Originally posted on March 4, 2011
Sexual violence has long been a tool of warfare. However, contrary to feminist theories, rape has never been the exclusive domain of female victims. Sexual violence has often been used against males as a means of torture, humiliation, and terrorism. It is not uncommon to hear reports of male prisoners or combatants captured by the enemy being sexually tortured. What differs is that male victims are far less likely to report being raped or consider the acts done to them rape. Males are also less likely to come forward in part because of culture stereotypes and stigmas they face, particularly the loss of their status as men in their given cultures.
Yet another reason was mentioned in a recent New York Times article written by Lara Stemple:
As disturbing new reports of male rape in Congo made clear, wartime sexual violence isn’t limited to women and girls. But in its ongoing effort to eradicate rape during conflict, the United Nations continues to overlook a significant imperative: ending wartime sexual assault of men and boys as well.
Sexual violence against men does occasionally make the news: the photographs of the sexual abuse and humiliation of Iraqi men at the Abu Ghraib prison, for example, stunned the world.
Yet there are thousands of similar cases, less well publicized but well documented by researchers, in places as varied as Chile, Greece and Iran. The United Nations reported that out of 5,000 male concentration camp detainees held near Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict, 80 percent acknowledged having been abused sexually. In El Salvador, 76 percent of male political prisoners told researchers they had experienced sexual torture.
Rape has long been a way to humiliate, traumatize and silence the enemy. For many of the same reasons that combatants assault women and girls, they also rape men and boys.
Nevertheless, international legal documents routinely reflect the assumption that sexual violence happens only to women and girls. There are dozens of references to “violence against women” — defined to include sexual violence — in United Nations human rights resolutions, treaties and agreements, but most don’t mention sexual violence against men.
In short, the international human rights groups do not seem that concerned about male victims of rape. The groups ignore male victims even when their own reports suggest that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of male rape victims in a given area. It is astonishing, not only because these are human rights groups supposedly considered with protecting all people from this kind of harm, but also because as a result of ignoring male rape victims the act of rape gets framed as something that can only happen to females.
It is one of the reasons why there has been little coverage of the mass abuse of boys in Afghanistan. Every now and again it gets mentioned, yet there does not appear to be any human rights groups or organizations trying to bring this issue to light. This stands in contrast to the numerous campaigns over the last few years concerned with stopping violence against women in Dafur and the Congo. The message is unfortunately crystal clear: rape boys and men, no one cares. Rape girls and women, get international support.
Stemple goes on to write:
Ignoring male rape has a number of consequences. For one, it not only neglects men and boys, it also harms women and girls by reinforcing a viewpoint that equates “female” with “victim,” thus hampering our ability to see women as strong and empowered.
On this point I disagree. Ignoring sexual violence against males does no harm to females. Women and girls receive support regardless of whether their brothers, fathers or sons do. However, ignoring male victims does reinforce the notion that only or mostly females are victims of rape, a notion that is likely not true.
In the same way, silence about male victims reinforces unhealthy expectations about men and their supposed invulnerability. Such hyper-masculine ideals encourage aggressive behavior in men that is dangerous for the women and girls with whom they share their lives.
Sex-specific stereotypes also distort the international community’s response. Women who have suffered rape in conflict have likely endured non-sexual trauma as well. But when they are treated as “rape victims,” their other injuries get minimized.
That does not appear to be the case. Human rights groups frequently mention other types of violence women endure. Yet many of these organizations fail to mention any of the specific violence males endure. The few instances in which they do tend to focus on violence against gay men, but ignore general violence against males.
This ignoring of male victims may stem in part from stereotypes, however, male victims are rather easy to find if one bothers to look for them. It seems more likely that the lack of acknowledgment stems from the organizations simply not trying to address the issue. Again, this would be somewhat understandable if there were no reports about violence against males. However, since there are, it appears that these organizations may intentionally ignore human rights violations against males.
The reasons for this may range from political biases driven by ideologies like feminism to plain old ambivalence. What is clear is that very little, if anything, is actually being done to address the problem of sexual violence against males. One of the main reasons male victims do not come forward is because they are too ashamed to. One of the best ways to tear down the wall of shame is by providing male victims with services and reaching out to them. In the few cases where that has occurred, one finds that there are more male victims than anyone thought.
Given the amount of violence committed against males in war-torn areas like the Congo, it is very likely that far more males than anyone thinks are victims of rape. It may be the case that there are more male victims than female victims. The only way to know is by asking boys and men, not by ignoring them.