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The Psychology of Male on Male Rape

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Allegations over male on male rape have recently hit the headlines, but because this crime is so rarely properly covered in the media, is it possible it's prone to even more misapprehension, taboo and myth, than other kinds of sexual assault?

The prevalence of male-on-male rape, or sexual assault, is estimated at around 5-10% of all sexual assaults per year in Western countries, such as the UK. Home Office crime data for England and Wales show that, in 2010-2011, a total of 9901 rapes of victims aged 16 years and above were recorded, of which 96% were female and 4% were male.

The underreporting besetting all sexual assaults may be especially strong with male victims, according to Dr Iain McLean of the University of Manchester.

Writing in a recent issue of the academic journal 'Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics and Gynaecology', he points out that before 1994, the crime of rape of a man did not actually exist in English law. There was the crime of buggery (non-consenting penile-anal penetration), which carried a lesser penalty.

Dr McLean argues in his paper entitled 'The male victim of sexual assault', this relatively recent recognition of rape of men being possible and illegal, reflects its denial in our culture.

Dr McLean points out that one reason for the widely held belief that male rape is vanishingly rare is men should be able to resist, but, when it does happen, it is usually in prisons and men there, so the public thinking goes, should be tough enough to cope.

Previous research, according to Dr McLean's assessment, has established that the stronger an individual believes in rape myths or stereotypes of male rape, then the more they will blame the male victim, reducing the blame attributed to the rapist.

Dr McLean cites surveys which establish that significantly more male victims have been assaulted by multiple (two or more) assailants than had female victims, suggesting a stronger 'gang rape' feature.

Male victims are more likely to attempt to deny that what had happened to them was rape, and to control their emotional response. Dr McLean quotes data from one study in Manchester which found 42% of females who attended for a forensic medical examination returned to take part in counselling, whereas only 28% of males did so.

It may also be that it takes men considerably longer to access counselling than females, for example, one study quoted by Dr McLean found the average time elapsed from assault to accessing counselling was 16 years for men.

One of the co-authors of this article (PS) and Chief Executive for the National Association for People Abused in Childhood - has found that men admitting to past physical abuse are often disguising sexual assault as well. He was himself sexually assaulted, and also has direct experience of counselling men who have been outwardly happily married for over thirty years, with children and grandchildren, yet who have also secretly visited male prostitutes frequently throughout their marriage. Such men complain of confusion over their sexuality, for which they blame on being victims of an earlier male on male rape.

Contrary to what may be culturally expected, sexual victimization may be especially traumatic for men, Dr McLean argues, maybe because of the conflict with the dominant sex-role presumption that men are aggressive and strong. One study he quotes found male victims of rape reported significantly higher levels of distress than female victims.

Dr McLean acknowledges that when dealing with such a traumatic crime as rape, suggesting it's somehow more traumatic for male than female victims is problematic, and probably unhelpful, instead he prefers to suggest it's most likely differently traumatic.

A particular problem with male rape is the issue of erection and ejaculation by the male victim of such sexual assault. In fact the incidence of these phenomena merely highlight that these physiological states and events are not fully under voluntary control, contends Dr McLean. They can be provoked by high anxiety or anal stimulation.

The victim experiencing an erection, ejaculation, or both, is erroneously argued, often by the legal system, to imply that there had been consent, as it's assumed to suggest therefore that the victim enjoyed the experience. Dr McLean believes this interpretation appears to be widespread in the courts. Two English cases of a male-on-male rape prosecution were recently dismissed by the trial judge on the basis that the complainant had an erection.

The ordeal that victims face by pursuing their complaints to court shows why so many victims choose not to disclose at all.

In the absence of eye witnesses, which is usually the case, an allegation can come down to the word of the accuser against that of the accused. That a complainant does not possess genital injuries has even been used by defences to imply consent, despite the reality that most rapes do not result in observable physical damage.

Dr McLean argues that reflex erection and ejaculation can increase the sense of guilt in male victims, even confusing a heterosexual victim's sense of sexuality and, by extension, identity, by raising the question 'Did I enjoy it'. The issue of sexuality might be particularly important with male heterosexual victims because, as well as having to cope with the social stigma of being sexually assaulted, the victim faces the implication of homosexuality, with a possible threat then to their own sexual identity.

These compounding prejudices of society, argues Dr McLean, might inhibit disclosure by male victims even more than is the case for females.

Only in recent times has the full psychological trauma of rape, the tendency to not report and the difficulties in gaining a conviction, been begun to be grasped and taken seriously for female victims. It would appear that when it comes to male victims of rape, the situation could be even shoddier than it is for females.

Public attitudes to men being raped might be decades behind where it is now for women, and indeed might be where it was in terms of attitudes to female rape victims generations ago.

The neglect of male on male rape in the medical, psychological and academic world, is exemplified by the fact a recent search by Dr McLean for the term 'rape' in the title or abstract of research publications in academic medical journals produced 4767 articles, whereas specifically 'male rape' produced just 23.

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