Male victims of sexual assault face an uncertain future
Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07
W hen they leave the bedroom, John grabs hold of Gary’s shirt and whispers into his ear.
“You better not tell your parents. They aren’t going to believe you.”
Gary lowers his gaze and nods. He didn’t think he would tell his parents, anyway. He’s not even exactly sure what just happened.
His parents call from downstairs. It’s time to go back home. John’s family and Gary’s family have been friends for years. They go over to each other’s houses every week for dinner.
Even though John is much older than Gary, they hang out while their parents visit and their sisters play in the living room.
“What did you and John do?” his mom asks during the car ride home.
“Played Nintendo 64,” 6-year-old Gary mumbles. He doesn’t say anything the rest of the drive.
The suffering silent
“Men are sexually assaulted,” said Cary Haynes, director of center programs at the Brazos Valley Sexual Assault Resource Center. “And often, men are sexually assaulted by other heterosexual men.”
A family friend sexually abused Gary, Class of 2013, for more than two years, beginning when he was 6 years old.
“Initially, I was lured into John’s room because he had an N64 gaming system,” Gary said. “One night while I was playing a single-player game, John began to touch me inappropriately. That was the beginning, but definitely not the end.”
John told Gary that his parents would never believe him if he told them about the abuse. A combination of John’s words, shame and guilt prevented Gary from telling anybody about the experiences. The abuse finally ended when Gary’s parents decided his sister was old enough to babysit while they visited John’s family. Even after a decade and half, Gary’s family is still unaware of the abuse he suffered during their dinner parties.
Sexual assault, abuse and rape with male victims is among the most under-exposed crime categories in the country. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 10 percent of reported sexual assault victims are male and it is estimated that fewer than 5 percent of male victims report the assault.
“Male survivors really struggle to deal with their assault,” Haynes said. “Most of them don’t come forward at all, but when they do it’s almost always on the phone because they don’t want to come in person.”
Statistics and information on male sexual assault is limited by the lack of relevant dialogue surrounding the issue. Until January, national crime statistics collected by the federal government did not include a measurable category for sexual assault in which a male was the victim.
“I’m very glad that male sexual assaults are now included in official government data,” said Maggie Gartner, executive director of Student Counseling Services. “A more complete picture of the pervasiveness of the numbers of sexual assaults can only help us in providing the needed services.”
Even more than women, men overwhelmingly fail to report the assault primarily because of the social stigma attached to male victims. As a result of socially constructed gender roles, male survivors are far more likely to internalize the physical and psychological trauma associated with an assault.
“Healing is really an ongoing process,” Gary said. “I still have trouble with being guarded with anyone, including my friends and people that I am dating.”
Boys don’t cry
Counselors and victim recovery centers have identified several myths that contribute to the chronic underreporting of male sexual assault. These include beliefs that men are immune to victimization, male survivors become sexual predators, and it isn’t rape if the victim experienced arousal during the assault.
“Due to the pressures on men to be masculine and macho, admitting that I was victimized sexually is very difficult,” Gary said. “I feel that men experience a different kind of shame about their sexual abuse [than women] in the scenario that their abuser was of the same gender.”
In a society that draws distinct lines between the concepts of masculinity and femininity, cultural stereotypes of sex roles can hinder a male’s ability to recover from a sexual assault.
“Male survivors who have been sexually assaulted often question their masculinity and sexual identity, wondering — as do female survivors — what they did to ‘deserve’ the assault,” Gartner said. “Of course, no one deserves to be assaulted and an assault is not about sex, but about power.”
Many male survivors harbor fears that the sexual abuse enacted on them will in turn cause them to become sexual predators. While it’s true that nearly 75 percent of men who commit acts of sexual or physical abuse were themselves abused as children, the vast majority of abuse victims do not go on to abuse others.
Heterosexual men who experience sexual abuse are prone to question their sexual orientation, falsely believing that the sexual assault determines their sexual identity. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, homosexual men who are assaulted are more likely to assume their abuse is “punishment” for their sexual orientation.
“Being forced to participate in a sexual act is shameful enough,” Gary said. “The fact that the act also went against my sexual orientation added to the shame and makes it incredibly hard to talk about.”
A disturbing aspect of male sexual assault is the average age that such abuse generally occurs. While women are more likely to be assaulted during their early college years, a male is most likely to be the victim of sexual abuse when he is 4 years old, according to the Bureau of Justice. Perpetrators are more often than not family acquaintances or immediate relatives.