By NIKITA NAGRAS ’17
Last year, the National Crime Victimization Survey revealed that men make up 38 percent of rape victims in the United States — a surprising percentage compared to the 10 percent reported by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. The shocking report prompted further investigation into rape cases concerning male victims, including those who are prisoners, whom general statistics often neglect. According to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, nearly 50 percent of male victims report a female perpetrator. Within prisons, male juveniles frequently report sexual abuse. 89 percent of these male victims in prison report sexual abuse perpetrated by a female staff member.
In face of such staggering statistics, why do we continue to frame rape as a problem of male abuse against women? For a long time, the FBI defined rape as “the forced carnal knowledge of female without her will.” However, the FBI’s failure to acknowledge rape as a widespread problem for both men and women marginalizes the trauma of male victims. This inadequate definition of rape, which the FBI modified in 2010, was problematic not only because it ignored rape against men, but also because it positioned women as constant victims in need of protection.
Patriarchy shapes our gendered notion of rape. Society expects men to hide their pain and emotions in order to be strong. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be docile and fragile. Because men equate victimization with weakness and femininity, male victims do not report the sexual crimes committed against them. Even when male rape victims seek help from the police, the narrow definition of rape prevents male victims from receiving any assistance. We need to broaden the definition of rape in order to include various sexual crimes against men and refrain from constantly positioning women as the victims and men as the perpetrators.
In the most fundamental sense, rape entails an aggressor’s domination over a victim. Since society expects men to harness qualities of leadership and strength, male rape victims can blame themselves for compromising their “masculinity.” They fear that society will think of them as “less of a man” and hesitate to seek help. According to a report by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, male rape victims are less likely to report the assault than female rape victims. To make matters worse, 71 percent of male rape victims are under 18 years of age. For adolescent and teenage boys, struggling to reconcile their rape with their masculine identity is tough and can damage them psychologically. Many male victims blame themselves and carry the secret shame well into adulthood.
Another reason why male victims are less likely to report rape is because the legal definition of sexual assault more often than not excludes sexual crimes committed against them. Currently, the FBI defines rape as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
Although broader than before, the definition fails to consider cases when men are “made to penetrate,” or forced to penetrate someone else without consent. When the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey took such cases into account, the numbers of men and women reporting non-consensual sex did not vary by much, with 1,270 million women and 1,267 men identifying as rape victims. Unfortunately, the narrow definition of rape leads to two consequences: either the victim feels that he was not raped and does not report the crime or the law enforcement ignores the cases.
Furthermore, the current FBI definition of rape with its emphasis on “penetration” absolves many female rapists of their crime. Unless the female rapist penetrates a man’s anus with an object, a woman, under legal definition, cannot be a rapist. Many will further argue that men are biologically stronger than women, and therefore, women cannot overpower men. However, the implication ignores cases when men are raped under the influence of drugs or alcohol by women, or when men are raped by other men. It deliberately places men as the sole aggressors and women as fragile victims, incapable of manipulation or aggression.
Rape has often been framed as an issue of men against women, but this sexist outlook harms both male and female victims. By applying a gender binary to the issue of rape, we end up coming up with incentives to control a woman’s sexuality and her choices. When we choose to victimize one demographic of a population, we find ways to blame victims for the crimes committed against them. The logic follows thus: if women are the only ones being raped, then isn’t it partially their fault for putting themselves into that situation?
Because society and media tends to focus solely on female rape victims, we focus on what the victims of that specific demographic are doing wrong and perpetuate victim-shaming: wearing too much makeup, wearing revealing clothes and staying at a bar alone at night are often cited as causes of women’s rape.
However, understanding that men can be victims as well undermines the idea that female rape victims remain at fault for the sexual crimes against them. It broadens our understanding of rape not as an issue in which women battle against men, but as an issue in which rape entails a power imbalance between the aggressor and the victim.
We need to review why and how we assign gender roles when it comes to rape with the woman as the victim and the man as the perpetrator. Hopefully, we can come to regard rape as a crime against all humanity and not only a crime that concerns female victims and male rapists.