Sexual violence continues to be a pervasive problem, but the victimization of men is rarely explored. We know much more about the victimization of girls and women, in part because of the disproportionate rates of women reporting sexual assault and rape compared to men. For example, recent national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 1 in 5 women reported being raped in their lifetime compared to 1 in 71 men. When examining prison rape, however, rates seem to be greater for men than women . The Department of Justice estimated that in 2011-2012, 4% of inmates in prisons and 3% in jails reported being sexually victimized, with as many as 19% of incarcerated men in one prison reporting sexual coercion (see National Institute of Justice).
However rates of victimization increase considerably when considering other forms of sexual violence outside of rape. For example, in the CDC study referenced above, 22% of men reported experiencing other forms of sexual violence, including being made to penetrate, coerced sexual intercourse, and unwanted sexual contact. These rates are likely underestimates of the actual sexual victimization of men. Men may not feel comfortable reporting sexual victimization for a number of reasons, including the stigma of sexual victimization among males, fearing revenge from the perpetrator, being perceived as gay if victimized by a man, the desire to be self-reliant, fear of experiencing disbelief, and disconnect in defining an experience as sexually violent.
Definitions And Context
Up until 2013, men were excluded as rape victims because the FBI’s legal definition of rape was the “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will”. This definition requires penile-vaginal penetration, and excludes men as victims in any form. With greater awareness and social action, definitions of sexual victimization have expanded to include men as victims, women as perpetrators, and tactics outside of forcible rape including having sex with someone unable to consent due to intoxication “incapacitated assault”, alcohol/drug-facilitated rape, or giving someone substances with the intention to take sexual advantage of them.
Struckman-Johnson and her colleagues conducted some of the leading research on men’s experiences of sexual victimization. One of her studies found that among 600 college students, 16% of men experienced forced sexual intercourse while on a date, a rate comparable to women in this study. Of the participants who provided additional narratives of their experiences, men described verbal coercion significantly more frequently than women. In a later study, she and her colleagues found that persistent kissing and touching were the most often reported sexually coercive tactic among college males victimized by females. French and her colleagues found that over 40% of male high school and college men reported being victims of sexual coercion, measured as verbal pressure, manipulation, physical force, use of substance, and unwanted seduction to engage in sexual activity. The majority of these boys and men said women were the perpetrators.
Despite myths that sexual victimization of men is not impactful, research suggests that relations between sexual coercion and mental health among men are similar to that of women. Male survivors of sexual victimization show poorer psychological functioning such as posttraumatic stress, hostility, depression, and general distress. Health risk behaviors have also been correlated with male sexual victimization including problematic drinking, tobacco use, and sexual risk taking.
Recommendations and Resources
Acknowledging male victims of sexual violence is paramount. Like women survivors, men need to feel safe to disclose experiences of sexual coercion, sexual assault, and rape without facing disbelief, victim blaming, or minimization. One organization that is leading the movement in acknowledging men’s sexual victimization is Male Survivor. Their website has resources for survivors, loved ones, and professionals and provides retreats for male survivors of sexual violence to connect with one another. Mental health professionals can help broaden the language for young men to describe sexually coercive experiences and acknowledge that males can be victims. Acknowledging women as perpetrators specifically can begin to challenge myths that women can’t rape, and notions of traditional masculinity where men seek sexual validation from women and thus can’t experience unwanted sex from a woman. With this awareness, mental health professionals can better assess for sexually coercive experiences of men and potential psychological and behavioral consequences. Providing psychoeducation to young men about sexual coercion awareness and identifying consensual versus coerced sexual experiences is another important avenue.
Bryana French, Ph.D
Graduate School of Professional Psychology
University of St. Thomas
This Op-Ed was originally written for APA Division 51: Society on the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity for Men’s Health MonthTags: Men, Practice, Sexual Violence