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The Gendering of Sexual Assault



Recently there has been an upswing in attention paid to sexual assault crimes, and awareness about the nuances of consent. With much attention focused on the issue, it is time to investigate not only the effect on women, who seem to have the bulk of resources given to them, but also how this type of attack affects men. With the statistic for women being one in four, the numbers for men are close to equal.

Men have been perceived solely as perpetrators when discussed in association with sexual assault, but rarely are accepted as victims. One in six males have experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes.

Many sexual assaults go unreported where either gender is the victim, and finding adequate statistics on male sexual assault is difficult due to the stigma that remains around men being victims of this type of crime. The belief that male victims are always going to end up as a perpetrator, or that this type of attack doesn’t happen to males, is false.

A study conducted in 2013 by Susan McDonald and Adamira Tijerino from the Department of Justice in Canada, entitled “Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault: Their Experiences,” wrote that “the self-reported sexual assault victimization rate for males was half the rate for females (15 vs. 34 per 1,000) and it is estimated that the majority of sexual assaults against males and females (88 per cent) are not reported to police.” These stats were from 2009 findings, but tend to be the norm.

Most men struggle to go to the police because of the shame. Men are told to “man up,” and it’s a common belief that they are always ready for sex, causing male victimization to be minimized because of these preconceived notions.

The fear and stigma is often compounded depending on the type of assault. In addition, the identity of the perpetrator instigating the attack adds to the potential stigma. For many men, the assault occurred when they were children. No amount of being told to “man up” prepared them for what they will face.

McDonald and Tijerino also found in their study that “almost all of the participants (57 participants) reported having been sexually abused as a child and almost all of those (53 participants of the 57) that the perpetrator had been someone they trusted, including family members. A smaller proportion, 10 of the 57, reported having been sexually assaulted as an adult with the majority having been victimized multiple times and the majority (8 participants) having also been sexually abused as a child,” they write in their report.

Dr. Jim Hopper has studied male sexual assault for 25 years, and is a founding board member for 1in6, a nonprofit that helps men who have experienced sexual trauma in their lifetime. He teaches at Harvard in the psychiatry department, and has published many peer-reviewed papers on the topic. On his website he discusses some of the the myths surrounding male sexual abuse.

“If a boy liked the attention he was getting, or got sexually aroused during abuse, or even sometimes wanted the attention or sexual contact, this does not mean he wanted or liked being manipulated or abused, or that any part of what happened, in any way, was his responsibility or fault,” writes Hopper.

These lies — that it was wanted or liked because of a bodily response — are used to keep victims silent and manipulated by their abusers, compounding the shame even further.

“But that doesn’t make it true. Boys don’t seek sexual abuse or exploitation. They can, however, be manipulated into experiences they do not like, or even understand, at the time. And when men do go to seek services, they find very few facilities that are capable and ready to help.”

Very few resources specifically dedicated to helping men who have experienced sexual assault come up. Even fewer located in B.C. With resources being so scarce, it is an added hurdle to jump for any man desiring to deal with past trauma; another incentive to stay stuck.

Don Wright, founder of the B.C. Society for Male Survivors of Sexaul Assault comments on the phenomenon:

“One of my clients years ago called a woman’s sexual assault centre, and said, ‘Do you work with men?’ and the response was, ‘We don’t work with offenders.’ … It was probably not the agency, but that particular person’s bias,” said Don Wright in a phone interview.

Don Wright formed the first help centre of its kind in Canada for male victims of sexual abuse in 1989. He realized the importance of a place that was specific to male victims.

“It’s something that really needs to be attended to. Obviously there is a reality out there, since there was nothing for men. We reached the conclusion that men needed a program of their own. It really validates the fact that there are enough men out there that are victims of childhood sexual abuse that it warrants having an actual agency set up for them.”

Based out of Victoria, his practice was served by himself and a telephone for the first few years. As the need for the centre became apparent, it grew both in staff and in locations.

“I ran it out of my home for almost a year. It was just me and an answering machine, and then we got enough money … that we could justify renting a small office and it’s grown from that. In 1990 I started the Vancouver Society of Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse. It began a 13-year commute between the two cities,” said Wright.

“We closed the Victoria agency, but we’ve continue to grow. We’ve got a therapist working for us in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. We’ve had another former staff member contact me recently to work in Duncan. We have a facility in Surrey, and our head office on West Broadway. We have 17 therapists working for us.”

Therapy is an integral part of healing for victims of sexual assault. In the Journal of Trauma and Treatment, Allison N. Sinanan, a PhD candidate out of Stockton University in New Jersey details the importance of psychotherapy in her article on child sexual abuse.

“Psychotherapy aids as the first model of a healthy relationship for many victims of sexual abuse. This treatment can offer a model of a healing, nurturing relationship, where the client can discover how to experience trust. Psychotherapy provides the client with an opportunity to rework the trauma into a healthier sense of self.”

Some of the devastating psychological and emotional effects of male sexual assault are depression, feelings of shame and unworthiness, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide attempts, among other detrimental lifestyle habits.

PTSD is a common ailment for those exposed to sexual abuse. In a study comparing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse with Vietnam War veterans, it was found that their levels of PTSD were comparable.

The coping mechanisms utilized are often insufficient for long-term stability and overall health.

“These experiences have a real impact on our world paradigm, and that world view as a result of being so traumatized so early in life does not shift without some real concerted effort. The client is like someone with their nose pressed up against the painting. All they can see is the brushstrokes; a therapist is across the room and can see the whole picture,” said Wright.

“The external input of a skilled therapist can make a profound change in someone’s life. We’ve had high success rate working with over 12,000 clients, we’ve had less than five or six suicides.”

Wright shared a story of one such victim whose story he found encouraging.

“I was working with one client, he was a smart guy and engaged in the process. But he was feeling really suicidal and he had missed a couple of sessions and I was concerned, so I went by his place and left a message on his door that said ‘please call me.’ He did and he said, ‘It’s my life, don’t I have a right to end it if I want to?’

“I had to be honest and say, ‘Yes it is your right, and it is your life, but I don’t think you really want to end it, I think you want an end to the pain. I think what you want is an end to the pain, if you could have a life free of that pain, wouldn’t you want to go on living?’ There was a long silence, and then he said, ‘I guess I just don’t think that is possible.’ I said to him that ‘If you stick with this, if you stay with it long enough, you will emerge from this and you will discover that life is worth living and the pain will be gone.’ … I ran into him a year or so later and he said to me ‘You were right, I’m glad I stuck with it. I have a new partner, my health is turned around, life is so much better.’”

Until the early 1980s, a man could not be convicted of rape on a woman’s statement alone. It was the same for children. Women and children’s testimony of rape was considered so unreliable that another independent and supportive statement had to be made to back their testimony.

In 1982, Bill C-127 was introduced which revised the previous law regarding rape. Prior to the amendment, rape was defined as a man having “carnal knowledge” of a woman forcefully and against her will. The woman could not be his wife, and had to be over the age of 14. This definition of the crime originated in 1628, labeling rape as a very gendered crime due to the wording of the law that only men could be perpetrators and only women could be victims. In the eyes of the law, no other gender variation could be convicted of rape.

The amendment created three different categories of sexual assault: basic sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon or threat of violence, and aggravated sexual assault. It obliterated the offence of “rape” and broadened the essence of the attack to unwanted sexual contact by an individual with another.

With this amendment, it was no longer designated that men were the only sexual predators, since sexual assault can be committed by any gender, and any gender can be a victim. This fact has yet to reach popular public opinion.

This amendment creates the opportunity for men to seek justice for the assaults they face. It allows for men to pursue reconciliation for the trauma they experience, and justifies that their experience is indeed a violation that deserves legal ramifications.

Dr. Karen Weiss, a sociology professor out of West Virginia University, has published much of her research on violence, crime, and gender. In her article, “Male Sexual Victimization Examining: Men’s Experiences of Rape and Sexual Assault,” published in the journal Men and Masculinities, she discusses the effects of sexual assault on the idea of commonly understood masculinity.

“By ascribing sexual violence to men’s nature, men’s dominant position in society, or the ways in which men are socialized, theoretical linkages between sexual aggression and masculinity, or hypermasculinity, are so well established in the ways in which rape and sexual assault have been conceptualized over the years that to envision men as victims (or women as aggressors) requires a conscious bracketing of preconceived notions about both sexual violence and gender,” writes Weiss.

Society has constructed gender norms that make it easier to imagine women as the victim and men as the aggressor. It’s seen in the slang terms hurled at men who don’t fit the stereotype — pussy, sissy, pansy terms that have more effeminate underpinnings. It’s also seen in coping mechanisms, such as excessive promiscuity.

“Other demonstrations of masculinity (physical toughness, risk-taking, ability to take care of matters themselves) may also be enacted as part of men’s self-presentations and can be particularly useful for male victims of rape and sexual assault, seeking to repair or reestablish masculinity after being victimized by incidents that typically happen to women,” she writes.

“Their pain is denied … Times have changed, but our mindset hasn’t caught up,” says Wright.  “As men, we’re socialized to bury our pain, that’s why you see men exhibiting anger, because that’s the only emotion we are allowed.”

It’s seen in any movie viewed by children — fairy tales, comic books — men are the hero; they must transform into the hero in order to be seen as worthy. To admit victimization doesn’t fit the hero figure, the masculine figure, that has been ingrained into the male brain.

To undo these stereotypical images, it takes concerted effort and brave souls stepping forward in vulnerability to tell their stories. It takes men who are ready to admit that being a hero doesn’t look like the image we have been fed all our lives.

One in six is a reality. It means that there are people in this school, in our families, in our circle of friends or coworkers who have encountered some form of sexual assault.

This is a reality many men live with, and it’s about time we realized that sexual violence doesn’t care what’s between your legs.

B.C. Society for Male Survivors of Sexual Assault
Men’s Trauma Centre – Based in Victoria
VictimLink B.C.

Image: Kayt Hint/The Cascade

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Al

    November 10, 2018 at 3:27 am

    I want to correct something here. It’s not shame of being un-masculine that stops us from speaking up, it’s assuming that nobody will believe us. Or not even realising that our experience was abuse, because we’re told only about female victimisation, so we don’t even understand it when it happens to us. Also, we’re not told to “man up” because we don’t tell anyone about it.

    So a little word from a male survivor to feminists:

    1) Stop mocking male vulnerability (“male tears” “manflu” etc) while demanding it come out.
    2) Stop bringing up female victims if male victims are being discussed, it’s disrespectful.
    3) Stop telling male victims to be silent (particularly bad after #metoo started).
    4) Stop dismissing male victims if they say that their abuser was a woman (like mine).
    5) Stop and ask male survivors about their experiences rather than assuming, and listen to us.

    Also, it’s not “rape culture” or “patriarchy” that causes predation, or female abusers wouldn’t exist, it’s a cycle. Most abuse survivors don’t abuse themselves, but most abusers were abused at one point. Harvey Weinstein lost an eye in an “accident” as a kid. Jimmy Savile was mistreated by his mother, as was Josef Fritzl. My own abuser, she was almost certainly getting abused by her dad. I’m probably going to get a lot of hate, smears, and demands for apologies for saying this, but it’s true.

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