Why We Need To Talk About Male Sexual Abuse (And What You Can Do To Support Survivors)
Mr Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You (2020). Photograph by courtesy of HBO
Among the many talking points the recent BBC/HBO TV hit I May Destroy You brings into focus, the subject of male rape is one that rarely gets an airing. In one scene, the main male character, Kwame, who is no stranger to a Grindr hook-up, finds himself trapped in a bedroom with the door pushed shut. The man he has just had fun, consensual, anonymous sex with suddenly switches, crashing through the boundary of consent. He pins Kwame to the bed and forces him to have sex again, this time without a condom. The agony is there to see, captured in the close-up of Kwame’s face. The fear, the pain, the helpless rage, the sadness.
Perhaps no less shocking is the moment Kwame goes to report his rape to the police. Wrapped up in the callous and clumsy way the officer reacts to this male survivor – his inept questioning, itching to be anywhere but in this room, with this type of victim, taking a statement about this kind of assault, as well as his inability to observe the most basic duty of care by shutting the interview room door – is the painful observation that this is how too much of society treats male survivors of sexual assault. Unspoken, unacknowledged, misunderstood and burdened with the assertion that men can’t be raped.
Over its 12 episodes, the show, written by and starring Ms Michaela Coel, has broken new ground. Ms Coel’s brilliant writing deftly threw a spotlight on the concept of consent in the age of social media and the blurring of lines championed by rape apologists. It also challenged the notion that rape lurks in the bushes, on the fringes of society, and presented instead the reality that sexual violence is part of our everyday. That perpetrators are often people we know or hang out with in our social circle. That victims are diverse. And include men.
“There is a dominant view across society that rape is a young white woman on a night out who gets pulled down an alleyway by a stranger,” says Ms Lizzy Dening, a journalist who started volunteering at her local rape crisis centre four years ago and is now deputy chair and founder of Survivor Stories, a site that gives voice to the stories of those who have experienced sexual violence. “Rape rarely looks like that. This means you don’t get an understanding that rape is something that happens to one in five women and one in 10 men. One of many great things about I May Destroy You was that it reflected an experience of black survivors, something rarely seen on TV. In general, it’s rare to see a diverse range of experiences within sexual violence. It would be good to continue to see minority groups represented.”
And it matters. “It’s common for survivors, especially those who haven’t told anyone, to look online for similar stories,” says Ms Dening. “Rape is such a lonely experience, survivors can feel like they’re going crazy. Being able to find examples that are similar to what they have gone through helps. I’ve certainly had comments in my inbox telling me it’s been a real relief to find people have had similar experiences. It’s also a big motivator for people who want to share their story, because they wish a story like theirs had been available to them when they were looking.”
“It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have. After I was assaulted, I couldn’t actually say the words. All I could do was hint”
American organisation 1in6 was founded in 2007 to support male sexual abuse survivors. Its name is a reminder of the stark statistic that one in six men in the US will experience sexual violence before they turn 18. Speaking to Out magazine last year, the organisation’s communications director Mr Seth Stewart underlined the need to support male survivors through their extreme reticence to speak out. “It takes men two and half times longer than women survivors to disclose,” he said.
Picking up on the barriers men face, Mr Alex Feis-Bryce, CEO of SurvivorsUK, a support organisation founded in 1986 to help male, trans and non-binary survivors of sexual abuse, as well as their friends and family, says: “There is a lot of systemic turning a blind eye. I don’t mean it’s a conspiracy. I mean it’s an uncomfortable conversation for people to have. For example, you may go to your GP and talk about things that would indicate sexual violence has happened. The GP may be more likely to ask a woman if this has happened whereas a man may have to force the subject. For many men, that is a hard thing to do. I know after I was assaulted, I couldn’t actually say the words. All I could do was hint.”
In January 2020, when a media blackout was lifted and newspapers started reporting the crimes of “Britain’s most prolific rapist”, Mr Reynhard Sinaga, what struck many was the fact that his victims were men, most of whom identified as heterosexual. Yet figures from SurvivorsUK put the annual number of men raped in the UK at 12,000, while 70,000 are sexually assaulted. In the US, figures from the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control show one out of every 10 rape victims is male, while three per cent of men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. For professionals working in organisations that support male survivors, the striking development that followed Mr Sinaga’s case was a 5,000 per cent increase in calls to their helplines.
“Rape does happen to men, and it happens to straight men”
“A high-profile case such as Reynhard Sinaga is a perfect chance to talk about the fact that rape does happen to men, and it happens to straight men,” says Deputy Chief Constable Sarah Crew, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for rape and adult sex offences. “It also gives people a chance to see justice done and to realise that there are some really great support services. The police response to male rape has evolved pretty rapidly over the past five years. There has been a growing recognition that the barriers for men to come forward can be additional and different. One of the partners we work with, Survivors Manchester, found 20 per cent of its clients take more than 30 years to report a rape. Think of the corrosive effect that has.
“We want to be able to reinforce that we understand the barriers and are working through them. Our partner services are helping us create opportunities for survivors to make choices. Rape takes away your choices, so we want to create as many options for people to take their time, get information and choose. The criminal justice system is one route, but it is not the solution for everyone and it is certainly not the only one we can help people find.”
Throughout the network of independent support groups available to male survivors, the idea of supporting through choice is fundamental. “It’s important that we work with people however they present, whatever they want, whatever the levels of trauma,” says Mr Feis-Bryce. SurvivorsUK achieves this through a counselling and therapy programme across an array services: a webchat-based national helpline that survivors can instant message for 45 minutes every day; one-to-one counselling; closed group work; a creative writing group; a group for black and Asian men; a soon-to-launch group for friends, family and allies of survivors; and more.
“Group work is one of the most powerful parts of the service we offer,” says Mr Feis-Bryce. “Some travel four hours to attend these sessions because they get to see that this has happened to other people and that they are not alone. It’s really healing.”
There is no textbook case of how the experience of sexual violence plays out in a survivor. It does not come with a neat timeline or stages to mirror the arc of experiences such as grief. “Trauma is a mess that can’t be tidied into a neat order,” says Ms Katherine Cox, SurvivorsUK’s services manager and groupwork coordinator. “There are things that happen, but not in a particular order, and they can happen concurrently. Shame, blame and guilt are big aspects of the trauma response. One of the most healing things a survivor can do is to realise that they are not to blame. To realise that they are not guilty. To take the shame and locate it outside of themselves. It sounds easy, but it’s really, really hard to do.
“There is a line in Good Will Hunting that often comes to me in my work: ‘It’s not your fault.’ People can know that with the front of their heads. The rational, logical adult part of the mind can say, ‘I know it wasn’t my fault.’ But actually the guilt, the shame that they carry in their sinews, tells them that it was. If we can use their rational mind, and the bit they would apply to anyone else to themselves, it’s hugely healing.”
The system may be imperfect, there may not be enough funding or enough support centres, but there are passionate individuals who are committed to giving survivors a voice, choice and care.
“Often, when people come to us, they say, ‘I want to forget about it. I want to get over it. I want to get better. I want to be happy,’” says Ms Cox. “Being realistic, we’re not in the business of people forgetting about it, because people won’t forget – it’s part of their history. What I do know and what I see every day is that people come with wounds that are open because they haven’t had a chance to be cared for properly. When they leave us, there is a scar, for sure, and a vulnerability, but it’s something that is healed over and cared for. It’s a scar they can live with and sometimes they can say, ‘This wound has made me stronger, more resilient, more creative, more empathic.’ It’s amazing when that happens.”
Five coping strategies for male rape survivors and their loved ones
01. Know what to expect if you report your assault to the police
The police gave us this overview of the criminal justice process: “You will be dealt with by a specialist officer (you can ask for a male or female officer) who will look to secure evidence by way of statement or video interview. If you need to have a medical examination, you will receive support from a Rape Crisis worker. When a suspect has been identified, they will be interviewed and remanded in custody (if the evidence meets the threshold test), bailed or released under investigation dependant on the circumstances. If there is sufficient evidence, a referral is made to the Crown Prosecution Service. If it wishes to charge the suspect, the case will proceed to court. In all cases reported, victims will be referred to specialist support services and the police will look at issues in regard to safeguarding.”
02. Manage expectations of justice and separate it from healing
“With a three per cent conviction rate for rape, it’s very unlikely that the outcome will be the one the survivor hopes for,” says Mr Feis-Bryce. “A key part of the service organisations such as ours offer is independent sexual violence advisors. They are trained professionals who will support any survivor who wants to engage with the criminal justice system, so they might be the go-between between the police and the victim and they advocate for the victim.”
03. There are some things men experience differently from women
“It’s important to say that there is no better or worse in terms of sexual violence,” says Ms Cox. “Male or female, it is horrific and it damages you, whoever you are. But there are some aspects in which men experience this differently from women. Men’s physiology adds a layer of complication. One thing people often observe is that if you get an erection or ejaculate, it’s because you enjoyed it or were attracted to the person. Actually, the physiology of men’s genitalia means that if it’s stimulated, you get an erection. It’s nothing to do with whether you like it or want it. Men also get erections when they are anxious or frightened and that is often used by someone assaulting them. This awful thing is happening to you, yet you get this very located, physical feeling that is somehow pleasurable. That can feel such a mess in your head.”
04. The healing process is not easy, but it is worth it
“One of the things we see when people first come to SurvivorsUK is the impact of carrying this traumatic secret for a long, long time,” says Ms Cox. “People have often had lots of mental health diagnoses, they may have developed drug or alcohol dependency, they may have had real difficulty in their relationships – intimate relationships, family relationships, friendships. Holding down a job might be a problem. All of these things can be desperate ways of trying to cope, but they bring their own damage. Specialists agree that healing from trauma centres around connection, the magic that is people connecting with one another. None of it is a quick fix, but it is worth doing because every day we see that talking to people, and creating a different relationship with what happened to them, can change a survivor’s life for the better.”
05. Keep friends, loved ones and allies close
“Around the survivor there is often a circle – or maybe it’s one person – that is also in a huge amount of pain,” says Ms Cox. “They want to help, but can feel pushed out. Or they can feel sucked in. When we talk to partners or parents, they frequently say, ‘You know, I love him and he’s hard to live with. It hurts. He says things and does things that are hurtful.’ To love, to listen, not to judge, to stick with as much as you can, and to remember you are important as well: these are five bullet points I would say for friends, loved ones and allies of survivors.”
Help and support
• National Male Survivor Helpline: 0808 800 5005. Online chat function available via safeline.org.uk
• Male Survivors Partnership: malesurvivor.co.uk. Provides access to support organisations across the country
• SurvivorsUK: survivorsuk.org. National helpline offering individual web chat sessions every day from 12.00pm to 8.00pm
• Survivors Manchester: survivorsmanchester.org.uk. Drop-in Wednesday 2.00pm to 5.00pm, Unit 9, Brewery Yard, Deva City Office Park, Trinity Way, Salford
• Man Kind: mkcharity.org. Offers counselling via video call during Covid. Based in Hove, Sussex
• RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network): online.rainn.org. Operates a US-wide National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800.656.HOPE for all survivors of sexual violence and their friends or family
• 1in6: 1in6.org. Runs weekly chat-based support groups facilitated by a counsellor