How a spate of recent allegations & pop-culture are unearthing the sexual assault stories no one was willing to discuss.
Justice is a concept on which nations are built. Our social mores tell us that criminals will be brought to justice; that this aspect of our social contract is paramount. But what happens when some sexual assault survivors are denied the benefit of even marginal justice?
The feeling of despair that accompanies a sexual assault or rape is unfathomable. There is shame, a fear no one will believe you, and rage.
Thankfully, recent high-profile sexual assault allegations brought forth by women have been taken seriously and have resulted in some form of justice. Fox News anchors being fired. Harvey Weinstien losing his position alongside looming criminal charges. The British House of Commons sexual assault training program.
But it strikes me that we never hear of male survivors of sexual assault – and as such, we never hear of justice being granted to them.
Boys and young men raped or sexually assaulted by other men face an excruciatingly difficult time coping with and reporting their trauma.
Our culture clings to an artificial and antiquated notion of what ‘manhood’ is and how men should respond to assault. Specifically, our society doesn’t like male weakness or vulnerability, consequently a male rape survivor is like a shadow’s shadow: even if someone acknowledges it, it remains unseen.
People are motivated by what they see and what they experience personally. And the simple fact—one of the few surrounding this issue—is that most people won’t be raped or assaulted; most people won’t ever hear that their son or brother or father or male friend has been assaulted. As a result, there are no picket protests, no letters written to lawmakers or prosecutorial offices.
When it doesn’t happen to you or someone you know, there’s no moral outrage. There’s no reason for action. This is true of most grizzly public policy issues, but most especially sexual assault.
Gender roles dictate the expectation that men are to be strong, self-reliant and sexually promiscuous. Moreover, men are painted as those who seek sex, not those who need to protect themselves from unwanted advances. So when a boy or man reports an assault, it is often over-looked or shrugged off. This leads some to fear reporting their assault from ever bringing it up. There is a systemic bias towards sexual assault victims, especially when you’re male.
According to the NSVRC, rape is the most under-reported crime in the US. 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities.
This cultural reproach to grappling with male-on-male rape is certainly not limited to the United States. Last year, a gripping article published by BuzzFeed recounts the years of systemic abuse faced by a young British boy at the hands of Ministers of Parliament and business leaders operating in London’s most elite circles. Just this last week, a BBC article focused on a male intern who was groped by an MP. A recent report published in the UK found that 96% of all male assaults go unreported, with an estimated 167,000 assaults occurring annually.
And recent allegations against Kevin Spacey only highlight that, despite the uncomfortable nature of the issue, these assaults have been lurking beneath the sight of most people for a very long time. The Spacey revelations only came to light because of accusations against Harvey Weinstein: a male actor finally felt comfortable confronting the House of Cards star after seeing his female colleagues pursuing their own paths to justice.
Justice for male assault survivors lags maddeningly behind. Although men have historically been a privileged group, male-on-male sexual assault is one area in which it’s hard to deny the brutal weight of injustice, especially for the young gay and closeted gay men who have almost no recourse to bring their assaulters to justice. If they did, they would be outing themselves, potentially bringing further discrimination and psychological harm.
Most people assume that men are relatively unaffected by sexual assault. But a 2013 study shocked those that came across it: the US National Crime Victimization Survey found that of 40,000 households surveyed about rape and sexual assault, 38 percent of victims were men. Another survey confirms this trend: a military sexual assault audit conducted by US Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) found that 52% of military sexual assaults are male-on-male.
To understand why this miscarriage of justice exists and persists, we must ask questions of power and of justice; of gender binaries and of enshrined gender roles; of innocence and of complicity. As our social norms have changed over time, some prominent and fiercely strong voices have made discussions of male-on-male sexual assault more approachable—but this has not happened quickly enough.
Still, ripples of hope do exist. Sweden recently opened the world’s first male rape clinic, potentially paving the way for other nations to do the same. Other governments, such as the City of London, have opened dialogues and have increased funding to groups addressing this specific aspect of the sexual assault story. But this has not been without challenge.
After male-specific sexual assault funding was slashed to zero, public outcry eventually led Mayor Boris Johnson to reinstate funding. With a £78,000 increase in funding, Survivors UK was helped establish the UK’s first male rape clinic, called Clinic26.
These are concrete policy and programmatic steps and they will certainly have a positive effect on beginning to address the issue. But a critical gap still remains: even as acceptance of homosexuality and gay culture has risen across the US and UK, the taboo of male-on-male sexual assault remains buried and out of sight.
Change occurs first by listening and understanding. Though the conversations are currently scarce, they are beginning to increase. And one area in which the barrier to starting this dialogue is eroding fastest is popular culture.
Hanya Yanigihara, a prominent new voice in American fiction, writes with truth and power in her prose. Both of her critically acclaimed novels, in one way or another, broach the topic of male-on-male rape. On the shortlist for the Man Booker Award and countless other accolades, her writing goes boldly where few works have yet to venture: she openly and vividly depicts what most shy away from: the rape of young boys and the men behind these cowardly acts. She takes, head on, the notion of male vulnerability and the culture that allows assault to go unanswered.
In 2015, a man named Kevin Kantor delivered a direct and expressive spoken word poem about his rapist. Though he does not mention his assaulter by name—he doesn’t need to—he presents in vivid detail the man who took almost everything from him, and how he was able to reclaim this stolen part of the soul back. In a particularly moving passage, his voice trembling beneath the yoke of unanswered justice, he speaks about the let-down of crying out for help as a male rape victim: “No one comes running for young boys who cry rape.”
I went to his YouTube video page’s comment section half-expecting to find a list of hateful, vengeful comments. But what I found was beauty. Not one comment castigated or was cruel. One sentiment in particular echoed nearly every comment I read, “Thank you; from all of us who have lived your poem.”
The common perception of male sexual assault victims is that they were too weak to fight back, or that they must have wanted it—or worse—that they deserved it. The narrative must be changed and a dialogue needs to be opened.
This starts with simply supporting survivors of male-on-male sexual assault. We, as a society, must consciously take the uncomfortable first step towards this goal. Like Kantor, we must use our words: our words are his power; his justice is in our words.
Alex Bluestone is pursuing a Master in Public Administration at the London School of Economics, where he studies the interplay between social psychology and policy development.