We’re Failing Male Victims of Sexual Assault; Here’s What You Need to Know

When it comes to male victims of sexual assault, we’ve failed as a society. (We’ve failed in other ways, too, but that’s a separate article.)

Even in the 21st century, we treat sexual violence against men as a laughing matter or as something inconsequential. 

Here’s just one small example that demonstrates this (by the nature of its topic, this article contains descriptions that you might find disturbing/triggering): 

A few years ago, YouTube suggested a song to me — “Beautiful Dangerous” by Slash and Fergie. I couldn’t click the play-button fast enough. 

However, my excitement quickly waned as I watched the video: in it, Fergie plays the role of a stalker, who roofies Slash. She then takes him home, ties him to her bed, grinds on him and presumably kills him in the end. 

I found it disturbing so I scrolled to the comment section (yeah, I know… bad idea!) to see if others had the same reaction. 

However, as the comments showed, many people didn’t find it problematic at all: I read comments from men that stated that they envied Slash, and women writing they would like to be Fergie in the video. (Seriously? You want to be roofied and sexually assaulted — or be the person doing that to someone else?)

In short, many people responded positive to something that would constitute a crime in real life (at least in societies whose laws adequately protect people from sexual assault). Because here’s what society tends to ignore: men are also often subjected to sexual violence. 

Please, let’s make room for everyone (regardless of their position on the gender spectrum) to tell their stories of sexual abuse and have them be met with compassion and kindness, not ridicule or disbelief.

How frequent is male sexual assault?

Male prison rape is common in the US (which has the world’s highest incarceration rate) and elsewhere in the world.

But sexual violence against men does not only happen behind bars.

For instance, in the 2010 National Intimate Partner And Sexual Violence Survey conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 men (22.2 percent) reported having experienced sexual victimization other than rape at some point in his life.

This survey also measured a new category of sexual victimization — “being made to penetrate someone else” through force, threat of force or in a situation where the victim is unable to consent — which is particularly unique to males.

Just like women, men can experience a freeze response during sexual assault, making resistance impossible. Also, as scholars point out, both erections and ejaculations can occur during extreme duress and it is not rare for men to maintain erections during sexual assaults.

In the UK, according to police figures, there were 26,483 recorded incidents of males being victims of sexual assault or rape between 2010 and 2014. The overall prevalence of male sexual assault is expected to be much higher as the number of men who report these incidents may be as low as 3.9 percent.

How society fails when it comes to male sexual assault

Despite the fact that men are not immune to sexual assault, male victims generally receive even less support than female victims. 

I learned this firsthand early on. As a teenager, I was working for an emergency hotline for adolescents when I answered a call from a man my own age who had been sexually abused. It was my job to give him information about places that could help him in his situation.

As I flipped through the handbook that listed the names and contact information of institutions, I realized that there were ridiculously few places that specialized in helping male victims of sexual violence. (Note: It is my understanding that the situation has somewhat improved since then.)

It did not seem fair to me — had he been a woman, I could have referred him to numerous institutions, but since he was a men, options were much more limited.

I received a deeper understanding of how much male victimization is overlooked when I was in law school. 

One class was on international criminal law, a subject matter that entails the worst of humanity — genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. As mass rapes during the occupation of Germany at the end of World War II or the Nanking Massacre show, war and international conflicts are a breeding ground for sexual violence.

When it comes to sexual violence in armed conflicts, the focus is largely on female victims, with male victims being under noticed. (For instance, if a woman gets forcibly penetrated during an armed conflict, it is treated as rape, whereas if the same thing happens to a man, it’s often classified as torture instead.)

Yet, as scholars have noted, sexual violence in armed conflicts affects men, too. For instance, the Guardian ran a story which highlighted the issue by including numerous personal accounts of men who were brutally raped in conflict areas.

All these examples show that rape and sexual assault can hurt anyone and that all victims need to receive adequate help and support, whether in war zones or in non-conflict areas.

Sadly, though, the situation for male victims of sexual assault is oftentimes even worse than the ones for female victims. For instance, Elephant Journal columnist Lisa Foreman reports: 

“I was a director at our Crisis center, and it was amazing how little sympathy people had for male victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.”

The issue of male sexual victimization became personal for me after I found out a number of male friends and acquaintances had suffered from some form of sexual violence.

Take everyone — regardless of their gender identity — seriously when they mention having experienced unwanted sexual contact.

The stories they shared included both incidents in childhood and in adulthood, at the hands of individuals or groups and men or women.

Suddenly, the abstract and theoretical had a familiar face.

Misconceptions about sexual violence towards men

Public perception is often that men cannot be victimized sexually — at least, not by a woman. Many assume that men can fend off a perpetrator if and when they need to, and that an erection equals consent.

That’s simply not true. 

Just like women, men can experience a freeze response during sexual assault, making resistance impossible. Also, as scholars point out, both erections and ejaculations can occur during extreme duress and it is not rare for men to maintain erections during sexual assaults.

Physiological arousal clearly doesn’t equal consent. 

In his Washington Post article, writer Richard Morgan graphically describes how, during his rape, his rapist managed to produce the (purely) physiological erection response in him, even while he was crying.

Involuntary sexual arousal, including orgasms, has also been reported in female victims of sexual violence. Regardless of gender, for sexual assault victims, such bodily responses can make things even worse, as they can make victims feel betrayed by their own bodies.

Given all of this information, male sexual assault has to be taken seriously.

Yet as the comments under the music video with Slash and Fergie show (to give just one example… there are many others), this is not the case. 

But how would we feel about the video if the roles were reversed? What if Slash played an obsessed stalker who caught Fergie’s interest after her show, drugged her and tied her to the bed? Would we really feel that Fergie “got lucky?” Or would we find the video appalling and disturbing?

What male sexual assault looks like in reality

The reality is that male sexual assault is obviously neither sexy nor funny. (I can’t believe that I have to spell that out!) 

Below are some graphic accounts (taken from this and this reddit thread) of how men have experienced sexual violence in real life that should make that very clear. 

If you do not wish to read these potentially triggering accounts, please scroll past the cursive text. The next section contains a list of how you can help the cause.

“I had passed out on the dirt ground, and from the stories I heard, she woke me up and tried to fuck me. I only have vague flashes of what happened, but she succeeded. I still don’t know whats worse: The fact that I lost my valued virginity to a girl who claimed she respected my virginity, while in a near-alcohol poisoning state; or the fact that my best friends saw all of this happen and did absolutely nothing to stop it.”

“I drank until I blacked out at a friend’s house. I walked home alone through Boston at 4:30 am. I woke up in my girlfriend’s bed with a giant head wound, bleeding out my ass. No memory of the attack, thankfully.“

“My at the time girlfriend threatened to bash my skull in, after I just got a fracture there. She forced sex on me and I was not ready for it at all. Prior to it I did not want it, nor did I at the time, and never have I since. This was just after getting out of a coma, so I was pretty out of it even still at the time. She covered my mouth the whole time.”

“I was sexually assaulted as a part of hazing when I joined the high school cross country team. I was pinned down by roughly 8 other guys. They pulled down my pants and underwear and took turns “butt-gouging” me. (Sticking two fingers as far up someone’s anus as you can). The process was a good 7–10 minutes long.”

“When I was fifteen my mom got me black out drunk. I don’t remember anything from that night. However, the next day I woke up in her bed naked, and she was in the living room naked acting all kinds of weird.”

Here are a few things you can do to help the cause:

  1. Take everyone — regardless of their position on the gender spectrum — seriously when they mention having experienced unwanted sexual contact. You can find information about how to help friends and other loved ones deal with sexual violence here.
  2. Raise awareness of the topic of male sexual assault, for instance, by sharing this article or any other article on the topic. 
  3. If you find yourself in the presence of a heavily intoxicated person or notice something else that is off, ensure the person’s safety from unwanted sexual contact — regardless of their gender.
  4. If you are a parent, you can find information about keeping your child safe here.
  5. If you live in the US and would like to speak with someone who is trained to help in cases of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE(4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org. A UK based network that specializes in helping male victims of sexual assault is SurvivorsUK. If you live in another country, turn to google or another search engine to find the best resource.
  6. Consider donating money or time to charities which specialize in helping victims of sexual assault. For instance, if you live in the US, you can make a tax-deductible donation to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) or volunteer with them. If you have additional advice, please share it below in the comment section.

Taking sexual violence more seriously in entertainment

Since I started this article by writing about a music video, let’s return to entertainment for a moment. 

If you consider movies, shows, books, and music you’ve consumed, you can probably think of examples where sexual violence isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. 

Sometimes, artists think they are being edgy by pushing certain boundaries. 

It’s true that artists often stir controversy for the greater good, such as The Sex Pistols who have not only pushed but also redefined society’s rigid boundaries. 

At the same time, I believe that people who shape culture — for instance, those working in entertainment —have a duty to exercise discernment. 

Some boundaries should not be pushed.

Some boundaries exist to be honored, cherished and respected.

Some boundaries are so important that it is heartbreaking and trust-breaking when they get violated.

When it comes to dealing with sexual violence, it’s possible to be edgy and to break taboos in a way that makes the world better. 

Here are two examples of controversial songs that are part of the solution, not the problem: 

  • Tool’s song Prison Sex: according to singer Maynard James Keenan, it’s about recognizing and identifying cycles of abuse, 
  • Nirvana’s song Rape Me: singer Kurt Cobain described it as a“razor-sharp anti-rape anthem.”

We need more examples of helpful controversy in entertainment.

Writing this article sucked. As part of the research, I spend days reading about sexual assault — without being able to do anything for the people who were mentioned in the stories I read. Despite being used to graphic descriptions of violence due to my legal background, this had me be in a terrible mood. 

But here’s the thing: there’s a world of difference between reading about something and experiencing it. 

It’s painful to read through the real-life accounts of sexual assault included above. But living through it is much much worse. And by not taking the pain of those who go through it seriously, we’re exacerbating the problem. 

Shouldn’t we all strive to be part of the solution instead? 

So please, dear culture, stop telling men who were sexually assaulted that they “got lucky.”

Please stop portraying this as something funny — because it is not.

Please stop questioning if men can get raped.

Please, let’s make room for everyone (regardless of their position on the gender spectrum) to tell their stories of sexual abuse and have them be met with compassion and kindness, not ridicule or disbelief.

Our culture can and must do better than this. 

And that change starts with each and every one of us. 

A version of this article was originally published at Elephant Journal

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Louise is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Louise loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at www.workyoulovecoach.com.
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