by Lindsey Bartgis
The end of 2017 saw an outpouring of voices expressing their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. On a recent Saturday Night Live skit about the public sexual assault disgraces, actress Cecily Strong stated, “all of this isn’t just a scandal. It didn’t just start last week. It’s just actual reality for half of the population.” True. It is also a reality for more than half the population.
Male sexual assault survivors have historically been excluded from the conversation. For example, the federal definition of rape did not include males until very recently. The FBI definition specified the term “female” and used female pronouns. In 2013, the Obama administration enacted a definition change to make the sexual assault law gender neutral. The point is not to diminish women’s obstacles or the pervasiveness of sexual assault they face, but to call for a more inclusive view of who can be a survivor and the unique challenges they encounter. Male sexual assault and harassment survivors confront distinct obstacles when sharing their experiences, such as: feeling a loss of masculinity, homophobia, and incredulity from family, friends, or in some cases, the public.
This article examines male rape myths, both what they are and how they affect sexual assault survivors. I examine male rape myths in action through two cases of famous male sexual assault survivors and two non-celebrity male sexual assault survivors. Male sexual assault survivors must be part of the conversation for comprehensive sexual assault culture change.
Rape myths are generalized, false beliefs about sexual assault that blame the victim.
Rape myths are perpetuated through society in the media, both legally (such as the previous federal definition of rape) and through language and individual reactions. Rape myths are generalized, false beliefs about sexual assault that blame the victim and excuse the actions of the perpetrators. Specific types of female rape myths have been documented, such as, “she asked for it,” “she wanted it,” or “he didn’t mean it.” Extended research has identified rape myths that affect primarily men. For example, “men who are assaulted must be gay,” “men cannot be forced to have sex against their will,” or “a man is expected to be able to defend himself against sexual assault.”
Since these myths are pervasive in our culture, when a male is assaulted, he may be unwilling to disclose to friends, family, law enforcement, or other service providers for fear of their doubting or questioning his sexuality and masculinity. Men may feel shame that they should have been stronger and able to fight off the perpetrator. These feelings hinder the survivor’s ability to seek out support or services they may need after an assault.
Male rape myths have real-world consequences for male survivors. Two male actors have recently come forward with their sexual molestation stories: Terry Crews and James Van Der Beek. Terry Crews currently stars in FOX sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine; he was previously a professional football player for six years. In October 2017, Crews came forward on Twitter with his experience of an agent grabbing his genitals at a Hollywood party. As is characteristic for male survivors, many of the responses to his story illustrate victim blaming and question his masculinity. For example, in response to Crews’ sexual assault account, one person tweeted at him, “Some men actually defend themselves,” calling into question Crews’ masculinity by indicating that he must have wanted the molestation since he did not “defend himself.” In an interview with TIME, Crews stated, “I’m here to tell you it’s not your fault…People were saying, ‘You should have beat him up.’ I’m like, ‘Why is no one questioning him?’ No one questions the predator.”
Crews also discussed the pressure not to make a scene because of the inability of black men to express anger without negative stereotypes. He tweeted, “‘240 lbs. Black Man stomps out Hollywood Honcho’ would be the headline the next day,” and continued that he would not have been able to read it because he “would have been in jail.” He highlights the intersection of racial politics and sexual assault through his own identity and experience. Male rape myths seep through other identity markers, uniting oppressions, making it imperative to end all injustice, rather than focusing on only one issue at a time.
James Van Der Beek, famous for his role on the young adult television show, Dawson’s Creek, also recently reported being molested when he was first starting out in the business at 21. Beek wrote, “I’ve had my ass grabbed by older, powerful men, I’ve had them corner me in inappropriate sexual conversations when I was much younger… I understand the unwarranted shame, powerlessness & inability to blow the whistle. There’s a power dynamic that feels impossible to overcome.” He describes the immense pressure survivors face to be silent, especially when there is a power differential. Women are at more risk for sexual harassment because of gender power differentials. While male victims are at less risk, they face the added pressure of hegemonic masculinity, translating the message they receive to “man up” or remain silent.
Public celebrities make the most news, but male sexual assault extends to non-famous men as well. In 2014, GQ did a feature story on male-on-male sexual assault in the military. One of the interviewees, Brian Lewis, is a survivor and prominent figure in advocating for male victims of sexual assault in the military. Lewis enlisted in the navy in 1997. In 2000, after dinner with a higher-ranking shipmate, he was raped at knife point. The assault caused Lewis to have PTSD and, after seeking medical treatment, he was discharged from the Navy. In an interview with NBC News, Lewis explained, “The biggest reasons men don’t come forward [with sexual assault reports] are the fear of retaliation [from fellow troops], the fear of being viewed in a weaker light, and the fact there are very few, if any, services for male survivors.” There is little motivation for male sexual assault survivors to share their experience if they know they will be blamed, if they fear for their safety, and if there are no services to assist them anyway.
Trey Malone was an undergraduate student at Amherst College who was raped by a man during his freshman year. Tragically, Malone took his own life, but not before reporting his rape to the university. With his mother’s permission, his suicide note was published on a popular men’s blog. Malone wrote, “In those places I should’ve received help, I saw none… I blame a society that remains unwilling to address sexual assault and rape.” He goes on to describe the first question the college president asked him when he reported his rape: “Have you handled your drinking problem?” Asking the rape survivor whether they were drinking automatically puts them in a position of distrust—one where they must defend their actions instead of providing reassurance that no one deserves to be assaulted, regardless of their alcohol intake. The loss of Malone shows the tragic, high-stakes consequences of blaming the victim and ignoring male rape survivors as a whole.
Crews, Van Der Beek, Lewis, and Malone’s experiences vary from rape to sexual harassment, but the incidents all illustrate the effects of male rape myths operating in society. They were simultaneously afraid to come forward and, when they did, they were met with disbelief and blame. As we enter 2018, our culture has the opportunity to embrace men’s stories, along with women’s #metoo stories, in order to de-stigmatize male sexual assault and reduce the isolation of male sexual assault survivors.
Reinforcing what Crews, Van Der Beek, Lewis, and Malone encountered, researchers have found that people who endorsed male rape myths were more likely to blame the victim generally. They also found that male victims fear reporting their assault because they believe they will be labeled as gay. Since we live in a heterosexist culture that marginalizes sexual minorities, it makes disclosing difficult for gay men who have been sexually assaulted. Gay men might feel they are fulfilling a stereotype, while heterosexual male survivors feel anxious about coming forward because they do not want to be labeled as gay. Examination of this insidious homophobia reinforces the idea that all oppression is connected and that organizing against homophobia is paramount to ending sexual assault. The transgender community is at even higher risk of sexual assault. They also encounter distinct obstacles of transphobia from first responders or medical personnel. If our society was less homophobic and transphobic, male survivors and trans survivors would not have to fear being labeled as gay or being harassed for their gender fluidity.
Because of men’s prescribed roles in our society, male survivors are supposed to fight off their attackers or male survivors are supposed to want sex at all times.
Karen Weiss, a sociologist at West Virginia University, wrote about male sexual assault experiences collected from a U.S. national crime survey. She revealed that men were expected to avoid feminine behaviors and that men who are “victimized by rape or sexual assault contradict hegemonic definitions of male sexuality that require men to be sexually potent, dominant, and in control.” To ‘be a real man’ requires them to be in a constant state of readiness for sex. Failing at this task, or experiencing sexual assault, violates “codes of male (hetero)sexuality.” Weiss not only emphasizes prevalent male rape myths in her article, but also shows how the responsibility of the sexual assault is put onto the victim rather than the perpetrator. Because of men’s prescribed roles in our society, male survivors are supposed to fight off their attackers or male survivors are supposed to want sex at all times. This puts men in a one-dimensional masculinity box that devalues femininity and marginalizes any male who does not fit into the role.
Women are the primary victims of sexual assault and harassment. The prevalence and support for #metoo might empower women to come forward with their sexual assault stories, thereby removing some of their shame or stigma. But if male survivors are excluded or separated from the conversation, perpetrators are empowered to continue assaulting, and men’s embarrassment and stigmatization are increased. As Crews mentioned above, prevention methods need to focus on the perpetrators, not on what the survivors could have done differently.
The #metoo movement has the chance to support male rape survivors, build a holistic network of activists, and address rape myths. Without making male survivors feel validated and that their experiences are just as worthwhile of discussion, the movement will fail to make as many allies, reducing the number of people willing to work to end sexual violence. Including male rape survivors in the sexual assault conversation gives us the opportunity to attack sexual assault at the heart of the issue rather than only a part of it.
Lindsey Bartgis is currently a PhD candidate in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University. She has her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Roosevelt University. Her research interests include male-on-male sexual assault; masculinity studies; popular culture; psychology of gender; and ecofeminism/womanism. She’s been a rape crisis advocate in three states. She currently teaches and lives in Chicago, IL with her husband, dog, and cat.
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 One in six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. In 2003, one out of every ten rape victims were male, which may seem minor in scope, but translates into thousands of male rape occurrences annually (U.S. Department of Justice).
 The FBI definition stated that “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Assaults or attempts to commit rape by force or threat of force are also included” (Italics mine, Federal Bureau of Investigation 120).
 The Obama administration changed the federal sexual assault definition in 2013, eliminating gender pronouns: “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
 For the purposes of this article, I am defining sexual assault broadly: including rape, molestation, groping, or any other unwanted physical, sexual touching. I use the term sexual harassment for any sexually related language perpetrators use to make victims feel uncomfortable. I am also limiting my examples to adult male-on-male sexual assault.
 The other four rape myths: “it wasn’t really rape”; “she lied”; “rape is a trivial event”; “rape is a deviant event” (D. Payne, Lonsway, and Fitzgerald 37).
 Other myths include: “being raped by a male attacker is synonymous with the loss of masculinity”; “men are incapable of functioning sexually unless they are aroused”; “men are less affected by sexual assault than women”; and “men are in a constant state of readiness to accept any sexual opportunity” (Davies and McCartney 392).
 Simmons and Rothman n.p..
 Dockterman 6 December 2017.
 @terrycrews 10 October 2017.
 Although, I recognize in this essay I focus solely on male sexual assault.
 @vanderjames 12 October 2017.
 Hegemonic masculinity reinforces men’s status in a patriarchal society, encouraging strength and power as the way to be a “real” man.
 NBC News 16 May 2013.
 Malone n.p..
 Sleath 983.
 The Office for Victims of Crime found, “one in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.” (The Office for Victims of Crime n.p.).
 Weiss 277.
Davies, M. and McCartney, S. “Effects of Gender and Sexuality on Judgements of Victim Blame and Rape Myth Acceptance in a Depicted Male Rape.” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 13.5 (2003): 391–398.
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Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Crime and Victimization. 2001. https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4494. Accessed 11 Oct. 2009.
Flynn, Jack. “Late Amherst College Student Trey Malone’s Sexual Assault Case Never Reported to Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, Officials say.” Mass Live. 13 November 2012. http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2012/11/the_northwest_district_attorne.html. Accessed 08 April 2013.
France, Lisa Respers. “James Van Der Beek says male executive groped him.” CNN. 13 October 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/12/entertainment/james-van-der-beek-grabbed/index.html. Accessed 15 November 2017.
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NBC News. “Male rape survivors tackle military assault in tough-guy culture.” NBC News. 16 May 2013. http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/05/16/18301723-male-rape-survivors-tackle-military-assault-in-tough-guy-culture. Accessed 1 December 2016.
The Office for Crime Victims. “Responding to Transgender Victims of Sexual Assault.” June 2014. https://www.ovc.gov/pubs/forge/sexual_numbers.html. Accessed 5 January 2018.
Payne, D. L., Lonsway, K. A., & Fitzgerald, L. F. “Rape Myth Acceptance: Exploration of its Structure and its Measurement Using the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale.” Journal of Research in Personality 33.1 (1999): 27-68.
Penn, Nathaniel. “‘Son, Men Don’t Get Raped’.” GQ. 7 September 2014. https://www.gq.com/story/male-military-rape-promo. Accessed 10 September 2014.
Sleath, E. and R. Bull. “Male Rape Victim and Perpetrator Blaming.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25.6 (2010); 969-988.
Simmons, Ken and Michael Rothman. “Terry Crews gets into fiery Twitter debate about race and sexual misconduct.” ABC News. 28 December 2017. http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/terry-crews-fiery-twitter-debate-race-sexual-misconduct/story?id=52028181. Accessed 28 December 2017.
U.S. Department of Justice. National Crime Victimization Survey. 2005. . Accessed 1 October 2009.
Weiss, Karen. “Male Sexual Victimization: Examining Men’s Experiences of Rape and Sexual Assault.” Men and Masculinities 12.3 (2010): 275-298.