Men forced to have sex with women aren’t being properly recognised by the law – legal expert

Hidden crime. iphotosmile/Shutterstock

The issue of men being forced to have sex with women isn’t one that receives much, if any, attention.

These crimes, also known as “forced-to-penetrate” or “compelled penetration” cases, occur when a man is forced to penetrate, with his penis, a woman’s vagina, anus, or mouth. It is not recognised as rape under the law. In fact, the law on rape is defined in such a way that only men are recognised as principal offenders. Though there have been a handful of women convicted of rape, they have been convicted as accomplices, not principals.

It is an under-reported crime that some may not even be aware happens. In the US, a study of 16,500 adults in 2010 found that approximately one in 21 men (4.8%) reported being “made to penetrate” someone else during their lifetime, with 79.2% of cases involving a female perpetrator. There are no statistics about this sexual offence in the UK.

At present, forced-to-penetrate cases can only be prosecuted in the UK as sexual assault or “causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent”. These are less “serious” sexual offences within the legal framework, and are heard in either the Crown or Magistrates Courts, where custodial sentencing is capped at 12 months. The offence of rape, meanwhile, can only be heard in the Crown Court and has a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Victims speak out

It is often assumed that men are unable to maintain an erection unless they are sexually aroused. But research has consistently highlighted that this is simply a physiological response and does not reflect sexual arousal, or indeed, indicate consent. Knowing this fact makes it easier to see how compelled penetration can occur.

No justice. sjstudio6/Shutterstock

The reality of this form of sexual violence is further reinforced by the range of strategies used by women who act in this way towards men. I have recently led the first research project in the UK to look at the experiences of men who have been forced-to-penetrate women. 154 men participated in an online survey, answering questions about their most recent compelled penetration experiences. The men reported experiencing threats, blackmail, and coercion (33.3%), having their intoxication taken advantage of (26.8%), and the use and threats of force (19.6%), among others.

While most of the men (70.6%) who took part in the survey said that they did not have any physical injuries as a result of what had happened, the vast majority (95%) indicated experiencing varying degrees of emotional harm. The men were asked to rate the emotional and psychological effect that the forced-to-penetrate experience had on them from one (no negative impact), to 10 (severe negative impact). The average impact was six, but 10 (a severe negative emotional impact) was chosen most frequently by participants (20.9%).

In addition, I found that a huge majority of participants did not go to the police: only 1.7% of men reported the crime. In none of these instances was the case taken to court. Giving reasons for not going to the authorities, the men explained that they felt they would not be believed by the police, or that what happened to them would not be viewed as a crime, and so it was pointless reporting it even if they wanted to.

Case for reform

Although a relatively small sample of participants were involved in my study, based on their reports it is clear that consideration needs to be given to reforming the law on rape. Forced-to-penetrate cases need to either be recognised as the crime of rape, or as a new offence which is akin to rape but specifically focused on this form of sexual violence.

Changing the law so that compelled penetration is made a more serious offence would finally recognise the high frequency of emotional harm experienced by men who are victims of this crime. In addition, it could hopefully encourage more men to come forward, with the belief that the law and criminal justice system would take them seriously, and deal with their complaints appropriately.

Perhaps the most compelling justification for reform relates to how the men labelled what has happened to them. In my research study, “rape” was the most frequently used term: 29.7% of men explained their experience in this way. It is important that sexual violence is correctly labelled in law so that, again, victims/survivors feel that their experience is taken seriously. Recognising this crime more clearly in law would mean that victims know there is an opportunity for justice both to be done and to be seen to be done.

In making calls for consideration of law reform in this area, I am in no way suggesting that attention or resources should be moved away from women who experience sexual violence. Rather, I am hoping that the realities of all victims/survivors of sexual violence can be recognised and dealt with appropriately by the criminal law, regardless of the gender of the victim or the perpetrator.

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