Andrew Smiler wonders why we give so little public attention to boys and men who have been sexually assaulted or raped.
Did you hear about last week’s New Jersey rape case? A high school teacher was accused of having sex with three students, then they upped the count to five. Maybe you didn’t hear about it because the teacher was a woman and the victims were boys. Or maybe because it wasn’t the NFL, Scottish Independence, or ISIL. But even with those events, I have this feeling that if it had been a male teacher and female victims, then it would have gotten more attention.
Days later, the United Nations launched the He For She campaign (with a fabulous speech by Emma Watson), encouraging men to help reduce gender inequality, and the White House launched the It’s On Us campaign to reduce sexual assault (against women). This follows the White House’s efforts to spotlight and reduce campus sexual assaults; both are part of the Not Alone initiative. But when you look closely at the White House’s products, male victims are mostly missing; the online networking and support organization Male Survivor spent several days tweeting about the lack of attention to the approximately 1 in 6 guys, equivalent to more than 25 Million American men, who’ve been victimized but mostly ignored by It’s On Us.
It leaves me wondering what’s up? Why do male victims get so little attention?
For one thing, We Don’t Take Male Rape Victims Seriously. If you read the comments on the Dufault rape allegations, you’ll repeatedly see people – mostly men according to the names given – saying this was the fulfillment to every teen boy’s dreams, not rape. (Thanks Van Halen!) They’re echoing Bill Maher’s comments from earlier this year. In response to a study by Bryana French documenting that approximately 40% of teen boys and young men had been coerced into performing sex (or straight up raped), Maher attempt to “explain” that they hadn’t gotten raped, they’d gotten lucky. In effect, this is the same as telling a female rape victim that she was “asking for it.”
On top of that, acknowledging the phenomenon means we’d have to admit Men Are Vulnerable. We expect boys and men to be tough and display an air of invulnerability. It’s part of the manbox. When we joke about male prisoners getting raped in the shower, we make fun of their victimization.
When a guy gets hurt, we Show No Compassion. If it’s a physical problem, we tell him to “walk it off and get back in the game.” When a guy gets his feelings hurt, we call him a sissy if he cries too much; we might also tell him “don’t get mad, get even.” What we don’t do is meaningfully acknowledge his pain, validate his feelings and experiences, or give him any resources that might help him cope. It’s the ultimate version of “you should take care of yourself.”
This is all compounded by the Lack of An Echo Chamber. There are more organizations and bloggers than I can count who talk about female victimization and their needs. They’ve been doing it for decades and have been able raise our cultural consciousness and develop a broad array of resources to help victims. This is good; many women did and some still do suffer in silence and with little support. Due to decades of women speaking out and speaking up, they’ve developed a broad array of resources and the funding to support them. (Although there’s not enough support or resources, in my opinion.)
But there are only a handful of organizations and bloggers who speak about male victims and do it in ways that are respectful of all victims; we have yet to create safe space for male victims to speak out. Oprah raised the topic back in 2010, filling her studio with male victims of childhood sexual assault. As far as I can tell, male victims haven’t had their stories told in the mainstream media until recently when GQ provided a forum for men who’d been sexually assaulted in the military. Why the four year gap in coverage?
One result is that male victims continue to suffer in silence and get the message that they are disposable. We’ve yet to have a man offer himself as the poster child for sexually abused boys. I can’t say I blame them; did you see the picture of students almost rioting after the Sandusky allegations went public? As Christopher Anderson, Executive Director of Male Survivor told me, there are strong “disincentives to disclose or discuss experiences of victimization and trauma openly.” Any guy that comes forward to talk about what happened to them in the aftermath of being sexually abused (as a child) or raped as a teen or adult is going to need to be brave and very-thick skinned.
Another outcome is that boys and men who’ve been sexually assaulted don’t usually call it abuse or rape in their own heads. That’s the conclusion of a newly published study in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity by University of Missouri researchers Tiffany Artime, Ethan McCallum, and Zoe Peterson. They found that being physically forced was the primary predictor or whether or not a guy called it sexual abuse or rape. If a guy had somehow agreed, maybe because he was shamed into having sex by being called a pu—y or in order to prove he’s not gay, then he didn’t call it rape. And guys who didn’t call it sexual abuse or rape tended to fare worse than guys who used those terms. In other words, acknowledging the experience for what it was – unwanted and forced – facilitates recovery and better mental health.
It’s time we do better for men. It is not enough to simply remind people that boys and men are also sexually assaulted every time there’s a high profile case of a woman being assaulted. We need to do a better job of understanding why sexual assault and rape happen, on campus and elsewhere; it’s not just a few bad apples who can’t control their sex drive.
We do not need to shift money and other resources away from women in order to help men. That would just perpetuate the notion that there’s a battle between the sexes and that gender politics are a zero-sum game. Helping women need not hurt men, and helping men need not hurt women.
We need to do a better job of raising awareness so that when a guy admits he’s been raped, we don’t scorn him for being vulnerable, but instead we give him the support he needs. We need to develop more resources so that when a guy acknowledges that he’s been hurt and needs help, he can get it.
If you’re a male victim of sexual assault or rape, or are concerned about a male victim, the following organizations may be able to help you:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)