It can feel shocking at first to hear stories of boys and men who were sexually assaulted by women. Our society tends to doubt male accusers, assuming that the man “must have wanted it,” or accept the myth that it’s not possible for a woman to rape a man.
That’s one reason it feels so jarring to hear that actress and filmmaker Asia Argento was accused of sexual assault by former co-star Jimmy Bennett. According to the New York Times, which received a copy of the documents sent between both parties’ lawyers, Argento and Bennett met in a hotel room, where Argento allegedly gave Bennett alcohol, performed oral sex on him, and then climbed on top of him and they had intercourse. He was 17 years old and she was 37 at the time of the alleged incident. According to the documents, Bennett sent Argento notice of intent to sue late last year. Argento reportedly paid him $380,000.
Since the Times report, Argento sent a statement denying that the encounter occurred to journalist Yashar Ali, saying, “I have never had any sexual relationship with Bennett.” A day later, TMZ released a photo that appeared to show Bennett and Argento in bed together, as well as text messages purported to be from Argento confirming the sexual encounter happened.
Bennett also sent a statement to the Hollywood Reporter confirming his side of the events. “At the time I believed there was still a stigma to being in the situation as a male in our society,” he said of his decision to ask for payment as opposed to going public with the encounter. “I didn’t think that people would understand the event that took place from the eyes of a teenage boy. I have had to overcome many adversities in my life, and this is another that I will deal with, in time.”
One of the disturbing elements of this story is the fact that Argento was one of the first women to come forward with accusations of sexual assault against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Her story helped encourage dozens of women to speak up about abuse, rape, and assault by Weinstein, fueling the powerful #MeToo movement.
I’m a feminist writer who has researched and written about male sex abuse survivors. This has offered me opportunities to speak with survivors and to collaborate with advocates, where I’ve learned that the challenges facing male survivors are profoundly misunderstood.
While we don’t know all the details of the interaction between Bennett and Argento, we do know that it is possible for women to sexually assault and even rape men. This may be hard for some people to believe. Our social narratives surrounding gender portray men as aggressors, physically stronger, and “always wanting” sex. Women, in contrast, are painted as weaker, submissive, and sexual gatekeepers to male desire. These expectations are so deeply ingrained that it may seem impossible for a woman to sexually assault a man.
In order to understand how female-perpetrated sexual assault of men and boys can happen, there are a few factors that should be considered:
1) Erections and orgasms are reflexes, and do not equal consent
Contrary to popular notions, a man can have an erection even when he doesn’t want to have sex. Erection can be a reflex to physical stimulation even when the person isn’t mentally aroused, much like when the doctor taps your knee with that little hammer.
Not all men will react this way, of course, but having an erection or an orgasm during a sexual assault is common and shouldn’t be confused with consent. Men who are disgusted or terrified can still have erections or orgasms.
2) Underage people — male or female — cannot consent to sex with adults
Any sexual interaction that allegedly occurred between Bennett, 17 at the time, and Argento, 20 years his senior, is illegal in the state of California. But it’s not uncommon for people to think a boy like Bennett should be “grateful” that he had the opportunity to have sex with an older woman.
In a 2014 episode of Real Time, Bill Maher joked that underage male victims are just “lucky bastards” who should stop complaining. It is also sometimes depicted as a “rite of passage” for young men, like in the 2008 film The Reader, which erotically depicts a relationship between a 36-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy.
In truth, boys who’ve been victims of statutory rape and abuse often face long-term trauma from their experiences. What’s worse, it’s hard for them to find support from a society that doesn’t understand that boys who are assaulted by predatory older women aren’t just “getting lucky.” These boys deserve to be protected and taken seriously.
3) There are more male survivors of sexual assault than we realize
Sexual assault and rape statistics can be incredibly contentious. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network has determined that one in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, and other studies have shown a higher prevalence of men who have experienced other forms of assault or abuse. A 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on San Diego Kaiser Permanente HMO members found that 16 percent of men (compared to 25 percent of women) had been sexually abused before age 18.
Given the variance in data-gathering methods, as well as the amount of stigma surrounding male sexual assault victims coming forward, my guess is that these numbers are an underestimate. Additionally, researchers run the risk of framing data-gathering questions in ways that don’t capture male experiences with assault.
For instance, in a 2010 CDC study, researchers introduced a category of sexual assault called “being forced to penetrate.” With this addition, the number of men who responded that they had been assaulted skyrocketed, and the rates at which men and women answered that they were victims of nonconsensual sexual contact was nearly equal, at 1.270 million women and 1.267 million men. (It’s also important to remember that underreporting by women is also common, and that could be the case in this study as well.)
Additionally, surveys show that it’s not just men harming other men. There hasn’t been much research into female perpetrators of sexual abuse against men, but one multi-year analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) discovered that a startling 46 percent of sexual assaults of men were perpetrated by women.
4) Male survivors of female perpetrators are often shamed into silence
The prevailing myth in our society is that guys want sex all the time and women are the ones responsible for saying no. This myth teaches boys and men that their urges are uncontrollable and implies that guys have no sexual boundaries.
But it’s also dangerous because society, especially other men, may laugh at or mock men when they try to reach out for support after an assault.
Toxic masculinity makes it hard for guys to see themselves or other men as victims, so they’re often met with, “Don’t be a pussy,” “That sounds hot,” or the homophobic response, “What, are you gay?” when they tell their stories. This pushes men into silence, causing all of us to believe that cases like this are rarer than they really are.
5) A woman can be both a victim and an abuser
It’s entirely possible for a victim of abuse to also be an abuser. Many, though certainly not all, people who are abusers have a history of abuse themselves.
The good news, for those who have survived sexual abuse or assault, is that most abuse survivors will not go on to commit abuse or rape. So while we don’t know what caused the alleged encounter between Argento and Bennett to happen, we do know that Argento’s experience as a victim does not exempt her from also being a perpetrator.
6) Men and boys deserve the right to say no
It doesn’t matter your gender or sexual orientation: You deserve the right to say no and to have your boundaries respected. There is no circumstance in which anyone — man or woman, boy or girl — deserves to be raped, abused, or sexually assaulted.
Stereotypes surrounding what rape and assault must look like are dangerous. Male survivors face increased risk of suicide, depression and mental illness, and addiction, but with proper support, healing is possible for survivors. Society must show male survivors the respect they deserve, no matter who it was that hurt them.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year that the film The Reader was released.
If you’re a man who has experienced sexual abuse or assault—whether in childhood or as an adult—you can find more information and support here.
Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic whose writing has appeared on sites like Time, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Babble, YourTango, and Bright Magazine. Find Joanna Schroeder on Twitter @iproposethis.