The Understudied Female Sexual Predator, Cont’d

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

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:

[The report’s authors] argue that female perpetration is downplayed among professionals in mental health, social work, public health, and law, with harmful results for male and female victims, in part due to these ‘stereotypical understandings of women as sexually harmless,’ even as ongoing ‘heterosexism can render lesbian and bisexual victims of female-perpetrated sexual victimization invisible to professionals.’

If female victims in these cases are invisible to the people who are trained to recognize and help them, isn’t it imperative that a dialogue around this topic acknowledge these experiences?

The article also states:

Tellingly, researchers have found that victims who experience childhood sexual abuse at the hands of both women and men are more reluctant to disclose the victimization perpetrated by women (Sgroi & Sargent, 1993). Indeed the discomfort of reporting child sexual victimization by a female perpetrator can be so acute that a victim may instead inaccurately report that his or her abuser was male (Longdon, 1993).

This is telling; is it not important? Once we’ve acknowledged that childhood sexual abuse by women tends to go unreported, is there no moral obligation to de-marginalize the victims of these crimes?

In addition to the story I shared with you about my mother [in a separate email that Notes is planning to air with other stories of childhood sexual abuse], I’ve had numerous experiences as an adult with unwanted advances from women, and I’m a queer woman myself. I know I’m not alone, but I know that by my own research—not from the kind of open discussion that you’re currently engaging your male readers in right now.

The woman-as-nurturer assumption is pervasive enough that many women internalize it, believing that no show of their attention or sexual desire could be anything but empowering for the woman who receives it. To address this issue is to answer the study’s authors’ conclusion as Conor states it:  “...in a better world, those charged with responding to sexual victimization would be both gender inclusive, addressing “all victims and perpetrators, regardless of sex,” and gender sensitive, understanding how prevailing norms “influence women and men in disproportionate or different ways.”

Where is this inclusiveness in the dialogue you’ve begun?

The reader series can only be as inclusive and representative as the reader emails that arrive in our inbox. Some context: The callout for reader submissions I attached to Conor’s piece was deliberately as broad and generalized as possible: “Do you have a personal experience relevant to this piece?” That callout yielded 22 emails from people who say they were assaulted—to varying degrees—by women, and 20 of those emailers are men. The remaining two emailers are the two women featured above, both of whom speak of the assault they experienced as children—a separate theme we’ve been planning to air following these adult-focused stories, since childhood assault is of a very different kind. (Several emails of childhood stories also arrived from men.) But the door has always been open to stories of woman-on-woman sexual assault—in fact, we included an explicit callout along those lines in yesterday’s newsletter—so if you would like speak to that experience, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

A quick note about the overall nature of a Notes discussion thread: Its overarching title (e.g. “Stories of Women Raping Men”) is meant to change by design, since the discussion often evolves depending on the emails that arrive after the initial wave of reader responses. For example, early this week we changed the name of a long-standing thread from “Is the U.S. Government Properly Funding Science?” to “Is the Long Hard Road to Academia Worth It?” because the initial three installments about NIH funding were followed by three installments on the question “Is a Ph.D. Worth It Anymore?” followed by two more installments this week on race and academia—thus broadening the overall framing.

Anyway, back to our dissenting reader, she stated above, “I’ve had numerous experiences as an adult with unwanted advances from women, and I’m a queer woman myself,” so I asked her if she was interested in elaborating on those experiences. Her reply:

Thank you, Chris—I appreciate your kind words and I’ll definitely share these experiences in case they’ll prove fruitful for this discussion. I’m grateful to say that I’ve never been a victim of assault, and there’s no story, really, in the same way that my first letter [about childhood assault] or your current stories are, but there have been several instances in which a woman has made me feel afraid of what she was capable of, in a way that, incidentally, no man has.

Years ago, at a punk club in Chicago, I was sitting with a group of friends—all of us, including me, queer women—and I got up to go to the bar. This was an explicitly queer-friendly venue, and the atmosphere was generally open and relaxed. An older woman hit on me and I politely declined. When I got back to my table, though, she was still staring at me—unrelentingly enough that all my friends noticed. Still, I was with my them and we were in public, so I tried to keep my mind on the conversation and the show that would be starting soon.

A bit later, though, I got up to go to the bathroom, and the woman got up too. I hoped she was going to the bar, or maybe out to smoke, but sure enough, she was following me. The bathroom, I should add, was a single-person stall. “I’m going into the BATHROOM,” I told her, but she didn’t say anything; she just stood there. I locked the door as quickly as I could. The knob never turned, but when I came out, she was still standing there, and instead of going in, she followed me back to the tables and took her seat.

Now, I was actually scared: What had she been planning to do? What would have happened if I hadn’t locked the door? She was still staring, and one of the more imposing people in my group did what I didn’t feel safe enough to do: told her off.

While no one else in the club was remotely a threat, I wonder if we make dangerous assumptions about queer-friendly spaces and empowerment where women are concerned—if sometimes being open and accepting means we don’t have to follow the same rules that we rightfully expect decent men to follow. Not only had I sent no signals to this woman, I had already turned her down. This is what scared me: She knew I wasn’t interested, but she seemed to still be expecting something, even if I didn’t know what.

***

Another night, a friend and I walked past a homeless woman who started shouting at my friend, calling her names. I tried to keep my eyes turned away from her, but the homeless woman’s reaction to me was different. When she looked at me, she beamed. “YOU get it, honey,” she said to me. “I know you get it.” Before I could say or do anything, she pulled me into a very unwelcome embrace and started kissing my neck. “Yeah, you get it,” she said again. “Yeah, I know you do.”

I was stunned. “Did she KISS YOU on the NECK?” my friend asked. Yes. The experience of her grip—this woman, like the previous one, was much bigger than me—scared me motionless. In both of these cases, these women made me feel like they felt entitled to me. Like they never gave a thought to crossing any lines, to whether I’d invited them or not.

***

My single experience of being groped by a man was entirely different. I was walking down the street, and a frat boy in a group of friends reached out and grabbed my breast. It was disgusting, but I didn’t feel like he was taking something he thought was his. The opposite, actually—his thrill seemed to be in knowing this was wrong but trying it anyway, and when I fought back, which I did instinctively, he backed off. He didn’t look proud of himself anymore. His attempt had failed. He had taken a risk, knowingly, and wouldn’t take it further.

***

Both women made me feel like they thought they deserved me, like somehow, as a woman (younger? smaller? no idea if that plays into it), I was already theirs. The abrupt skin-to-skin contact with the homeless woman—her face, my neck, my cheek—was a violation because there was no connection there. She didn’t ask me my name or want to know anything about me. She already saw us as one. The worst part is the assumption that this “fact” was supposed to bring me comfort. This was something I was supposed to know, too.

Update with one more dissent, from a woman who “reads your publication religiously twice a day and share your stories with my social media platforms”:

I deeply resent your featuring sexual assault stories where sexual assault is perpetrated by women. It seems grandly out of tune with the pain women are feeling around our president-elect and the trivializing of our rape culture. It is harshly insensitive. I hope this foray ends soon and we begin to focus on the role of men in sexual assault.

The Atlantic extensively covered the sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump. Though the timing of Conor’s piece and this Notes series seem out of tune for our reader, both are pegged to a new report that was a long time in the making:

Today [November 28], the fruits of that research were published in another peer-reviewed paper, “Sexual Victimization Perpetrated by Women: Federal Data Reveal Surprising Prevalence.” [...] The authors completed their research and writeup long before multiple sexual assault allegations roiled the 2016 presidential race. Even so, they were sensitive to the possibility that “a focus on female perpetration might be skeptically viewed as an attempt to upend a women’s rights agenda focused on male-perpetrated sexual victimization.” As they see it, “attention to female perpetration is consistent with feminist approaches that take into account power relations, intersectional analyses, and the imperative to question gender-based stereotypes.”

Our Notes section has run two reader series on sexual assault perpetrated by men: “On Rape and Empowerment” and “How Should Parents Talk to Their Kids About Rape?” I just spent about 20 minutes culling pieces from our recent archives based on “rape” in the headline, and this resulting collection merely scratches the surface of the typical role of men in sexual assault:

You can continue to peruse our archives based on a “rape” keyword search here and based on “sexual assault” here.