Warning: This piece contains material about sexual assault that may be upsetting to some readers.
I’m having breakfast with a friend and he says to me, a little offhand: “I was sexually assaulted once, I suppose,” and it sounds like the beginning of a joke.
“I was at a party and have 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 tend to give similar reasons for not coming forward about sexual assault. Shame, guilt and denial are commonly cited. Others may choose to address their experience without seeking external help. But separately, there remains the issue of fundamentally not recognising an unfree decision. A 2015 meta-analysis of the prevalence of unacknowledged rape in women found that as many as 60% of survivors do not acknowledge even having been assaulted, filling in with labels such as “bad sex” and “miscommunication”. The conclusion, and premise of this article, is that how survivors are able to view and define their experience determines their ability to acknowledge it.
The lack of acknowledgement of male-victim sexual assault is widespread and historical. When men do decide to come forward, it takes on average three decades. Some of the most common barriers are listed as not being understood or taken seriously. Across the pond, a study in the US Army has suggested that even men who find themselves in a professional setting have a hard time making progress:
“None of the 4 victims examined disclosed his rape to any male psychiatrist by whom he was examined. One of the male victims was labeled as “malingering” in spite of 2 severe suicide attempts. The physician became frustrated by the perceived “secretiveness” of the patient and interpreted it as malingering. While patients dread the idea of disclosing the rape to a man and fear how telling would affect them, they also complained that no male psychiatrist had asked them about a possible abuse history. Treatment of rape victims should start with an exploration of our own beliefs about male rape.”
In the US military, men make up approximately half of the cases of sexual assault, although only a quarter of those go on to disclose it. In the UK, access to data is limited by claims of the Ministry of Defence not properly recording sexual offences in the Armed Forces.
No wonder, then, the culture of silence deterring men from coming forward; even when men begin to recognise their situation, the discourse does not exist to do anything with it. Apprehensions include feeling that trauma is not important enough or that the police will not be able to help. This latter belief is likely reinforced by the updated 2003 Sexual Offences Act, which still leans on the definition of sexual activity without consent as penetration by person A of person B – an awkward article opening with the unhelpful assumption of person A as ‘he’. This comes as little surprise, given that until 1994 there was no acknowledgement of male-victim rape whatsoever in English law.
These positions are now embedded in culture. There is a lingering sentiment that men “cannot get raped”, especially found among older, male individuals, which returns us to our starting point: men often don’t recognise sexual violence. 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 the gravity of 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. This largely derives from the idea that men always want sex, and thus that women cannot truly rape men. Such a sentiment plays an important role in comedy in which the survivor is nearly always the target of the joke. Sexual coercion from different sides thus 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’, where it may encourage certain men to take liberal approach towards others, lad culture also plays a role in perpetuating the idea that male victimhood is ‘improper’.
For some, trauma is to be dealt with internally and requires no ‘coming forward’. For others, there is progress in the idea that men can recognise their experience and request 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, implying 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.
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, out-dated definitions and methodological sampling biases seem to be behind these inconsistencies, leading to the finding that nearly 40% of sexual violence victims are men. Thus, until men are able to reconcile the culture and recognise the validity of their experiences, studies will fail to properly represent prevalence.
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 consistently failed to dispel myths that men cannot suffer from sexual violence. We find ourselves instead entrenched in a culture that makes light of male issues and has been unable to establish a respectable face for issues that affect men. The tendency of men to not come forward about sexual violence is something enshrined in culture – something we can only change by looking at cultural and legal attitudes towards assault. In this article, I have taken care not to compare figures between men and women unless decidedly relevant. The aim is not to further divisions or to reinforce group boundaries, but to collectively be able to reflect on the issue. We ought to recognise that sexual violence is not limited to one group or identity, but draws on historical shortcomings with implications for all. But until men are ready and able to have that conversation, 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