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More Needs to Be Done to Help Male Rape Survivors

At the beginning of this year, the British government pledged $784,000 to organizations helping survivors, but social workers and academics told me it's made little difference.

by Hussein Kesvani
Dec 3 2014, 8:16pm

This man is not a victim of male rape. Photo by Flickr user ​Abd Allah Foteih

This post first appeared on VICE UK

Paul tried to scream when it happened, but couldn't.

Rubbing his crotch over Paul's back, the man on top of him pinned his arms to the bed, rendering him immobile. Breathing the stench of a dirty pub floor into his face, the man told Paul to relax, promising he "only wanted to give [him] a special gift."

Paul stops, stepping out to his balcony to regroup. He holds onto the rails, trying to control his shaking, crying into an old handkerchief. He walks back into the room. "I'm sorry—I've just shut [the memories] out for so long, it's hard to remember everything," he says.

For the past few months I've been meeting Paul in his London flat to talk about the sexual abuse he experienced as a teenager, and how a friend of his uncle's—a man he trusted; admired, even—eventually became his rapist.

Cases like Paul's are more common than you might think. According to ​official figures, around 9,000 British men and boys—​roughly 12 percent of all rape and sexual abuse survivors—are subject to rape or sexual abuse each year. However, just over 1,000 cases are actually reported. Most of the time, men who report their abuse do so years—or decades—after the act was committed, with many survivors citing fear, embarrassment, and shame as the main reasons for staying quiet.

Paul, 24, was raised in Scotland. His father died when he was a child, and though he still lived with his mother, he spent most of his time with his uncle, who became a sort of father figure. Paul's uncle lived close to his school, meaning he'd usually go there before heading home, occasionally sleeping over.

One night, his uncle invited friends over. That was the first time Paul met Max, the man who became his abuser. According to Paul, Max had first appeared to be a decent guy—friendly and easy to get on with. He was part of his uncle's five-a-side team, a regular drinking buddy, and, at the time, considered "almost family" by the man who'd taken Paul under his wing.

"I remember times when Max would ask me to help him take things from his car and slide me over a bit of chocolate or something," says Paul. "He'd often rub my back under my T-shirt, or brush my leg every so often. I didn't really think anything of it at first—he seemed like that with everyone."

But as Max visited and slept at his uncle's house more often, instances of forced intimacy became more frequent. Paul recalls a time when he was around 16 that Max, who was looking after him while his uncle was away, asked him about girls and why he'd never had a girlfriend before.

"He said that I wasn't sexually confident and that I needed to know how to 'treat a girl' before I could get one," says Paul. "Then he put a porno on and told me I should watch it with him because I needed to learn 'how things worked.' As I was watching it he was rubbing against me and undoing his trouser zipper. I became uncomfortable, got up and told him I was tired and wanted to sleep. But really, I just didn't know what to do."

It was a few months later that Paul experienced the worst. He was asleep when his uncle and Max got home from a night of drinking. His uncle passed out cold, leaving Max to enter Paul's room, climb on top of him and aggressively remove his clothes. Despite all attempts to resist, Paul was crushed under Max's bodyweight. He tells me, through teary eyes, that, despite trying to fight back, he was unable to stop what happened next.

"It only lasted a few minutes, I think. But it's still the most terrifying... it wasn't just my body that was taken away by him, but also my self-respect," says Paul. "For years I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror, I was that ashamed."

"IT'S NOT JUST THE PHYSICAL ABUSE, BUT THE LASTING MENTAL TORTURE. IT'S SOUL DESTROYING."

Like many male survivors of sexual abuse, Paul didn't tell anyone about that night, and spent years trying to forget what had happened to him. He stopped visiting his uncle's house, avoiding Max and his friends at all costs. Bottling up his emotions throughout school and college, he found himself becoming more introverted, less talkative and gradually more erratic. In the absence of available help, he turned to drink and drugs to try escape from his problems, but, according to Paul, "All they did was make things worse."

"It was only when I lashed out at my now ex-girlfriend that I realized I couldn't live like this any more," he says. "That was when I got out of Scotland and told myself I'd get through this."

Paul is now receiving help from a private therapist, who he started visiting a few weeks before we first met. It took him nearly ten years to come to terms with what happened to him. 

"I didn't know what to say—I mean, I knew about rape, but I didn't actually think men could be raped," he tells me. "I didn't think that men wanted to rape other men. I realize why so many women and men don't want to talk about it. It's not just the physical abuse, but the lasting mental torture. It's soul destroying."

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Paul's experience is not unlike other male victims of sexual abuse. According to Duncan Craig, psychotherapist and founder of ​Survivors Manchester—an organization that helps male survivors of rape and sexual abuse—around 80 percent of male sexual abuse survivors report the incident years after it happened, while a large number don't seek help until more than 20 years after it took place.

"As a male, there's a myth that you should be able to protect yourself," Craig tells me, adding that while the psychological impacts of rape and sexual abuse vary, in most cases such abuse has a huge impact on a male survivor's sense of masculinity, and that they're often afraid to speak out as it makes them feel "less of a man."

Duncan, who experienced sexual abuse at a young age himself, says that more activism and an "inclusive" language accounting for male sexual violation is needed to help men speak out. "As a society, [we are] not very good in making the space needed for men to talk," he says.

It's only fairly recently that the British government has made a visible effort to help male victims of abuse. At the beginning of this year, ​the government pledged half a million pounds (about $784,000) to organizations helping male survivors—including those of historic child abuse—and promised that they would receive "unprecedented access to vital help."

However, a number of social workers and academic researchers told me that, despite the increase in funding, little had been done to effectively tackle institutional failures that allow rape victims to be ignored.

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Ali Javaid, a PhD candidate at the University of York and an author of several papers about male sexual abuse, tells me that, in spite of greater awareness of the issues, many police forces in the UK didn't have the training needed to deal with the emotional issues underlining male sexual violence. He suggests that a "highly militarized police culture produces and reinforces a 'gendered style' of police work that perpetuates, arguably, masculine practice and values."

Ali also explains that a broader understanding of rape and sexual violence is needed in order to help male victims of rape. According to his research, the general understanding of rape was one in which "females were [predominantly] viewed as victims; males [predominantly] as offenders." Looking at the statistics—which estimate that around nine of every ten rape victims are female—it's an understandable conclusion to come to. 

However, says Ali, such perceptions foster a mentality that "male rape is not considered 'real rape,'" resulting in male victims becoming "aberrant, relegated, and marginalized within [a] specialist archive of news."

"It's important to remember that male rape is not motivated by sexual gratification, but, like female rape, by dominance, power, and the enhancement of masculinity," says Ali. "In societies still structured around male supremacy, the most predominant hegemonic masculine stereotype continues to support the notion that 'real men' control and dominate. Rape is one way of achieving this domination and control."

"Things are better now," Paul tells me during our final meeting. Though he's yet to disclose everything that happened to him to his mother and uncle—a moment he still "dreads to think about"—he says support from his therapy group and, more importantly, the "unconditional love" given to him by his now long-term girlfriend has made him view his abuse in a different light.

I ask him how he feels about what happened to him. He sits up tall and, for the first time, smiles.

"I used to think I was weak—pathetic—because of what happened. That, somehow, I deserved it. But now I've realized that I can't think like that. I won't let myself think like that."

Follow Hussein Kesvani on ​Twitter.