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Why sexual abuse against men is misunderstood and under-reported

It has only been in recent decades that Americans have truly been able to talk openly about the very difficult subjects of rape and sexual abuse. These are still not easy conversations to have, but victim advocates are doing their best to keep rape and sexual abuse from being swept back under the rug, so to speak.

Sadly, there is one part of the conversation that is still missing most of the time. It is generally understood that women and children (both girls and boys) are at risk for being sexually assaulted. But what about men? Most of us would instinctively say “no,” but male rape is a big problem that receives very little attention. It is also widely under-reported.

Approximately 40,000 households last year were asked to participate in the National Crime Victimization Survey. When the results were in, the survey showed that 38 percent of incidents involving sexual violence and rape were committed against men. Although the percentage of male victims was much higher than in previous studies, the results were not a mistake.

There are many reasons why rape and sexual assault against men are underreported. They include:

  • Definitions of “rape” and “sexual assault” that are too narrow
  • Failure to include surveys of prison populations, where sexual violence is common
  • The added stigma that men feel about being sexually violated by either another man or a woman 
  • A fundamental misunderstanding of what counts as consent and what doesn’t 
  • The misconception that signs of male sexual arousal (i.e. an erection) always indicate sexual desire and consent
  • The misconception that non-consensual sex between married or intimate partners cannot be called rape or sexual assault

In any discussion about sexual assault, sexual violence or rape, the key issue is consent. Sometimes victims clearly say no but are forced into sex anyway. Other times, victims cannot give consent because of age, intoxication or other factors. Because consent is the bright line, there should be no doubt that men can be victims of rape just as women and children are. Hopefully, this idea will eventually become a familiar part of the public discussion and will help more male victims come forward and report what happened to them.

Source: Slate, "When Men Are Raped," Hanna Rosin, April 29, 2014

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