When a man has penetrative sex with a woman without her consent, that's rape. But what if a woman makes a man have penetrative sex with her, without his consent? That's not rape under the law of England and Wales, but the author of a new study of the phenomenon says perhaps it should be.
Some readers will find this story disturbing
Dr Siobhan Weare of Lancaster University Law School carried out the first research into forced penetration in the UK in 2016-7, gathering information from more than 200 men via an online survey.
Her latest study, published this week - based on one-to-one interviews with 30 men between May 2018 and July 2019 - explores in greater detail the context in which forced penetration occurs, its consequences, and the response of the criminal justice system.
All the participants were anonymised, but I will call one of them John.
John says the first sign that something was wrong was when his partner started to self-harm. After a particularly frightening incident he rushed her to A&E for treatment. The couple spent hours discussing possible psychological causes.
About six months later instead of harming herself, she trained her sights on John.
"I was sitting in the living room and she just came in from the kitchen, punched me very hard on the nose and ran off giggling," John says. "The violence then started happening quite regularly."
She tried to get help from her GP, John says. She had some counselling, and she was referred to a psychologist - though didn't attend the appointment.
She'd come home from her job "and basically demand sex", he says.
"She would be violent, and it got to the stage that I dreaded her coming back from work."
On one occasion John woke up to find that his partner had handcuffed his right arm to the metal bed frame. Then she started hitting him on the head with a loudspeaker from the stereo system beside the bed, tied up his other arm with some nylon rope and tried to force him to have sex.
Scared and in pain, John was unable to comply with her demands - so she beat him again and left him chained up for half an hour, before returning and freeing him. Afterwards she refused to talk about what had happened.
Not long after that she became pregnant, and the violence abated. But a few months after the baby was born, John again woke one night to discover that he was being handcuffed to the bed.
Then, he says, his partner force-fed him Viagra and gagged him.
"There was nothing I could do about it," he says.
"Later I went and sat in the shower for I dunno how long… I eventually went downstairs. The first thing she said to me when I went into the room was, 'What's for dinner?'"
When John has tried to tell people about it, he says he has often met with disbelief.
"I've been asked why I didn't leave the house. Well, it was my house that I'd bought for my kids. And the financial side as well, I was so locked into the relationship financially," he says.
"I still get disbelief because it's like, 'Well why didn't you hit her back?' I get that quite a lot. Well that's a lot easier said than done.
"I wish I'd run away a lot sooner."
Find out more
Listen to Katie Silver and Alex Skeel discuss Siobhan Weare's research into forced penetration on the BBC Sounds podcast, The Next Episode
Aspects of John's story are repeated in the experiences of some of the other men Dr Weare has interviewed. One of her findings is that the perpetrator in "forced-to-penetrate" (FTP) cases is often a female partner or ex-partner (her research focuses only on forced penetration involving men and women), and that the experience is frequently one element in a wider pattern of domestic abuse.
The experience of disbelief is also mentioned by other interviewees.
"You must have enjoyed it or you'd have reported it sooner," one man says he was told by a police officer.
Another participant said: "We're scared to talk about it and embarrassed, and when we do talk about it, we're not believed, because we're men. How can a man possibly be abused? Look at him, he's a man."
Weare's other findings include:
- Men are often ashamed to report FTP experiences - they may report domestic abuse without mentioning the sexual abuse
- The mental health impact can be severe, including PTSD, thoughts of suicide and sexual dysfunction
- Some men report being repeatedly victimised - some experienced childhood sexual abuse, some had endured varying types of sexual violence from different perpetrators, including men
- Many had overwhelmingly negative perceptions of the police, criminal justice system, and the law
One myth Weare's research dispels is that forced penetration is impossible because men are physically stronger than women. Another is that men view all sexual opportunities with women as positive.
A third myth is that if men have an erection they must want sex. In fact, Weare says, "an erection is purely a physiological response to stimulus".
"Men can obtain and sustain an erection even if they're scared, angry, terrified etc," she says.
"There's also research that shows women can respond sexually when they are raped (e.g. have an orgasm) because their body is responding physiologically. This is an issue for both male and female victims that is not discussed enough, but there is clear evidence in this area."
A number of the participants in Weare's 2017 study reported FTP experiences after getting extremely drunk or high, and being unable to stop what was happening.
One of those interviewed for the new study describes going home with a woman after a night out clubbing, and blacking out after being given what he suspects was a date rape drug. He says he was then forced to engage in non-consensual sex.
Where to get help
Another describes being coerced into sex while working at a holiday camp one summer, while he was a student. A female co-worker had discovered a letter he had written to a boyfriend, and threatened to out him as gay unless he slept with her.
She thought that if he had sex with a woman "this would transform my life and I would be straight", he says. As he had not come out to his friends, family or co-workers he felt that he had no choice but to comply.
Weare says that most of the participants in the latest study regarded their forced-to-penetrate experiences as "rape", and some were frustrated that it would not count as rape under the law of England and Wales. There was frustration also that British society would most likely not recognise it as rape.
"Talking about the fact that your ex-partner used to get drunk and force herself on you, rape you essentially, it's like most blokes' fantasy isn't it?" said one of the participants.
"Down the pub, you know, she gets a bit drunk, she gets a bit frisky 'Yay! Oh that would be fantastic! I would love a bit of that!' No you really wouldn't, you bloody wouldn't. It's not the way that you think it is."
In one of Weare's papers - titled "Oh, you're a guy, how could you be raped by a woman, that makes no sense" - she points out that in several US states rape is broadly defined as non-consensual sexual intercourse, and that in the Australian state of Victoria a specific offence exists of "rape by compelling penetration".
One of eight recommendations made in the latest study is that reform of the law of rape to include FTP cases requires "serious consideration".
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