How to Help my Male Friend

If you are a male survivor seeking information and resources, click here.

I know a male survivor

Myths surrounding rape and sexual assault are very prevalent in our society, especially in regard to male survivors. Below are some myths about male sexual assault, and the realities behind them:

Myth: Men can't be sexually assaulted. 
Reality: Men are sexually assaulted. Any man can be sexually assaulted regardless of size, strength, appearance or sexual orientation.

Myth: Only gay men are sexually assaulted.
Reality: Heterosexual, gay and bisexual men are equally likely to be sexually assaulted. Being sexually assaulted has nothing to do with your current or future sexual orientation. Your sexuality has no more to do with being raped than being robbed.

Myth: Only gay men sexually assault other men.
Reality: Most men who sexually assault other men identify themselves as heterosexual. This fact helps to highlight another reality -- that sexual assault is about violence, anger, and control over another person, not lust or sexual attraction.

Myth: Men cannot be sexually assaulted by women. 
Reality: Although the majority of perpetrators are male, men can also be sexually assaulted by women

Myth: Erection or ejaculation during a sexual assault means you "really wanted it" or consented to it.
Reality: Erection and ejaculation are physiological responses that may result from mere physical contact or even extreme stress. These responses do not imply that you wanted or enjoyed the assault and do not indicate anything about your sexual orientation. Some rapists are aware how erection and ejaculation can confuse a victim of sexual assault -- this motivates them to manipulate their victims to the point of erection or ejaculation to increase their feelings of control and to discourage reporting of the crime.

Rape is a men’s issue for many reasons.
We often do not talk about the fact that men are sexually assaulted. We must begin to recognize the presence of male survivors and acknowledge their unique experience.

The following questions and answers can help us all learn about male survivors so that we stop treating them as invisible and start helping them heal:

How often are men sexually assaulted?
While the numbers vary from study to study, most research suggests that 10-20 percent of all males will be sexually violated at some point in their lifetimes. That translates into tens of thousands of boys and men assaulted each year alongside hundreds of thousands of girls and women.

If there are so many male survivors, why don't I know any?
Like female survivors, most male survivors never report being assaulted, even to people they know and trust. They fear being ignored, laughed at, disbelieved, shamed, accused of weakness, or questioned about being gay. Perhaps worst of all, men fear being blamed for the assault because they were not "man enough" to protect themselves in the face of an attack. For all these reasons, many male survivors remain silent and alone rather than risk further violation by those around them.

Can a woman sexually assault a man?
Yes, but it's not nearly as common as male-on-male assault. A recent study shows that more than 86% of male survivors are sexually abused by another male. That is not to say, however, that we should overlook boys or men who are victimized by females. It may be tempting to dismiss such experiences as wanted sexual initiation (especially in the case of an older female assaulting a younger male), but the reality is that the impact of female-on-male assault can be just as damaging.

Don't only men in prison get raped?
While prison rape is a serious problem and a serious crime, many male survivors are assaulted in everyday environments (at parties, at home, at church, at school, on the playground), often by people they know—friends, teammates, relatives, teachers, clergy, bosses, partners. As with female survivors, men are also sometimes raped by strangers. These situations tend to be more violent and more often involve a group of attackers rather than a single offender.

How does rape affect men differently from women?
Rape affects men in many ways similar to women. Anxiety, anger, sadness, confusion, fear, numbness, self-blame, helplessness, hopelessness, suicidal feelings and shame are common reactions of both male and female survivors. In some ways, though, men react uniquely to being sexually assaulted. Immediately after an assault, men may show more hostility and aggression rather than tearfulness and fear. Over time, they may also question their sexual identity, act out in a sexually aggressive manner, and even downplay the impact of the assault.

There is a great societal denial of the fact that men get sexually assaulted. The need to deny the existence of male sexual assault is partly rooted in the mistaken belief that men are immune to being victimized, that “real men” should be able to fend off or avoid violence. There is also a false belief that men cannot be forced into sex—either they want it or they don’t. These ideas can increase the amount of pain felt by male survivors, and add to feelings of isolation, shame, and self-blame.

Some of the unique problems and concerns that male survivors may experience

  • For many men, the idea of being a victim is very difficult to handle. Our societal norms teach us that men are incapable of being victimized, that they can and must defend themselves against physical harm. Many men are raised to associate physical weakness with shame. These beliefs about “manliness” and masculinity cause many male survivors to experience guilt, shame, and inadequacy.
  • Many male survivors question if they deserved or even wanted to be assaulted, because they feel that they failed to defend themselves. Male survivors frequently see their assault as a loss of manhood and experience disgust with themselves for not “fighting back.” Any survivor needs to know that they did what they could to survive the assault—there is nothing un-masculine about that.
  • As a result of their guilt, shame and anger some men punish themselves with self-destructive behavior after being sexually assaulted. For many men, this means increased alcohol or drug use. For others, it means increased aggressiveness, like arguing with friends or co-workers or even picking fights with strangers. Many men pull back from relationships and wind up feeling more and more isolated.
  • Many male survivors also develop sexual difficulties after being sexually assaulted. It may be difficult to resume sexual relationships or start new ones because sexual contact may trigger flashbacks, memories of the assault, or just plain bad feelings. It can take time to get back to normal so don't pressure yourself to be sexual before you're ready.
  • For heterosexual men , sexual assault may cause confusion or questioning about sexuality. Since many people falsely believe that only gay men are sexually assaulted, a heterosexual survivor may begin to believe that he must be gay or that he will become gay. Furthermore, perpetrators often accuse their victims of enjoying the sexual assault, leading some survivors to question their own experiences. In fact, being sexually assaulted has nothing to do with sexual orientation, past, present or future. People do not "become gay" as a result of being sexually assaulted.
  • For gay men, sexual assault can lead to feelings of self-blame and self-loathing related to sexuality. There is already enough homophobic sentiment in society to cause many gay men to suffer from internal conflicts about their sexuality. Being sexually assaulted may lead a gay man to believe he somehow "deserved it," that he was "paying the price" for his sexual orientation. Unfortunately, this self-blame can be reinforced by the ignorance or intolerance of others who blame the victim by suggesting that a gay victim somehow provoked the assault or was less harmed by it because he was gay. Gay men may also hesitate to report a sexual assault due to fears of blame, disbelief or intolerance by police or medical personnel. As a result, gay men may be deprived of legal protections and necessary medical care following an assault.
  • Most assaults perpetrated against men involve a heightened level of physical force. Because of this, many men are in great need of medical attention after an assault. Unwanted anal penetration can be especially damaging, and many men experience short and long term physical symptoms as a result of their attack. However, because of the particular feelings men experience after an assault, most do not report, let alone seek medical attention. Men are no less in need than women of medical attention following an assault; all survivors, including men, benefit from seeking medical help after experiencing a sexual assault.

Don't men who get raped become rapists?
NO! This is a destructive myth that often adds to the anxiety a male survivor feels after being assaulted. Because of this misinformation, it is common for a male survivor to fear that he is now destined to do to others what was done to him. While many convicted sex offenders have a history of being sexually abused, most male survivors do not become offenders. The truth is that the great majority of male survivors have never and will never sexually assault anyone.

If a man is raped by another man, does it mean he's gay?
NO, again! While gay men can be raped (often by straight men), a man getting raped by another man says nothing about his sexual orientation before the assault, nor does it change his sexual orientation afterwards. Rape is primarily prompted by anger or a desire to harm, intimidate or dominate, rather than by sexual attraction or a rapist's assumption about his intended victim's sexual orientation. Because of society's confusion about the role that attraction plays in sexual assault and about whether victims are responsible for provoking an assault, even heterosexual male survivors may worry that they somehow gave off "gay vibes" that the rapist picked up and acted upon. For a gay man, especially one who is not yet out of the closet, the possibility that he is broadcasting his "secret sexual identity" to others without even knowing it can be particularly upsetting.

How should I respond if a man I know tells me he has been assaulted?
While there may be some differences in how rape impacts a male versus a female survivor of sexual assault, the basics of supporting survivors are the same for men as for women. Believe him. Know what your community's resources are and help him explore his options. Don't push and don't blame. Ask him what he wants and listen. Be cautious about physical contact until he's ready. Get help for yourself.

Where can male survivors go for help?
As with female survivors, trained counselors at the YWCA 24 Hour Counseling & Shelter can provide essential information and support to male survivors. Western Michigan University provides counseling services for all students during business hours. We have a page devoted to resources for survivors at WMU and in the Kalamazoo area.

Internet resources: Men and sexual assault

Men Can Stop Rape: http://www.mencanstoprape.org/

White Ribbon Campaign: http://www.whiteribbon.ca/

Hope For Healing: http://www.hopeforhealing.org/male.html

National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization: http://www.malesurvivor.org/

No Escape: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/prison/

Information on recognizing and supporting male survivors adapted from Men Can Stop Rape: Resources For Male Survivors, 2007.