Earlier this week, Asia Argento – a leading figure in the #MeToo movement – was accused of sexual assault by actor Jimmy Bennett, who also alleged that the actress settled his intent to sue with a $380,000 payment. Responding, Argento strongly denied the allegations, saying she had been “linked in friendship only” with Bennett, adding that the sum was paid by her partner Anthony Bourdain in order to help alleviate Bennett’s "severe economic problems".
As well as rocking Hollywood for months to come, the accusations have reopened a debate which has been going for some time: the wider question of whether women can "rape" men by coercing them into sex without their consent.
The law in England and Wales defines rape as the penetration of another’s vagina, anus or mouth without consent, with the perpetrator’s penis. This means that, although women can commit the equally-severe offence of unlawful penetration (using a strap-on dildo, for example), under British law rape itself can only be committed by a man.
However, there have of course long been accounts of men who say that in being forced to penetrate, they have been raped by women – typically through being coerced into sex through violence or blackmail, or by the administration of drugs.
For example, Dave Pickering – a London-based storyteller and author of Mansplaining Masculinity, a one-man show which explores how patriarchal values hurt men and boys – tells a harrowing story in his show of how he was forced into sex by a vulnerable partner. "I didn't see it as sexual assault at the time," he says. "And one of the reasons was because it didn’t affect me in the way I imagined sexual assault would affect someone."
In 2016, Dr Siobhan Weare, an academic at Lancaster University, launched a research study calling on men who felt they had been forced into penetrative sex to submit their experiences. Published in 2017, the findings draw on first-hand testimony from 154 men across the UK, challenging what Dr Weare sees as the most damaging stereotypes in this field: namely, that women cannot physically compel men to have sex, and that men view all sex as positive.
Earlier this year she expanded on the original study in a journal article, which makes clear that it isn’t an attempt to clarify how the law could be amended to cover female rape – merely why it should. Nor does it make any serious attempt to define the scale of what it calls "a hidden crime".
Quoting everyone from Susan Brownmiller to the Men and Masculinities journal, the article spends more time indulging postmodernist gender theory than anything else. It does, however, call on the government to collect data on the problem – which I suppose is suitably non-postmodern.
Of course, it's not impossible to imagine the current law on rape being extended to cover women perpetrators: it’s logical, for example, that an adult woman would commit statutory rape if she took advantage of a 12-year-old child. Similarly, feminist campaigners have welcomed moves elsewhere (such as a decision by the supreme court in Switzerland) to recognise stealthing – the act of secretly removing a condom during sex – as rape.
Redefining rape to include men being forced to penetrate has become an obsession for the men's rights movement, whose propaganda around the issue hasn't helped the overall cause, with some critics now viewing "forced-to-penetrate" as another unwarranted attack on accepted narratives around rape and women’s rights.
The hardline anti-feminist party Justice 4 Men and Boys (J4MB – whose mission statement claims that "feminists have been responsible for, or have exacerbated, many of the problems facing humanity today") has long rallied against women sex offenders, and has twice encouraged its supporters to contribute their experiences to Dr Weare's work (a potential ethical issue given the study depended almost exclusively on first-hand testimonies). Sadly, J4MB's approach echoes their usual style, focusing less on men's welfare per se and more on reframing women as perpetrators.
Instead, as Dr Weare's work has shown, we need to focus on the fact that men who have been forced to penetrate women are victims. Whether British law will ever be changed to acknowledge that they are victims of rape is a matter to be seen.