Men, Too, Can Be Victims
The Complex Issues Surrounding Sexual Assault for Male Victims
December 2001/January 2002
A 10-year-old boy named Sean was accosted by older boys while walking home from school near his suburban Orange County home. The older boys forced him into a van, where they coerced him into performing fellatio on them and then penetrated him anally.
Some time later, Sean's teenage sister cornered him and forced him to penetrate her vaginally. As he complied, she taunted him and disparaged his budding manhood.
As if these insults to his dignity were not enough suffering for one child to endure, throughout the remainder of his childhood Sean endured constant verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse from his adopted parents and extended family members.
Sean left home. He moved to Hollywood and lived his late teen years and early 20s in squalor, shame and guilt, trapped in a compulsive pattern of tricking with anonymous male sex partners. Following a positive HIV test result, Sean plunged into years of ever-lowering self-esteem, denial and fear.
Miraculously, at age 25 Sean was able to start to put his life together. He came out of denial, sought medical treatment, volunteered for AIDS organizations and spoke publicly as a Person with AIDS (PWA). I met him at an HIV support group that he attended.
Sean's wounds never healed. A month before Sean's 30th birthday, he committed suicide, ending a vicious cycle in which male sexual assault played a prominent role.
Statistics on the number of survivors of male sexual assault are problematic.
Male survivors, like their female counterparts, are often discouraged from reporting by the stigma surrounding rape and the fear of judgmental reactions from friends, family members, law enforcement and medical personnel. This stigma and fear are of a unique nature when the assault is made on a male.
Eugene Porter's summary of studies of sexual abuse concluded that pre-teens and early teenagers have equal chances of experiencing sexual assault. Among researchers, a consensus is currently forming that statistics for later teen and adult males may be between 14 percent and 25 percent of all sexual assaults. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that males reported about 26 percent of the number of rapes that females reported. While not in total agreement, these figures point to a very significant number of survivors of male sexual assault.
An implication of male sexual assault is the likelihood of increased sexual risk behavior on the part of the survivors. A study conducted at the University of California San Francisco found that gay and bisexual men who were sexually abused as children were more likely to engage in unsafe sex.
The April 2001 issue of Child Abuse & Neglect reported that men who have sex with men who are survivors of childhood sexual assault are more likely to engage in sexual risk behaviors as adults. Researchers at the Center for AIDS Prevention at UCSF found that about 20 percent of all men who have sex with men experienced childhood sexual assault, and a telephone sample of that population in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles reported that men who have sex with men reporting childhood sexual abuse were more likely to be HIV-positive.
Myth No More
What can be done to prevent male sexual assault from occurring, and what can be done for survivors?
Knowledge is power, and spreading the truth about male sexual assault is one way to heighten awareness. The mean age at which male sexual assault occurs is 17, so more education, outreach and support to youth at risk is needed, particularly gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
A syndrome that I have observed in the gay male community is one of gay men age 25 or older seducing younger gay men and boys. These encounters often become an opportunity for the older man (or men) to take advantage of the trust and naiveté of the younger man.
Incidents of younger men in an early process of coming out being brutalized and raped by older men are fairly commonplace, and all too often unreported. The same barriers of shame and guilt that keep these cases unreported can also prevent the survivor from accessing medical care and support. Survivors of male sexual assault may comprise a veritable army of the walking wounded.
Just as alcohol and recreational drugs cloud good judgment regarding safer sex, they can create a situation in which one man is vulnerable to another's aggressive intentions. A man usually capable of defending himself can be rendered virtually defenseless by substantial amounts of drugs or alcohol.
Many male sexual assaults are gang rapes, making male-only environments like prisons high-risk settings for assault. Rates of sexual assault in prisons remain mostly incalculable for reasons of politics and denial, but are by most estimates very high. Some penal institutions in this country even regularly use rape as a prisoner control measure, to dole out extra punishment and create informers. Much education and reform is needed in our prisons to address these conditions and their correlation not only with resulting personal trauma, but with HIV/STD infection rates as well.
We Are Here!
The men whose experiences are described at the beginning of this article are among the survivors of male sexual assault who came into my life, and in Sean's case, tragically exited.
Through these personal and professional friendships and acquaintances, I have come to grips with my own reality. The isolated incident in which another man was able to take sexual advantage of my state of depression at the time, hopelessness and inebriation resulted in being infected with HIV.
Recognizing this incident as rape has been a long, painful process that I would not wish on anyone else. I have experienced guilt, shame and the feeling that I must have somehow asked for it.
This despite my attempts at the time to defend my personal boundaries, insistence that he use a condom, and verbal and physical attempts to make him stop. As with most male survivors, I never reported the incident as a crime, told very few people, and lived with the trauma repressed for years before I began to address it.
I hope this man has not repeated his gift-giving behavior with anyone else. Hating him any longer about the incident would consume me, so I don't. The damage is done, but the healing has begun. I am still here, and I am no victim, I'm a survivor! I am one of many, in spite of widespread doubt and denial that we even exist. We are here!
What Can We Do?
Action can be taken by survivors of male sexual assault to minimize the damage inflicted by the crime. Here are a few steps to consider taking:
Dating Violence Against Adolescent Girls and Associated Substance Use, Unhealthy Weight Control, Sexual Risk Behavior, Pregnancy, and Suicidality
This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.