Hearing Male Survivors by Dr George Severs
This article was originally published on History Workshop Online.
This is a contribution for the (Un)Silenced: Institutional Sexual Violence feature, which explores how sexual violence relates to various societal institutions. The series provides a historical understanding of the ways in which sexual violence is produced through different institutional cultures of harm.
Content warning: This article discusses male victims of rape and sexual violence.
In January 2020, Judge Suzanne Goddard sentenced Reynhard Sinaga to a minimum of 30 years imprisonment. In doing so, she also lifted reporting restrictions which had been in place during the trial at Manchester Crown Court. The British news media rushed to cover what the Crown Prosecution Service described as ‘the most prolific rapist in British legal history’.
That the UK’s most ‘prolific rapist’ is a man was no surprise. The rapist nearly always figures in the cultural imaginary as male, and for good reason (very few rapes are committed by women). More shocking was the fact that Sinaga’s victims were male and mostly heterosexual. Very few of them were prepared to speak to the media, and those who did were emphasised as exceptional for their openness. Most of the men Sinaga attacked remain silent, their experiences (like many male survivors of sexual assault) go unheard. Indeed, sixty of Sinaga’s victims remain unidentified.
By looking at the recent history of news coverage of male survivors of rape and sexual assault, I suggest that profiling male survivors is not sufficient to overcome the isolation that many men experience. In fact, some news coverage drew on narratives about male survivors which added to the shame and stigma which kept men from speaking about their experiences of sexual violence. The history of male victims of rape and sexual violence should make us all alert to the ways in which gender norms silence male experiences of abuse, and prompt us to hear male survivors who are so often both silent and silenced.
The Sinaga case was not the first time that male survivors of rape and sexual abuse had dominated the news cycle. In the early 1980s, the National Theatre staged a production of Howard Brenton’s play The Romans in Britain. Directed by Michael Bogdanov, Romans attracted commentary and controversy over a scene which depicted a male-on-male anal rape. Despite having never actually seen the play herself, Christian anti-obscenity campaigner Mary Whitehouse brought a private case against Bogdanov. The trial ultimately collapsed, but Whitehouse’s prosecution ensured that the issue of male rape and the existence of male survivors of sexual assault was widely discussed within the national print media.
One of the many remarkable features of reportage on male rape is the surprise with which journalists wrote about male rape survivors. Reporting on the rape of a man on the London Underground in 1992, an article in Today summed up the silence and controversy surrounding male survivors: ‘Male rape, the crime that dare not speak its name’. Headlines such as this one point to the sensational features of what was seen as a ‘taboo’ subject. Journalists often exploited attitudes of shock and surprise when covering cases of male rape, anchoring their stories in the notion that such instances were unusual precisely because men were not thought of as likely victims of sexual violence.
Deploying language of surprise that men had been subjected to rape and sexual assault tended to reinforce the notion that male bodies were inviolable. This idea led to many male survivors developing feelings of shame and confusion: if the male body was impervious to sexual violence then, according to this logic, victims must have in some way invited the assault. As one survivor told a psychiatric study, ‘something very dirty has happened to you that nobody believes can happen – if you let it happen you must be queer, if you’re not a queer it can’t have happened’. Coverage of male survivors may have made male rape more high-profile, but it may also have added to the culture of shame which prevented many men from talking about their experiences.
It was not just shame which served to silence male survivors. Legally, men who had been subject to violent sexual attacks or who had been sexually abused were not recognised as victims of ‘rape’. Rape was legally defined as the forced penial penetration of a vagina until 1994 when forced anal penetration of a man or woman was added to English and Welsh statue books, with forced fellatio following in 2003. Male rape became a legal category in Northern Ireland in 2008 when rape legislation was brought into line with English and Welsh law, with the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act doing the same in 2009.
Male survivors did not simply wait to be recognised in law. In the decades leading up to the legislative changes in the 1990s and 2000s, several charities and activist groups were established to provide advice and support to men who had been raped and/or sexually abused. In Leicester, for example, First Step was established in 1997 to provide counselling (both in person and over their telephone helpline), as well as providing relevant professionals with training about male survivors of sexual abuse. As a result, Leicestershire Constabulary produced ‘a guide for men reporting rape’ and offered male-specific support in their rape victim support unit. From 1986 in the capital, Survivors (the precursor to SurvivorsUK, the UK’s leading male rape organisation) offered counselling sessions at clinics in London hospitals and also operated a helpline.
These groups were right not to wait for legal recognition. Internal government correspondence from the early 1990s reveals a widespread reluctance to add male victims to rape legislation. Attorney General Nicholas Lyell wrote at letter to the Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke in October 1992 arguing that the government ‘should avoid a controversial agenda for sexual offences law reform’ and supported blocking a Bill designed to recognise men as potential victims of rape. This attitude flew in the face of most commentators’ opinions at the time, with newspaper editorials from across the political divide agreeing that, in the words of the Conservative-supporting Times newspaper, ‘the rape of men should be punished more seriously’ (29th October 1992).
Groups such as Survivors, First Step and others demonstrate that male rape was not simply the ‘crime which dare not speak its name’. Activists, service providers and survivors had been organising support for male victims of rape decades before the law recognised them as such. Instead, the coverage of male rape survivors and the groups which served them show how engrained gendered notions of masculinity are in Britain. As Joanna Bourke has argued, ‘the male body in pain was constructed differently from his female counterpart’ and coverage of male rape survivors confirms this. Surprise or shock that men had been raped stemmed in part from the notion that the powerful male body was impervious to sexual assault. Legal changes went some way in quelling such myths, but coverage of cases like Sinaga’s demonstrate that they have not entirely disappeared.
Male survivors of sexual violence need to be heard. This is not a crime which ‘dare not speak its name’. Rather, these are victims who are all too often ignored. In order to challenge the myths and assumptions which continue to harm male survivors, their experiences need to be heard more widely. Such an act of collective listening is required to show that male survivors are not aberrations. Doing so would not simply correct the record. Far more importantly, it makes survivors more likely to seek the support they need.