Male rape victims face many stereotypes and stigmas. People question their level of consent, their responsibility for the attack, their masculinity, and their sexuality. These attitudes in turn shape not only how people treat male victims, but also how the courts treat male victims. A recent article discussed this issue.
In Philip R.S. Rumney and Natalia Hanley’s piece The Mythology of Male Rape, they studied how a group of students responded to a male-on-male rape scenario. The paired offered this situation:
[David and Ian] met at a party and then went back to David’s flat to watch a DVD and talk about football. Ian claims that, when he was getting ready to leave the flat, David restrained him, removed his trousers and raped him. By contrast, David claims that during the evening ‘one thing led to another’ and they had consensual sex.
The four groups of students had to decide whether Ian was raped and whether David reasonably believed he had Ian’s consent. While there were only 18 students in total who participated in the study, the results are enlightening.
Several of the students argued that Ian could not have been raped because he did not resist and was not injured. Injury and resistance were key to their willingness to believe Ian’s story, with one student stating:
You would expect that there would have to be some sort of fight. It’s not easy to pull someone’s trousers down without them wanting to; especially if they had a belt, it would be a difficult thing to do to physically rape someone. There must have been some sort of fight or struggle for him.
This thinking goes back to the idea that men can always protect themselves. Any man who is raped should be able to stop or should hurt in some way, otherwise he really wanted it. Curiously, some students considered Ian’s claim about David restraining him proof that the act was consensual, arguing that because of the football (or soccer as Americans call it) aspect perhaps David thought Ian liked it rough. One student went do far to state:
If [Ian] hadn’t just said that I would probably have been more inclined to believe him but the fact he’s exaggerating, he restrained me and ripped my trousers off.
As the researchers noted, Ian made no such claim about David ripping off his clothes. The student added that bit herself. That sort of thing happens at rape trials and even in general discussions about sexual violence. People will add in whatever helps their own argument.
The issue of intoxication, sexuality, and appropriate responses also came up. Several students argued that it would be hard for David to rape Ian if either he or Ian were drunk. Others suggested that a drunk David may have thought he had consent. Others stated hat David may have taken Ian’s acceptance of his invitation to come over as consent. Some students also said that David was responsible for his actions whether he was drunk or not.
Things got trickier when it came to sexuality. Several students questioned why Ian would go to David’s home after meeting him at a party if he was not gay. They questioned whether Ian lied about his sexuality just to protect his masculinity.
The assumption that male victims are gay is a common one, and it plays out in a myriad of ways. The researchers noted an example from another study concerning Metropolitan Police officers in England. The study found that they treated claims made by gay men as unreliable. They also considered gay men more likely to make false accusations about rape and considered less likely to be traumatized by the rape.
In another example concerning a prison rape case, Roderick Johnson sued prison authorities for failing to protect him from repeated rapes. However, the officials disbelieved him based on Johnson not fighting back during the assaults. At the pretrail hearing, Jimmy Bowman, one of the defendants, stated, “Sometimes an inmate has to defend himself. We don’t expect him not to do anything.”
While this study, given its small sample size, is not representative, it does show how easily stereotypes about male victims affect how people view sexual violence against men. It also shows that male victims face many of the same stigmas that female victims do. They simply have the added burden of questions about their sexuality and their “inherent” ability to protect themselves.
Yet what is particularly important is that most of these attitudes were geared towards adult men. When we see studies about sexual violence against males, they tend to focus on boys. Few studies look at the prevalence of sexual violence against men, and those that do tend to find very low rates. It is possible and probable that the rates are much higher than people assume, but that men, fearing the negative responses mentioned above, will not talk about their abuse.
These myths about sexual violence against men cause more problems than people think. They do not just affect whether male victims will come forward, but whether people will believe them, whether researchers will study the issue, and whether the authorities will take their claims seriously. We must challenge these views if we want to help male victims. Otherwise, these views will continue to spread, and more men will hide in silence rather than get the help they need and deserve.