Two years ago, Lara Stemple, the director of UCLA’s Health and Human Rights Law Project, came upon a statistic that surprised her: In incidents of sexual violence reported to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 38 percent of victims were men––a figure much higher than in prior surveys. Intrigued, she began to investigate: Was sexual violence against men more common than previously thought?
The inquiry was a timely one. For years, the FBI definition of rape was gendered, requiring “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” But a recent redefinition focused instead on forced penetration with no mention of gender. Meanwhile, other data-gatherers had started to track a new category of sexual violence that the Centers for Disease Control call “being forced to penetrate.” And still others were keeping better track of sexual violence in prisons.
Taken together, the new data challenged widely held beliefs.
In “When Men Are Raped,” the journalist Hanna Rosin summarized the peer-reviewed results that Stemple published with her co-author Ilan Meyer in the American Journal of Public Health. “For some kinds of victimization, men and women have roughly equal experiences,” Rosin wrote. “Stemple is a longtime feminist who fully understands that men have historically used sexual violence to subjugate women and that in most countries they still do. As she sees it, feminism has fought long and hard to fight rape myths—that if a woman gets raped it’s somehow her fault, that she welcomed it in some way. But the same conversation needs to happen for men.”
This awareness-raising need not come at the expense of women victimized by sexual violence, Stemple emphasized to Rosin, because “compassion is not a finite resource.” She also began to wonder, if men were victims of sexual violence far more often than was previously known by researchers, who were the perpetrators? Other men? Women? In what proportions? Under what circumstances?