{Trigger warning: discussions of rape and sexual violence]

Up until 2012, the FBI assumed that only women could be victims of sexual assault. The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, through which the Bureau collects annual crime data, defined “forcible rape” as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will”. (Italics mine)

This may surprise you, but it also perfectly encapsulates how sexual violence is viewed in many societies as a gendered crime with the perpetrator always a man and the victim always a woman. This myth has persisted despite being contradicted by plenty of data.

For example, in the US, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC)’s comprehensive country-wide 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NIPSV) found that men and women had had “a similar prevalence of nonconsensual sex in the previous twelve months”: 1270 million women and 1267 million men. Lara Stemple speaks of another study, this time conducted in 12 US colleges and universities between 2005 and 2011, found that “4 percent of men and 7 percent of women have experienced forced sexual intercourse during college.” A 2005 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 46,700 men (and 126,100 women) had experienced sexual violence over the past 12 months. In Canada, a registered charity made up of sexual assault center representatives, the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS), claims that 10 – 20 percent of all men will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Male survivors of sexual violence face a long, uphill battle if they chose to speak up about what happened to them.

James Landrith, 21, woke to find himself being straddled by a pregnant woman who had drugged and unclothed him. When he tried to resist, she told him he could hurt her baby. It took Landrith two decades and extensive therapy to call this encounter ‘rape’. Now a sexual violence activist, he writes “when sexual violence is discussed with regard to male survivors, there is often resistance, condescension, and outright mockery by people who quite often have not experienced such violence themselves.”

Masculinity is constructed on cultural ideas of strengths, sexual promiscuity, and stoicism. Many male survivors find their experiences dismissed by being told that they should have fought their assailants off, or hearing that a ‘real’ man would enjoy any sexual encounter.

When Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Terry Crews shared his own #MeToo story of being assaulted at a party, the comedian DL Hughley mocked him saying “God gave you muscles so you can say ‘no’.” Recently, one of Pakistan’s most famous filmmakers, Jami Azad, took to Twitter to share his own experience of sexual abuse, and met with jeers and surprise that “a grown man can be raped by another individual.”

Men who have faced sexual violence are often told that getting erect or ejaculating during a forced sexual encounter must mean that they enjoyed it, or that only gay men face sexual abuse, or that men who have been raped will go on to become rapists. Organizations dedicated to helping male survivors work hard at countering these myths, noting that erection/ejaculation are physiological responses that can occur even in situations that are not pleasurable, that abuse can happen regardless of sexual orientation, that being abused doesn’t necessarily translate into turning into an abuser later in life.

In a certain way, male survivors can find themselves isolated by the language and activism of the feminist movement that has done so much to bring justice to female victims of sexual violence. Before the 1970s, rape and other forms of sexual coercion were largely seen as a result of sexual attraction. Starting with Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, feminists in the ‘70s successfully permeated cultural consciousness with the idea that rape was about power/control and not attraction. This framing did a lot to help shift the conversation away from victim-blaming to holding the perpetrator accountable.

And yet, it allowed victims who were not women to slip between the gaps. Brownmiller herself once insisted that “strictly a crime of men against women” and that a woman raping a man was an “impossibility”. We see echoes of this idea in our current legal definitions of sexual assault as well. As previously mentioned, the FBI’s definition of rape only made space for female survivors until 2012 when the definition was amended to refer to a victim as anyone who had been penetrated. This, however, still excludes many male victims. The CDC has a new category dealing with sexual violence; awkwardly phrased as “made to penetrate”, it offers more comprehensive ground to male survivors.

Biased legal frameworks can often lead to heart-breaking and angering court judgments. For example, Kansas court ruled (in 1993) that Shane Seyer had to pay child support to his former babysitter, who was impregnated with his child when he was 13 and she 17. Some countries around the world still don’t recognize that men can be raped.

These societal and legal barriers mean that coming forward is often difficult for male survivors, and many male survivors do not report being raped. This means that they deal with their trauma without the support they should have, and this trauma often leads to depression, anger, anxiety, damaged romantic and personal relationships, feelings of ‘weakness’, and mood swings.

Helping male survivors is a long process. As the feminist fight against rape culture has shown, dealing with violence of this magnitude which is so deeply entrenched in culture means questioning broad cultural assumptions. We should stop asking men to be strong and silent as a facet of masculinity, investigate legal and court biases when it comes to male victims, challenge mockery like prison-rape jokes, and do much, much more. As #MeToo has shown us, there is a lot of work to be done to make sure each of us can live a safe and dignified life.

  • Saira Mahmood

    Saira Mahmood is currently a student of English at the University of Karachi. Her first love is reading, though she has been writing to make sense of the world for a long time. Saira is deeply interested in amplifying the uncensored voices and stories of Muslim women — with all the intricacies of gender, faith, mental health, sexuality, and the like preserved.