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Breaking the Silence Surrounding Male Rape

14/07/2014 14:04 BST | Updated 12/09/2014 10:59 BST

In October of last year, when Hollyoaks announced the introduction of a male rape storyline, many commentators queried the decision. A number suggested the issue had been "done already", citing the gang rape of Gary Lucy's character on the same soap back in 2000. However the current story of teacher John Paul McQueen being raped by a male student remains culturally groundbreaking. Over the past seven months, it has become evident that the main story being dealt with by the soap, is not the rape of a man by another man, but the victim's agonising silence. It is a frustrating, heart-wrenching tale, involving a well-loved character, which has brought one of the last social taboos to the foreground of our cultural vernacular.

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Unfortunately silence is something which typifies acts of rape against men, because male victims are far less likely to speak out than their female counterparts. Duncan Craig, the CEO of Survivors Manchester, a survivor-led charity focused on supporting male victims of rape and sexual abuse, explains that there are various reasons for this reaction. "When a man admits that he's been raped, what he's saying is that he's had someone's penis inserted inside his bum. And that's an act which attacks the very fabric of masculinity. There's the idea that females are penetrated, and that men are the penetrators. So if, as a male, you've been penetrated, does that make you like a female?" Victims of male rape often struggle with worries that the attack has somehow affected their own sexuality. In addition to the irrational feelings of guilt and self-blame experienced by any victim of rape, male victims are also often ashamed because they failed to fight off their attacker. They believe that as men they should have possessed the strength to fight off the other man, and that in failing to do so, they have failed to uphold their masculinity.

In February of this year the Ministry of Justice announced funding for male victims of sexual abuse for the first time, a campaign named #BreakTheSilence, which is supported by both Hollyoaks and Survivors Manchester. As a result £500,000 has been assigned to the provision of counseling and advice services to male survivors.

"It's not the money, which is important," James Sutton, the actor portraying John Paul McQueen explains. "It's the fact [that awareness of this storyline] has opened up a dialogue between our government and the charities which deal with these things. We have to acknowledge that this is a problem, and we have to offer support and advice to the young men who are suffering in complete silence."

The #BreakTheSilence social media campaign has seen male rape discussed in papers and on TV, but perhaps more importantly also online in internet forums and on Twitter. "That's a really big deal," James Sutton continues, "because it's really heavy stuff. But it's absolutely vital. The more it's talked about, the more men will realize that they're not on their own, and that there is help available. They need to understand it's not their fault, that they haven't been de-masculated, and that they shouldn't feel guilt for not having fought their attacker off."

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Duncan Craig is full of praise for the Hollyoaks storyline. "In years to come I want to contact the producers, and show them just how much they've achieved. I don't say this lightly - they have changed our social landscape. This isn't just a cultural reference; this is a world-changing reference, because now we have something to talk about, in the same way that the world changed with Operation Yew Tree. It's permission giving. It gives victims the permission to speak out. It's what happens in my therapy room, but on a national scale."

Duncan describes the way in which he, as a survivor of rape himself, often breaks the silence with victims in the therapy room. "I talk about my stuff, to show them it's ok to talk about it ... There's something very important about the words 'rape' and 'sexual abuse'. Often the victims can't use those words. They use terms like 'when I was hurt', or 'when he did that', and I'll ask them 'What are we talking about?' because fundamentally if we're trying to break the silence, then we need to point at it, and identify what we're actually talking about. The words are so potent and toxic, and when you begin using them, it says so much. Often victims will begin by referring to rape as 'the R word', and when they feel safe talking about it, I ask them what that word is. Finally, when someone does say it, often it is followed by an outpouring of emotion. Not only a recognition of what they've said, but also the recognition of what happened. Using the word becomes the final nail in the coffin of the acceptance of the fact that they were 'raped' and what that actually means. It's a really big process, and they need to conquer the word. In that moment of disclosure, finally they own it."

He describes the role of the therapist as one of a facilitator, introducing painfully expressive words into the victim's vocabulary, and this is a role which the soap opera has taken on, by breaking the cultural silence surrounding male rape. Tonight on E4, John Paul's harrowing silence will finally be broken, with the help of another character. The soap has used this portrayal of the lengthy process of coming to terms with rape to give victims social permission to talk about their experiences. James describes a particularly moving reaction of a teenage victim, unable to communicate details of his abuse to anyone. On watching the Hollyoaks storyline unfold, he wrote James a letter in broken text-speech - the only way he knew how to communicate. James wrote back, and encouraged by the actor's response, the teenager now continues to talk about his ordeal in the form of letters - just one of the multiple real-life silences broken by the pioneering story.