Are we gendering rape?

I’m sure many current Trinity students recall the “Don’t be that guy” campaign that was run last year to try to reduce rates of sexual assault among college students. For those who weren’t here at the time, or who don’t remember, the campaign involved a series of posters discouraging men from taking advantage of drunk or incapacitated women (or occasionally other men) for sex.

As a first year, I liked the simple, straightforward message the campaign had, as well as the way it focused on changing the behaviour of perpetrators rather than victims of sexual violence. But something about it always bugged me. It was only after the posters were taken down that I worked out what my problem with the campaign was: why, exactly, were all the perpetrators depicted as male?

One of the many reasons I’m so grateful that my parents sent me to a mixed secondary school was that growing up alongside the “opposite sex” gave me a chance to learn, early on, just how wrong modern stereotypes about male and female sexuality are. In my experience, how an individual feels about sex and sexuality typically has little to do with their gender and much more to do with who they are as an individual. Some people are hypersexual, others are chaste, most people fall somewhere in between. Societal pressures may make men somewhat more assertive than they would otherwise be, and women more passive, but there is only so big of an impact that societal narratives can have on people’s actions.

So the idea that sexual assault and rape were almost solely male perpetrated (I’ve had figures like 98% or 99% quoted at me) always struck me as a little weird. Recently, I did a bit of research on the issue, and discovered something that I think most people would find shocking. The gender split on sexual violence perpetration may have nothing to do with men being, on average, stronger than women. It may have nothing to do with patriarchal gender norms telling men to be aggressive and women to be submissive. It might all be down to the legal definition of the word rape.

“The gender split on sexual violence perpetration may have nothing to do with men being, on average, stronger than women. It may have nothing to do with patriarchal gender norms telling men to be aggressive and women to be submissive.”

Commonly quoted rape statistics are usually based on anonymous surveys, rather than actual reports of the crime, since rape is widely acknowledged to be a vastly underreported crime. The problem is that these surveys are still often founded on the legal definition of rape – a definition which, in many countries (including England), explicitly excludes the possibility of a female perpetrator.

A more gender neutral, but still problematic definition used by several countries and bodies, including Ireland and the FBI, is that rape is about the “penetration” of the victim’s body. This definition unfortunately leaves out cases in which a victim of sexual violence is “forced to penetrate” their attacker (if anyone is confused about the mechanics of this, it’s worth noting that male erections are, contrary to popular belief, involuntary reactions to physical stimuli, and an unwilling man can be forced to maintain an erection). Some studies, however, do use a genuinely gender neutral term, that term being “sexual coercion”.

The most detailed resource I have been able to find regarding female perpetrated sexual violence is a paper entitled “References examining men as victims of women’s sexual coercion”, by Martin S. Fiebert (which can be accessed via This paper lists forty previous studies from the last thirty years, some of which asked women about whether they had ever committed an act of sexual violence and some of which asked men about their experiences of being sexually coerced. Some of the papers also detail the methods of sexual coercion used, which include verbal coercion, physical force, drugging, blackmail and threats with a weapon (verbal coercion is the most common method, weapons the least common method).

Their results often stand in contrast to common perceptions of how sexual violence occurs – one study found that 14% of men (compared to 29% of women) in a sample taken at Rutgers University had been “forced to have intercourse against their will”. Another found that 9.3% of women admitted to “using aggressive strategies to coerce a man into sexual activities”. Also worth looking at is a study entitled “Predictors of sexual coercion against women and men: A multilevel, multinational study of University students” by Denise A. Hines. This study found that 2.1% of male college students reported “being forced to have vaginal sex”, compared to 1.6% of female college students reporting the same (it’s worth remembering that roughly 60% of college students are female, so higher rates of male victimisation are actually to be expected).

Unfortunately, the studies quoted above only look at men who have been raped by women (under the colloquial definition of rape as “forced sex”). They contain little information about how often women are victims of sexual violence from other women. Little research appears to have been done on this subject outside of women’s prisons, though the work that has been done in maximum security womens’ prisons in the US suggests that rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual assault are equally high in women’s and men’s prisons.

Studies on “sexual coercion” do usually (though not always) find that the majority of sexual violence is male perpetrated and that the majority of victims are female. The extent to which studies conducted in other countries on female-penetrated sexual violence apply in an Irish context is unclear. But the split is clearly not in any way as big as it is usually assumed to be.

And in light of evidence suggesting that perpetrators of sexual violence often have a history of being sexually abused, analysing rape and sexual assault as solely a “male” problem may actively impede efforts to reduce rates of sexual violence. Caring for victims of sexual violence and providing them with effective legal recourse, regardless of their gender or the gender of their attacker, may well be a key step in making a real dent in the unacceptably high levels of sexual assault that occur on college campuses throughout the world.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations may be able to help: Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, Niteline.