Shining a light on male survivors of sexual violence and abuse.
19th November marks International Men’s Day, recognising important issues which impact upon the men and boys within our communities. A key focus for ARCH Teesside is the recognition that men and boys more commonly experience, witness or are otherwise personally aware of issues of sexual violence, including being directly affected by the unhealthy and harmful behaviours of a perpetrator or group of perpetrators.
In the year 2022, an estimated 275,000 men reported issues of sexual violence (Office for National Statistics, 2023). RCEW recorded in 2023 that 1 in 18 men have been raped or sexually assaulted in adulthood, whilst 1 in 6 children are affected annually by sexual abuse, which includes the experiences of boys. What we do know is that this number is likely to be much higher as many male survivors choose not to report what they experienced. The reasons for this are complex and subjective to the individual, but commonly include fearing they will be disbelieved or not taken seriously (either by the authorities or loved ones); gender traditions and social outlooks towards maleness; feeling it is shameful to share emotional turmoil; feeling it would be easier to ‘get over it’ than go through what happened; cultural outlooks towards sexual abuse and the male experience; fearing assumptions will be made around sexuality; challenging emotional processes such as feeling guilty or to blame.
Impacts of sexual violence on men and boys:
The impacts of male sexual violence are extensive and subjective, with common implications including anger, embarrassment, fear and sexual dysfunction (Vearnals and Campbell, 2001). Many males feel concerned about the impacts on their family life and relationships, with concerns around impacts on intimacy, sex and trust being among the issues experienced by male survivors. Workplace and educational progress can be severely impacted by sexual violence, such as focus impacting the survivor’s ability to learn and develop skills, negatively affecting their progress and occupational promotion opportunities. The development of mental health problems in males has also been directly linked to experiences of sexual violence; Rahman and Fung (2018) discuss anxiety disorders and depression as direct consequences of experiences of sexual violence, and direct links have been made throughout research findings between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experiences of sexual violence. It is reported that 1 in 8 men in England have a common mental health problem according to the NHS, yet reluctance to seek support for this appears to be problematic due to concerns about stigma, poor recognition of psychological distress, and masculinity and gender roles (Mental Health Foundation, 2019). Men have more recently disclosed other reasons for not sharing the impacts of mental ill health, including embarrassment, having nobody to turn to, and fearing being a ‘burden’ to others (Priory, 2023).
Barriers to disclosure:
For men and boys, there are many barriers to disclosure and speaking out about what they experienced and the impacts of trauma. Firstly, it is not always recognised that men and boys can be affected by sexual abuse, and this misunderstanding exists in many areas of communities, including within agencies and professions. Laws surrounding male rape are relatively recent and the offence of male rape was not legally acknowledged in England until 1994; this new legislation alteration is important as it appears to recognise that the rape of males occurs more commonly than had previously been considered (Vearnals and Campbell, 2001), but delays in this legislation may have influenced inaccurate outlooks around rape being an offence experienced by those of the female sex. Gaps in understanding that men and boys can be victims and survivors of sexual violence can lead to feeling that experiences are invalid due to gender, poor responses to experiences being shared, worries around how disclosures will be received by loved ones and professionals, and lack of understanding of appropriate and available support services. Additionally, gender traditions can influence stigmatising views in society, with males being expected to be ‘strong’ and manage life’s challenges without showing emotion.
In many cases, the experience of abuse is not recognised as being abusive. In relationships with intimate partners, the abuse that takes place can be presented as affection, with the perpetrator being experienced as an interested and protective partner. Where the abuse takes place between friends, the survivor may have felt that the attention from the perpetrator was a sign of love and connectedness, only realising later that their friend was behaving in an undesirable manner. Where patterns of abuse begin in early life, the survivor may not recognise that such behaviours are unhealthy and harmful due to perceiving unwholesome actions as being part of life.
Cultural background and ethnicity can hold disclosure complexities. It is recognised that language differences, reduced access to culturally competent service provision, religious outlooks and beliefs, fears relating to immigration status and past experiences of poor responses from the authorities can present as barriers to disclosure, limiting males from minoritised backgrounds from help-seeking (Respect, 2021).
In some instances, sexuality can be called into question, either by the survivor or by others, which can act as a barrier to disclosure. For instance, in circumstances where the survivor experienced an erection or orgasm at the time of the assault. There can be a misunderstanding that this means they enjoyed the abuse, gave consent, or wish to engage in same-sex relationships, which can be confusing for heterosexual males, leading to reluctance to disclose. What is often missed is that physiological responses to sexual violence are natural and a way for the body and mind to self-protect; ejaculating does not mean the sexual contact was invited or consensual.
Manipulation can also act as a barrier to disclosure; survivors may be told by the perpetrator that they are to blame, have some form of responsibility for the abuse taking place, or that the abuse needs to remain a secret. Perpetrators may use threats towards the survivor or those they love, or threaten their position in a workplace role, community, or in their personal life to discourage them from sharing the abuse. They may also use their own position, such as using their power position to silence the survivor. Fears of being disbelieved can also be influenced by the words and actions of the perpetrator, resulting in reluctance to disclose.
For these, and other reasons, it is recognised that women and girls are more likely to disclose experiences of sexual violence than men and boys. At ARCH Teesside, we deliver valuable support to men and boys who have witnessed or experienced sexual violence, at any time of their lives, with hope to reduce these barriers in the local community.
If you are a male survivor and would like to speak to someone about your support options, please don’t hesitate to contact us.