Male Rape Victims: Let’s Talk About the Men

A few months ago, this video was posted.

Very shortly thereafter, a blogger posted an objection to one line of the video:

I love the organization and I support them in doing great things. However, there is one thing that rubs me the wrong way. Watching this video, I get the message that men don’t get raped.

Yes, I am aware that the video portrays a woman, Shoshannah Stern, and shares her perspective on the rape culture. That’s fine. The part that bothers me? At the end, she signs, and the message is printed on the screen: “Rape is hate crime against women.” Not people. Not humans. Women. Just women.

This is a very measured version of an objection that is raised whenever women talk about the experience of being raped and about the culture and myths that support rape in our society. Men get raped too.
It’s true, of course. Fewer men are the victims of rape than women (about 10% of rape victims), but the number is still not small. And we know there’s at least one important difference when a rape victim is a man instead of a woman: Men are even less likely to report the crime. Aside from that, though, how well do women’s descriptions of rape fit men’s experience? Aside from not consistently naming men as victims, do women’s discussions of rape do any disservice to male victims?

Luckily, although the phenomenon of rape of men outside of prison populations wasn’t acknowledged immediately when rape became a major topic of scholarly study in the 70s and 80s, the literature has had some time to catch up. The following is very U.S.-centric and may not apply uniformly to childhood sexual abuse, but it is a quick review of what we know about the experience of male rape victims. Prison rape is included in this discussion, even though it isn’t usually mentioned specifically because rape in prison looks very much like rape in the general population.

Counting rapes is made more difficult by legal definitions that relate rape directly to procreative sex and direct violence. In many U.S. jurisdictions, rape is still defined as forced penile-vaginal penetration, although other types of rape are covered under other sexual assault charges. Making the term “rape” more general, to recognize other types of contact and situations in which consent cannot be effectively given, is controversial, but if male rape victims are to be treated seriously, changes need to occur.

The Rapists
Whatever the gender of the victim, rapists are overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly heterosexual. This lends extra weight to the statement that rape is not about sex but about power, as does the fact that males are relatively more likely to experience gang rape. The relationship of the rapist to the victim is one of authority rather than sexuality. The exceptions to the heterosexual male rapist are generally found in date and domestic rape, in which people are forced or coerced by their romantic or potential romantic partners. As we see more women in positions of stable power from which they are able to apply coercion, this may change, but that’s the picture at the moment.

Hate Crimes
What Shoshanna said in her video is true. Rape is a hate crime against women. It is also a hate crime against non-heterosexuals, those who don’t conform to stereotypical gender expectations, those on the receiving end of racial or religious hatred, civilians on the “wrong” side of a military conflict, and those who are otherwise disenfranchised. This goes along with rape being a crime of power.

In men and women, bisexuals are at the greatest risk for sexual assault, then homosexuals, then heterosexuals. Men pay a stricter penalty in terms of increase in risk for non-heterosexuals. Women’s rates of victimization are consistently higher, only beginning to approach equality in bisexuals.

In all these cases, the sexual assault itself, as well as the reactions of others afterward, can reinforce the self-hatred of internalized oppression.

Coercion is another controversial topic in rape education. There is constant pushback from those who feel that enthusiastic consent is too high a bar, but the fact remains that many people don’t feel free to say, “No.” Whether they are dependent on a partner for emotional or financial support or housing, whether they are dependent on a colleague for career support, saying, “No,” often comes with unacceptable consequences, even if those consequences are never stated directly. Just as we have come to recognize that “Yes,” when said at knifepoint or in another physically threatening situation, is not consent, so do we need to realize that consent given under other kinds of duress is not consent at all.

There is a great deal of irony in this being a controversial assertion among the same people who usually complain that those who speak of rape aren’t speaking about male victims. There is evidence to show that rates of coercion by sexual partners is higher among lesbians than among gay men, but that statistic is likely skewed by women’s higher sensitivity to issues of coercion. By attempting to stop those who speak about rape from identifying coerced sex as rape (the “If they didn’t call it rape, how can you?” argument), these people are continuing to deny male victims an equal understanding of their experiences. This is particularly relevant for those men who are coerced into having sex by a woman.

Rape as Sex
Rape defense and denial works very hard to confuse rape with sex, similar to the enormous amount of effort made to blur the very simple distinction between flirting and sexual harassment. To put it simply, sex and flirting are things that both parties want. Rape and harassment are one-sided. It’s very simple for all the argument that goes on.

It’s also quite an important distinction when we’re talking about male victims of rape. The ongoing confusion between rape and sex is particularly bad for male victims, because erectile response and even ejaculation can occur in the presence of fear and other negative emotions. This can lead to men under-recognizing rape when it happens to them–again, particularly with female assailants. It can also lead straight men who are raped by other men to question their sexuality, even as they have to deal with the other aftermath of their rapes.

Rape Trauma
Rape trauma, the post-traumatic stress disorder associated with sexual assault, needs to be understood well for two reasons. The first, of course, is that it is critical for proper treatment. The second is that the presence of rape trauma can be used as corroborating evidence in rape trials in at least some jurisdictions. The research on rape trauma specifically in men is scanty. However, the literature that exists does suggest a similar spectrum of symptoms is present in men and women who are raped, with the individual constellation of symptoms varying from person to person.

Heterosexual men may additionally, as noted above, question their sexuality after a rape in a way that is unique to them as victims. They may also view the assault as a failure on their part to fulfill their masculine gender identity, in a way that women may not.

Attribution of Blame and Social Support
Social support is critical for the recovery of rape victims of all genders. It is perhaps the single most important factor determining recovery outcome, and influences treatment by the criminal justice system. Due to a number of rape myths, however, victims are often judged when they should be supported.

Both women and men face disbelief when they report rape: women are thought to have changed their minds after consensual sex, men are told it is impossible for them to be raped by women, and vast numbers of all genders have to try to be heard and believed over attackers whose social status is much higher, as discussed under Hate Crimes above. Men report rape so rarely that there aren’t any good statistics on rates of false report, but automatic disbelief is an issue for men just as much as it is for women.

Similarly, men are also on the receiving end of victim blaming, even if some of it varies slightly in the details. They “should have known” that this part of town was bad. They shouldn’t have committed a crime if they didn’t want to be raped in prison. They should have known better than to flaunt their sexuality in front of aggressively heterosexual men. And even more than women, who are expected to be the weaker sex, they should have fought back. Male survivors of rape, like any other victims, need us to break down the practice of deciding that anyone who has been attacked must deserve the attack in some way.

The idea that rape is a form of sex instead of a crime that uses the trappings of sex is also a problem when it comes to attributions of blame. If the attacker is of the appropriate gender to be desired by the victim under other circumstances, rape is viewed as less of an assault, denying some degree of social support to the victim. Gay men are considered to be more complicit in their own rapes by men than heterosexual men are.

Institutional Support
This is where we most fail male rape victims. From education to collection of evidence to rape counseling, so few men attempt to use services for rape victims that the services are often not put in place in time to help them. As we continue to work to improve services for women and to make rape a safer topic of public conversation for everyone, we also need to insist that those providing the services–at a minimum–know where services for men are provided by trained, compassionate professionals. And while we are doing that, we need to make sure the same is provided for those whose gender expressions don’t fit the standard binary as well.

Happily, I can say that the group that provided the video at the top of this post pointed to this one as well. We need more of these (though perhaps with better treatment options recommended).

Anderson, I., & Lyons, A. (2005). The Effect of Victims’ Social Support on Attributions of Blame in Female and Male Rape Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35 (7), 1400-1417 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2005.tb02176.x

Balsam, K., Rothblum, E., & Beauchaine, T. (2005). Victimization Over the Life Span: A Comparison of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Heterosexual Siblings. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73 (3), 477-487 DOI: 10.1037/0022-006X.73.3.477

Davies, M. (2002). Male sexual assault victims: a selective review of the literature and implications for support services Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7 (3), 203-214 DOI: 10.1016/S1359-1789(00)00043-4

Doherty, K., & Anderson, I. (2004). Making sense of male rape: constructions of gender, sexuality and experience of rape victims Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 14 (2), 85-103 DOI: 10.1002/casp.765

Lipscomb, G., Muram, D., Speck, P., Mercer, B. (1992). Male victims of sexual assault JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 267 (22), 3064-3066 DOI: 10.1001/jama.1992.03480220082032

Waterman, C., Dawson, L., & Bologna, M. (1989). Sexual coercion in gay male and lesbian relationships: Predictors and implications for support services Journal of Sex Research, 26 (1), 118-124 DOI: 10.1080/00224498909551495

Male Rape Victims: Let’s Talk About the Men

2 thoughts on “Male Rape Victims: Let’s Talk About the Men

  1. 1

    The whole discussion of rape suffers from overloading the term — conflating too many distinct phenomena with the same term. I doubt we can change that, but we should at least be aware of it.Language changes. The word "rape" used to mean, approximately, "abducted."

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