‘This Doesn’t Happen to Men, I Thought’

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

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.

Physical intimacy had been a source of some stress throughout our relationship because she was more sexually experienced than I was (a virgin), and due to my religious beliefs I intended to defer intercourse until marriage—a point of view I had explained to her many times in several discussions. Many times she attempted to take things to another level, but my verbal objections were sufficient to convince her to stick to tamer stuff.

But on this particular night, she only reacted more aggressively when I told her “no,” which was entirely out of character based on my previous experience. I recall her forcing her hand into my pants in an effort to manually stimulate me, but her movements were so violent that they were actually quite painful and initially unsuccessful. Even as this was happening, I was continuing to try to placate her—“You know how I feel about this, please just listen to me, etc.”—but it was like she couldn’t even hear me.

I remember that I finally resorted to the excuse “But I don’t have a condom”—and was shocked when she produced one from her bag. As far as I knew, she had never purchased condoms before, so this indicated to me that she planned for sex even before we had met up (despite being aware of my feelings).

I contemplated some kind of physical resistance when she climbed on top of me, but my mind immediately flashed to an imagined scene with me trying to explain to a police officer why I gave my girlfriend a black eye. I understand in retrospect how insane it sounds that in the midst of being raped I was actually weighing (and ultimately rejecting) the merits of hitting my assailant, but the idea that men should never resort to physical violence against women is deeply ingrained in my psyche. I also feared that I might be accused of attempting to rape her if I accidentally injured her in some way.

So I just fell silent.

***

Apologies for the extensive details, but I wanted to give you an idea of the similarities I noticed when reading that blog post. I actually emailed the girl who wrote it, thanking her for sharing her story. I admitted to her that something quite similar had happened to me. It was so strange to me that when reading her story I could immediately recognize what happened as “rape,” but that even when comparing it to my very similar story point by point (previously making clear my lack of interest in intercourse, verbally objecting in a variety of ways to no effect, considering violent resistance but rejecting it because of my relationship to the assailant), it was still difficult for me to apply the same label to my experience.

I’ll put it this way: it is very easy for me to look back on my story and call it nonconsensual sex, because I know that I never at any point offered any form of consent. But calling it “rape” still felt somehow inappropriate, because up to that point I operated under the assumption that rape was something that happened exclusively to women.

I know why I never reported my own rape. I felt like I would be laughed out of the room if I tried to tell my male friends that I had repeatedly refused sex with an attractive girl. I imagined how humiliating it would be to explain to a college administrator how I had sobbed into my pillow during my first sexual encounter.

I spent more hours than I care to admit reading about the science behind erections in order to prove to myself that I was not inadvertently responsible for my own assault. As Conor’s article points out, nobody would accept that mere physiological reactions indicate consent on the part of a woman—and they shouldn’t! And yet I suspect this would have become a major question of interest if I had ever attempted to explain my story to anyone. I’m glad that “being made to penetrate” is now becoming a more widely accepted definition, because it’s definitely a real thing.

Most of all, I am glad that there are now hard numbers on female-on-male sexual assault. It was difficult to find any information at all on this phenomenon when I was a scared and confused 19-year-old searching for some external validation of my own experience. (I noticed that Lara Stemple’s first study was published in April 2014, and I would have been scouring the Internet for data in the fall of 2013.)

It is depressing to recall how deeply I distrusted and questioned my own memories of the event—“Did I actually say no or just not right now? Maybe she just didn’t notice that I was crying”—and I am now ashamed to admit that I felt so crushed by the loneliness of my ordeal that I considered suicide during this period. I am saddened to read the surprisingly high numbers of reported assaults among men, but also reassured that another kid in the same position I was will be able to locate solid evidence to prove to himself that he is not alone.

The months and years of anguish during which I felt that I could not even speak about my experience for fear of being misunderstood were, in some ways, more damaging than the actual rape itself. So thank you for casting light on stories that are real, even though they remain rarely told.

This next reader especially struggled over the fact that his body was aroused when he brain was screaming no:

My story has long been a source of shame for me and I’d buried it deep. I’m kind of hoping if I just share it like this, it will stop haunting me.

I’m a man and was sexually assaulted by my female partner a couple of years ago. That’s a tough sentence to write, being a man.

We had always had something of a rocky relationship that revolved around consuming alcohol a tad too excessively and having wild, passionate sex. It was good for a time. We lived in a remote community in northern Canada, so that’s a rather common pattern.

I’m middle-aged and of an average build. She’s younger and carries what was once called a “voluptuous” figure. Just because of her weight, she was often able to overpower me, and we often played on that in our sexual activities. It was a turn on for us both.

As our relationship began to wind down, however, I began to decline her sexual advances more and more. I began indicating that I wanted to leave the relationship, but she did not accept this. Her sexual and emotional drives increased as though in contradiction my half-hearted moves to quiet things between us and a few lame attempts to end them.

One night when were were both completely sober we went to bed together after an argument. I made it clear that I would not have sex with her, but I wasn’t brave enough to sleep separately from her.

Once we were both under the covers she immediately began to reach inside my pajamas and fondle me. I brushed her hand away and told her, no, I didn’t want that. She waited for a time and took my hand and put it against her genitals which were wet. I pulled my hand away and again told her no. I pretended to go to sleep, though my mind was racing.

She repeatedly reached for my genitals and pulled down my pajamas, and I repeatedly brushed her away and turned away. She pulled me onto my back and pulled down my pajamas. I pushed her away. Despite my repeated resistance and my repeated use of the word “no,” she eventually began to perform oral sex on me. That’s when my organ betrayed me and became hard.

I tried to brush her away again and again. I should have gotten up and left the bed, but I thought if I just pretended I was asleep and uninterested, she’d stop.

She didn’t. She made me touch her. She forced me onto my back. I was tired and resigned. She climbed on top of me and rode me as I forced my body to lay as still as possible, turned my face to one side. I told her “no” several times, but she didn’t stop. I said, “Please stop." But she didn’t. I just laid there. I hoped it would be over soon. It wasn’t. She climaxed several times, and she kept asking me if I had too. I hadn’t, and I didn’t. I became non-responsive. She lifted my hands against her breasts and when she let go my hands would fall limply against my side. My body was still. I went inside myself, then I exited my body. My body was no longer mine; I just felt it move under her weight.

She stopped eventually, tired. I was still erect. That surprised and disappointed me. It was quite possibly the longest erection I’d ever had and I couldn’t figure out why. I was angry with my body. She laid down and slept. I stared at the ceiling until I saw the morning sun rise on it.

When she woke up she looked at me and started to cry. She said, “I raped you.” I said, “yes.” Then I got up. I was hollow, ashamed. This doesn’t happen to men, I thought.

This next reader is the least uncertain of what he experienced at the hands of his girlfriend:

I fall neatly into that category of men who have been raped by a woman but may not have viewed it as such. In my early 20s, after an evening of entirely more drinking than is good for anyone, I bid my friends goodnight and showed them to the door, stumbled upstairs, and passed out on my mattress. My girlfriend at the time had gone out for the night with her girlfriends, so I left the front door unlocked for her.

I came to several hours later, naked on my back and being ridden by her. I woke up just in time to witness her finish, slide off me, and immediately roll over and go to sleep. To be frank, I was more annoyed that she finished and I had not than at the fact that I had been drunkenly used without my consent.

This, in my mind, is a grey area. According to many people, it’s rape despite the fact that we were in a committed relationship and I would have been more than willing had she been able to rouse (all of) me.

I have a daughter now, and the thought of her as an adult in my position, used the same way, is troubling. I would probably be genuinely upset if it bothered her but mildly indignant on her behalf if it did not.

In hindsight, I look back on my experience and laugh about it, and I simply cannot consider it rape. Rape is a slippery concept because it involves all the foibles and emotions of one of the most intimate and powerful interactions two people can have, and paring it down to something as basic as a simplified version of consent ignores things like naivety, lust, confusion, regret, intent, and communication—things that often go hand-in-hand with the act of sex, and things that people experience with different understandings and awareness.

As men, we’re often subtly (in some cases, not so subtly) coached that sex is always a win, as long as the other is willing. It’s often an assumed given that the man wants it, that he consents, and that attitude informs our viewpoints as we develop, to the point that far too many people believe there is no such thing as a female raping a man. I was raped, technically, but I have a hard time calling it that. The act of rape is something despicable, disgusting, damning, and damaging, and mine bothered me so little that we laughed about it, both before and long after our wedding.