For most men, the idea of being a victim is difficult to handle. We’re raised to believe men should be able to defend themselves against any attack and they should be willing to risk their lives or severe injury to protect their pride and self-respect. These mistaken beliefs about masculinity and sexual violence are deeply ingrained in most of us and can cause many men to feel safe and invulnerable and to think of sexual assault as something that only happens to women. Unfortunately, these beliefs can also increase the pain that is felt by a male survivor of sexual assault, leading to intense feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy for a male survivor of sexual assault.
Many male survivors may question whether they deserved or somehow wanted to be sexually assaulted because, in their minds, they failed to defend themselves. The need to deny the existence of male sexual assault is partly rooted in the mistaken belief that men are immune to being victimized, they should be able to fight off any attacker if they are a “real man.” A closely related belief is men can’t be forced into sex; they either desire sex or do not engage in it and have complete agency to determine when to act. Some male survivors experience their assault as a loss of manhood and are disgusted with themselves for not successfully preventing or stopping the assault. These feelings are normal but the thoughts attached to them are not true. Survivors may find it helpful to remind themselves that they did what seemed best at the time to survive—there’s nothing unmasculine about that.
Because of these factors, few men seek help or support after being sexually assaulted. The fact is that only 5 to 20% of all victims of sexual assault actually report the crime. The percentage of male victims is even lower. Feelings of shame, confusion and self-blame leave many men suffering in silence after being sexually assaulted.
As a result of guilt, shame and anger, some men engage in self-destructive coping mechanisms after being sexually assaulted. For lots of men, this means increased alcohol or drug use. For others, it means increased aggressiveness, like arguing with friends or co-workers or even picking fights with strangers. Many men pull back from relationships and wind up feeling more and more isolated. While these behaviors may increase a survivor’s feelings of safety or power in the short term, they do not lead to a health recovery, and can put male survivors of sexual assault at increased risk for depression, getting in trouble at work, being physically injured and developing alcohol or drug problems.
Many male survivors also develop sexual difficulties after being sexually assaulted. It may be difficult to resume sexual relationships or start new ones because sexual contact may trigger flashbacks, memories of the assault, or bad feelings. It can take the time to get back to normal, so don’t pressure yourself to be sexual before you’re ready.
Sexual Identity & Sexual Assault
People of any gender and sexual orientation can experience sexual violence, and sometimes experience confusion about their sexual identity or orientation after a sexual assault. It is important to remember that your sexual orientation did not cause you to be sexually assaulted and that however you identify is valid, regardless of your experience of sexual violence.
For heterosexual men, sexual assault often causes survivors to confusion about or question their sexuality. Since many people believe that only gay men are sexually assaulted, a heterosexual survivor of an assault by a male may begin to believe that he must be gay or that he will become gay. Furthermore, perpetrators often accuse their victims of enjoying the sexual assault. This is a form of manipulation called gaslighting perpetrators use to avoid responsibility for their actions. This manipulation causes some survivors to question their own experiences. It is important to remember sexual assault is never caused by one’s sexual orientation and it will do not change a survivor’s orientation.
For gay men, sexual assault can lead to feelings of self-blame and self-loathing attached to their sexuality. The homophobic sentiment already present in society causes many gay men to suffer from internalized conflicts about their sexuality. Being sexually assaulted may lead a gay man to believe he somehow “deserved it,” that he was “paying the price” for his sexual orientation. Unfortunately, this self-blame can be reinforced by the ignorance or intolerance of others who blame the victim by suggesting that a gay victim somehow provoked the assault or was less harmed by it because he was gay. Gay men may also hesitate to report a sexual assault due to fears of blame, disbelief or homophobia by police or medical personnel. As a result, gay men may be deprived of legal protections and necessary medical care following an assault.
Some sexual assaults of men are actually forms of gay-bashing, motivated by fear and hatred of homosexuality. In these cases, perpetrators may verbally abuse their victims and imply that the victim deserved to be sexually assaulted. It’s important to remember that sexual assault is an act of violence, power, and control and that no one deserves it.
For bisexual and queer men, sexual assault is, unfortunately, a greater risk than for gay or heterosexual men. Bisexual and queer men can experience sexual and intimate partner violence from individuals of any gender, and often experience similar feelings of guilt, shame, and fear than any sexual assault survivor may experience. Bisexual survivors also may experience biased responses when seeking help, as care providers may assume that a bisexual survivor is either gay or straight, delegitimizing and erasing a survivor’s sexual identity. Bisexual and queer men may also experience the same blame that gay men experience, being told implicitly or explicitly that the violence was caused by the survivors non-heterosexual orientation.
It is important for bisexual survivors to remember their sexual orientation did not cause them to be assaulted or abused and no one deserves to be treated that way. Sexual orientation in not created by sexual assault; all survivors’ experiences should be treated as legitimate and are never deserved.
Information University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, The University of Texas at Austin, The Human Rights Campaign LGBT Survivor Resources, Center for Disease Control National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2013)