A competition of suffering: Male vs. female rape

By — August 29, 2013

One of the main components of our project at WMC’s Women Under Siege is to educate the public about how rape is used not only as a crime of war but also as a strategic tool. During our research on systemic sexualized violence in wartime, we have found that rape disproportionately affects women. But the key term here is disproportionately.

Sexualized violence against men does occur and is certainly worthy of attention and concern—we choose to put much of our focus on women because, based on the numbers, women have been more likely to fall victim to rape or sexual assault, and the stories of women in war have been historically under-told.

Experts argue that the stigma attached to male-on-male rape is so great that men are reluctant to come forward.

And while publicly it’s often presented as a competition—for every tweet we do about a woman raped, we get back at least one saying, “Men are raped too”—it isn’t.

“It’s not about who wins the suffering prize,” said Will Storr, a British journalist who has written on male rape. “It is a huge problem that men don’t get enough attention and, certainly, more is needed, but it should not at all detract from the women.”

In either case, whether against women or men, it can be incredibly challenging to effectively and accurately quantify sexualized violence, said Tia Palermo, a professor of public health at Stony Brook University. In a piece she wrote for WMC’s Women Under Siege, she explains why it’s important to try: “Effective policies and programs are possible only when a more complete description of the problem is informed by rigorous research and conveyed accurately by the media.”

Palermo also pointed out to Siege recently that in many conflicts around the world, “we don’t have the data to conclude which gender makes up the largest proportion of victims of sexual violence among civilians and military actors. As for the challenges of getting this information, many surveys only interview women.”


Parsing the stats on male rape
Statistics, crucially, are only meaningful if they are interpreted in context.

In a June article for the New York Times, James Dao reported what he called an often-overlooked fact about military rape: “The majority of service members who are sexually assaulted each year are men,” he said.

The article also cites statistics on sexualized violence in the U.S. military that many found shocking: According to the Pentagon, at least 26,000 service members reported experiencing “unwanted sexual contact in 2012,” of which 53 percent were male.

But the issue with this statistic is that the numbers only tell a part of the story.

Dao’s article also points out that women only represent 15 percent of the armed forces, which means that 47 percent of all cases of sexualized violence are concentrated in the 15 percent of female personnel, just a small fraction of the group. Female personnel are at an inherently greater risk.

Another common belief about male rape is that men are at greater risk of rape in prison. In a 2001 report, Human Rights Watch estimated the total number of male inmates raped in custody in the United States to be upward of 140,000. But in its December 2012 bulletin, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that women make up only 7 percent of the 1,598,780 Americans in prison. Effectively determining victimization, therefore, requires an analysis of the individual threat faced by male and female inmates, instead of an examination of percentages.

In her 2007 book Women Behind Bars, author Siljia J. A. Talvi asserted that incarcerated men in the U.S. experience sexualized violence “at an estimated rate of one in five.” But Talvi also says that “one in four women reports having been sexually abused while in jail or prison.” A 2008-2009 study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that female inmates are twice as likely to experience rape or sexualized violence at the hands of fellow inmates than their male counterparts. While men make up the majority of prisoners and of victims, female inmates still experience a greater risk.

In some regards, the issue of prison rape is analogous to military rape. In U.S. state and federal prisons, like in the military, males represent the majority of victims of sexualized violence in absolute terms, but in both cases, individual female inmates or service members still experience a heightened risk of victimization. 

It’s worth pointing out that in countries like Egypt, Iran, and Syria, men are frequent victims of sexualized violence or assault in prison. But while the practices and patterns of assault may differ from those typically used against women, the reasons for rape are often the same: humiliation, breaking down of prisoners, exertion of power and control, and so on.


Why understanding male rape helps all victims
Lara Stemple, a professor at UCLA and a leader on the issue of male rape, agrees that women make up the majority of victims, but says that “neglecting male rape is bad for women and girls” as often it reinforces views of “some victims as more sympathetic than others, perpetuate[s] norms that essentialize women as victims, and impose[s] unhealthy expectations about masculinity on men and boys.”

Experts also argue that the stigma attached to male-on-male rape is so great that men are reluctant to come forward. This is very likely the case, but our research has shown that the stigma for women, especially in places where a woman’s purity is prized above any other attribute, can be just as paralyzing. While the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that about 54 percent of all assaults in the U.S. go unreported, a study by the University of Rochester found reporting rates to be as low as 16 percent. The numbers, though varying among organizations, are always dismal.

Drawing on 1998 statistics from the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RAINN reported that while 1 in 6 American women would experience attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, American males experience a likelihood of 1 in 33. A 2004 study by Statistics Canada found that “sexual victimization rates for females were almost 5 times the rate for males. … Similarly, police-reported data for 2007 indicate that female rates of sexual victimization were 5.6 times higher than male rates.”

According to The Guardian, between 2009 and 2012, annual rape cases in England and Wales were estimated at 78,000, of which 69,000 had a female victim, with numbers drawn from a study jointly published by the UK Ministry of Justice and their Office for National Statistics.

A 2010 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about 40 percent of women and 24 percent of men reported being exposed to sexual violence in their lifetime. Of these numbers, 75 percent of women and 65 percent of men said they were exposed to conflict-related sexualized violence.

WMC’s Women Under Siege has been using crowdsourced mapping technology for slightly more than a year to track the use of rape against both women and men in the on-going humanitarian crisis in Syria. As of mid-June 2013, our data indicated that of the more than 200 reports on the map (involving potentially thousands and men and women), roughly 19 percent of victims were male.


A rivalry born from a lack of resources
Rape, in all of its forms, is a crime. Shame, humiliation, hurt, confusion, anger, and fear are not gendered. Trauma is not the birthright of any one sex. And just as homophobia and patriarchal norms can render male victims silent for fear of being perceived as weak or effeminate, similar cultural constructs rob women of their voices.

Rape and sexualized violence should not create a rivalry. But while compassion and concern are not finite resources, column inches and donor dollars often are, which can leave many anxious that more attention for one means, inherently, less for the other. Survivor services for male rape victims are often scarce in affected countries, with men even being directed to visit gynecological centers to receive care. On the flip side, the pot of money for women’s suffering globally is tiny no matter what the issue—violence or otherwise—so resources for women survivors are often nonexistent as well.

WMC’s Women Under Siege was created to examine a typically underreported and misunderstood aspect of rape and sexualized violence—its systemic use as a weapon of war against women. There is nothing to be gained by portraying victimhood as a zero-sum game between genders, but the victimization of men and women in this way does not happen in equal measure. Nor does the perpetration of these crimes, with men carrying out the majority of sexualized violence in war—as soldiers, militia members, rebel forces, whatever. To pretend otherwise is to deny not only the statistics but, for the women themselves, the significance of context.