If there’s one fact about male survivors of sexual assault that perfectly contextualizes the layers involved in why it’s so difficult for men to acknowledge it’s even happened to them, much less come forward, which is already rare, it’s this: Men are more likely to come forward as victims of assault when the perpetrator is another man, not a woman.
“Statistically it’s true that men assaulted by other men have higher rates of coming forward,” explains Jessie Ford, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University who studies gender and sexuality. “Those stories are taken more seriously. It’s easier to imagine a man as an aggressor, and anyone receptive in sex or being penetrated, people can see more easily as a victim.” This is in spite of the fact that homophobia tends to lead men to fear reporting male-on-male assault due to potential assumptions that the victim is gay (it’s interesting to note, though, that most male perpetrators of sexual assault against other men identify as heterosexual).
These two facets — male perpetrators better fit the profile we imagine in our heads of people who commit sexual violence, and we can more easily imagine penetration as an act of violent force over other types of sexual assault, such as coercion — explain not just why men are less likely to see themselves as victims of female offenders, but also why they’d be less likely to report it. And why we’re also less likely to see women as sexual aggressors, too. Because if we believe all men want sex around the clock, it only follows that women aren’t guilty of anything by luring them with it.
Even when male survivors of sexual assault do report it, consider what they’re up against. Take a recent example from the news: A male student at the prestigious Brentwood School in L.A., then 17, was assaulted by his female teacher, Aimee Palmitessa, who had groomed him for two years with explicit messages and images, flirtations, a concert and the eventual predatory belief that they were in love, the L.A. Times reported.
The experience was confusing enough for the student that he sought counseling from a school therapist. But when he described the “relationship” with the 47-year-old teacher to the counselor, instead of alarm, the counselor encouraged him to continue as if it were a natural rite of passage, citing French President Emmanuel Macron, whose wife Brigitte was not only 24 years older than him, but had also once been his French teacher.
That same counselor and another teacher both personally witnessed Palmitessa behaving inappropriately toward the student, even advising her to keep her distance from him. Still no one reported any abuse to authorities. Finally, when the boy’s father discovered he had missed a football practice and found him via GPS tracking on his phone at the teacher’s house, he questioned him. The boy told his father everything, including that Palmitessa assaulted the boy at her home, his home and at a hotel, threatening him not to tell anyone.
They went to the police, and Palmitessa was arrested. But again, consider the ongoing encouragement, disbelief and indifference the boy faced to get there before anyone even uttered an allegation.
It isn’t Palmitessa’s behavior, which follows by-the-book grooming techniques, that’s unusual for female sex offenders who target younger students, but his. Because of the rigid scripting men are given about heterosexual masculinity, it’s difficult for many men to view themselves as victims in the first place. Cultural messaging dictates that men should get all they can sexually while they can, and that robustly heterosexual men don’t turn down opportunities for sex.
We believe this despite the fact that some one in eight men are victims of sexual assault, 80 percent of which is committed by women. And 43 percent of boys and young men up through college age experience sexual coercion.
Complicating matters is if the boy experiences an erection or ejaculation as part of a forced sexual encounter in any way, he also feels deep shame about the pleasure associated with it, making it extra difficult for him to believe he was victimized. “There’s a lot of reasons for [why men don’t come forward], but a big piece of it is that whenever you talk to men about anything along the spectrum of unwanted sex, they’re also grappling with masculinity as they interpret the experience,” Ford says. “They do a dance between joking about it and bragging about it. It’s ‘I got laid and I told my friends I didn’t want to, and they were like, ‘‘At least you got laid.’’ There’s a whole stereotype around it that’s supposed to be hot — that you’re lucky because you’re going to know how to have good sex because an older woman has taught you, and now you have a great story to tell.”
Ford has interviewed numerous men about unwanted sexual contact as part of her research, and says that for underage men who have been assaulted, they may also fear getting in trouble themselves, or miscalculate the damage they could do to the woman’s life if they report it. “It suddenly makes it seem like this huge deal [to report], and also being viewed as incompetent and losing control, and being in a situation where you’re victimized, also isn’t congruent with how men want to think about themselves,” she says.
Societally, we send the message that boys aren’t able to be victims of sexual assault from an early age. “We have a kids’ program we run in elementary schools where we talk to parents and teachers first and then go through every grade,” explains Danielle Aubry, the CEO of Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse, a sexual assault crisis and education center. “One of the concepts children struggle with more than others is that boys can be victims. We see that in kids in the second and third grade — they’re already struggling with that concept. Think about what that sets them up for. Not in terms of only being victimized, but also along the pathway toward being a man.”
And when those boys become men, per Ford: “They feel this pressure to act like it’s not a big deal. Therefore, they’re not able to process these experiences or discuss them. There are costs to that, and we don’t totally know what they are.” She adds, “The way I see it come out is men saying, ‘This whole thing is no big deal, but actually, it was the worst thing that happened to me in college. I did take a year off afterwards, but it wasn’t because of that — it was just that the transition to college was hard. It was awful, but it was really funny. It’s a crazy story.’”
They may also avoid saying outright the situation was harmful or negative but instead use a role-reversal descriptor to talk through it. Like: “Imagine this happened to a woman.”Or: “It’s not a big deal, it’s whatever. I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to ruin her life.”
“They do seem more able to walk away from these encounters and be a little less impacted than women,” Ford explains. “It’s confusing, but I’d argue that masculinity is both a constraint and a resource. It’s a resource — what we call ‘masculine capital’ or ‘masculine insurance’ in sociology — because even if manhood is threatened in one way, we can still say, ‘I got laid,’ or, ‘All men want sex.’”
Ford makes clear that this armor doesn’t mean she thinks men aren’t actually impacted deeply. But she’s documenting their responses as a sociologist, not a psychologist, who would help disentangle the mental health costs. That said, in her research and from the data, she says men are more likely to think of the experience more severely if it involves sexual assault by a woman while they’re blacked out from drugs or alcohol, which more tidily removes the conflicting messages about consent.
Then there’s the thorny layer that women are only now being identified as perpetrators in the public perception. Not that this change has made that big of a difference, mind you. Palmitessa, for example, was only sentenced to three years in prison, which fits with the double standard for female sex offenders, who often receive lighter sentencing compared to their male counterparts, who generally receive anywhere from 6 to 31 percent longer sentences.
On the flip side, though, the salaciousness of the women committing sex crimes makes headlines in greater numbers, skewing perception. A look at the prevalence of the coverage last year by the New York Times concluded that the instances of female teachers abusing male students is still rare, yet media sites such as Fox News push breathless coverage of the crimes, making it look like we’re “in the middle of an epidemic.” (Statistically speaking, women commit under 9 percent of instances of child sexual abuse; thus, the majority of inappropriate teacher-student relationships are male teachers and female students.)
Still, Ford says she’s seeing progress. “I’ve been working with data where we have men who are straight who have transitioned to bisexual or queer, and those men are more able to identify situations and label them as assault,” she says. “As you move away from heterosexuality and those powerful scripts, people become more easily able to observe and recognize when things are violations.”
Not to mention, the sea change caused by #MeToo and #HimToo. “Through all of that, we’re more able to see these power dynamics,” she notes. And, of course, maybe most importantly, that there’s power in numbers. Because ever since, she says, “more and more men are openly coming forward.”