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RAPE'S UNNOTICED VICTIM

by Susan Wachob, MSW, LCSW

Warning: Due to the content of the article, graphic language is used in some spots
Susan Wachob is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. She specializes in the treatment of adults who were sexually abused either in childhood or as adults. Her particular area of focus is working with sexually abused men in both individual and group therapy.

Rape Trauma Syndrome, as described in the lead article of the May issue of "Men's Issues Forum", describes a devastating group of symptoms, both short and long term, often experienced by those who have been raped. That article went on to describe the experience and needs of adult men who were raped in jail.

This article will focus on a lesser known yet widespread group of rape survivors- adult men who were raped as adults while NOT IN JAIL. I also include in this article men who were raped as older adolescents (16+) in non-incest situations and who were likely to deal with the aftermath utside of the family context.

Societal messages about who a rape survivor is -female, powerless, emotional, a victim - are in sharp contrast to acceptable male roles defined as powerful, expressive only of anger and in control. Our society is just barely beginning to accept that little boys and girls can be targets of sexual violence. Acknowledgement that an adult man can be the victim of sexual abuse is rare.

For adult rape survivors, statistics are hard to come by. It is estimated that only about one in ten women who are raped come forward for legal, medical or psychological assistance, even when these services are widely available. I have every reason to believe that the rate of male rape victims who self-identify and come forward for services is vastly lower.

The man asking for help as a rape survivor is taking a big risk. Numerous male rape victims have described calling a Rape Crisis Center for assistance, only to be told that they do not work with rapists and have the counselor then hang up. Few Rape Crisis Centers have specialized training or outreach programs geared toward the specific needs of men who have survived sexual abuse as adults.

The therapy group that I lead specifically for adult men who were raped as adults (or older adolescents) is one of the few, and perhaps the only group in this country with this sole focus. While I've consulted with representatives of Rape Crisis Centers in Australia and Norway as well as representatives from England's Scotland Yard on providing appropriate services to male rape victims in their countries, requests from the hundreds of centers in this country have been conspicuously infrequent.

For the adult male rape survivor, saying he was powerless and that he has feelings other than anger about what happened to him is, by societal definition, a "female" role. The absurdity of this position damages both women and men. It disempowers women and it cuts men off from expressing their full range of human emotions. Instead it encourages the male victim to hide what feels shameful and inappropriate. This is the reality faced by most male rape victims.

Before the decision of whether or not to ask for help with the legal, medical or emotional aftermath of the sexual assault, however, the survivor must make a much subtler and more difficult decision: "How do I identify what happened to me?". He may not even be aware of making this decision. Having been raised male, he has learned to see himself according to the myths he has been taught about men. Without the awareness that the rape of men outside of prison even exists, it will not occur to the male victim to see his assault this way.

Instead it gets distorted to fit some other definition:< br>** He had an erection and maybe even ejaculated ("I must have enjoyed it and therefore it wasn't an assault."), or
** He was drunk or high ("It was my fault so I don't have any right to feel bad or get help."), or
** He consented to some sexual acts and then was forced to do others or
("I don't have any right to call it rape since I agreed to have sex."), or
** He was in an area where men go to pick up others for anonymous sex and was forced to have sex ("I asked for it since I was there, so it's not really rape."), or
** He has consensual sex with men at other times ("I do this anyway so I have no right to cry rape."), or
** He was too scared to resist ("so it wasn't really rape.").

How then do we know how many men are raped? Who are they and what are their recovery needs? We have no realistic way to estimate the frequency of the sexual assault of adult men. From a variety of anecdotal sources, however, I believe that this is a much bigger problem than is currently recognized. When I speak on this subject, I am often approached afterward by someone saying that this had happened to him but that he hadn't identified what happened to himself as rape until now, hadn't known where to go for help when it happened, or had been too ashamed to tell anyone. For every call from a man who wants to join the men's rape victim therapy group, I might receive five from men who just want to talk to someone about being raped (usually for the first time) or from therapists looking for assistance in helping a current client who is working through his rape. It's not unusual for a man who I'm seeing in individual therapy for other issues to disclose some kind of forced, post-adolescent, sexual activity.

While rape happens to a wide variety of men, a significant proportion of victims are gay men, not because of anything inherent in being gay but because of the realities of rape. We know that almost all rapes of adult men are by other men. We also know that approximately 70% of rapes of women are by acquaintances (partner, date, friend, co-worker, etc). If we assume that this statistic is somewhat similar for men, then approximately 70% of the rapes of non-incarcerated men are by their acquaintances. Since presumably, gay men's partners, dates and a substantial portion of the people with whom they socialize are also men, gay men are at a substantially higher risk for sexual victimization than are their heterosexual counterparts whose primary intimate relationships are likely to be with women.

There are also two non-acquaintance situations in which gay men might find themselves and in which the possibility of sexual abuse might be heightened. The first is in an anonymous sexual encounter when the motives of the other person can only be presumed and in which each participant is more vulnerable. The other is during a gay bashing which often has a sexual component and in which the target is a gay (or presumed gay) man.

The gay survivor, who may have grown up keeping his sexual orientation a secret, is already skilled at hiding important facets of himself. When a sexual assault takes place, he is already primed for how to treat yet another experience of himself that he has been taught is private, shameful and unacceptable.

Rape is, first and foremost, an act of anger, aggression and control; the penis is the weapon of choice. Societal messages defining who and how a "man" is supposed to be does an incalculable disservice to the man who has just been raped. Helping the male victim identify the assault as a physically and emotionally violent attack enables him to mobilize his appropriate anger. But feelings of shame, humiliation, sadness, rage, terror and helplessness must all be faced eventually for his healing to be complete.

Support for the expression of the full range of his needs is vital to his recovery- support from family, friends and peers- support from the medical,legal and mental health +/or rape treatment communities- support that acknowledges the full extent of the trauma- and perhaps most importantly of all, support that says "You're a man. You were raped. All of your needs and feelings are acceptable. You're still acceptable."

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