Within the past 40 years, there has been increased awareness that males, as well as females, experience sexual violation. Nonetheless, male sexual violation remains largely underreported, services for male survivors remain sparse, and too many male survivors continue to feel isolated and alone.
Shifting the Paradigm
Gender is a critical factor in understanding issues related to male sexual victimization. Sexual violation has traditionally been segregated as an issue that primarily impacts females. This resulting gender bias perpetuates a blindness to the underreported frequency with which this issue also impacts males.
The following recommendations are made for working with males who have been sexually victimized. Language and terminology often restrict or amplify our ability to understand an issue. In the context of gender considerations, MenHealing advocates these adjustments to vocabulary.
All Men are Male
The use of the word “male” should be expansive and nonbinary. This usage is meant to be inclusive of males across the broad spectrum of identity and expression, from cisgender to questioning to nonconforming to queer to transgender.
Post Traumatic Stress Injury
The paradigm of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) conveys an implied bias that survivors of sexual trauma are disordered. This infers dysfunction and pathology, which creates the circumstances for victim-blaming. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist who served on the original committee that classified PTSD in 1980, currently advocates a diagnostic change of language to “post-traumatic stress injury” (Ochberg 2014). MenHealing agrees that this simple but fundamental adjustment in terminology is a more realistic and compassionate description of the psychological architecture for most sexual trauma. Males, for whom masculinity and victim is an oxymoron, would especially benefit from this shift in language.
It is worth noting that when someone is injured during a violent robbery or horrific automobile accident, they usually are not negatively stigmatized as having a pathology. When this person has fears based on that experience for instance, is afraid to return to the site of the incident or has flashbacks of reliving the incident this is usually viewed as a normal trauma response to what happened. To the contrary, when someone is sexually violated it is all too common for survival responses to be pathologized. Understanding and responding to sexual violation as a trauma injury would free many survivors from the oppressive stigma of a mental health disorder.
This shift in language is a valuable change that might increase safety for male survivors to access mental health resources. Many males fear that reaching out for help will result in judgment from themselves and/or others that they are weak, inadequate, broken, etc. Engagement with mental health professionals is particularly fraught with the risk that emotional distress will be pathologized.
Many male survivors do not view their experience(s) of nonconsenting sex
through the lens of abuse, assault, rape, or violence. Too often the language of abuse seems to exclude identification of adults as victims of sexual exploitation, while the language of assault seems to exclude awareness of children as victims of sexual exploitation.
Even the word “victimization” may seem repellant to some, as there is often an undercurrent belief that it is impossible for a male to be victimized. However, to sidestep using this term would only avoid reality and perpetuate gender mythologies. Therefore, the use of the umbrella term “male sexual victimization” is considered by MenHealing as being inclusive of a broad spectrum of incidents: childhood abuse, adult assault, exploitation, violence, cruelty, acts of crime, manipulation of love for purposes of exploitation, and any other form of nonconsenting sexual violation.
Trauma vs. Injury
It is important to respect that many male survivors do not equate victimization with trauma. Assumptions about the impact of nonconsenting sexual violation are best avoided. Males sometimes perceive the label of trauma survivor as a judgment that implies weakness or deficiency, thereby challenging expectations of masculine strength. Therefore, exploring victimization within the language of injury provides greater latitude for many male survivors to share the genuine consequences of their experience(s). Without minimizing the traumatic impact of sexual victimization, we seek to avoid the categorization of male victims of sexual violation as trauma survivors but instead supports a discussion that acknowledges the injurious dynamics of victimization.
Appearance of Collusion
Survivors as well as bystanders frequently struggle with matters of complicity in situations of sexual victimization. Offenders effectively communicate blame, both to the victim and in their public defense: “…you seemed to enjoy it;” “…why didnt you stop if you didnt want it;” “…you made me do it/you asked for it;” “…if you didn’t like it, why did you come back again?” For male survivors, there are assumptions — internal emotional responses as well as external cultural biases — that implicate collusion with their offender. And sexual responses add to this.
Erections, orgasms, and other pleasurable sensations and responses in the course of victimization may confuse the victim and support their sense of complicity. Moreover, males are sometimes forced to perpetrate physical and/or emotional harm toward others or otherwise forced to inflict victimizing behaviors upon others as a proxy for their offender. Accepting blame may allow the survivor a forum to avoid dealing with his own victimization or may imprison him in a false narrative that disguises the truth that his non- consenting offending behaviors constituted an aspect of his victimization.
MenHealing takes the stance that the language of victimization can also be inclusive of nonconsenting and reactive deeds that, if unexamined, convey the appearance of offending behavior.