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Until recently, places such as the United States and the United Kingdom had legal definitions of rape which only included women and girls as victims and men and boys and the perpetrators. In the United States in 2012, the FBI finally included both male and female victims in its definition of rape, the original, gender-exclusive definition being, “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will”, only including women as victims of sexual violence.
As a result from the change, more men and boys have come forward about their experiences with sexual violence to the police. According to a 2014 Ministry of Justice report, 2,164 cases of men and boys being raped or sexually assaulted were reported in the United Kingdom. Although the U.K. government pledged money to provide resources to the victims, there is still a lack of resources around the world for many male victims of sexual violence.
While more research is being done about male rape and the contexts in which it happens is made known, stereotypes persist about male rape victims through the media, and some nations even legally deny that men can be victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence. Lower reporting rates of rape are common for male victims because of these stigmas, not just in the United States and United Kingdom, but also around the world, within the justice system and within societies and their social groups.
There remain injustices to be solved to prevent victims from facing their traumas alone. Starting at a young age, society influences children, including boys, in gender socialization. In most societies, masculinity is considered to embody power and dominance whereas femininity embodies passivity and submission. Additionally, boys and men are often portrayed in the media as invulnerable to any physical or emotional threat and are expected to defend themselves.
David Lisak, a clinical psychologist, stated that, “We have a cultural blind spot about this. We recognize that male children are being abused,” Dr. Lisak said, “but then when boys cross some kind of threshold somewhere in adolescence and become what we perceive to be men, we no longer want to think about it in this way”.
When it comes to the description of gender-based violence, based off these constructs, the definition is more likely to describe violence towards women and girls, thus linking acts of sexual violence to only female victims, not male victims. There is some recognition of this problem, as in 2002, the World Health Organization called the neglect of male victims as a “significant problem”, yet women and girls continue to have more resources for prevention of sexual violence and support services to turn to.
While some female-specific proponents say that gender-neutral terminology will only “cover up” the issue of violence towards women, the continuation of this terminology may have negative implications for other intercultural groups which men may be a part of. Violence towards homosexuals and other members of the LGBT community happens around the world, especially in places where homosexuality is considered a criminal act.
Homosexual men are raped at higher rates than heterosexual men, and since homosexuality already places these men at higher risk for abuse and victim blaming, caused by the stereotype that homosexual men have high sex drives and “desire” to be raped; in these societies, these victims are less likely to receive medical treatment or counseling for their rapes. Transgender and intersex people in nations such as South Korea suffer similar turmoil and struggles resulting from laws which criminalize them for their identities.
The ignorance and even denial of male rape victims will be kept alive if laws and terminology are not more gender-neutral and anti-LGBT. After a rape or sexual assault, both male and female victims suffer from trauma in different ways, physically and psychologically. Some shared effects include post-traumatic stress disorder, sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and AIDS, injury to the genital or anal region, nausea, ulcers, eating disorders, depression, trouble sleeping, drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety, anger, lower self-esteem, questioning of the sexual identity, suicidal tendencies, stigma, and guilt for what happened.
Male victims are very likely to question their sexual identities and hold blame for what happened to themselves. One reason that this may happen is because during sexual activity, a man often has an erection or ejaculates, yet an erection or ejaculation does not mean that he is enjoying it or that he consented to this; erections and ejaculation are involuntary processes, yet these have been used to discredit male victims in testimony. Furthermore, erections can also happen during times of fear, anxiety, panic, or pain.
In addition to sexuality, men may question their gender or gender roles. A 2005 study found that almost seventy percent of male sexual assault victims had issues in determining their sense of masculinity and long-term periods of questioning their sexualities. These sexual dysfunctions and question of sexual identity can be long lasting, and some heterosexual male victims even began having consensual sex with the same sex after their rape experiences due to being unsure about their sexual identities. Because these effects are overlooked, this can lead to physical and mental consequences which can further put a victim in danger.
As with the rape and sexual assault of female victims, male victims can be raped or assault in different contexts including armed conflict or in prison, sometimes a combination of the two, yet the responses to the victims, based on sex and gender, contrast greatly. Detention settings are popularized places for rape, not just in war-torn countries such as Libya and Syria, but also nations such as El Salvador, Chile, and even the United States. Outside of the prison systems, captured soldiers are also at highest risk of being raped or sexually abused by their captors, whereas in a domestic prison setting, the perpetrators are more like to be other inmates.
Even as nations which have been at war have set up resources to help rape victims of rape, the resources have mainly gone towards women and girls regarding recovery and reproductive health, while in judicial systems such as those in Chile, Kenya, and Peru, acts of rape against men may instead be classified as physical violence, not rape. To further imbalance resources, not all medical practitioners are trained to recognize or treat signs of rape in men. Even in nations such as the United States, prison rapes may not be taken seriously.
As one man reported, a prison officer said, “come on mate, you’re gay, how’s that gonna sound?”. Homophobia still exists in nations that have legalized gay marriage or provide legal protections to them, and even if a prisoner is not homosexual, he may be perceived as one and may be more likely to be ignored, as the victim above experienced.
In nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom, some steps have been taken to help male victims by increasing awareness for investigators, the judiciary, and the victims and their families. The Metropolitan Police, for example, have created a pamphlet specially made for men about support groups, the investigation process, and myths about male rape (men can’t be victims of rape, male rape is a gay crime, etc.). The amount of reported rapes and sexual assaults have gone up since the 1990’s. Yet even with the correct steps being taken, there are still abundant issues in the police and justice systems.
Individual investigators have sometimes been reported to be disinterested, unsympathetic, disbelieving, and even homophobic towards some male victims who came forward. Questions may be asked of the male victims that border on or are outright victim blaming for the incident, such as “Why didn’t you run?”, “Were you doing drugs?”, “What were you doing there at that time?” and “Why were you dressed like that?”.
Even worse, what may make investigators more disbelieving of the victim is that often, the victims do not have visible physical injury. One victim described his experience with a medical investigator, saying, “The medical examination was hell. I said I didn’t want a male doctor, but that’s all there was. I was really upset during the medical tests and then the doctor asks me something which gutted me. He said, ‘It’s strange that you don’t have more injuries, are you sure you’re telling me everything?’
I ended up thinking he didn’t believe a word I said. I’d already said that I wasn’t beaten up, was I supposed to be beaten up or something? … The chaperone dropped by my ?at to talk to me about withdrawing. She was nice and told me I could go back, but I didn’t want to go through it all again.” These views are reflected in society outside of the criminal justice system, and they will only be perpetuated if nothing is done for the victims who have come forward.
As individuals in a society, we must take steps to aid the all victims of rape, male or female, especially male victims since they are less likely to come forward than female victims due to gender expectations and social stigmas. Educational awareness of rape may aid students in public schools and colleges about rape already and provide resources for survivors of sexual assault and rape, yet being more gender neutral can help to eliminate the myth that only women (usually heterosexual) can be victims of sexual violence by men.
In the judicial systems, judicial staff can learn to communicate with the victims as well as acknowledge sexual violence as it is, not as physical violence. Victims must be encouraged to come forth, including male victims, and we must listen to the stories of survivors and let them speak up about their experiences to educate others and raise awareness so that other victims do not feel alone, or even encourage them to come forward to get help, especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those who are LGBT, an ethnic minority, disabled physically or mentally, or are from a lower socioeconomic background.
Sexual assaults and rapes are crimes which happen to both men and women, yet culturally, these attacks against men are trivialized and are given less attention; even then, any disadvantages that a man has, such as sexuality, socioeconomic standing, and race, may further marginalize and harm him, although for male victims, having a physical, psychiatric, or mental disability puts him especially at risk.
If myths about men not being capable of being victims of sexual violence persist, these stereotypes perpetuated by media and gender socialization will only persist, and the voices of many victims will be silenced as they will not get the help or recognition that they need. It is important to raise awareness against these crimes for both men and women and provide the resources necessary to provide equal opportunities for safety and recovery.
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