Unhelpful myths about the sexual assault and rape of men

There are a number of commonly accepted myths that can make it difficult for a man to publicly name an experience of sexual assault or rape. These myths minimise the seriousness of the crime and help persons perpetrating sexual violence to evade responsibility for their actions. These myths can affect the way a man feels about himself following an assault, preventing him from seeking assistance and can influence the way that he is treated should he come forward and ask for help.

The following myths about men and sexual assault do not appear from nowhere; they are kept alive and circulate within our society by the way we talk, write, act, and organise service responses. Actively challenging myths or other unhelpful beliefs is something we all can do to assist men, women and children who are subjected to sexual violence. Amongst the unhelpful myths and beliefs to watch out for are:

Close the door on unhelpful mythsMyth: Men can't be raped or sexually assaulted.
Reality: Men can be and are sexually assaulted. Any man can be sexually assaulted regardless of size, strength, appearance, age, occupation, race or sexual identity. The idea that men can’t be raped or sexually assaulted is linked to unrealistic beliefs that a ‘man’ should be able to defend himself against attack. It also has a history in the fact that according to the Queensland Criminal Code, up until 1997, the offence of rape could only be committed against a woman.

Myth: Only gay men are sexually assaulted.
Reality: Any man can be raped, whether he identifies as straight, gay, bi, transgender or fluid sexuality. Rape is an act of force or coercion where someone’s personal choice is ignored. Just as being robbed does not tell you anything about someone’s sexuality, neither does rape. However, research does suggest that gay identifying men are more likely to be the subject of sexual violence.

Myth: It is gay men who sexually assault other men.
Reality: Most men who sexually assault other men identify themselves as straight. The myth is a legacy of societal homophobia and a habit developed over the past century of seeing participation in a sexual act as a sign of a person’s sexual identity. The focus on questions of sexuality stops attention being placed on the manipulation, violence, coercion or control used to perpetrate sexual abuse.

Myth: Men cannot be sexually assaulted by women.
Reality: Although the majority of sexual assaults of men are committed by men, women do sexually assault men. Sexual assault is not always enacted through overwhelming physical force: it can involve emotional manipulation whereby a man can be coerced into sexual act out of fear of potential repercussions for his relationships, work, etc. The number of men identifying sexual abuse by a woman as a boy or young man has increased over the past few years. Ideas that men should always want sex with women and that as a young man you should feel lucky if you have sex with an older woman also make it difficult for a man to publicly name sexual assault by a woman.

Myth: Erection or ejaculation during sexual assault means you "really wanted it" or consented to it.
Reality: Erection or ejaculation are physiological responses that can be induced through manipulation and pressure on the prostate. Some people who commit sexual assault are aware how erections and ejaculations can confuse a man and this motivates them to manipulate their body and penis to the point of erections or ejaculation. They also can use this manipulation as a way to increase their feelings of control and to discourage reporting of the offence. Developing an erection or ejaculating does not indicate that a man wanted or enjoyed the assault nor does it say anything about sexual identity (e.g. if a man develops an erection when a cat sits on his lap, it doesn’t mean he is interested in sex with cats!). See our page on Men and Arousal.

Myth: I asked for it – He asked for it.
Reality: Sexual assault is a sexual act perpetrated without full and free consent. It doesn’t matter where you go, who you choose to spend your time with, how you dress or act, it does not make you responsible for being sexually assaulted. Agreement to engage in an intimate sexual encounter does not mean you agree to anything and everything. It is within your rights to ‘NO’ at any time-even whilst in the middle of penetrative sex. This myth is supported by society's tendency to question and blame the person who is assaulted, which in turn can invite self questioning and self blame. It is the responsibility of all persons involved in sexual contact to ensure that there is full and free consent at all times.

Myth: Most rapists are strangers.
Reality: Most men know the person who assaults them in some way. Often he/she is well known to them. They may be a friend, neighbour, boss or a relative, father, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, partner or ex partner. They may be a tradesperson or a professional e.g. doctor, teacher, psychiatrist, police officer, clergy or public servant.

Myth: Some people physically can't commit rape.
Reality: A person's physical strength, sex, sexual potency and sexual preference does not affect their ability to rape. Sexual assault can be committed through coercion or manipulation, by using fingers or objects such as sticks, marker pens or bottles. Rape is not all about physical force: young people and old people do sexually assault young and old people.

Myth: Men who sexually assault can’t control their sexuality.
Reality: People can control their sexual desires if they want to, however strong they might be. No "desire" gives anyone the right to violate and abuse another person. Far from being caused by lack of control, many sexual assaults are pre-planned and involve considerable abuse of power and control.

Myth: Sexual assault and rape in gay couples does not exist.
Reality: Rape in same sex relationships does occur, just as rape in straight relationships occurs. Through physical, psychological or emotional coercion, some men are forced by their partners to engage in unwanted sexual acts. The fact that the man has been in a longstanding sexual relationship with his partner does not remove his right to say ‘NO!’. Unfortunately, many men within the gay community are reluctant to come forward and name a sexual assault out of an understandable fear that they will not receive appropriate care and support. This again highlights how the problem of sexual assault of men is compounded by societal homophobia.

Myth: Male rape only happens in prisons.
Reality: Rape does occur in prisons. The fact that men are subjected to raped in prison is something that was highlighted in the late 1960s and continues to occur today. A major Australian study identified that about a quarter of young men will be sexually assaulted whilst in prison. However, rape also occurs outside of prisons, in the general community and in the armed services, colleges, universities in the city and in regional and rural areas. In the 2005 Personal Safety Survey, more men reported being sexual assaulted after the age of 15 than before!

Myth: Men who have been sexually assaulted will go on to perpetrate sexual assault.
Reality: The majority of men who experience sexual violence do not perpetrate abuse or assault (they are horrified by such a suggestion). This is one of the most difficult myths for men: it can make men very reluctant to talk about experiences of rape or sexual abuse. There is no evidence to suggest an automatic route from experiencing abuse to going on to commit sexual offences. However, particular experiences (additional to sexual abuse) and models of masculinity are associated with an increased risk of someone perpetrating abuse. See our page on Victim to Offender.

Myth: Men who are raped are damaged and scarred for life.
Reality: Men can and do survive sexual assault, physically and emotionally, and go on to live full lives, enjoying rewarding relationships as friends, partners or parents. Although sexual assault can have a profound impact on men, they can and do find a way through and live the kind of life they would like. The media and many professional publications concentrate on stories of damage, recounting horror stories of what happened and the associated problems, without providing equal time to detail how men get on with their lives.

The trouble with these myths

The trouble with these unhelpful beliefs is that they:

  • Make it harder for men to talk about an experience of sexual assault
  • Make it harder for men to find support
  • Make it harder for men to report an offence to police
  • Make it harder to prosecute someone who commits a sexual assault

You can help dispel these unhelpful beliefs.

Acknowledgements: Created with reference to the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault web page ‘Myths about male rape.’

 

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