For every 100 American men, it’s estimated that between 3 and 8 reported being sexually assaulted in their lifetime (Coxell et al., 1999, Elliott et al., 2004; US DOJ, 2006). Researchers agree that these numbers underestimate actual occurrences of sexual assault because victims, especially males, are often unwilling to report the crime against them (Walker et al., 2005). In all fairness, there are many understandable reasons to not report sexual assault. However, many people suffer for years from a highly treatable set of issues because they don’t seek help. For a man struggling with the aftermath of sexual assault, one major obstacle to seeking help is an incompatible definition of masculinity and victimhood.
What does being a man mean to you? My clients, who just so happen to be men and victims of sexual assault, answered this question in many ways…
“Unwavering toughness; being able to handle anything life sends my way.”
“Being in control of my emotions so that I am calm, and stoic. Like Ron Swanson.”
“Driving a big-ass truck.”
“A true man is a force to be reckoned with.”
What does it mean to you to be a victim?
“Victims are submissive.”
“Victims are overpowered.”
“Victims are defenseless.”
“I feel bad for victims.”
“Victims are protected by men.”
I heard that last one from a Chuck Norris of a man prepared for just about every form of confrontation. It just so happened that this man was sexually assaulted by three other men when he was in his twenties. Decades later, he struggled to know who he was. On one hand, he was the tough, independent, aggressive and dominant stereotype that many men strive for. On the other hand, he would start to shake when he saw reminders of his trauma, his heart rate would increase, and he’d start to sweat. The most harrowing parts of the experience would creep into his thoughts and he’d slam the book shut on that horror story throwing himself into physical exercise or his work. Sleep was no escape, because he woke up most nights from a nightmare of his assault.
Despite it all, this man’s toughness was clearly seen through his continued commitment to his career and his persistence in loving his family. But every day was a battle and with this fight came casualties in his life. His relationships and work was struggling and most painful of all, he was losing his wife. It took him 30 years to tell someone he had been raped. Once he finally did, his life was put on a path of recovery. Five weeks into therapy this man started to see life differently. He described this change as the “sun coming out from behind the clouds.” For the first time in 30 years, he enjoyed sex with his wife. Reminders of his assault packed less of a punch as he stopped shaking, stopped sweating, and was able to face his history. While he never forgot what happened to him, he gained acceptance and understanding for what being a victim and being a man really means.
There is no correct set of values to describe masculinity. Perhaps the same is true of victimhood. However, one prevailing conclusion I’ve drawn from my work about being victimized, is that it is best understood as a failure of others. Victims, at the most basic level, were unfortunate. There are systemic reasons at the level of institutions and personal reasons at the level of the perpetrator but the victim is not to blame for the actions of the perpetrator. Armed with that conceptualization of being a victim, the question is not whether one can be masculine and a rape victim, but rather what will a man do when he is faced with this injustice? Popular answers focus on avoidance, but successful men focus on personal growth.
In the aftermath of sexual assault, common reactions include fear, shame, guilt, self-blame, social isolation, flashbacks to the event, nightmares, decreased libido, depression, and anxiety. In fact, these reactions are normal and do not necessarily indicate a diagnosable disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, long-term (greater than a month) duration of these experiences and disruption of daily activities or valued action are indicators that it is time to seek help.
Coxell, A., King, M., Mezey, G., & Gordon, D. (1999). Lifetime prevalence, characteristics and associated problems of non-consensual sex in men: Cross sectional survey. British Medical Journal, 318, 846-850.
Elliott, D. M., Mok, D. S., & Briere, J. (2004). Adult sexual assault: Prevalence, symptomatology, and sex differences in the general population. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17, 203-211.
U.S. Department of Justice. (2006). Criminal victimization, 2005. Retrieved from www.ojp.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cv05.pdf