How common is the sexual assault of males?
It is only a myth in our society that men are not sexually assaulted, or that they are only sexually assaulted in prisons. In fact, in between 9-10% of all rape survivors outside of criminal institutions are male (U.S. Department of Justice, 1994; TAAS, 2014). Furthermore, estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease control (2005) reported that 16% of men experienced sexual abuse by the age of 18. These reports are also thought to be underestimates due to the barriers male survivors face in the reporting process: the U.S. Department of Justice records an average of greater than 12,000 reported sexual assaults of men annually, and predicts that if unreported assaults are included, the actual number of men who are sexually assaulted in the United States each year is approximately 60,000 (U.S. Department of Justice, 1994).
Additionally, while these numbers include only males over the age of 12, the Department of Justice records that a male's age of greatest risk of sexual assault is age 4. It is important to note, however, that very few studies have been done to document the sexual abuse or sexual assault of men and boys. Furthermore, it is estimated that male survivors report sexual assault and abuse even less frequently than female survivors, and so it is difficult to make an accurate estimate of the number of men and boys who are being assaulted and abused (Dube, 2005).
How do male survivors react to sexual assault?
Men have many of the same reactions to sexual assault that people of other gender identities do. For all gender identities survivors, anger, anxiety, fear, confusion, self-blame, shame, depression, and even suicidal thoughts are all common reactions for someone who has experienced a sexual assault. Men, however, are more likely than women to initially respond with anger, or to try to minimize the importance or severity of the assault. Male survivors are also more likely to use or abuse alcohol or other drugs as a means to try and cope with the experience and its after affects.
Male physiological reactions during a sexual assault may also make it more difficult for a male survivor to recognize that he was sexually assaulted. Some men may have an erection or may ejaculate during a sexual assault, and may later feel confused that perhaps this means that they enjoyed the experience, or that others will not believe that they were sexually assaulted. In reality, erections and ejaculations may be purely physiological responses, sometimes caused by intense fear or pain. In fact, some perpetrators will deliberately manipulate their victim to orgasm, out of a desire to completely control their victims. The perpetrator can continue this manipulation after the assault to coerce the survivor away from reporting or seeking help. A physical reaction of an erection or ejaculation during a sexual assault in no way indicates that the man enjoyed the experience or that he did something to cause it or permit it.
What ideas in our society prevent male survivors from speaking out about sexual assault?
Because of how men are socialized and expected to behave in our society, a male survivor of a sexual assault may feel as if he is not “a real man.”
Because men in our society are expected to always be ready for sex and to be the aggressors in sexual relationships, it may be difficult for a man to tell people that he has been sexually assaulted, especially if the perpetrator was a woman. Additionally, either the survivor himself or those around him may feel that a “real man” would have been able to protect himself. Our society expects men to be in control, and therefore the survivor and others may have difficulty accepting the image of a man who has been victimized. In the case that the perpetrator is a woman, the survivor may be mocked or feel ashamed that a woman overpowered him. However, it is common for both men and women to “freeze” during a sexual assault, making him or her incapable of physically resisting the perpetrator. Sexual assault is, therefore, no sign of physical weakness in the survivor. Also, there are some beliefs that male survivors, especially if abused as a child, will go on to become offenders themselves. While research demonstrates that the vast majority of men who experience sexual abuse as children do not perpetrate as adults, this stigma may negatively impact a male survivor’s social experiences, and it may also lead male survivors to avoid disclosure (Widom, NIJ, 1995)
Homophobia causes men who have experienced a male-on-male rape to fear telling their stories.
If the perpetrator is a man, the survivor may may question his own sexuality, especially if he experienced an erection or ejaculation during the assault. If the survivor identifies as gay, bi, or queer, and in the process of coming out, he may question how others perceive his sexual orientation. He may also fear that he will have to disclose his sexual orientation if he tells others about the assault. Homophobia and gay stereotypes may affect a man’s decision to disclose. Stereotypes on the promiscuity of gay men will often lead to victim blaming from a survivor’s support system - either insisting the encounter was consensual or that the incident occurred merely because of their assumed promiscuity. This is simply not true - sexual assault happens due to the perpetrator exerting power and control - and homophobia is a tool that a perpetrator can use and perpetuate in order to maintain this power. Lastly, it should be noted that though most of the perpetrators of sexual assault against men are also men, between 96-98% of sexual assaults against all people are heterosexual men, thus conflating gay, bisexual, or queer men with sexual assault is false.
By denying that males can be sexually assaulted, male survivors are made to feel that they are alone or abnormal.
Due to the disproportionate number of women who are survivors of sexual assault, it is often deemed solely a “women’s issue.” This may be because stereotypes and patriarchy cause most people to be more comfortable with the image of a woman being deprived of her power in a sexual assault than a man. Men and people of all genders also experience this form of violence. Many hospitals are not familiar with or prepared to look for signs of male sexual assault, and even some police departments still do not collect statistics on its frequency. National organizations like 1 in 6 (1in6.org) provide important resources for male survivors to normalize their response to trauma, reduce isolation and seek support.
As a society, we must recognize the barriers that men face when choosing whether to speak out about a sexual assault. When these men do choose to come forward, it is important that male survivors, like all survivors, be believed and supported by those around them, and allowed to make their own decisions about what courses of action to take.