Media Spotlight

A psychological twist on the news.

When Men Are Raped

Being sexually assaulted is not something that only happens to women.

The trauma that women who have been sexually victimized is well-known, both in terms of the emotional consequences of the assault itself as well as the pain associated with trying to obtain justice afterward.   While men are usualy the perpetrators of sexual violence and women are usually the victims, that is not always the case however.  

Actual incidence of sexual assault involving adult male victims has always been difficult to estimate. Victim surveys of British and American males have shown that 3 to 8 per cent of males reported at least one adulthood incidence of sexual assault in their lifetimes with at least 5 to 10 per cent of all rape victims being male (Pino & Meier, 1990;   Coxell & King, 1999).    These numbers can be substantially higher for non-heterosexual males though.  One 2005 study reported that 13.2 per cent of bisexual males and 11.2 per cent of gay men reported at least one instance of sexual assault as adults.   Still, those numbers are almost certainly underestimate the reality considering most male victims are reluctant to report their sexual assault to the police.   While the majority of these crimes are committed by male offenders, an estimated 6 to 15 per cent of these sexual assaults can involve female perpetrators (either working independently or in association with male co-offenders).   

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But why has male sexual assault been so often marginalized in many societies?   According to a provocative new literature review recently published in Psychology of Men and Masculinity,  the problem may stem from various “myths” surrounding male rape.    The review authors, Jessica A. Turchik of Stanford Medical School and Katie M. Edwards of Ohio University,  focus on a series of common rape myths that often prevent male victim from reporting their assault and can even make police officers refuse to take their complaint seriously.   The myths include:

  • Men cannot be raped
  • “Real” men can defend themselves against rape
  • Only gay men are victims and/or perpetrators of rape
  • Men are not affected by rape (or not as much as women)
  • A woman cannot sexually assault a man
  • Male rape only happens in prisons
  • Sexual assault by someone of the same sex causes homosexuality
  • Homosexual and bisexual men deserve to be sexually assaulted because they are immoral and deviant
  • If a victim physically responds to a sexual assault, he must have wanted it.

Many of these myths are frequently reported in social psychological reviews of male and female rape. Found across different cultures, they often reflect common attitudes about male sexuality.   Since most media coverage on rape focuses on female victims with any reporting of male rape tending to be lurid (and often sarcastic), it is probably not surprising that male rape myths persist over time.   Media representations of male rape (such as in movies like “Deliverance” and graphic scenes of rape in prison) certainly reinforce these attitudes.  Even laws relating to sexual assault have shown a clear gender bias at times with rape being defined as female-only in many jurisdictions (such as in Canada before the Criminal Code was revised during the 1980s).    

Considering how common male rape myths are, it is probably not surprising that studies of law enforcement officers, medical students, and even rape crisis workers have shown these same attitudes towards sexual assault involving male victims.   While homophobia can often account for gay rape victims being more likely to be blamed than heterosexual victims of sexual assault,  there is also a strong correlation between believing rape myths involving both male and female victims.  In other words, people who believe common myths about male rape are likely to believe myths about female rape as well.

Whatever the cause, persistent attitudes about male rape are found in large segments of the general population and can have devastating consequences for men who have been victimized.  Not only are victims far less likely to report the crime but those victims courageous enough to come forward can face a horrendous lack of support from the criminal justice system and even from those agencies that provide assistance for female victims of sexual assault.   

Although crisis center and hospital records have consistently shown that 3 to 12 per cent of reported sexual assault involve male victims,  one study from the 1990s indicate that as many as 37 per cent of rape crisis centres restrict services to females only.   I am not aware of any more recent studies to suggest that this has changed substantially over time.

As Turchik and Edwards point out in their review, the negative attitudes spurred on by myths surrounding male rape are well-established among medical professionals, the courts, police officers, the military, and even the prison system and spring from the same patriarchal systems that reinforce negative attitudes about female rape.    While more sensitive reporting has helped change attitudes towards female rape, whether these same changes will encourage male victims to come forward is another question.

Though prison rape and sexual assault of underage males have been forced into the open as more high-profile cases are reported, the prevalence of male rape myths in our society and the attitudes about male sexuality that they reflect are much slower to change.   That these changes need to happen and resources need to be put in place to help both men and women who experience sexual assault is something that we must face, both as a society and as individuals.

For simple justice, if nothing else.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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