Tuesday, November 09, 2004

It was a difficult book to find time to read -- not the sort of thing you'd choose to read right before bed or first thing in the morning. But difficult topics still need to be addressed, and for many people Michael Scarce's Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame covers one of the most difficult. I want to be a voice against sexual violence, and not just that against children (which I've spent more time collecting resources on because of my own experience.) So I took Male on Male Rape out of the library and, as the due date neared, read it. I hope some things have changed since its 1997 publication, but I know many of the issues in it still need to be addressed. (And if I hadn't known, the Abu Ghraib prisoner mistreatment would have made it clear.)

It's hard for a woman to deal with having been raped; it's probably harder for a man because of the stereotypes that exist about men -- that they are all able to defend themselves in any situation; that having been raped would make them less of a man -- in addition to the stereotypes anyone who has been raped encounters -- that they must somehow have wanted, enabled, or deserved it; that they just changed their mind after consensual sex; that it's no big deal for anyone who has had a lot of sex. Some people don't even believe that it's possible for a man to be raped. In fact, in some jurisdictions it technically isn't, because "rape" is legally defined in some U.S. states and other countries as something that happens to a woman. Male-on-male sexual assault is given some other name, such as "aggravated sodomy" or "criminal deviate conduct." Indeed, in some places where male-to-male sex acts are illegal, it may be the man reporting that he has been raped who is accused of a crime for having had sexual contact with another man -- never mind that it was forced on him. (However, Searce points out that repealing laws against same-sex sex in jurisdictions with male-rapist, female-victim-only rape laws can end up removing any laws against same-sex rape.)

In addition to these ridiculous laws, most societies put up further barriers for men who have been raped. Hospitals, law enforcement, counselors, may not know how to deal with the situation. Even things as seemingly inconsequential as what clothes are available in the hospital rape kit to replace those which are taken for evidence can make the rare male victim who reports the crime feel more isolated, because the kit is not likely to include men's clothing. AIDS testing and counseling may assume that all male-male sexual contact was consensual and talk about making good choices, even though having been raped is one of the things likely to make a person want to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Men who have been raped by men might wonder if they have "become" gay because of it (this is a worry seen in sexually abused children also). And there just isn't a lot of information easily available for men in these situations. I've seen it myself in reading books for adult survivors of child sexual abuse; there's a tendency to default to "she" and "her" when talking about the survivor and "he" and "him" for the abuser.

Certain environments, most notoriously prisons but also the military, athletics, fraternities, and even single-sex colleges/boarding schools can allow a scary number of opportunities for male-male rape and still allow talk about it to be squelched. Organizations such as Stop Prisoner Rape try to work against perceptions that people in prison somehow deserve to be raped, that indeed it's a subject for humor (Scarce notes that several movies before the publication date have included "Don't drop the soap" type of jokes). A former president of Stop Prisoner Rape said in a 1993 New York Times editorial that "The fight against rape in our communities is doomed to failure as long as it ignores the network of training grounds for rapists: our prisons, jails, and reform schools." Perhaps this approach might help in making people understand that since rape is not just about sex but about a rapist asserting power and violence, those who learn it as everyday behavior in prison have a distinct possibility of taking that learning outside and continuing with it, even though they are no longer as limited in the people they can have sex with. People who learn about "hazing" that includes sexual assault in any other environment may also include that kind of behavior in the other parts of their lives (and it doesn't have to be penis-in-anus-or-mouth sexual assault; forcing people to strip and similar things still send the message that forcing sexual behavior from others is OK). This idea that events from one setting spread to the world at large is certainly not the only reason that male-male rape is just as wrong as that with any other combination of genders, but it may be an argument that will make the world at large pay more attention.

Men who commit rape on other men do not necessarily consider themselves to be homosexual. And men who are gay are certainly not all rapists. These two things seem to be the hardest for many people to believe. Many arguments against letting gay people into the military or other organizations, and even several murder defenses, have relied on the idea that straight guys are freaked out by the idea of gay men desiring them, even panicked enough to murder the man who was making an advance. (Hey, guys -- would you consider it justified if a woman killed a man, or for that matter a woman, for making an advance at her? Me neither. We women get used to saying "no" to advances in relative calm, and so should men.) And, rather oddly considering the "homosexual panic" defense, a fair number of male rapes of men seem to happen as a result of gay-bashing, an odd sort of "we hate you so much we'll do one of the worst things we can imagine to you, even if it means we will actually be doing the acts we feel disgusted by your doing." Or perhaps "we'll prove we're more manly and powerful than you by treating you this badly, even if (etc.)." Or both. There's no logic to any kind of gay-bashing and particularly not violent kinds.

Scarce's book provides not only an examination of how male-male rape happens and what its survivors go through but also a list of things that can help reduce it, which can be summarized under the headings of education, providing services for men who have been raped, more research and writing, legal reform, change in popular culture, and increased work toward prevention. He also provides a list of resources for men who have been raped (though given the publication date, it doesn't list which ones have websites, but at least the list could provide the names of organizations to search online for, in case phone numbers have changed since the book's publication). Still, it is a much-needed resource on an often-overlooked subject.