Mar 07, 2014

Challenging Male Rape as Myth

By Emily Compton
For Reporting Texas

Of the 435 rapes reported in Austin in 2013, only 15 percent were of males. But experts say the figures on reported male rapes don’t tell the whole story. In fact, there is a growing recognition of male rape that may help counter the social pressures that discourage men from reporting rape.

The White House Council on Women and Girls released a report in January that said that although women and girls represent the largest proportion of rape victims – nearly 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted in their lifetime – nearly 1.6 million men and boys, or 1 in 71, have been raped.

That builds on a 2012 change in the federal government’s definition of forcible rape to include oral and anal penetration in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. The previous definition only included vaginal penetration and had not changed since the 1920s.

On college campuses, law enforcement and health centers understand the problem of rape in general: Slightly more than one-fifth of all rape survivors, male and female, are between the ages of 18 and 25, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice. While many campuses provide resources for female rape victims, only a few, including The University of Texas at Austin, address male rape specifically. Officials say they are fighting against stereotypes that conflate male rape with homosexuality or femininity.

Scholars who study sexual violence say it is not surprising that males are reluctant to report sexual assault. Gloria González-López, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been researching the topic.

“The fact that men of all ages may not break the silence about their own experiences of sexual abuse does not allow an individual to speak up,” González-López said in an interview. “It is difficult to document [male rape] cases if we don’t know about them. In the end, it becomes a challenge to have a more accurate and comprehensive perspective of how prevalent or frequent sexual violence is for men.”

Sexual violence experts say that in the United States, male rape survivors fear that they will be considered unmanly, incapable of defending themselves or automatically homosexual. González-López said that homophobia is a major reason why male rape is underreported. The association between male rape and homosexuality leads to victims feeling ashamed. Afraid of being labeled gay, men often don’t report the crime, she said.

González-López found that men who were victimized at a young age experienced their abusers calling them pejoratives such as “faggot” or “sissy,” which in the abusers’ minds gave them permission to rape or assault them.

“People use a homophobic discourse on all boys, not just gay or effeminate men,” González-López said. “Homophobia is incredibly damaging.”

González-López said the larger social problem regarding male rape reporting is the idealized expression of masculinity, which says that men must be aggressive and withhold emotion.

“We live in a patriarchal society where men are socialized to be strong, to be in power, to be in control,” González-López said. “Rape in itself exposes vulnerability in men because rape is about power and control.”

Some Texas universities and colleges have policies that include non-gendered language and resources for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but do not address assistance specifically to men. Those schools include Texas A&M University, Texas State University and St. Edwards University.

Since 2000, The University of Texas at Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center has had a web page dedicated to male survivors of sexual assault. Several other universities have a link to the UT page on their own websites. The UT page reassures men that rape can happen to men, gay or straight. It guides men through possible feelings and ideas about what it means to be masculine and to be raped.

Erin Burrows, health education coordinator for UT Voices Against Violence, an outreach program for sexual violence survivors, said the center tries to “dispel the myth that sexual violence only happens to people who identify as women or female.”

“So, to have a page that’s dedicated to male survivors and particular concerns that might come up for [them] just highlights the reality that sexual violence happens to people of all genders,” Burrows said.

The prevalence of male rape humor undermines the issue, as it normalizes sexual violence, Burrows said. Male rape is a source of open and widespread jokes, while joking about female rape was long ago rejected. For instance, in 1990, Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams met with public outrage for his remark that waiting for rain to dispel was akin to a woman being raped. He told reporters, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”

“Jokes about men experiencing rape are considered more acceptable due to the myth that men cannot be raped,” Burrows said. “Jokes at a victim’s expense further marginalize an experience of sexual violence and minimizes the real impact of trauma.”

“What we’re trying to undo is generations of gender-based stereotypes, and one of those gender-based stereotypes is a presumption that men cannot be victims of sexual violence,” Burrows said.