WE ARE

  NOT POWERLESS

Introduction

    Sexual assault is an extremely traumatic event that may cause negative side effects such as, depression, anxiety and PTSD. In addition, individuals who experience sexual assault, are commonly confronted with a stigma for their experience. However, the social stigma is particularly harsh for male survivors due to a variety of social and cultural factors that may lead to the minimization, or downplaying the significance of a survivor’s experience. Furthermore, social stigma and the minimization of a survivor's’ experience may serve as barriers to the disclosure of sexual assault within the criminal justice system. Therefore, this paper will discuss: (1) the social factors that lead to the creation of social stigma; (2) why the minimization of a male survivor’s experience is an issue that needs to addressed; (3) what possible interventions would look like at different system levels; (4) which system level should be targeted to maximize intervention effectiveness and; (5) a potential policy change that could be made to address the issue of funding for programs designed to reduce and eradicate the minimization of male survivors in the criminal justice system. 

Terminology

    Over the course of time, adjectives can become associated with a negative event, and may develop a stigmatized connotation. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with an adjective can significantly impact an individual’s psychological and emotional well-being. An example of this phenomenon is the word “victim.” Victim has become associated with criminal activity, a sense of powerlessness, and an inability to recover from the crime. Conversely, the word “survivor” is associated with recovery and positive change. Because this paper is being written from a social work perspective, which seeks to empower individuals to overcome their traumatic experiences, I will be referring to the individuals who have experienced a rape or sexual assault, not as a victim, but as a survivor of their experience.

Etiology

     Historically, it is difficult to discern how prevalent the minimization of male sexual violence has been in the criminal justice system. This is due to the fact that it is widely underreported; and has therefore, been largely ignored in academic research. However, what is known, is that the stigma that males are confronted with in the aftermath of experiencing sexual violence originates from three primary social factors. Specifically, (1) rape culture; (2) the current gender roles and expectations in our society and; (3) social myths. Furthermore, these three factors are intertwined so intricately, that it is nearly impossible to understand one without first addressing the others. Lastly, these three factors in combination with an overall lack of education and awareness simultaneously creates and perpetuates the cycle of minimization within the criminal justice system. 

Rape Culture

    Rape culture is defined as a culture in which, “sexual violence is common and widespread”; and is “encouraged and condoned by prevailing [social] norms and beliefs” (Messina-Dysert, 2016). Furthermore, rape culture is characterized by three similar, yet distinct concepts. The first being the concept of “victim-blaming”, or placing blame for the occurrence of a sexual assault or rape on the survivor, and not the rapist; second “perpetrator support”, or the justification of the rapist's actions and; third, expressed disbelief towards claims of rape and/or sexual assault (Zaleski, Gundersen, Baes, Estupinian, & Vergara, 2016; Grubb & Turner, 2012).    

Gender Roles

     Gender roles are the social and behavioral norms that individuals are expected to adopt in a given culture. However, these roles are based on stereotypes, and not fact. Despite this, boys and girls are subjected to an intense socialization process of what is “acceptable behavior” for their gender; and are expected to adhere to these roles throughout their lives. Ultimately, this expectation is so strong, that failing to comply with the expectations of these roles may be seen as a personal failure on the part of that individual. 

     In the United States of America, women are expected to be: (1) dependent and submissive to males; (2) nurturing caretakers and; (3) “sexually passive.” Whereas, male children are expected to: (1) be strong, independent and assertive; (2) be the “sexual initiators” and; (3) defend oneself and never be taken advantage of. Therefore, when a male is sexually assaulted or raped, he experiences “social castration” and the loss of his masculinity. Lastly, because gender roles are based on stereotypes, they simultaneously create and perpetuate different myths about sexual violence (Groth & Burgess, 1980). 

Rape Myths

     Burt, (1980) reports that rape myths are “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists.”  Examples of rape myths include; “real men can defend themselves from being raped”; “rape affects men less than it does women”; “male on male rape causes homosexuality” and; “sexual assault and/or rape means losing your masculinity.” Rape myths simultaneously blames the male survivor for the occurrence of the sexual assault; and barrages the survivor with belittling and demeaning messages because of his experience.

     Moreover, multiple studies have shown that: (1) the acceptance of rape myths are associated with a strong belief in traditional gender roles and; (2) males tend to have a stronger belief in traditional gender roles, in comparison to females (Aronowitz, Lambert, & Davidoff, 2012; Burt, 1980; Groth & Burgess, 1980). These findings are alarming, as they have negative implications for a male survivor in regards to their disclosure of the assault. Because males tend to have a stronger belief in the male gender role, they may fail to disclose their assault because, he falsely believes that he “should have defended himself from being raped”, and that he has now “lost his masculinity.” 

     When discussing male rape myths, it is also important to address the implications they have on a male survivor when their perpetrator is a female. Because the male gender role asserts that men are the “sexual initiators” and should “always be ready to engage in sexual intercourse”; combined with female-male rape myths such as:  (1) ‘Most men who are raped by a woman are somewhat to blame for not escaping or fighting off the woman’ and; (2) “if a man obtained an erection while being raped it probably means that he started to enjoy it”, the severity of the assault is often minimized (Sleath & Bull, 2009). Lastly, when a male survivor discloses a female-perpetrated rape, they may be told that they: (1) encouraged, or even enjoyed the assault or; (2) that an assault perpetrated by a female is less traumatic than that of a male (Smith, Pine, & Hawley, 1988). 

     Experiencing sexual violence is incredibly traumatic, in and of itself; but it is potentially more traumatic for males because they may believe that they have “failed” to fulfill the expectations that society has set for them. Davies (2002), reports that the belief in the social myths surrounding males and sexual violence may cause a survivor to experience many negative emotions following their assault. Examples of these emotions include; shame, guilt, fear, anger towards self, and others, embarrassment, and confusion. Additionally, because of the rape myths surrounding males and sexual violence, a male survivor may feel that they will be ridiculed or not believed when and if they choose to disclose to other individuals (Davies, 2002). 

     The many negative emotions combined with the fear of ridicule and/or disbelief in disclosure carries several serious consequences in terms of recovery. Specifically, they may discourage a male survivor from seeking medical attention; mental health therapy; and pressing charges against their perpetrator following their assault. Lastly, the male survivor’s failure to seek mental health therapy following their assault increases their risk of developing long-lasting disorders, such as, PTSD and major depressive disorder. 

      Unfortunately, rape myths are widely accepted within the criminal justice system. This unfortunate reality is exacerbated even more so by a lack of education. Specifically, a lack of education in regards to male physiological responses, and touch. It is widely known, that: (1) the human body is programmed to respond to the stimulus of erogenous areas and; (2) in periods of intense stress, the human body floods with adrenaline, and goes into a state of hyperarousal, preparing itself for what is more commonly referred to as “fight or flight.” 

     However, what is less known, is the fact that in the case of male sexual assault or rape, this hyperarousal can and does commonly occur in the form of an erection, even to the point of ejaculation, despite the fact that the sexual contact is unwanted. This fact has two major implications for a male sexual assault survivor. First, it can be a large contributor to the shame that a survivor experiences, as they may be wondering “if they wanted it”, or if the perpetrator is a male the male survivor may be questioning their own sexual orientation. Second, in the criminal justice system, the fact that an erection did occur while the assault took place, is often misconstrued as a sign of consent on the part of a male survivor (Bullock & Beckson, 2011). 

     This lack of education within the criminal justice system is very concerning for several different reasons. Specifically, if and when a male does choose to pursue legal action in a court of law, he faces an increased risk of; being thought as “less” of a man; having the severity of his assault minimized; or having his sexual assault completely dismissed. Clearly, none of these likely reactions are helpful, and may serve as a significant barrier to accessing the services and resources that are necessary to recover from their trauma.  

Social Problem

    The minimization of male survivors within the criminal justice system needs to be addressed for what it is, a social problem. A male survivor may not pursue legal action for many different reasons, as mentioned previously; however, for every male that chooses to not disclose to the criminal justice system, one more perpetrator walks away. Thus, leading to high rates of recidivism, and an increased number of males who will experience sexual violence throughout their lifespan. 

     Sadly, in the event that a survivor attempts to obtain justice in a court of law, the odds that their attempt will be successful is incredibly low. Specifically, it is estimated that out of every 1000 rapes, 344 will be reported to the police, and only 6 perpetrators will ever be incarcerated (“The Criminal Justice System: Statistics”, n.d.). Similarly, (Walker Archer, & Davies, 2005) report that in a sample of 40 male survivors, only 5 ever reported their assault to the police, and 4 of the 5 expressed that they regretted reporting to the police because of being treated as though they were to blame for the occurrence of the assault. 

     Moreover, when an individual considers the high percentage of male survivors that never disclose because of shame, the fear of being ridiculed, and/or not believed, we are faced with a staggering amount of individuals who will never seek treatment to process and overcome their trauma. Unresolved trauma creates an enormous impact on both the individual and society, as the United States Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA) reports that sexual assault costs the USA an estimated $127 billion per year. In addition, they report that a single assault costs $110,000 when the costs of mental health and medical services, lost productivity and pain and suffering are accounted for (“Economic Costs of Sexual Assault”, n.d.)

     When a survivors attempt to press charges against their perpetrator ends in failure, feelings of isolation and powerlessness may develop. Although, these feelings are often overlooked in scientific literature, they are important to recognize and address. If a survivor feels isolated, or that nobody will understand their experience, it may lead to increased severity of mental health issues and feelings of being defined by their experience. Specifically, a male survivor may believe that their masculine identity has been determined for the remainder of their life, because of this single incident (Caleb Byers, 2016).

     If a male survivor believes that they are a “victim” of their experience, a sense of powerlessness may develop. Unfortunately, this has many negative implications for a survivor, as learned helplessness may develop; which effectively handicaps a male survivor’s recovery in the false belief that they will never be able to heal from their assault. In addition, feeling powerlessness may also alter a survivor’s perception of themselves, others, and the world around them (Caleb Byers, 2016).

     In light of this, it is imperative that professionals in the criminal justice system recognize this, and take the necessary steps to empower a male survivor by referring to and viewing them as a survivor. When this occurs, the professional’s perception of that male will change, instead of seeing the male survivor as weak and powerless, they will see them as strong and powerful. Ultimately, changing one word can change a male survivor’s life, by empowering and encouraging them to move on, to heal, and to grow from their experience (Caleb Byers, 2016).

Intervention

     There are three key areas that must be addressed to reduce the minimization of male survivors. First, there is a need for increased education concerning male physiological responses; second, increased awareness of the fact that males can do experience sexual assault and/or rape and; third, it is necessary to remind male survivors that they are not powerless to recover from their experience. Because the minimization of males is caused by different factors on multiple systems, it is important to consider what system level intervention will be most effective in solving the social problem. Lastly, it should be noted that interventions will vary according to the size of the system. Thus, this review will discuss interventions on each level and then argue for their implementation within the system that will yield the most effective results. 

     At the macro level, the most obvious intervention would be a program designed to increase education and awareness of male sexual assault. This program would reduce the minimization of males by helping to combat our current rape culture and reduce the stigma that surround males and sexual violence. At the mezzo level, a possible intervention could be the implementation of community support groups for male survivors. Lastly, at the micro level, the most recognizable and straight-forward intervention would be individual mental therapy and trauma processing. Thus, giving rise to the question of “Which intervention will be the most effective?”

Micro & Macro 

    At this point in time, interventions for survivors are primarily found at the micro level in the form of individual mental health therapy; which can be very effective for some individuals, however it is not the best answer to this social problem for a few different reasons. First, male survivors are faced with a harsh stigma, which may serve as a barrier to the disclosure of their assault. If a male never discloses their experience, they will most likely not receive the services necessary for their recovery. 

     Secondly, an individualistic treatment approach isolates a male survivor, and therefore prevents them from creating a strong support network. If a male survivor lacks a support network, they do not receive outside encouragement to continue the difficult and painful process of recovery, which may cause them to discontinue their treatment plan. Lastly, the male gender role teaches men from an early age to never display weakness. Thus, for a male to seek mental health therapy, is to display weakness to another individual, causing this intervention approach to be stigmatized in its own right; and in the event that a male survivor pursues this option, they are met with a “double-dose” of stigmatization. 

     Similarly, there are a number of issues with a macro approach to intervention. First and foremost, it is an incredibly difficult and daunting task to implement and fund any kind of social program in the United States. Thus, a program designed to provide education in regards to a socially taboo topic, such as male sexual assault, will be met with resistance, and is likely to end in failure. Secondly, programs at the macro level tend to be difficult to navigate, and unwieldy in the provision of its services; which may prove to deter male survivors from utilizing the program. Lastly, federal programs tend to be underfunded, resulting in limited service provision for the intended recipients. Clearly, neither a micro or macro approach would be the most effective solution to this social problem.     

Mezzo

    The implementation of community support groups is the best choice for several different reasons. First, increased support and awareness of the male survivor experience, in combination with support groups in the community create an environment that is: (1) conducive to further education and; (2) creates a communal safety net for male survivors. Additionally, the creation of community support groups serves to create a safe and nonjudgmental environment which may decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation. Reduced feelings of isolation and an increased feelings of connectedness may serve to decrease the severity of different mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. A safe and nonjudgmental environment is conducive to further education concerning the male survivor’s experience and this education may serve to increase awareness of rape culture and the necessary steps to combat the effects, and to eventually dismantle it. 

     Similarly, increased education will help reduce the stigma that male survivors are faced with following their sexual assault and/or rape. Thus, allowing male survivors to have greater access to the resources necessary to recover from their trauma, including medical and mental health. But most importantly, a male survivor may finally be able to successfully press charges in a court of law and obtain the justice that has been denied to male survivors for so long in our society.

Funding

    As with any intervention designed to solve a particular social problem, funding is key for its successful implementation. There are three primary ways that funding for these programs can occur. First, funds may be generated through private, or charitable giving; secondly, funding could be provided through different federal grants and; the third way that funding be accrued for the community support groups would require policy changes for the current Crime Victim Assistance (CVA) program. 

     The CVA program is a federal social welfare program that is funded via bond, bail and other criminal monies. In order for a survivor to receive funding, they must press charges against their perpetrator and submit an application. If the application is approved by the state, the funds earned are then distributed to help repay a survivor’s lost wages, medical and mental health therapy bills, in addition other costs associated with the crime (Victims of Crime Act, n.d.). In other words, the current CVA program is very centered on the individual, and less focused on male survivor’s as a community. 

     The current tendency to focus on the individual as a survivor sexual violence is important to address, because the saying of “no man is an island”; holds especially true with male survivors. Loneliness and isolation often define a male survivor’s existence because male sexual violence is extremely underreported. Thus, an important protective factor for a male survivor is to realize that they are not alone; and community support groups are an obvious, yet often overlooked method of intervention. In addition, support groups would provide male survivors with the opportunity to discover new resources, to educate one another, and to spread awareness within the community of the prevalence and side effects of male sexual violence. 

Conclusion

     Male sexual violence is a widespread issue that pervades all levels of society. A male survivor may feel as though they are alone and defined by one single event in their life. This unfortunate reality is further exacerbated by the minimization of male sexual violence within the criminal justice system. Because of this minimization, a male survivor may not seek medical services, or obtain the justice that they deserve due to a number of myths and stereotypes surrounding male sexual assault. It is evident that increased education concerning male physiological responses to sexual trauma is necessary to reduce the stigma and false beliefs that confront males within the criminal justice system. 

     The minimization of males needs to be addressed for a number of reasons, including the high costs associated with sexual violence in our society, the negative impact that this minimization may have on a male survivor’s mental health, and the high amounts of recidivism witnessed because of a failure on the part of the male survivor to pursue legal action against their perpetrator. This review argues that at the mezzo level is the best target system to reduce the stigma that males are faced with and to provide resources for a male survivor. 

     A community intervention approach has a number of significant benefits for male survivors. These benefits include a social safety net for male survivors, a safe and supportive environment, and increased education. The social interactions derived from these groups may help reduce a male survivor’s feeling of isolation, thus decreasing the severity of different mental health issues. Moreover, a safe and supportive environment may promote and enhance a survivor’s overall wellbeing; and increased education in the public sector regarding the role that male rape myths, gender expectations and rape culture play in the minimization of males can serve as a powerful factor to dismantling the many myths, stereotypes and false beliefs that surround male sexual assault in our society. 

     Although the funding for these groups may be an issue, it can be rectified by increased awareness of the social problem. Increased awareness can help provide funding for a male survivor by moving individuals to partake in private charity; while simultaneously pushing for additional grants in the public sector. Lastly, increased awareness of how current CVA policies affect the availability and accessibility of resources, and therefore the survivor’s recovery is essential for a male survivor to fully heal from their experience. 

References

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