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How Male Rape Survivors Grapple with Their Masculinity

From beefing up in the gym to pummeling drink and drugs, male-on-male assault creates specific ripple effects.

by David Hillier
30 August 2019, 1:00pm

Callum Hancock, provided by Callum Hancock

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

For Callum ‘Hitman’ Hancock, the taut ropes of a boxing ring provided both protection and camouflage. At 6’3” and with a taut, tattooed physique, the now 28-year-old had the kind of superhero body suited to a Marvel film. His was the chiselled, strong man image you might associate with someone on the cover of Men’s Health, but it was also a brittle mask.

Born and raised in Eckington, Derbyshire, Callum started training at his local gym when he was 14, after a sustained period of physical and mental abuse culminated in him being raped by a neighbour at just ten years old. “Boxing was my poker face,” says Callum, who, at his last count, was unbeaten in ten fights as a professional super-middleweight before quitting this year. “People thought I was this alpha male but inside I felt so weak, so shallow. I felt a lot of guilt and a lot of shame.”

Callum’s decision to beef up and project an image of hyper-masculinity is a common trope I hear from male rape survivors, for whom the attack represents not just physical invasion but also a chink in the armour of the maleness that society insists they wear. “It was me saying, ‘I am a man,’” says Callum, of his route into boxing. “I was doing it to let people know I was not to be messed about with."

A 2017 report from the UK’s Office For National Statistics (ONS) found around 631,000 males report some form of sexual assault from the age of 16, though there’s likely a disparity between those reporting a crime, and keeping quiet. Just as female survivors may not report assault due to scrutiny, stigma, and a multitude of other reasons, the same goes for men. In Callum’s case it took 15 years and a prison sentence (which, more on later) before he opened up to friends and family.

“People talk about toxic masculinity but I think it’s the wrong conversation,” says Duncan Craig, of the obstacles that may prevent men from speaking out. Duncan is a trauma-informed therapist and chief executive officer of a survivor-led information and help service Survivors Manchester. “We should," he continues, "be talking about toxic gender norms – how are you supposed to be as a man? How are you supposed to be as a black man? How are you suppose to be as a gay man? I think all this stops us talking.”

This type of engrained masculinity is explored in Ripped, a one-man show Alex Gwyther took to Edinburgh Fringe this year. In it, the main character is attacked and changes from affable teetotaling nerd to a gym-obsessed, cocaine-taking, hard-drinking wannabe lad as he tries to shake his trauma. Behaviours like this are commonplace: a 2002 study reported that 69 percent of male substance users in an American detoxification unit had a history of physical and sexual abuse, while Duncan says that, among survivors he treats, “hyper-masculinity is a massively common trait. They’ve been subjugated, had their maleness taken away. How do they get it back? It’s over-compensation.”

Michael Olasope

Duncan Craig believes the concept of the survivor being weaker or “non-male” is laced with the archaic prejudices that still pervade society. Growing up in a working class environment, Callum Hancock said being a man meant “being able to look after himself and look after his family”. After finally breaking the silence to his parents in 2015, Callum spent the evening talking and weeping with his mother while his dad went to bed. “It were very hard for my dad to hear – revenge went straight to his mind. He was there for me but for 18 months that was the most we spoke about it.”

It’s not just white British culture that keeps everything in-house either. “In the Afro-Caribbean community there is a tendency to not hang your dirty laundry in public,” says Michael Olasope, a young adults pastor who was abused around the age of four or five. “Keep family business in the family.” Combine this with crass stereotypes of black men’s hyper-masculine bodies and it’s clear black male survivors face uniquely challenging post-abuse struggles. A 2019 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse said the “government is clearly not serving the black and LGBT community when it comes to supporting adult survivors of sexual abuse”.

The effects of abuse can run deep into fatherhood, too. Tim Hotham, says he was abused from eight to 12 years old and introduced to alcohol and drugs. When he had children of his own, he became fearful of what is unhelpfully referred to a as “vampire syndrome”: the unsubstantiated theory that says survivors of sexual abuse are more likely to abuse themselves.

“It brought a horrible dichotomy to the experience of being a parent,” says the now sober, 49-year-old father of two. “I don’t carry a rational fear of abusing my children – I know I never would – but when my son was born I started to think, ‘Am I cuddling him in the wrong way?’ My daughter is 13 now. She’s in ballet school, so fit and gorgeous, but I’m thinking, ‘Should I be thinking she’s gorgeous?’ What should be natural and beautiful things with your own children are uncomfortable to me.”

There’s a lot of confusion in the aftermath of an assault, often lasting years, yet there is power in speaking out. Boxer Callum Hancock had an epiphany in prison while serving time for breaking the jaw of a doorman outside Sheffield’s Genting Casino in March 2015. “I was a listener with Samaritans and sat with people having vulnerable moments and contemplating suicide,” says Callum. “The amount of men telling me they’d been sexually assaulted at some point in their life was very hard to listen to. I was thinking ‘I’ve been through this. I want to kidnap my perpetrator. I want to kill my perpetrator. Suicide crosses my mind.’ Something has got to change.”

Tim Hothma
Tim Hothman, pre-abuse

Male suicide rates in the UK are well documented: according to mental health charity CALM, it’s the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. We are also in the midst of a public health crisis regarding drug deaths, with men accounting for over two-thirds of fatalities. Can we draw a tangential link between these and a nation of abused men spending lifetimes hiding under the poisonous umbrella of a stiff upper lip? “Yes,” says Duncan Craig. “I honestly think so. Men can’t see a way of moving forward – when they’re able to talk about this horrible thing – so think about suicide. It’s something Survivors Manchester deal with every single day.”

Duncan himself was groomed and then abused by a local park worker, from the age of 11 of 17. In the aftermath he initially buried any recollection and lost himself in the grainy hedonism of 90s Manchester, then the epicenter of the sort of gay culture that would be culturally enshrined by TV's Queer As Folk. “I became a party animal and, though I didn’t necessarily realise it at the time, I was always trying to escape,” he says, adding that, “I felt I had an inability to have relationships and had massive problems with trust.” It was only in his late twenties, when he trained as a therapist, that one young patient’s stories of sexual abuse triggered Duncan’s own memories, enabling him to break his silence and contextaulise his past.

Nearly 20 years later, in March 2018, he acted as an advisor for a Coronation Street storyline where hairdresser David Platt was raped by Josh Tucker. The episode received over 100 complaints to Ofcom. But far more importantly: the national male survivor helpline received a 1,500% increase in calls over the next 73 hours. “If you tell men it’s okay to speak out – if you show them pictures, images and give them spaces to talk and identify – then they do,” Duncan says.

And how does Duncan reflect on his own experience now, especially that he’s aired it in public? Does he feel anymore or less of a so-called man? “Now it’s just something that happened to me. It doesn’t have to define me. It had a hold over me and now I have a hold over it. Power is restored and it’s back with me where it belongs.”

As for Callum? He’s now given up boxing and doesn’t miss the smell of blood and gloves. “Boxing worked wonders for me but it doesn’t service me like it once did. I don’t have any pent-up anger or frustration. I stopped looking forward to fights: I was just heading back into the silence. I’ve got nothing to prove anymore.”

You can contact the confidential Male Survivors Helpline through their online chat, via WhatsApp on 07491 816064 or via text on 0203 3221 860 if you’re a man who's been affected by anything in this article. Samaritans can be reached 116 123, at any time on any day of the week.

@dhillierwrites