RAPE'S UNNOTICED VICTIM
by Susan Wachob, MSW, LCSW
Warning: Due to the content of the article, graphic language is used in some spotsSusan 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
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
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
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
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
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."
ęcopyright 1996, 2001 Kayjay