Take a moment and picture an image of a rapist. Without a doubt, you are thinking about a man. Given our pervasive cultural understanding that perpetrators of sexual violence are nearly always men, this makes sense. But this assumption belies the reality, revealed in our study of large-scale federal agency surveys, that women are also often perpetrators of sexual victimization.
In 2014, we published a study on the sexual victimization of men, finding that men were much more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than was thought. To understand who was committing the abuse, we next analyzed four surveys conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to glean an overall picture of how frequently women were committing sexual victimization.
The results were surprising. For example, the CDC’s nationally representative data revealed that over one year, men and women were equally likely to experience nonconsensual sex, and most male victims reported female perpetrators. Over their lifetime, 79 percent of men who were “made to penetrate” someone else (a form of rape, in the view of most researchers) reported female perpetrators. Likewise, most men who experienced sexual coercion and unwanted sexual contact had female perpetrators.
We also pooled four years of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data and found that 35 percent of male victims who experienced rape or sexual assault reported at least one female perpetrator. Among those who were raped or sexually assaulted by a woman, 58 percent of male victims and 41 percent of female victims reported that the incident involved a violent attack, meaning the female perpetrator hit, knocked down or otherwise attacked the victim, many of whom reported injuries.
And, because we had previously shown that nearly one million incidents of sexual victimization happen in our nation’s prisons and jails each year, we knew that no analysis of sexual victimization in the U.S. would be complete without a look at sexual abuse happening behind bars. We found that, contrary to assumptions, the biggest threat to women serving time does not come from male corrections staff. Instead, female victims are more than three times as likely to experience sexual abuse by other women inmates than by male staff.
Also surprisingly, women inmates are more likely to be abused by other inmates than are male inmates, disrupting the long held view that sexual violence in prison is mainly about men assaulting men. In juvenile corrections facilities, female staff are also a much more significant threat than male staff; more than nine in ten juveniles who reported staff sexual victimization were abused by a woman.
Our findings might be critically viewed as an effort to upend a women’s rights agenda that focuses on the sexual threat posed by men. To the contrary, we argue that male-perpetrated sexual victimization remains a chronic problem, from the schoolyard to the White House. In fact, 96 percent of women who report rape or sexual assault in the NCVS were abused by men. In presenting our findings, we argue that a comprehensive look at sexual victimization, which includes male perpetration and adds female perpetration, is consistent with feminist principles in important ways.
For example, the common one-dimensional portrayal of women as harmless victims reinforces outdated gender stereotypes. This keeps us from seeing women as complex human beings, able to wield power, even in misguided or violent ways. And, the assumption that men are always perpetrators and never victims reinforces unhealthy ideas about men and their supposed invincibility. These hyper-masculine ideals can reinforce aggressive male attitudes and, at the same time, callously stereotype male victims of sexual abuse as “failed men.”
Other gender stereotypes prevent effective responses, such as the trope that men are sexually insatiable. Aware of the popular misconception that, for men, all sex is welcome, male victims often feel too embarrassed to report sexual victimization. If they do report it, they are frequently met with a response that assumes no real harm was done.
Women abused by other women are also an overlooked group; these victims discover that most services are designed for women victimized by men. Behind bars, we found that sexual minorities were 2-3 times more likely to be sexually victimized by staff members than straight inmates. This is particularly alarming as our related research found that sexual minorities, especially lesbian and bisexual women, are much more likely to be incarcerated to begin with.
In addition to the risk faced by sexual minorities, the U.S. disproportionately incarcerates people who are black, Latino/a, low-income, or mentally ill, putting these populations at risk of abuse. Detained juveniles experience particularly high rates of sexual victimization, and young people outside of the system are also at risk. A recent study of youth found, strikingly, that females comprise 48 percent of those who self-reported committing rape or attempted rape at age 18-19.
Professionals in mental health, social work, public health, and criminal justice often downplay female perpetration. But in fact, victims of female-perpetrated sexual violence suffer emotional and psychological harm, just like victims of male-perpetrated abuse. And when professionals fail to take victimization by women seriously, this only compounds victims’ suffering by minimizing the harm they experience.
Researchers also find that female perpetrators have often been previously sexually victimized themselves. Women who commit sexual victimization are more likely to have an extensive history of sexual abuse, with more perpetrators and at earlier ages than those who commit other crimes. Some women commit sexual victimization alongside abusive male co-perpetrators. These patterns of gender-based violence must be understood in order to reach the troubled women who harm others.
To thoroughly dismantle sexual victimization, we must grapple with its many complexities, which requires attention to all victims and perpetrators, regardless of their sex. This inclusive framing need not and should not come at the expense of gender-sensitive approaches, which take into account the ways in which gender norms influence women and men in different or disproportionate ways.
Male-perpetrated sexual victimization finally came to public attention after centuries of denial and indifference, thanks to women’s rights advocates and the anti-rape movement. Attention to sexual victimization perpetrated by women should be understood as a necessary next step in continuing and expanding upon this important legacy.