Warning: This piece contains material about sexual assault that may be upsetting to some readers.
A friend says to me over breakfast: “I was sexually assaulted once, I suppose.”
It sounds like the beginning of a joke.
“I was at a party and had got a little too drunk. I had been sick all over myself. My friends put me to bed and then this person walked in, got into bed and started touching me. All I remember saying is ‘I can’t’ because I was seeing someone. And then they made me touch them.
“Anyway, they became a part of our group. A couple of weeks later, the same thing happened to one of her friends and she was outraged. You know, understandably. But I never knew how to feel.”
Men and women give similar reasons for not coming forward about sexual assault. Shame, guilt and denial are common. Others will naturally not seek external help. But separately, there remains the issue of not recognising an unfree decision.
For women, it’s claimed that as many as 60% of survivors do not acknowledge even having been assaulted, filling in with labels such as “bad sex” and “miscommunication”. Inevitably, how survivors are able to view and define their experience determines their ability to acknowledge it.
When it comes to men, good data is harder to find. When men do decide to come forward, it takes on average three decades. The main barriers include not being understood or taken seriously. There’s a case for the argument. Even in psychiatric settings, male victims end up labelled as “secretive” or “malingering” when pressed to open up. Abuse history is frequently overlooked and treatment swayed by beliefs on both sides of the couch that trauma is not important enough.
No wonder, then, the normalcy of silence; when men begin to recognise their situation, the discourse does not exist to do anything with it. No wonder, then, the apprehension towards the police, the belief that a report won’t be taken seriously, when the law still defines sexual assault in decidedly masculine terms. The law may have long ensured that gendered terms don’t lead to gendered discrimination but it still allowed male-victim rape to pass through without mention until 1994.
These positions become quickly taken for granted. Data shows a lingering idea that men “cannot get raped”, especially found among older, male individuals. The combination of ambiguous laws and incomplete data has led to the belief that self-reporting will not be taken seriously by peers or by the law. Hence, men often do not recognise sexual assault until many years after, ending up drunk and in bed with people they do not want to have sex with, sometimes in fear of otherwise seeming ‘gay’ or ‘ungrateful’ of the attention.
Part of this, of course, is the harmful notion that men always want sex, and so that women cannot truly rape men. The idea seems also easy to dress up in comedy. And then, for some, sexual coercion becomes an accepted part of life, a ‘moderate’ concession in the name of maintaining order. Though this isn’t solely a function of ‘lad culture’, there is a case that peers will play a role in making victimhood ‘improper’.
For some, dealing with trauma requires no ‘coming forward’. For others, there is progress in the idea that men can ask for help. Each year, 72,000 men come forward about rape in the UK, a steadily increasing figure (up 57% from 2015/16 to 17/18) that correlates with the increased effort to present cases of male-victim rape and support services in UK media. In the military, too, there has been a spike in recorded historical cases, suggesting that survivors are now able to recognise their experience and want to identify their assailants. The sentencing of Reynhard Sinaga – who preyed mostly on straight men – and its publicity at the start of the year correlated with a 5,000% increase in calls to sexual assault helplines.
This makes sense. At the root of our assumptions – including the gendering of sexual violence – is a sheer lack of good information. The data on male victims of sexual assault only starts to appear after 1980, resulting in a research gap that contributes to the idea that male-victim sexual violence is something exceptional. The ‘1 in 5 women’ figure cited by the Obama administration has been in constant discussion over its findings, methodology and reliability. Even the authors spoke out on its limits. But the aside that 1 in 71 male undergrads have been sexually assaulted has been mostly unexamined.
The tendency of men to under-report sexual assault skews data driven by the conflation of rape with other forms of sexual violence. When the question is reworded to ask men if they have been made to penetrate somebody else, that number goes up to 1 in 21. Others claim that 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted. Gender stereotypes, outdated definitions and methodological sampling biases seem to be behind these inconsistencies. A clearer picture shows that nearly 40% of sexual violence victims are men.
It’s a circle. So long as men judge that their experiences aren’t valid, many won’t come forward. This then creates a lack of data, which fuels the views that men don’t get sexually assaulted, and so on.
It is difficult, as a man, to come to terms with the idea that not feeling a certain way about something does not make it unimportant. At some point, one is forced to consider decisions made that were not primarily their own. One recognises how inappropriate certain situations have been, bent out of shape by power dynamics, social pressure or intoxication. And then there’s the aftermath – talking with friends, laughing about moments of vulnerability and choosing not to think too much into it.
The lack of literature and proper reporting of male-victim ‘rape culture’ (an ugly term, but one that fits) has failed to dispel myths that men cannot suffer from sexual violence. The lack of a respectable movement for men’s issues has not helped. But responsibility for challenging tropes of culture, media, falls with all.
I have taken care not to compare figures between men and women unless relevant. The aim is not to further divisions, reinforce group boundaries or build resentment. The next crucial step is to recognise that sexual violence is not limited to one group or identity, but draws on historical shortcomings with implications for all. Until then, the cycle of misrepresentation will continue, perpetuating a tragic and harmful rumour long built into our collective history.
Words by James Reynolds
Image: Joyful Heart Foundation