The Shocking Truth About Male Sexual Assault

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From Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow to Terry Richardson and Charlotte Waters, high-profile accusations of sexual assault have been in the news a lot lately. And, the definition of just what constitutes terms like "rape" and "sexual assault" — and just who gets to define them — has been up for considerable debate. But, except for a few isolated headlines, the subject of male rape, and what exactly that phrase means, has remained firmly outside the mainstream conversation.

Until now, that is. A new study, published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, surveyed 284 high school- and college-aged young men on their sexual experiences. Of those 284, 43% said they had experienced sexual coercion, with 18% reporting experiences of women or men using physical force to coerce them into having sex.

The subjects cited nonviolent forms of coercion as well — 31% said they had experienced verbal coercion to engage in sexual activity, while 26% cited "unwanted seduction by sexual behaviors." Probably most shocking, however: One in five respondents who had experienced sexual coercion said it resulted in them having sex against their will. It bears mentioning here that "sex," for the purposes of the study, was defined as oral, anal, or vaginal. Also, researchers pointed out that the "coercion" did not always originate from the sexual partner — both peer pressure and self-coercion were cited as factors in a few of the cases reported. The researchers also found that 95% of the reported instances of "unwanted sexual contact" were made by women.

In its coverage of the research, Time asked the study's authors a pretty tone-deaf, if not unexpected, question: Is it possible for a man to get raped if he doesn't have an erection (or even if he does)? The scientific community has long established that men experience involuntary erections. Just because a man is physically capable of having penetrative sex does not necessarily mean he has consented to it.

It's questions like these that lead to a slippery slope when we discuss sexual assault. Anyone who feels they have the right to categorize which (demonstrably traumatic) experiences count as sexual assault and which do not are only a stone's throw away from those who think certain types of sexual assault are more legitimate than others. We exist in a culture where male sexual coercion and assault is a topic that we don't know how to talk about — largely because of the way masculinity and male sexuality are constructed in our culture. Maybe now that there are at least some solid numbers that demonstrate the prevalence of this issue, we'll be able to figure out a way to actually talk about it like adults.