At least one in six men have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime (NISVS, 2017). Similar to other victims of sexual assault, male victims often experience negative emotional, physical, and social consequences. In addition, male sexual assault victims face unique barriers to reporting and healing from victimization. Below are five points for justice professionals to keep in mind when working with survivors of sexual assault who identify as male. Remember, there is no one “right” way to respond after a victim has disclosed, as every person and situation is unique. However, there are important considerations to ensure your response to a survivor does not cause additional harm.
5. This is a person who has been through trauma.
Trauma can manifest in many ways. Sexual violence has short and long-term traumatic impacts for survivors regardless of their identity: male or female, gay or straight, cisgender or transgender. Similar to women, male survivors of sexual assault often experience emotional pain. That being said, men may exhibit more anger and aggression than tearfulness and emotionality. Due to common misconceptions about typical responses to sexual assault, men may question their masculinity following victimization, especially if they froze during the assault or did not fight back.
Victims who feel believed are also more likely to be forthcoming
and recall relevant case information.
4. Shame and guilt are common emotions.
Common myths in our society include that men cannot be raped, women cannot be perpetrators, men who are raped must be gay, and erection or ejaculation during the assault means they must have liked it. These myths contribute to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress. As justice professionals, you may have to address these myths with victims in order to debunk inaccurate beliefs and mitigate trauma. It is important that justice professionals create an environment where blame, shame, and guilt are not present, and victims are reminded sexual violence is never their fault.
3. Silence and secrecy are the norm.
Disclosing sexual assault is difficult and should be treated as a courageous act. It is not uncommon for men to have multiple unwanted sexual experiences, but because men are expected to be tough, non-emotional, and powerful, it is rare that men disclose. In addition, men are often sexually assaulted in hypermasculine contexts, such as fraternity hazing rituals and athletic locker rooms, as these are spaces of control, power, and dominance masked as learning opportunities for “real manhood.” For this reason, men often do not recognize these experiences as a form of sexual victimization and, when they do, they are ashamed to say so. Therefore, it is critical to tell the victim that speaking about his experience is brave and can be the first step on the road to healing.
If a victim receives a positive response such as feeling believed,
they are less likely to experience depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms.
2. Intersecting identities matter.
Understanding that sexual assault is experienced by men and boys of all races, sexual orientations, abilities, and socioeconomic status is important. Victims’ perceptions of what constitutes sexual violence, as well as the impact of sexual violence on their lives, will depend on their various identities, including but not limited to culture, race, gender, socioeconomic status, ability, and sexual orientation. It is important for justice professionals to recognize and combat personal biases related to identity (e.g., racism, sexism, ableism). Many victims may be distrustful or fearful of the criminal justice system or may have criminal histories. It is important to mitigate these fears by building rapport, validating fears, and providing support and options.
1. Convey belief.
It is common for male victims of sexual assault to fear they will not be believed or that their experience will be laughed at or minimalized. This often keeps them silent. Therefore, the first response to the victim is the most important. If a victim receives a positive response such as feeling believed, they are less likely to experience depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms (Ullman, 2016). Victims who feel believed are also more likely to be forthcoming and recall relevant case information (EVAWI, 2018). Accordingly, it is important for justice professionals to convey reasonable belief, which can be done by engaging in active listening, demonstrate compassion, and taking the disclosure seriously.