When a Woman Sexually Assaults a Man

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.

She became upset, crying that I must not like her, and mumbling semi-coherently until I heard the word “married.” I asked if she thought I was married, to which she clarified that she was in fact married. She’d wanted a divorce for a year (they’d been married for two) but he wouldn’t divorce her until she found someone else. She hoped that coming to Australia for a year would cause him to find someone else, and she wanted the same.

At this point any remaining vestige of doubt was out of my mind that I would absolutely not sleep with her. Like an idiot, and concerned for this seemingly unstable woman in my bed, I let her share the other side of the queen bed for the night. I didn’t sleep much that night.

The next day we toured around the city as I do with my guests, just a bit more anxious than before. I figured we laid it all out and there wouldn’t be an issue the next day. Maybe her marriage was really bad, and she did say she’d been tipsy earlier, so it happens. New country, new experiences—maybe she figured that’s how things were in Australia (with an American, no less). That night I again set out the sofabed and we went to bed, and I was confident that it was closed out and settled.

I don’t know when I woke up, but it must have been somewhere around midnight. She was in my bed again, then I thought “fine, she just crawled in again, whatever.” Long after that, I was awoken again and my boxers were off and she was on top of me. Maybe I’d been dreaming, but I’d become “ready” and she was on top of me.

I confess, for the first few bleary moments I went with it, but it was only that. My brain realised where I was and what was going on and I felt shocked and ... well, the words don’t come easily to this reaction, but my body was acting against me. I pushed her off, repeating “no no no no no.” She was smaller than me, and despite some tenacity (she repeated some lines about how much I would enjoy it and to relax and things like that), I was able to push her away.

This time she had a new story. She had become pregnant last year, and she asked her husband if she should have an abortion. He told her it should be up to her and he wouldn’t give an opinion. Between sobs, I pieced together that she wished he’d told her he wanted the baby and stepped up passionately. I’m not sure that’s fair to him—hell, not much of all this is—but whatever.

She asked me, explicitly, to “give [her] a baby.” She pledged to take care of “it” entirely herself, that she didn’t need me in the kid’s life but she just wanted to have that baby now.

Again, I had no idea how to handle this. My emotional patience was also starting to come up against the fact that I felt like I’d been, well, assaulted. It didn’t sound like she’d had an easy life in China by any stretch, and while I wanted to help her, I was feeling violated, taken advantage of. For what? Because I seemed like a future partner? Because she wanted to get out of China? Because she wanted a divorce? Because she wanted a child to make up for the one she didn’t have?

I took a deep breath and tried to calm her down. Then, again, I let her sleep in the bed with me. I know how that sounds, and I feel like such a moron even typing it out.

The next morning turned out to be our last time together. I had barely slept, taking every slight shift or sound shocking me awake and check my surroundings. I was jittery as we prepared for the day; I was set to take her over to one of the beaches. I was trying to stay upbeat and energised despite my brain having a thousand conflicting sensations at once.

“You look fake,” she said. “I don’t like it when you look fake.” Her face was very serious,  as though I’d lied to her and she was my partner.

“Well,” I replied, “to be quite honest I am pretty uncomfortable right now. I just want to go about our business and go to the beach and last night ... well it really got to me.” I was shaking slightly at this stage, my voice pitched a bit higher.

She proceeded to go into the bathroom and slam the door, blasting sad Chinese music from her phone as she took a half-hour shower. I didn’t know what to think, worrying that she was cutting herself or worse. I did not want anything bad to happen to her especially under my supposed watch.

After a few knocks she emerged, saying she was fine but looking despondent. As I gathered my things for our outing (yes, I was still trying to be a host), she grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me towards the wall. “I want to have sex now.” I raised my arms in the air as if to say “don’t shoot” and turned my face away. I twisted away and grabbed my backpack and headed for the door. “I cannot do this. I think you should go.”

Then I left. Yes, I left my own apartment. I didn’t want to stay for the time it would have taken her to gather her things. I headed down to my favourite local cafe and sat down, worrying whether she’d follow me there. I spent three hours sipping coffee wondering when to go back and what I’d find when I got there. Then I got a text message from her saying she’d left and gone to a hostel. It was two days before her original planned last day at my place.

This all makes little sense; I should have kicked her out earlier; I shouldn’t have let her in my bed; I shouldn’t have left her alone in my apartment after that last morning; I shouldn’t have gone forward with those activities together after that first night even. It’s why I've never told this story, and I don’t know yet how to summarise it. I still don't know how to categorise what happened, how much sympathy to have for her situation, how much anger I should have.

I haven’t hosted anyone since then, because I don’t even know what I’d do if it happened again. Could it even?

Anyway, you probably can’t do anything with a story this long, but I thought I’d get it off my chest ... whatever it was.

If you have your own story to share, please drop us a note. Update from a reader who also experienced unwanted sexual aggression while living abroad:

I very much enjoyed the article on female sexual predators, though it was a little difficult to get through. I find that even using language to express sexual predation is difficult for men. We don’t have an easily accessible vocabulary. I’ve found when I try and talk about my experiences, I am met with a lot of confusion and judgement even from people who should know better.

I experienced what I call unwanted, repeated, systemic sexual advances when I was an English teaching assistant for [a prominent U.S. organization]. I taught at a low-performing public high school in rural Malaysia. My school and community was 100 percent Malay/Muslim. The male choir teacher and a wheelchair-bound female secretary made a difficult placement exponentially more so. I received strange texts, invitations, poems, and at times, unwanted touching and intentional isolation during my year.

For a woman, they could reliably use the language of harassment or stalking. There are legal as well as social definitions for these behaviors. I’m not sure if that describes my experience. I didn’t report the incidences to my school—it was the last year our program sent teachers there—but I did to the program officials. Despite our cohort being three-quarter female, who themselves have a very difficult time, it was understood that men, especially white and straight, couldn’t experience these things. I was told as much by our gay male coordinator.

The second episode occurred last year at a hostel in Oaxaca, Mexico. I was the only person staying in a 12-person dorm. I was cornered in my room by the girl working there. I tried to explain I had a girlfriend, in Spanish, but she continued. I call that “forced, non-consensual touching” both giving and receiving. She finally left. I locked the door, woke up at 6am scared, and left secretly. It was a shitty morning.

The third incident occurred this April. I was raped in South Africa by an Italian PhD researcher. I like the language the article uses via the CDC: “being forced to penetrate.” After the initial confusion, helplessness, betrayal, exhaustion, and violence ended, I immediately tried to make sense of what happened. Was this assault? Was it rape? How is this similar or different than what happened previously?

It was rape, and I have no problems saying that nowadays.

If I typed out the story and hid the gender of each actor, you could very reasonably assume a classic male-assaulting-female narrative. Person one gets two drunk, forces unprotected sex, argues it is okay, and doesn’t think anything is wrong even sober the next morning. Person two feels awful, dirty, helpless, and without any recourse to authority formal or informal.

Was she hot? Men ask. Did you like it? Women assume. What’s so bad about that? Future sexual partners inquire.

It makes me sad how many men I have shared my experiences with and they relate similar stories. I haven’t been public about any of this on social media, just private conversations. Most people are supportive, but it surprises me how, for example, a human rights lawyer working with women’s issues in Africa can make rape jokes and think it’s okay. Roles reversed, I’d be crucified.

It’s a frustrating and understandable double standard. As the article observes, huge strides have been made in decreasing the stigma of reporting sexual violence against women. But compassion isn’t finite. Instead of choosing misanthropy, I embrace love and openness. I have had a few very positive experiences since.

I didn’t seek retribution against my perpetrator. I told one person in charge that I trusted and moved on with my life. I probably looked like an asshole; some guy arriving in a community, hooking up, and abruptly leaving.

What was I supposed to do? Get a rape kit? I guess I should have taken pictures of the bloody scratches and bites. Women, fortunately, are taught these kinds of things.

Update: Here are four readers who say they were sexually assaulted by women while under in the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.