Inside Story: When man rapes man: Victims daren't report it, the law won't recognise it, the public can't understand it: but gradually the taboos around male rape are breaking down, reports Simon Garfield

'YOU CAN make it easy or hard on yourself,' the rapist said. 'If you don't do as I say I'll cut you to shreds.'

And so it began, another terrifying ordeal, another man held down and raped at knifepoint. A 29-year-old man opened the door of his flat in Doncaster to a man he knew. This man was David Betts, 27, slightly the worse for drink, explaining that he couldn't return home drunk to his pregnant girlfriend. Betts then produced a knife and ordered his victim into his bedroom. He raped him twice in three hours. Horrific violence; terrible bruises.

Betts then told the man (falsely) that he was HIV-positive. He also said he would stab him to death to prevent him telling anyone what had happened. After three hours, Betts fell asleep, and his victim fled to a friend's house to call the police.

'This was a terrible case,' Judge Jonathan Crabtree said six weeks ago at Doncaster Crown Court. 'When it comes to punishment I don't see that it makes any difference whether it was a man or a woman who has been violated and degraded.' Betts was jailed for five years.

THIS IS not an isolated case. In Glasgow a man says: 'I can only tell you about the pain, because pain is all I feel.' Two years ago he was dragged on to a field at dusk by three men, one of whom he knew.

In Birmingham, a man who was raped and beaten by a stranger in a park at nightfall says his life has been ruined.

In May, a man was assaulted on the London Underground. Between August and November men were raped in Kent, Barrow-in-Furness, Cardiff, Manchester, and Birmingham. In the London area there were attacks in Croydon, London Bridge, Streatham, Finsbury Park and Piccadilly Circus. Last month a 30-year-old man claimed he was raped by a gang of drunken soldiers near army barracks in Aldershot.

There is no evidence to suggest that this is a new phenomenon, a symptom of our society. What is new is the attention given to it by the media, psychologists, police and counselling groups.

Reports of incidents encourage other victims to come forward; research into male rape creates a less threatening climate for victims to speak out in. But it is only now, with the breakthroughs achieved by the women's movement with regard to female rape and male aggression, and the acknowledgement of other serious sexual crimes such as incest and child abuse, that we are able to accept what for so long has been considered an unfathomable taboo.

On Friday, Harry Cohen, MP for Leyton, will put forward a Bill to amend the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976. One aspect of this would be to make male rape a crime recognisable in law, subject to the same maximum sentence - life imprisonment - as female rape. At present, the maximum sentence for non- consensual buggery is 10 years. But Mr Cohen is not optimistic about his chances. People still don't believe it's happening, he says. 'Or they believe it's happening, and can't understand it.'

'Male rape is perhaps the easiest crime to get away with in this country,' the late Richie McMullen told a BBC interviewer last year. Mr McMullen was an expert on the subject. He was himself a rape victim, and had written the first British book on the subject. 'If you and I decided, as two men, that we were going to go out tonight and rape a boy or a man, we could almost guarantee - 99.9 per cent certain - that we're going to get away with it. The reason we're going to get away with it is because we know the victim is not going to report the crime. His sexual identity is going to be brought into question. He's going to be made to look a fool in front of his family and friends. He'll be asked 'How on earth could you let that happen to you?' '

Richie McMullen's book, Male Rape: Breaking the Silence on the Last Taboo, kicks off with a statement that is repeated and supported by research throughout the text: most male rapes are committed by heterosexuals.

Of the handful of research papers that have appeared on the subject, the most exhaustive appeared two years ago in the British Journal of General Practice. This surveyed 100 victims who had called Survivors, the male rape counselling service. It found that 28 were aged 16 or over at the time of the assault; that assailants were known by 72 of the victims and were perceived by the victim to have a heterosexual orientation in 72 per cent of these cases; and that attacks were often multiple, and in 33 cases involved damage to skin or mucous membranes.

Clearly it is a gay problem too, one that raises issues of date-rape and consent. David Smith, the news editor of Gay Times, says he cannot remember a period when there were so many reported incidents. He has got a thick file on them, mainly incidents concerning heterosexual victims and attackers: the most vicious incidents, the most traumatised victims. Of the rapes involving homosexual men, many had occurred within relationships.

This morning, Ben, a heterosexual man of 35, will try to leave his house. Most likely he'll fail. He used to go out to work - no more. He used to go out after dark. He used to have a fiancee.

Ben is a big man, ex-Army, could look after himself. He used to find it easy to make friends. 'I had the normal life,' he says. He was raped in 1989 in Kensington by a stranger with a knife. He cries as he talks, as he relives his trauma. He apologises. He holds his hands to his face. He continues. 'I want to tell you what it's like,' he says.

'He turned me around, stood on me, pressing me, he was so cold, so incredibly calm. I was shaking, I was crying, he hit me hard across the face, told me that if I was to cry I was to cry silently.

'He made me . . . he peed in my mouth. He was swearing, he was calling me names. He said: 'You know you like it, you know you really enjoy it, you know you want this.' His eyes, blue eyes . . . he looked at me and said: 'If you ever tell anybody I will kill you. I know where you live, and I will kill you.' '

After the rape, Ben says he lost all sense of time. He remembers washing obsessively. He burnt all the clothes he was wearing at the time. He was exhausted, but could not sleep. When he closed his eyes he relived the nightmare.

'A lot of the time I went through periods when I just wanted to die. I lost the will to live. Suddenly there was a real fear of people, because of shame. I felt I could never trust a man again. For a very long time afterwards I didn't feel that I was a man. I was a thing, totally defiled. As if everybody could see, 'this guy has been raped.' I felt sub-human.'

He also believed he could tell no one what had happened. Nobody could possibly understand; certainly not the police. After about six weeks he called the Rape Crisis Centre. He says the woman who answered was dumbfounded. 'She said, 'We're for women.' I thought, 'What about me?' When I had the courage to go to my local GP, he said, 'I can give you some sleeping pills'. Another doctor I saw said, 'Is this the first time that a pick-up has done this to you?' Excuse me? He said, 'Well, you are homosexual, aren't you?' No. No. I was astounded at the presumption.

'The question you ask is, will the rapist win, or will you win? Every step is a fight, literally pushing myself, pushing myself out of the door. Because unless you can gather together every single piece of your life that he smashed against the wall, seize back every single one, and make your life whole again, then the rapist has won.'

WHAT KIND of man does this? Male rape shares something with female rape: it is not about sex, but about power and degradation, about violence in which sex is the weapon. Psychologists identify several causes: a desire for conquest and control; revenge and retaliation; and what is called 'conflict and counteraction', in which a rapist may punish his victim as a way of dealing with confusion about his own sexuality.

Richie McMullen believed the main causes had to do with negative aspects of power and aggression. 'It is as though the offender is over-compensating for any other potential hurts to his already otherwise fragile masculinity. He must act out or externalise his fears in such a way as to be seen to be more dominant, more masculine, than he is in reality . . . Undefined and confused notions of what it means to be a masculine, powerful, dominant man echo through our culture like football chants.'

Because sexual gratification is not the main objective, a rapist may be 'gender blind', able to act either on a male or a female victim. An offender often pays little attention to his choice of victim, or his age or physical condition.

There is a helpline telephone number that victims can call for help, but they will be lucky to get through. Survivors, the only national support organisation working with male victims of sexual violence, operates for three hours twice a week. Last year it received about 450 calls from men.

'If we were open more, we'd get a huge amount more calls,' says Henry Leak, a volunteer. 'The phone doesn't stop ringing. People say they've been trying to get through for three or four weeks.'

Survivors was established in 1986 after two London charities - the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard and Streetwise Youth (which works with male prostitutes) - began to receive an increasing number of calls from victims of attack, many neither gay nor prostitutes. It receives no official funding, and last year relied on donations totalling pounds 4,000 to fund its helpline, counselling sessions and support groups.

Many of the calls are about incest or child sexual abuse. Many ring several years after the incident occurred. There are an increasing number of calls from prisons. It began with ex-prisoners saying they had been raped in jail, but now they also get prison officers requesting counselling for an inmate.

'It's classic institutionalised rape,' Mr Leak says, 'and prisoners say it happens all the time as a controlling thing. There's one guy who used to work with us, a gay man. He was in prison on a four-month term for fraud. For four months he was used by the serious sexual offenders.'

IN 1989, two senior medical consultants arrived at Scotland Yard with a disturbing message. They both worked at a sexually transmitted disease clinic, and were seeing a significant increase in men coming to their clinics for Aids tests, saying they had been assaulted but were unwilling to report the incidents to the police. The consultants saw Detective Superintendent Barbara Wilding, and suggested that the type of scheme she worked on to examine the police treatment of female rape victims be extended to men.

Det Supt Wilding's response then was: 'Well, there isn't a problem is there? Our figures clearly don't show there's a problem.' The crime was not being reported, and no one investigating serious sexual assault believed it was a serious issue.

Barbara Wilding and her colleagues then talked to Survivors, and examined the research, and learnt a different story. Today she says: 'Now we know it's been happening since Roman times. It's a way of subjugating the enemy. There are reports that it's happening in Yugoslavia.'

But since the police force is perceived as a macho organisation, victims fear disdain or disbelief. 'They'll think we'll see it as a homosexual crime, when clearly it isn't. They'll think that their masculinity has been challenged once, and that we'll challenge it again and we won't believe them. And then there's all this guilt that goes with it.'

A five-year pilot project was established last January. A 'chaperone' scheme was introduced, which involved the specialised training of 26 officers, both men and women, who were put on 24-hour call to any Metropolitan Police station. Though not qualified counsellors, chaperones will call a victim's friends or employers, arrange new clothing, make an appointment at an STD clinic and fix up new accommodation. The Metropolitan Police area's eight female victim examination suites (accessible through the side entrance of a station) were also made available to men.

But despite these services, and the improved attitude of the police, only 10 victims have come forward this year. Of these, the average age has been 20-24; in seven of the 10 cases the attacks were by strangers. The only visible pattern is that the victims tend to be fashionable young men out late at night.

No charges have been brought as a result of the 10 incidents. Unless the victim is forensically examined very soon after the attack, there may be insufficient evidence to prosecute. But there are many other problems: a victim may not feel able to relive the experience in front of cynical strangers, much less an intimidating cross-examination; he will probably feel tremendous guilt and shame; and although the anonymity of the victim is now guaranteed in law, most fear that the circumstances of the case will identify them.

Det Supt Wilding believes more men will come forward because of the recent spate of publicity. But not all the publicity is accurate. In mid-October almost every national newspaper carried a report of how a 19-year-old man was abducted by three armed men in an empty carriage of a Northern Line underground train. He was then taken to Hampstead Heath and raped. The Sun put it on the front page: 'A Gay Gang Rapes Boy'; the Daily Express reported that it was 'the eighth indecent assault by homosexuals in the capital since April'.

The problem was, it didn't happen. 'A complete pack of lies,' says Detective Inspector Jim Davison, of Hampstead police. The more the police questioned the man, the more discrepancies were found in his account.

With such shame and stigma still attached to homosexuality and bisexuality, could it be that some men are alleging rape as 'an excuse', an explanation for what much of society interprets as miscreant activity? 'In the case of a woman being raped, sometimes we find that it didn't happen in the way it was alleged to have happened,' Barbara Wilding says. 'I'd be very surprised if the same thing doesn't happen with men. It doesn't mean that something didn't happen.' In the Hampstead case, it is probably significant that it was the victim's girlfriend who called the police.

Because of the paucity of complaints, the new police unit is still unable to establish a reliable intelligence programme or build up preventative measures. 'We need to know if men are vulnerable in certain circumstances, where it is being committed, by whom,' says Det Supt Wilding. 'But we can't go to our computer and ask 'Who has done this sort of crime before?' '

Harry Cohen says his Bill is designed to encourage more people to come forward. When gender-free legislation was introduced in San Francisco, there was a 10 per cent increase in reported crime from men. 'It might send out the message to the community that this is serious, and that if (men who have been raped) go to the police they'll take it seriously.'

His Bill is supported by Diane Abbott, Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Dawn Primarolo and seven others, and he receives much sympathetic mail. Yet he remains gloomy about its progress. 'The whips will probably throw it out,' he says. 'It proposes an increase in victim compensation, and that's never going to be popular. For most people male rape is not a serious issue. Things won't improve until that attitude changes.'

Survivors Helpline, Tues and Thurs, 7pm-10pm: 071-833 3737

(Photograph omitted)

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