Does violence against men count?

A surprisingly high proportion of men consider that sex has been forced upon them
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MALE RAPE is something that barely existed a few years ago. Not that it didn't happen, of course, but there was so little perception of sexual violence against men that even the perpetrators and victims hardly knew how to think of their experience. The official figures, which have always been small, can hardly even be termed the tip of an iceberg. That suggests the existence of a large number of violent assaults, few of which are ever reported or reach the criminal justice system.

That's part of it, of course; all the evidence suggests that when a man is raped, in many, probably most cases the victim makes no attempt to report it to the police. He may consider that his humiliation will be augmented by the experiences of the law; or, if he is gay, he may be wary of the treatment to expect from the police, and no one can doubt that there are still many police officers who would have to make an effort to listen seriously to a gay man complaining that he has been raped.

Whatever the reasons, even the most clear-cut cases seldom come to light, still less to justice. Research in the British Medical Journal has revealed a surprisingly high proportion of men who consider that sex has been forced on them against their will - surprising, that is, if you compare it with the number of cases that come to the attention of the police.

It's often said that a high proportion of male rapes are perpetrated by straight men on straight men, and though it is certainly true that many reported cases follow this pattern, I wonder whether we know about these cases because the grotesque circumstances mean that they will be listened to seriously. That's not to say that there is a huge incidence of unreported rape among gay men, but rather that the notion of consent is perceived, even by many of them, as so fluid that they shrug off as mere bad behaviour what most women would think of as sexual assault. A determined and unwelcome attempt on their fairly ramshackle virtue is familiar to most men, and, in all but a very small number of cases, we merely think, "God, how tiresome".

Yes means yes, and no means no, but men as a whole have such a relaxed attitude to the invasion of their own intimacy - indeed, may rather enjoy the thought of it - that most of their sexual lives take place in a vague atmosphere of "Well, why not", rather than the habit of politely asking for and giving consent against which the idea of rape makes sense. I expect most gay men have had the unremarkable experience of having sex while fairly definitely not wanting to - you know, we all have nice manners, and a refusal can look like rudeness. I doubt whether many of them think of it afterwards as rape or even assault.

Of course, there are many horror stories; a friend of mine thought he had been asked to a dinner party by an acquaintance, to find on arrival that he was the only guest and the front door had been locked to prevent him leaving. But after most examples of non-consensual sex, when they happen to men, the victim would not, you feel, be quite certain what had happened to him.

And in many circles, the feeling persists that violence against men "doesn't really count". It was quite startling, for instance, to read this week an alarmingly stupid article attacking Erin Pizzey, who had remarked that domestic violence was perpetrated by women as well as men. Though this is unarguably the case, whatever the respective scale of such incidents, the author was offended by what she called an attempt to "de-genderise" domestic violence. If any rational meaning can be extracted from such witterings, it is that violence against men doesn't matter as much as violence against women. It can hardly be found surprising that, even in the most blatant cases, men find it difficult to pursue a complaint.

The issue of non-consensual sex against men is difficult to balance. On the one hand, serious cases are under-reported, and, given the unpleasantness and psychological damage of a sexual assault, a culture has to arise in which victims can recognise when something serious has happened to them, and can have confidence that its seriousness can be acknowledged. But I can't help feeling that in many cases nothing much is to be gained by creating a widespread self-consciousness about consent and violation.

In many cases, men deal perfectly well with the aftermath when they have found themselves coerced into something. Rape is one thing, and no one would want to minimise its seriousness. But you wonder whether anything much is to be gained by extending the issues raised by a profoundly serious and unpleasant crime to incidents that men, on the whole, are content to think of as social blunders, and not as something in need of regulation.