Male victims of rape, sexual abuse and depression: Breaking the silence on International Men's Day

Those who mock today are mocking victims of a viciously gendered society

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Lee spent his entire childhood in care. He was sexually abused by his foster father until he was 14. As a teenager he began to drink heavily and committing serious, violent crimes. Between the ages of 17 and 21 he spent all but 15 months in prison.

During his final 18 months in custody, he persuaded the prison and probation service to pay for one-to-one counselling. It turned his life around. What made the difference?

“I stopped blaming myself, it wasn’t my fault. I started to understand why I felt the way I did, why I reacted the way I did and most importantly that my reaction was normal.”

Lee’s story is included in a remarkable little book produced by the charity Survivors Manchester, called Break the Silence, which recounts the diverse stories of male victims of rape and sexual abuse, written by the men themselves in their own words. Lee’s account of his early life is the kind of story that made me want to take an active part in today’s International Men’s Day. 

Some may question what gender has to do with such a sad tale. They may be unaware that there are nearly twice as many boys as girls in the care system. After leaving care, one in every 23 boys will be in prison on his 19th birthday. The same statistic for girls is one in 144. While girls are more likely to be victims of rape, sexual assault or childhood abuse, victimised boys are much less likely than girls to report it to authorities, to friends and family or to caring professionals.

Perhaps the one detail on which Lee’s story is not typical is that he did in the end actively seek help and, eventually, disclosed his experiences to a counsellor. A vast body of research has consistently shown that men are less likely to tell anyone when they are the victims of rape, sexual abuse, sexual assault or domestic violence. When boys are bullied in school, they are twice as likely to tell nobody. Men are also significantly less likely to seek help with depression and other mental health problems, and significantly less likely to see a doctor about physical health problems. Men have fewer friends and are much less likely to turn to those they have for emotional support in times of crisis.

This toxic culture of silence is not a product of chromosomes, testosterone or genes. Instead this traditional male stoicism is conditioned into us, sometimes literally beaten into us, from the day we are born. Boys don’t cry, we are told. Man up, be a man, take it like a man. The mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) deals with the consequences of this every day – they include around twelve British men taking their own lives every single day, often without ever having looked for help and support. For years CALM have been pleading with us to understand that being silent isn’t being strong.

Of course men in our society still unfairly occupy the highest and most powerful platforms, speak with the loudest voices, scoop most of the largest pay cheques. What must be noted is that those men rarely if ever use their platforms and positions to speak up for those of their gender who are abused, neglected, left homeless, impoverished, criminalised by the society they have built. We live in a viciously gendered culture, some of the consequences of that gendering are what International Men’s Day should address.

The single most common reaction to International Men’s Day among my friends on the political left is always some variation on “I thought every day was International Men’s Day?’ Some try to make it about the problems men cause women while others press the pedal for full-blown mockery and derision. Surely they realise that such swipes barely tickle at the men in designer suits who run the banks, the governments and the corporations, while cutting deep at the homeless, the desperate, the suicidal, the young victims of rape and sexual abuse leaving care and going straight to prison. They must feel so proud.

I can also recognise that there are some self-styled men’s activists who use the occasion of IMD as an excuse to bash feminism, although the truth is those guys would use the occasion of a pigeon crapping on their shoulder as an excuse to bash feminism. I’m not prepared to relinquish the narrative of IMD to them, any more than I will to those who find it hilarious that it falls on the same day as World Toilet Day (another very noble and important cause, incidentally, for those with the nous to check.)

Around the country today, IMD events include a conference to bring together organisations working with male and female victims of domestic and sexual abuse; events to encourage mentoring and a meeting on involved fatherhood at the House of Lords. Similar initiatives are happening in dozens of countries around the world. I opted to spend six hours muted, as part of a sponsored silence to raise funds and awareness for Survivors Manchester. The idea seemed especially resonant and rather profound. One thing is certain - when I get to a minute past three o’clock, I will be silent no more. I hope I am not the only one.

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