Why More Men Are Coming Forward About Sexual Assault Experiences

Photographed by Refinery29.
In the weeks following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, echoes of the #MeToo movement continue to ripple across the internet, as more people share their harrowing experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Though men are often excluded from this kind of survivorship narrative, they certainly aren't spared from experiencing it. According to a 2003 survey from the Department of Justice, 1 in 10 survivors of sexual assault is male. Now, some are seizing the moment to come forward.
Two recent high profile examples — Anthony Rapp, who alleged Kevin Spacey made unwanted sexual advances on him when he was 14 years old; and Eddie Huang, who reported that a chaperone on a church ski trip masturbated in front of him and a friend when he was also 14 — opened up about these experiences and the longterm impact they've had on their lives. Male survivors can feel intense shame and embarrassment after being sexually assaulted, which compels them to keep quiet. But thanks to this moment — thanks, maybe, to the strength and noise of women coming forward with their stories — that may be starting to change.
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The reality is that sexual assault can happen to anyone, including men, says Sara McGovern, a spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). "Cultural stereotypes about men and how they portray masculinity can make it harder for men to disclose their assault and add additional challenges to their recovery," McGovern says. "It's important to remind male survivors that they are not alone, and to share the services available to help them."
There are nuances that make survivorship different for men and women, and many ways in which it is the same. By sharing their own stories, people like Rapp and Huang are facilitating the conversations that allow us to continue to explore this issue. For an expert take on the men of #MeToo, we spoke to Richard Gartner, PhD, cofounder of MaleSurvivor, a national organization working against male sexual victimization, and author of several books about sexual abuse in men. Ahead, see what he has to say about why this is an important time for all sexual assault survivors — including men.
Why is it important that the conversation about sexual assault is shifting to include men?
"There are vast numbers of both men and women out there who have had some kind of abusive experience, and many of them have sought help for it, but many of them decide they don’t need help for it, so others are suffering in silence for a whole bunch of reasons.
"The reason it's important for it to come out this way is, first of all, it encourages victims to speak out themselves. Each time there is something like the situation with Kevin Spacey, I get calls from men — who have nothing to with him — but felt empowered and speak out. Even now, men who were abused have the feeling like they're the only ones, even if they cognitively know differently. It's in the public discourse more than before, but it's surprising that with all that, people feel like they're totally alone."
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What sort of societal norms prevent men from reporting or acknowledging that they are survivors of sexual assault or harassment?
"Often they have been either threatened into silence, or silenced because of shame about what happened to them. There's a belief that they should’ve taken care of themselves, shouldn’t have been a victim — which is particularly true of men, because men are socialized to believe they're not victims, and are not supposed to be victims. So, it's an acknowledgment of some kind of de-masculinization if they say they're a sexual assault survivor. Often they say, 'Well I was in charge of it.' If the predator is a woman, they’ll say, 'It was no big deal, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t want to.'
"But others get very confused that maybe they asked for it, wanted it, or that the abuser knew something about them that they didn’t know about themselves. Often there's a period of questioning where they may be introduced to male-on-male sexuality prematurely, or they may feel hurried into acknowledging it. They may not have had a name for it, or they may feel that's the reason they're gay, which makes it very difficult for them to have a positive idea about themselves as a gay man.
"That's certainly one way that it can go. It can also mean that they never name it to themselves: They just know that something terrible happened, and they don’t let themselves think about it. They’ve sort of put it in their mind in a box, and frozen it, but it's still effecting them."
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What advice would you give other men who are ambivalent about seeking support or coming forward about something they experienced?
"You’re not alone; it wasn’t your fault; and help is available. There are websites you can go on to read other people's experiences anonymously, which might help you understand more about the kind of situation you had to deal with."
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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