Men cannot be raped … an unremarkable public perception.
At one time, the law agreed. Until 1997, the Queensland Criminal Code said that only women could be victims of rape.
In 1930, when the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation began following violent crime, the rape of men was not included.
For almost two decades, the statistics too have focused on women. Public discourse has almost resoundingly agreed. But, while attitudes towards male victims persist and the data hasn’t shifted, the possibility of male-victim sexual assault is slowly surfacing in the public eye.
Law professor and advocate for men, Kenneth Arenson, argues there is a gendered skew in the justice system. A man, he says, is more likely to be laughed out of a police station than believed that he has been raped by a woman.
“You’d just better have injuries,” he adds.
Despite the developing acknowledgement of male victims in research and across social spheres, data has begun to paint a picture that shows the complexity of male victimization, public perception and policing.
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At the age of 18, Thomas* had been raped by a young woman he had met on a popular dating app, Tinder.
“She dropped the towel to her ankles and came towards me. Until that point, she had been angry and hostile for no reason. I regretted asking her to visit me. When she got close enough, I just pressed myself into the corner of the couch and tried to disappear”.
Thomas is uncomfortable during the exchange, frequently dropping his eyes to the floor.
Since 2012, men have accounted for between 17 to 35 per cent of sexual assault cases in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
“She’d come from so far away to see me. I couldn’t tell her to leave. I couldn’t use force to push her off. It would have been too easy for her to run to the police if I embarrassed her or if I hurt her”.
Thomas was fearful of telling anyone or reporting his experience. From his vantage point, there was nobody to listen and more importantly, nobody to take him seriously.
“Going to the police was not an option. I’m a guy — it doesn’t work in my favour. It would have just been statement against statement. The police favour women — they’d say, “poor her” and send us home”.
For decades, cultural understandings of rape have associated male victimization with male on male sexual violence. Today, that understanding prevails.
However, studies have demonstrated that female on male sexual violence is growing in prevalence — 35 per cent of male sexual assault victims reported at least one female perpetrator, in some cases. This adds a powerful and difficult dimension to policing — one that butts up against long-held beliefs about men as perpetrators and women as victims.
Researchers have suggested that the one-dimensional view of sexual assault reinforces outdated stereotypes, particularly in relation to men and their masculinity.
Routinely, these stereotypes inform the prevalence of underreporting in male victimization cases. Studies across the United States and Canada have estimated between 14–50 per cent of all sexual abuse victims are men. However, Australian data says only 30 per cent of all sexual assault victims report the abuse to police.
Male victims are a marginalized but significant group, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and one that is underrepresented across statistical data.
The conceptualization of what it means “to be a man” is often an indicator in why men do not report sexual assault. They often fear their rape will not be believed and that if they report an incident, they will be deemed “un-masculine” or a “failed man”.
This stigmatization circles our views of masculinity and the ongoing belief that men are sexually insatiable. In a way, we may have stuck to men, in neon lights, a sign that reads: “all sex welcome”.
The implication that physical response equates consent is an important secondary factor in the case of male victimization.
“The general argument seems to be how can a female take advantage of a male? You need an erect penis which means you’re excited and want it. That’s so far from the truth. Just because I’m physically responding does not mean I consent or want it”.
Ten years prior, Jake* was sexually assaulted by a young woman at a party. Despite his physical response, he argues that should not be an indicator of consent.
Recently, Jake searched for the same young woman online.
“I just broke down crying when I looked at her photos, particularly the older photos similar to how I remember her,” he says, “I still find it really hard to trust people in an intimate situation or even give people the time of day to get close enough with for an intimate situation to occur”.
Inebriated at a house party in late 2007, Jake was, like Australian and many international laws dictate, too drunk to consent.
After falling asleep on a bed, he woke to find his jeans around his ankles and a young woman squatting between his legs.
“I woke up as I was ejaculating in her mouth. I pulled my pants back up, which I didn’t take down in the first place, and I ran home, which was probably eight blocks away. When I got there, I showered for what seemed like forever”.
Jake is apologetic for feeling violated. Like other victims, he holds himself responsible.
“I was disgusted and felt really worthless and abused. My consent didn’t matter, I had no rights. I felt I was to blame for putting myself in that situation”.
Over the years, Jake’s attempts to open up about the event have been marked by congratulations and laughter from his friends. Similar to other male victimization cases, he did not approach police for fear of being dismissed and disbelieved.
“Historically, men who were victims of assault were made into objects of social derision. … Men are socialized to bury problems under a private veil…,” write researchers Professor Donald Dutton and Dr Katherine White.
The pair has observed that men are less likely to view violence towards them as a crime and report it to police — another factor in underreporting.
Compounding this element of male victimization is the historical view of men in the eyes of the judicial system.
“I think very few men are interested in walking into a police station and saying they were assaulted by a woman. They’d laugh you out the door,” Professor Arenson says. “They want to persuade you that it isn’t even a criminal matter. It’s really not something they want to deal with”.
While women have worked to create a discourse surrounding rape, ensuring victims feel supported and safe, for men, no similar discourse exists. Of course, the silence is not an indicator that male victimization does not occur, but simply that it isn’t being reported.
Researchers Lara Stemple and Ilan Meyer say that men who report rape or sexual assault are frequently met with a response that assumes “no real harm was done”. Critics of male victimization argue that men are able to defend themselves and women are incapable of perpetrating the force needed to overcome a man. For researchers, this implies that force determines concern for a victim and the credibility of their story.
According to a journal article in Violence Against Women, this association with male victimization confirms physical force as a necessary factor in sexual victimization — an idea from which feminism has distanced itself.
However, women, while more likely to require medical attention after a sexually violent altercation, experience similar levels of injury as men. A multiyear analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 89 per cent of male and female rape victims used a resistance “strategy”.
Use of force is sometimes absent in male rape cases as a result of the way the rape is committed. This understanding is becoming a crucial in legislation.
The term “made to penetrate” refers to a man being forced or coerced into unwillingly penetrating a woman or another person. Victorian rape legislation calls this “compelling sexual penetration”.
The introduction of these terms adds a new dimension to male victimization. However uncommon in public usage, it explains why force might not be a factor.
In a 2011 survey of intimate partner and sexual violence, rates of rape between men and women were near equal. 1.270 million women had experienced rape and 1.267 million men had been “made to penetrate” in a 12 month period.
Rape is the term that captures media attention. It elicits funding and government intervention. But “made to penetrate” is less understood and less broadly acknowledged.
Less widely recognized, still, is that the prevalence of most sex crimes occurs in children below the age of 15 and the victims are more likely to be male.
Ryan*, between 13 and 14, was groomed and sexually abused by his foster mother.
“I just felt so, powerless and confused — tortured in a sense that I couldn’t stop what was happening and I just had to let what was happening, happen, no matter how much I didn’t like it or how dirty it felt”.
At first disclosure, Ryan’s friends had considered him lucky and laughed.
A number of years later, when he was less fearful and embarrassed, Ryan approached police. He was prompted only by the knowledge that the police would deal with the matter discreetly, legally and privately. He was not expected to face friends and family.
“To a degree, I could see the police believed me. I could clearly see that they cared about my wellbeing. But because I was filing the issue a couple years later, there wasn’t much to be done because there was no proof or no real way to back up my claims with hard evidence”.
Ryan’s experience with law enforcement was as positive as it could have been. But not all survivors have unanimously experienced this kind of reception.
A 2000 study conducted in Victoria spoke with male rape victims. When approaching police, the survivors resoundingly said that police attempted to deny or minimize their trauma. They often were not believed or met with ignorance.
Male victims felt that the police were too concerned with evidence and did not pay heed to the emotional implications of the rape.
The researchers said that the police need further training to deal with men in order to ensure they feel comfortable seeking legal action.
But policing is multifaceted, according to an experienced Victorian Police detective in the investigations of sexual assault. The officer said, frankly, that it was entirely plausible that the average police officer, in the average Australian police station, might not take the sexual assault of a man seriously.
“I can understand why people think the police are lazy. In the past, men might not have received the same respect as women. But policing in Australia has come a long way. The sex crimes unit take all sexual assaults seriously”.
Critically, around 17 per cent of reported sexual assault offences end in a conviction. But rates of sexual assault are increasing around Australia year by year.
The officer admits that he would not disclose if he had been sexually assaulted as a result of the way the justice system deals with men.
While sexual assault continues to be a problem from the playground to Hollywood, research indicates that acknowledging male victimization is fundamental to understanding victims and perpetrators. In shining a light on the factors that surround the experiences of male victims, it gives room for better comprehension of what was once a socially invisible problem.
In order to dismantle long held beliefs about the role of men and masculinity, data tells us that it is important to consider the many complexities encompassed in this issue. As male sexual assault becomes more visible to the public eye, it can be better dealt with by the police, the public and the victims themselves.
*Names changed for victim privacy