'On Being Raped'

Professor writes about how he was raped as a young man, drawing attention to male victims of a terrible crime.

March 29, 2016

Many colleges and universities have come under criticism in recent years for their handling of sexual assault on campus. Those controversies and the debate they generate tend to focus on assaults against women. Less talked about, and less talked about than it ought to be, writes Raymond Douglas in his new book, On Being Raped (Beacon Press), is the rape of men, both on and off college campuses. Little progress has been made, he writes, for male victims in the three decades since he was raped. When he was 18, Douglas was raped by a Roman Catholic priest while living and working in Europe. In the book, he recounts his experience for the first time and discusses how society treats male victims of rape.

Douglas is a professor of history at Colgate University and author of several books about history, including Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War.

Q: In the book you describe several early, "unbearably painful" attempts to talk with others about your experience and a resolution afterward to "say nothing to anyone about what happened to me … from that day to this one." What has changed since then? What motivated you to write this book?

A: I was 18 when I was raped. Afterwards, I searched for something in print that would confirm to me that I wasn't the only man to whom this had ever happened. I didn't find it. To the contrary, the academic and clinical literature I found stated with great assurance that the rape of men was virtually unknown outside of prison or, if it occurred, was confined to people who hitchhiked or swam alone on remote beaches. Today, according to official data, one in eight rapes in Britain occurs to men; in France, more than one in seven. U.S. figures are harder to find, because the FBI only began recording male rape in 2013, but the prevalence is likely to be on a similar scale. Because of underreporting, these numbers are probably on the conservative side.

It's now 30-odd years after my attack, and less has changed for male rape victims than I could have imagined even in my most pessimistic moments. One of the reasons I've written this book is to offer some guidance to those who are currently going through the same experience and -- as was the case with me -- don't have a clue how to feel or what to think. But it's not addressed to the victim alone. At present, there's not much available for men who have been raped other than derision, contempt or embarrassed silence. We don't know how to address their situation, and we certainly don't know how to listen to them when they do try to speak. Nor have we much to say to the "secondary survivors," the parents, partners and friends of the victims, who also have to cope with the repercussions of these crimes. I'm hoping that this book can help people who may not have encountered male sexual victimization in their own lives to gain insight into what it involves, and begin thinking through the process of how we can better respond to those affected by it.

Q: One of the troubling notions you encountered during one of those early attempts was "vampire syndrome." Can you talk about what that is and whether and to what degree it persists today?

A: The "vampire syndrome," otherwise known as the "victim-to-abuser cycle," is the assumption that a male rape victim is likely to go on to rape others in his turn. Like Count Dracula, who creates more vampires by biting them, the male victim is seen as the carrier of a kind of abuse virus. You'll find a classic exposition of this idea at the beginning of the section Susan Brownmiller devotes to male rape in Against Our Will (1975), and it has been recycled innumerable times since then.

Astonishingly little empirical data exists in support of this theory. A very large recent study in Australia that tracked sexually abused boys over decades into adulthood found no evidence of such an effect. But its influence has been very damaging indeed. Tragically, many male rape victims themselves believe that they may unconsciously be carrying the "virus," leading them to avoid intimate relationships or shy away from physical contact with their own children. Concern -- sometimes justified -- that they will be regarded with heightened levels of suspicion if their victimization is known to others is one of the leading reasons men are reluctant to disclose their assaults.

Q: Later in the book you write, "To murder or to assault someone with impunity is to diminish respect for the human dignity of all, a social value that the collective has a vital interest in defending. Only in the case of rape, and more especially the rape of men, does it seem that the general inclination is to abdicate this responsibility to the victim." Why especially the rape of men? What would you say is different for men, and what can be done about it?

A: Victim blaming directed at people who have experienced sexual violence is universal. But it takes different forms. Women are often stigmatized for failing to foresee their attacks. The message they receive is that they are personally responsible for rape prevention by avoiding a wide range of behaviors -- walking unaccompanied after dark, consuming alcohol, being alone in male company, etc. -- that in combination add up to: "Don't have any kind of normal life."

Men, in contrast, are rarely blamed for not expecting to be raped. But when it happens, dealing with it is regarded as a duty that devolves upon them. Historically, legal systems have paid little attention to these crimes and shown less interest in prosecuting them when they occur. For a majority of the world's population, the rape of men is still not a offense defined in law. Men are expected to defend themselves against attacks of this kind or, if they can't, to handle the aftermath themselves, whether through private vengeance, lifelong silence, or self-medication with alcohol and drugs. In other words, a social problem is being treated as though it were an individual one.

As for what needs to be done about it, we have the example of the women's antirape movement as a guide to follow. In my mother's time, rape was nearly as much of an unspeakable topic for women as it currently is for men. Rape was considered something that dishonored and tainted the victim far more than the perpetrator. Public awareness was minimal, legal provisions inadequate, police procedures abusive, scholarship uninformed or insulting, counseling and therapeutic services nonexistent. Around the beginning of the 1970s, things started to change. Probably the most important factor to bring that about was the willingness of victims to speak out and to challenge the prejudicial framing of their experiences by others. The situation today for men who have been raped is not dissimilar, and the same remedy applies. We've been far too silent for far too long.

Q: Your book comes amid increased discussion about sexual assault on campus, typically of women. Do you have any hopes for your book broadening the discussion on campuses? Is there something about your story (or the stories of similar men) that could help in those broader discussions?

A: The federal government's Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that 17 percent of rape and sexual assault victims at colleges and universities are male undergraduates. That's not part of the campus conversation at present. There's not a single postsecondary institution of any size, including my own, at which this is not occurring. Some fairly ghastly cases have been in the news of late. But male sexual victimization isn't prominent on the radar screens of most Title IX offices and college counseling centers. It's rarely addressed adequately in student orientations or sexual assault programming. All too often, coverage is either cursory ("You know, this can happen to guys, too. Now as I was saying …") or completely absent.

Lots of unfortunate consequences follow from that. Male students typically have little awareness that they are at risk of sexual assault. Nor do they have a vocabulary with which to describe it once it occurs. They often don't recognize that what happened to them is a crime. If they are intoxicated; if they freeze up, which is perhaps the most common reaction for both sexes rather than fighting or fleeing; if the perpetrator is an intimate partner; if the perpetrator is female; if they have a physical response to the assault -- they're all too likely to decide that it was their own fault for putting themselves in that situation. These scenarios, though, are the most common ones, both on campus and off. As with sexual offenses against women, a violent attack by a stranger is more the exception than the rule.

As Inside Higher Ed has reported, the organization Know Your IX says that "because of pervasive myths about who 'can' and 'cannot' be a rape victim, male survivors [on campus] often aren't provided the same remedies and protections in schools as female survivors." A lot of work lies ahead of us to change that situation.

Q: Lastly, what do you hope readers take away from your book?

A: Statistically, it's virtually certain that everyone who reads it already knows a man who has been raped; they're just not aware of it. That man -- and several million others like him in the U.S. -- is keeping silent because he doesn't believe it's safe for him to speak. He has excellent reasons for feeling that way. We need to think about what might be done to create a less forbidding climate for him.


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