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In today’s Sexist Beatdown, we discussed the reluctance to accept men as victims of sexual assault. Men, according to the Gender Police, are seen as unrapeable—-they are constantly expected to pursue sex, and are therefore impossible to violate. Commenter Drew noted another cultural barrier to male victims of sexual assault—-our tendency to conflate sexual violation with penetration. He writes:

to get into even more touchy territory, maybe the word “sex” isn’t specific enough. Because what really seems to be at issue here isn’t just anything that falls under the heading of sex, it’s really more what falls under the heading of “penetration.”

Because I’d bet those same (straight) men who have a hard time seeing/admitting a big problem with them being drunkenly led into having obligation/consequence-free sex would probably immediately see the situation very differently if the “sex” turned out to have involved them being on the penetrated end of a sex act (whether with a woman or a man).

The idea that rape is classified based on body parts isn’t just a cultural thing; it’s a criminal thing, too. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, forcible rape is “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” To the FBI, the carnal knowledge of a male forcibly and against his will is considered a different (and lesser) crime: “assault.”

Here, sexual consent is defined not only by a person’s will, but by their physical attributes. According to the FBI’s definition, female bodies can be raped, but male bodies cannot. I suspect this is why men are only seen as victims when their bodies are penetrated—-it’s perceived as a feminine sexual position, and only female bodies can be victimized. Under this model, physical characteristics become shorthand for consent.

When people who believe that men can’t be raped are forced to justify their position, the argument usually goes something like this:

A: If a person can’t legally consent to sex when they’re too drunk, what happens when both sex partners are too drunk to have sex? Why isn’t the man considered a victim of rape as well?

B: Even when two people are drunk, at least one of them has to physically initiate the sex act. When both partners are actively and enthusiastically participating, it’s sex. When only one person is physically pursuing sex, and the other person has verbally consented that that’s what they’re into, it’s sex. When only one person is physically pursuing sex, and the other person hasn’t provided their verbal consent, it’s assault. It’s impossible for two people lying around passed out to somehow violate each other against both of their wills. Sex doesn’t just happen.

A: OK. But why is it that only men are assumed to be the aggressor in a situation like that? Can’t a woman physically force herself on a guy who’s too drunk to have sex?

B: Umm … not really.

A: Why not?

B: Because … his dick wouldn’t get hard.

Some people actually think that an erection is a physical indication of consent. It is not. According to the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, arousal is actually quite common in sexual assault scenarios involving both male and female victims:

Male victims/survivors are often ashamed and confused when their body responds during an assault. Frequently, men who are sexually assaulted or raped have an involuntary or forced erection or ejaculation. Also, muscles in the anus often relax when a man is raped. This does not mean that the survivor wanted to be raped or sexually assaulted. Involuntary erections and ejaculations are normal reactions to physical stimulation even when sex is non-consensual.

As the National Center for Victims of Crime notes, male victims of rape often blame themselves for their “involuntary physiological reaction” to a sexual assault. They, too, believe an erection automatically implies consent:

It is not uncommon for a male rape victim to blame himself for the rape, believing that he in some way gave permission to the rapist (Brochman, 1991). Male rape victims suffer a similar fear that female rape victims face—-that people will believe the myth that they may have enjoyed being raped. Some men may believe they were not raped or that they gave consent because they became sexually aroused, had an erection, or ejaculated during the sexual assault.

If we’re serious about addressing sexual assault against men and women, we must break down these physical barriers. The female body has long been invoked to justify sexual assaults against women—-we are too sexy to be left alone, too vulnerable to fight back, too feminine to be respected. A woman’s body should never make her a victim—-and a man’s body should never make him invisible.