As parents pack up their kids for college, many will be having a talk with their daughters—a talk about sexual assault on campus, how to protect themselves, and what to do in the event of an attack. In the wake of alarming headlines on the epidemic of campus sexual assault, it would be a dereliction of duty for parents to skip this conversation with their teenage girls. But according to David L. Bell, a physician who focuses on the health of adolescent boys and young men, college is a time of “unprecedented sexual vulnerability” for male students as well.
As he writes in an eye-opening op-ed for Pacific Standard, “[m]ale-on-male sexual assault has been well documented on the nation’s college campuses.” But female-on-male sexual assault gets less attention: “[i]n 2013, the National Crime Victimization Survey found that, when 40,000 households were asked about rape and sexual violence, 38 percent of reported incidents turned out to be against men. According to the same study, women account for 46 percent of sexual assaults on males.”
Sexual assaults on men and boys are underreported, largely due to the cultural myth that “real men” are always up for sex. Bell writes that 3 to 4 percent of the young men he sees in his clinic report that their “first time” was before the age of 10. Now this is horrifying, of course, but most of the young men didn’t necessarily frame the incidents as traumatic or abusive. Bell also reports on boys a little older—12 to college age—who fended off unwanted sexual advances from girls, including waking up in their college dorm rooms to find a girl performing fellatio or trying to have sex with them.
Bell writes: “Such experiences can be especially confusing for young men who have received the cultural message that ‘real men’ are always ready for sex. Sex is all too often treated as a badge of honor. Young men who hesitate or say no are often shamed as ‘gay,’ a word that still has derogatory connotations in all too many places. Both of these issues are likely to contribute underreporting of sexual assault by boys and young men.”
A growing awareness of sexual assault on women and girls has made us all aware of how vulnerable college girls are to rape or unwanted advances. But boys are another matter. We generally don’t think of boys as vulnerable sexually, because we think that boys want sex, all the time, and would never turn it down. Combine that with the fact that boys are, generally, bigger and stronger and girls, and you have a good slice of the population who thinks that it isn’t possible to rape boys or men.
As a mother of sons, I’ve been conscious of my responsibility to teach them about boundaries about their bodies—that no one is allowed to touch them in their private areas, that if they don’t want to be touched in a particular way (for example, tickling), that they should say “stop.” But as I’ve considered their teen years, I’ve mostly thought about the vulnerability of girls in their peer group. So now I need to add to my list of “talks” (don’t drink too much, listen to girls’ verbal and nonverbal communications, call 911 if a party turns ugly) a conversation about their own sexual boundaries, and how to deflect, fend off, and god forbid, report an assault.
Bell notes that the problem is not as widespread for boys as it is for girls, but that more research is needed to even identify how widespread the problem is. This starts with educating them about their own rights, as well as responsibilities, regarding their bodies and their sex lives. The myth that “real men” always want sex has to go.