my bedroom) wrapped around me. Her hand was moving downwards and—well, we don’t need more detail.

I pulled away and asked her what was going on, giving her even some benefit of the doubt that maybe she sleepwalked or for some reason didn’t find the sofabed comfortable. She said she wanted to have sex, and I clarified that I don’t sleep with my guests, that it makes things weird. The whole reason I do this is to provide a safe space for people, that I wasn’t going to be one of those guys trolling for vulnerable travelling women. Even if she wanted it, it wasn’t my style.

This is where it got stranger.