Rape is a word that is all too often in the news, and most stories seem to detail cases where the perpetrator is male, and the victim female. A new study is showing that rape is happening almost just as often to men as it is to women.
In fact, not only are males nearly equally likely to be rape victims, but women are often the perpetrators in these cases.
Lara Stemple, a researcher with the Health and Human Rights Project at UCLA, was stunned by a statistic she observed from last year’s National Crime Victimization Survey. The survey asked questions about rape and sexual violence to 40,000 households, and found that 38 percent of reported incidents came from male victims. Before this survey caught her eye, Stemple had wondered if male rape was less likely to be reported, so this relatively high statistic caused her to investigate. Stemple confirmed the data with the Bureau of Justice Statistics. She had every reason to be skeptical; previous research churned out much lower numbers of reported sexual violence against males, between just 5 and 14 percent.
The numbers were no mistake. The survey suggests that much higher numbers of men are reporting sexually violent acts against them, and it could be that rape happens almost just as often to men as it does to women.
This disturbing information is reflected in some way through a number of similar surveys and studies, but may still be hard for society to swallow. After all, different surveillance systems and institutions have different definitions of the term “rape” and some find it too harsh a term to use to describe some situations. Nonetheless, even after years of imposing a rape definition that included the words “forcible” and “against females,” the FBI has broadened the definition to be more inclusive of both genders and defines it as any action involving penetration without consent.
Just how many men are being raped? Stemple co-authored a paper with Ilan Meyer which calls upon the results from surveys like the 2012 National Crime Victim Survey and the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey to flesh out the numbers. The paper, entitled “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions,” was published in the prestigious American Journal of Public Health earlier this month. Stemple and Meyer report findings that 1.270 million women and 1.267 million men claim to be victims of sexual violence: the numbers are almost equal.
There are a few ideas that may explain why male victims are coming forward in increasing numbers. With cases like the horrific Jerry Sandusky incident at Penn State in 2012 receiving worldwide attention, perhaps more men feel supported to come forward. Another thought is that shifting definitions of sexual assault with more specific survey questions and shifting gender norms may account for an environment where men more often to report sexual abuses against them. As far as women being reported as perpetrators, the Bureau of Justice Statistics recently turned up data that 46 percent of male victims reported their perpetrator as female.
It seems shocking, given the rape crimes that are publicized in the media. Just this week, a former teacher in Montana is being re-sentenced for raping a 14-year-old student; the ex-teacher is male and the late student, who died by suicide shortly after the first sentencing, was female. Stemple’s research begs the question of whether or not some of the recent data should affect the public conversation to be more reflective of what is really happening.
With surveys showing convincing evidence that rape happens just as often to men as it does to women, it seems the conversation surrounding this horrible crime should be altered, but general acceptance of the data as truth remains to be seen.
By Erica Salcuni