The Stories Of Male Sexual Assault Survivors Need To Be Heard

Unsplash/James Garcia
Not giving someone who has been attacked the space to heal is dangerous for us all.

Content Warning: Sexual Violence

“If you call yourself a victim, you’re acknowledging that something happened to you that you couldn’t control. You couldn’t defend yourself or fight back. Men grow up being told we’re supposed to be tough, we’re supposed to be masculine and self-sufficient, we should be able to defend ourselves and others. My father was teaching me how to fight before I was being taught to read.”
- Writer, Santino Hassell

According to RAINN, 1 in 33 men has experienced assault or rape in his lifetime. Research by the CDC conducted in 2011 revealed that about 23% of men had experienced a form of sexual violence other than rape in his life. This means it’s likely that most of us know a man who’s been abused or attacked. And yet, “Very few men speak publicly about sexual assault, largely from shame or the popular perception that it is a ‘women’s issue,’” intersectional justice activist AbsurdistWords explains to me. He adds:

“There is a common sentiment that ‘victim’ is an insult. It is used to describe a state of perpetual weakness of character and self-perceived subjugation. In essence, this is a way to shame people for being abused. Denigrating people for ‘victimhood’ is about denying people the space and empathy required for recovery.”

When this happens, when we are not given the space to recover from trauma, we often traumatize others; we often traumatize ourselves further. Not giving someone who has been attacked the space to heal is dangerous for us all. AbsurdistWords’ statement speaks to how rape culture, that is, society’s tendency to blame rape victims for their own assaults, affects all genders.

The Role Of Toxic Masculinity

The ways society denies men who’ve been assaulted the space to heal, or even the right to be seen and acknowledged, are numerous — and often directly tied to the way our society defines masculinity. In the same way that women and feminine people are told over and over to be more sexual, or less sexual, by a vast array of influencers, including fellow women, men and masculine people are also given sets of rules about how they should behave. And a lot of these rules are toxic — bad both for men and for those around them. Society, for example, holds that men are only allowed to express an emotion if it’s anger. Men are also criticized for being weak when they ask their partners — or anyone — for help. A “real” man fights with his fists to protect his honor and the honor of those around him.

This set of rules, the framework of our society’s toxic construction of masculinity, robs men of the ability to express themselves fully and creates a culture where men commit suicide rather than treat a mental illness, because there is absolutely nothing worse than being “weak.” This is reflected in America’s stats on suicide, which show that the rate of suicide is four times higher among men than women.

It’s likely that most of us know a man who’s been abused or attacked.

Contributing to this devastating reality is that for men, almost everything is considered a weakness — inexperience, asking for help, feeling sad, feeling too happy, not expressing anger physically enough, knowing too little, knowing too much, and, especially, not having sex. In this system, women and other non-masculine people are defined as objects and men/masculine people are collectors of these objects; sex is the proof of this collection, which, society dictates, men should strive to make as large as possible. Sex is the goal, a proof of virility.

If the highest goal of masculinity is to have as much sex as possible, though, how can a man be a victim of rape? How can a man be an assault victim if sex is only ever considered a positive experience for him? How can a man be a victim at all, if his masculinity is based on the ability to be always strong and in charge in every situation?

To find out how masculinity harms male survivors of abuse, I spoke to several men about their experiences of being sexually abused/raped/assaulted, whether they chose to seek help or not, and the word “victim.” A man, who prefers I use the name Charles, tells me he does not use the word “victim,” although he hasn’t specifically rejected it. On why others may reject the term, he says, “Victims are weak. That’s it. The guy was big and strong. He was confident and decisive. I was small and weak.”

The negative connotations of the word “weak” can have significant consequences for men. “Toxic masculinity requires that anything that denotes weakness or submission be rejected fully,” says AbsurdistWords. “The idea that a man can be made subject to another man, or even worse, a woman, is directly challenging to masculinity, so the common perception is that having suffered at the hands of another makes you less of a man.” Being raped, then, represents a direct threat to one’s masculinity.

The negative connotations of the word ‘weak’ can have significant consequences for men.

Not only does the experience of sexual violence diminish one’s manhood, but due to the deeply ingrained societal ideals of toxic masculinity, the way one is permitted to talk about it is so limited that even just naming the experience is often deemed weak. A young man I’ll call Khalil told me it took a week of counseling to admit he was raped. He says, “I think we resist [the word victim] because it’s been instilled since birth that men are never the victims of anything.”

The Erasure Of Men’s Experiences Of Sexual Violence

Not only are men denied the language to speak of their assaults, their experiences of sexual abuse and violence are erased on a widespread scale. Take, for example, a 12-year-old boy who is molested by a female teacher. Rape culture dictates he should be happy, he scored a woman, an older-but-not-too-old woman — a very valuable commodity — and if he’s not happy, it must be his fault. In reality, his young age prevents him from being able to give consent — but this doesn’t matter when sex has societal value above people and autonomy. Never mind, either, that he has been coerced by someone who was supposed to care for him, an authority, a predatory adult who repeatedly raped a child. Our society insists he be congratulated for his rape and robbed of the words to call it wrong.

In fact, male sexual assault, Santino explains, “almost never comes up unless someone is making a joke about prison. It’s no wonder so many sexual assaults go unreported.”

And indeed, our broken prison system allows for widespread rape of prisoners. This reality is such common knowledge that police use it as a threat. In the District of Columbia last November, for example, an arresting officer used prison rape as a threat to coerce a confession. Other people, those who would otherwise not be heard wishing harm on anyone, regularly wish prison rape upon particularly vicious criminals and make jokes about “dropping the soap.” Our antipathy toward prisoners and apathy concerning the sexual violence they face is a documented systemic problem. According to the Bureau of Justice, 80,000 men and women are raped in prison each year, although this statistic is most likely very underreported, as only about a third of rapes and assaults that take place outside of prison are reported to police.

Prison rape, simply, is accepted as an additional punishment for arrest — no matter the crime. Being raped in prison or a jail is a very real probability, whether or not a prisoner has even been found guilty of a crime. Some research shows 1 in 10 male prisoners are raped — and this is just what is being reported. However, there is little to no work being done to make our prisons safer, with many states still refusing to comply with federally mandated prison-rape prevention legislation from 2003. When authorities regularly threaten rape as punishment, why would anyone report the crime of rape to authorities?

A Lack Of Real Support For Male Survivors

“Sexual assault of males is a topic commonly used against feminists as a bludgeon to silence their activism around rape culture. As a feminist, I find it important to reject the narrative that it is a Men’s Rights issue or somehow a problem ignored as unimportant by feminism.” — AbsurdistWords

On top of the erasure of men’s experiences of sexual violence, often the loudest men talking about men who have experienced rape and sexual assault are self-labeled Mens Rights Activists (MRAs). But instead of creating a safe space for men to speak about their experiences, or working to rid the world of its toxic masculinity constructs as one might imagine supposed-advocates for men would, MRAs use a perceived lack of dialogue on male rape as a weapon against victims of every other gender. They interrupt our own stories to tell us we don’t care about male victims of assault.

They tell female victims they are too ugly to be raped and even make jokes about men being raped in prison. Too often, the loudest voice on the topic of male rape is of those who don’t actually care about male survivors — but seek to weaponize their existence as a means of attacking feminists.

Instead of creating a safe space for men to speak about their experiences, or MRAs use a perceived lack of dialogue on male rape as a weapon against victims of every other gender.

Further, the patriarchy makes it difficult for men to see one another as emotional confidantes. Charles tells me that after his experience with abuse, his support came from his female friends. On discussing his assault with women, he says, “You don’t think she will be on your side. You don’t think she’ll understand. But she probably will. She’s had the same experience . . . Maybe not as bad or maybe worse, but she will be an ally.”

Of his male friends, Charles says:

“I didn’t feel I could tell them, honestly. They wouldn’t understand. I know from talking with my female friends how common what I was going through was for them. I may have been surprised if I had reached out to a male friend, but my first instinct was that only a female would know about this. This does happen, and it happens to men, too.”

An Intersectional Look At Masculinity

“I’ve never resisted it in terms of worrying about what it did to my masculinity, but I’m also queer so . . . my masculinity was in question by others since the moment I came out. I already had to contend with the fact that I was different from society’s idea of the ideal male, and I’d already come to terms with that, so I’ve never found the word “victim” threatening or diminishing.” — Santino

It’s important to note that the pressure of toxic masculinity is not experienced in the same ways for all men. As Santino mentions, that he’s not a heterosexual man is a cause of scrutiny by a society that still largely holds up straight men as the gold standard for masculinity.

I also spoke to AbsurdistWords about the intersection of masculinity and blackness.

“In addition to the effects of toxic masculinity, there is often a resistance within the black community to discuss issues like rape, incest, or subsequent mental health issues. This stems, I think, from the fact that outside pathology of black life [from non-black communities] is unrelenting. All black behavior is scrutinized and dissected and if negative, used to characterize the race as a whole. So there is internal and external pressure to restrict discussion of aberrant behavior within the black community . . . The result of this, sadly, is a lot of victims suffering or recovering in silence.”

Messages For Fellow Survivors

Despite the erasure and lack of support for men speaking about assault, AbsurdistWords has gone out of his way to speak up publicly about what happened to him. “I felt it was important to model a lack of shame for men. I did not do something wrong, someone else did. I refuse to accept that my victimization should bring me shame.”

Charles says the reason he is talking to me is because he thinks it is important to discuss male sexual assault: “I want the stigma to go away.” On advice for fellow survivors, Charles encourages people to “find a friend. Tell a friend.”

Khalil calls rape a “dehumanizing weapon.” It dehumanizes the victim by taking away their physical rights, and then rape culture further dehumanizes rape victims by erasing their voices. To other victims he says, “I love you and you aren’t alone.”

‘I felt it was important to model a lack of shame for men.’

Though he acknowledges all victims and survivors are unique, as are their stories, AbsurdistWords says as a general note to those who have experienced or are experiencing abuse, “It’s not your fault that you were harmed. You did not fail at being a healthy human. Your abuser did. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Santino echoes this, telling fellow victims, “It’s not your fault. No matter what you were doing or wearing or drinking, it’s not your fault. No one has the right to attack you. No one has the right to use your body. Nothing you could have done differently would change the fact that your attacker is a rapist. You’re not alone.”

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