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Why male rape victims suffer in silence

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The worst serial rapist in the UK’s history has been jailed for life. Reynhard Sinaga was given a minimum of 30 years for assaulting 48 men in Manchester, though police believe the victim count to be closer to 200. All of his victims were men.

For years, Sinaga—a 36-year-old Christian student from Indonesia—lured men back to his flat. Most of them were young, often students and drunk, targeted by Sinaga when they were on a night out and often, after they had been separated from their friends. He would get them to his flat under the offer of a place to stay or somewhere to charge their phone. Once they were there, he gave them a spiked drink and then raped them, while they were unconscious.

One in six men have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes

They would wake up in the morning with no memory of what happened to them. He filmed the attacks on his phone, which meant police were able to identify a number of his victims. Many weren’t aware they had been attacked until the police got in touch with them.

One in six men have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, according to a study released by the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Office for National Statistics in 2013. And yet, when we think about sexual assault, we tend to think of it happening to women. The focus of the #MeToo movement was on the female victims, which was important, but there were also men who had their own stories to share and even the government’s strategy on ending sexual violence against males is incorporated into the Ending Violence Against Women and Girls policy.

All of that can make it much harder for male victims to speak out. Only 3.9% of male victims report attacks to the police, according to a report released in 2017. Of the 679,051 rapes of males that took place between 2010 and 2014, 652,568 weren’t reported.

Adding to that, in the past, victims have reported a lack of support services for men, being turned away by the services that support women and even being told that men are ‘perpetrators, not victims’. While that may be changing (there was a 200% increase in the number of males who accessed support services between 2014 and 2018 according to data released by the Ministry of Justice, with support groups like Survivors UK, 1in6 and Survivors Manchester offering help for male rape victims) there’s still a stigma surrounding the crime when it affects men. We’ve seen this in the Sinaga case.

For the men that Sinaga targeted—many of whom are heterosexual— discovering they had been attacked has been devastating. Speaking to Manchester Evening News, one said that the very idea of it happening to him was ‘embarrassing’ because he is straight, while another (who suffers from Crohn’s disease) said he wanted his colon to be removed when he found out what had happened to him.

The fear of other people finding out has prevented many from telling their friends and family what happened to them, further isolating them. One man said he has kept the news to himself so he doesn’t hurt his mum and girlfriend. Another attempted suicide after he heard a comment about it from someone he didn’t realise knew about it. While yet another man, who comes from a small town, said he worries people will find out about what happened to him.

None of the men wanted to know the details of what Sinaga did.

Feelings of guilt and shame are common for many rape survivors—male and female. But for men, masculine gender socialisation can make it harder for them to admit they have been assaulted.

As with female rape victims, there are also cultural myths surrounding male victims that can also make it much harder for them to speak out.

There’s the myth that it makes a man ‘weak’ if he can’t defend himself, especially when the attacker is a woman. While ingrained homophobia in our society can prevent them from speaking out if their attacker was a man, in case it leads people to question their own sexuality—something Sinaga used as a defence at his trial, claiming the rape was consensual sex and the victims were too afraid to come out to their families.

We’re also taught that men are always ready for sex and the idea of a man being ‘used’ by a woman is something to be desired. We see it in the way people react to cases of male students being abused by their female teachers and the clear double standard.

When former bikini model Debra Lefave was accused of assaulting her 14-year-old student, the comments were filled with jokes the student got lucky. That’s ‘lucky’ that he was sexually assaulted as a child by an adult whose care he was in, to be clear. Mitchell Harrison raped a 13-year-old girl; he was disembowelled by inmates in prison.

For male victims, there’s also the fear that they won’t be believed or the confusion that they must have really ‘wanted it’ if they had an erection or ejaculated during the abuse (never mind that this is purely a physical response to stimulation or even stress).

Add to that the fact that men aren’t encouraged to express their feelings or show any ‘weakness’ and it can lead to a culture of silence. It can take men between 20 and 30 years to report a sexual assault.

But sexual assault, abuse and violence can happen to anyone.

Sinaga’s actions were so horrendous, even the police officers that worked on the case and the jurors that served on his trial have been offered counselling. It’s hard to imagine the effect it’s had on the young men he brutally attacked. His victims and others like them, who have been sexually assaulted, deserve compassion and support. Until we break the taboo that still surrounds male rape cases, that will be harder for them to come by. It’s time to stop victims from suffering in silence.