When we as a society discuss rape and sexual abuse we are more than likely to generate a picture in our minds that we are referring to a scenario that involves a female victim and a male perpetrator. This has been demonstrated to me in many discussions with friends, professionals and members of the public during my time at Mankind, where automatic assumptions are often made. As many dialogues do not take into account men as potential victims, I have paid closer attention when the mention of male survivors is included in these conversations, and I often feel the need to celebrate this inclusivity. However, many of these materials primarily focus on women being impacted by sexual abuse and include an additional statement to specify that men can also been affected. This is normally addressed by simply adding a disclaimer such as ‘(and men)’ into the text. However, recognising men in this way fails to acknowledge the importance of this inclusivity.
While I feel that it is positive progress to acknowledge that men too can be victims of unwanted sexual experiences, it concerns me that this inclusivity may not be seen as something that should consistently and continuously run through our language when discussing sexual abuse. To me the message is simple – anyone can be impacted by unwanted sexual experiences, regardless of their identified gender. I am aware that there is an argument that more women than men experience sexual abuse and can therefore provide a reason for the focus on female survivors. However, the actual statistics of who and how many people are affected by unwanted sexual experiences is unknown due to the large amount of people who choose not to disclose, and secondly, this does not provide a reason for failing to acknowledge that men can also be impacted. This is not an argument that should split opinion or include separate ‘sides’, we are all human and all deserve to be recognised.
I can’t help but worry that by recognising men as victims secondarily; each one of these articles unwittingly plays a part in continuing to reinforce shame around the topic of males who have been impacted by unwanted sexual attention. By not encouraging discussions to help men recognise where this shame has come from, they are forming another obstacle for men to overcome when disclosing sexual abuse. Without these open conversations, how can we expect people to recognise that they are not to blame for what happened to them? This continual focus on ‘shame’ plays a part in preventing men from speaking out about the abuse.
Another concern I have is that many of the articles that focus specifically on the sexual abuse of men and women often choose to focus on the trauma experienced and the overwhelming negative impact that sexual abuse can have on an individuals life. It is more unusual to focus on the positive aspects of the journey that people experience and how they can find themselves in a ‘good’ place. As a society we need to change the way that we talk about sexual abuse. While my aim is not to belittle the trauma that a person has to endure through experiencing unwanted sexual contact, framing them as continuous victims undermines how many people are finding ways to process what happened to them and assimilate its impact on their lives.
At Mankind, we recognise how difficult it can be to engage with a topic as emotive as abuse and have to find innovative ways of enabling the public to join the conversation. Therefore we have commissioned a new play in this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival. Written and performed by a man who has used Mankind services, ‘Groomed’ is living proof that healing from past wounds is possible. The play will allow members of the public to hear a true life story without sensationalism, away from the usual media portrayal of sexual abuse that shows there is a way through the trauma.
We all need to be a part of the conversation to encourage men to feel open about coming forward. Many charities such as Survivors Manchester, Survivors UK, Safeline and CALM play an important part in changing the way we talk about male unwanted sexual experiences, and continue to do fantastic work every day. Only by taking the focus away from ‘shame’ and showing that there are ways to come to terms with what happened, will we encourage men to speak out sooner and access the help and support they deserve.