Text by: Rob Hamilton
Gender-based violence (GBV) has been pervasive across the course of human history. It is only one of many strands in the woven fabric of institutional violence that preserves patriarchal culture, ensuring the continuation of male dominance and ongoing control by men of key institutional resources, all of which contribute to keeping women and girls ‘in their place’.
The United Nations defines GBV as (McMahon 2018):
… violence that is directed at a person on the basis of gender or sex. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threat of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.
While GBV has always been characterised by female victimhood and male perpetration, it is worth noting that this definition makes no explicit reference to the gender of either the victim or the perpetrator. The possibility, then, of male victimhood, is important to consider. This is not to deny that most of the energy and resources should focus on women and girls as victims (and indeed on marginalised victims such as trans people, gay men and lesbian women, and people who are gender variant). But in shining a light on (mostly heterosexual) men as victims, we open the door to helping such men, and we introduce necessary complexity and nuance in a field which may have closed the door on male victimhood.
McMahon (2018), for example, points out that there is no international legal instrument specifically prohibiting sexual violence against men, which she believes reinforces the prevailing notion that only women and girls are victims of GBV. Yet the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE, 2018) states that “… it is always understood that gender-based violence means violence against women” (my emphasis).
One answer to this question relates to toxic constructions of masculinity. Messerschmidt (2005) suggests that a key attribute of toxic masculinity is the social expectation that boys and men should only engage in stereotypically masculine performances of gender. Amongst others, these rigid notions of what constitutes a ‘real’ man restrict emotions which men and boys are allowed to show publicly: in particular, men are expected to be dominant and to frequently express anger, whilst expression of vulnerable, so-called ‘feminine’, emotions such as fear, sadness, vulnerability and pain, is prohibited. Any male individual who expresses vulnerability is likely to be demeaned by dominant alpha males, and to have their personal masculinity questioned and belittled.
Hence many male survivors of GBV are likely to invest strongly in concealment of their trauma: public disclosure, particularly of experiences of emotional and physical trauma or vulnerability, risks survivors being an object of derision for men who are heavily invested in policing toxic masculinity, and hence survivors’ immediate experience of trauma may be compounded by public disbelief that men and boys could be victims (as well as perpetrators) and painful experiences of shaming (Zalewski et al. 2018). The absence of an empathic response is reflected in the most common reactions of police and social support services across the world when men disclose that they have been victims of GBV: their complaints are not treated seriously, and male victims may find themselves being belittled.
Men who are victims of domestic violence where perpetrators are female may face social prejudice and humiliation when they report the traumatic event to police. Male victims of domestic violence are perceived as lacking machismo, and their gender identities may be perceive as fundamentally damaged. Cases of intimate-partner violence (IPV) in which the perpetrator is female and the victim is male are rarely reported, and in some communities the traumatic act is not even recognised as inherently violent.
In countries like Uganda or Saudi Arabia (where homosexuality is illegal and homophobia is rampant) disclosure to police by a male victim of sexual violence that the perpetrator was male may be met not only with scepticism and ridicule, but the police are likely to assume that he consented to such sexual acts. This may in turn lead to him being arrested and charged with a criminal offence. A court case may follow, with public shaming, and if convicted, he may be sentenced to a long period of imprisonment or even violent flogging in a public setting (McMahon 2018).
Finally, many countries do not even go as far as collecting data on men who have experienced GBV, which effectively results in them feeling invisible. Recent statistics on crime in South Africa, released by the South African Police Service, offered for the first time sex disaggregated information when it reflected “crimes committed against women and children”. These crimes included sexual offences, and no mention was made of men as victims.
Research regarding men as victims of GBV in in Southern Africa is conspicuously absent.
South Africa reports a very high incidence of women and girls who experience GBV, yet almost no data exists on men as victims of GBV (Machisa et al. 2011). Hence South African-based organisations working towards gender justice inevitably focus on vulnerable women and girls, and on provision of support to female GBV survivors. There are virtually no services provided for men who have experienced GBV victimisation, apart from trauma counselling offered by certain LGBTI community organisations.
Yet not all South African men are perpetrators of GBV, nor does the possession of a male gender identity necessarily keep all boys and men in South Africa safe from GBV and sexual violence.
Morgan and Wells (2016) reported on men’s experiences of IPV perpetrated by their female partners. All the men who were interviewed identified themselves as victims of abuse, which took multiple forms. One particular form of abuse which was highlighted was a controlling form of abuse (e.g. isolating the male partner and preventing him from having outside social contacts, or threatening to withdraw his right of access to his children). The participants also pointed out that the female perpetrators were highly adept at hiding the abuse from others, or falsely accused the men of being perpetrators of abuse, and hence distracted attention from the women. It was felt that the perpetrators exploited the common myths that women are vulnerable, weaker than men and fundamentally nurturing, to hide the extent and longevity of the abuse within the relationship.
IPV does not affect only heterosexual couples. A study of IPV amongst gay male American couples, which was published in the July 2018 issue of the American Journal of Men’s Health, found that gay male couples experience domestic partner violence at rates comparable to those of heterosexual couples. Some 46% of couples that were surveyed said that one or both partners had experienced IPV over the past year, whether as emotional, sexual or physical abuse, or in some other form. The study also found that internalised homophobia was a common factor in abusive behaviour, both for perpetrators and victims. Previous studies of gay male couples had found that on average a third of men in same-sex relationships experienced emotional abuse, a quarter faced physical abuse, and one in ten experienced sexual violence. It appears that the incidence of IPV tends to decrease with age, but tends to increase if the couple experience stress regarding their finances, depression or either of them engages in substance use.
Research has shown that certain male sub-populations are more likely to be exposed to GBV, and some institutional contexts make sexual violence directed towards men or boys highly likely to happen. In South Africa boys and men in prisons or institutional care have been identified as at particular risk for GBV.
Male offenders in a South African prison setting are particularly vulnerable to male rape, which includes a high risk of HIV infection. and their degree of vulnerability is often linked to their physical appearance and / or gender presentation (Trammel 2011). It is difficult to determine the prevalence of male rape in South African prisons, since sexual assault and rape were until recently classified as general assault by the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), and researchers have been dependent on inmate’s personal accounts regarding the nature and extent of the problem.
Gear (2007) and Booyens (2009) are two researchers who have sought to understand the dynamics of male rape in South African prisons, and who describe the social complexities underlying vulnerability. They describe the most vulnerable men in a prison setting as those men who are identified as gay or transgender, adolescents and young men who appear to be less physically powerful, men who are slight in stature or shorter than other men, men with no links to gang networks or financial resources (and hence who have no means to ensure gang protection from sexual violence), as well as offenders known to be serving a prison sentence following conviction for the sexual abuse of children (who are highly stigmatised both by other offenders and prison staff members).
In 2013 the South African Department of Correctional Services adopted the Policy to Address the Sexual Abuse of Inmates in DCS Facilities, which tackles the problem in similar ways to the Prison Rape Elimination Act in the United States. This was described as a historic first step towards ending male GBV in South African prisons. However, the main challenge will be effective implementation of the policy, given the overcrowding of South African prisons and the chronic staffing crisis (Keehn & Geer 2015).
Another group of boys and men who are more likely to become victims of GBV are physically and intellectually disabled males in institutional care, who are at particularly high risk of sexual assault from male and female caregivers. Men with disabilities are reportedly four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than men who are not disabled (health24 2011).
According to Ngari (2016), sexual violence has been a tactic of war since the dawn of civilisation, and such acts have aimed to humiliate, dominate and instil fear in subjugated groups of people.
In modern times sexual violence has increasingly been used as a tactic of terrorist movements. The international focus of current NGOs has been on supporting women and girls who are survivors of sexual violence, but the fact that boys and men can also be at risk is often glossed over. Sexual violence targeting men and boys can include anal and oral rape, genital torture, castration and coercion to rape other individuals. In the context of normative masculinity, many of these acts are experienced by male victims as emasculating. Although some male victims willingly testify regarding the sexual violence that they have witnessed, the majority are reluctant to disclose what sexual violence they themselves have experienced and its traumatic effects.
As with female survivors of sexual violence, men and boys who are victims of GBV during periods of conflict may experience severe and permanent trauma, particularly when the conflict involves civil war or protracted ethnic violence. The sexual trauma which men experience in these circumstances is much more likely to be overlooked or ignored than sexual trauma suffered by women.
Clark (2017) describes in poignant terms the impact of civil conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, and the severe sexual violence inflicted on both men and women. Despite the fact that two decades had passed since the end of the war, he found that scant attention had been given to men and boys subjected to sexual violence during the conflict.
Loncar, Henigsberg and Hrabac (2009) describe the long-term impact of sexual violence inflicted on males during the Bosnian and Serbian conflicts. Male victims experienced rape, various forms of sexual abuse; and most victims were also severely beaten. The most common traumatic effects for male survivors were disturbances of sleep, difficulties with concentration, recurrent nightmares and flash-backs, and feelings of hopelessness. Persistent physiological symptoms following sexual violence included severe headaches, profuse sweating and elevated heart rate. The researchers believed that the number of men who were sexually abused during the civil conflict was far higher than the cases which were actually reported.
Another form of sexual violence inflicted on boys and men is sexual torture. Weishut (2015) provides evidence of Israeli authorities inflicting sexual torture on Palestinian men detained during the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sexual torture had included detainees forced to be nude, squeezing of the male scrotum, male-on-male rape, genital mutilation and even castration of men. The long-term consequence for male torture survivors was most often sexual dysfunction, including decreased sexual interest, inability to trust a sexual partner, aversion regarding sexual activity, inability to become sexually aroused and erectile dysfunction.
There were widespread reports that Israeli security forces engaged in verbal sexual harassment of Palestinians, including threatened rape, sexual humiliation of Palestinians’ family members and sexual threats made to family members.
A study of male victims of sexual torture in 45 countries found that although fewer than 20% of male detainees who had been sexually assaulted by guards or interrogators could later provide physical evidence of the assault, more than half of the victims developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (Bhugra, Craig & Bhui 2010).
Boys and men in African countries with ongoing violent unrest or ethnic conflict (such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Congo DRC) face a particularly high risk for GBV (Institute for Security Studies 2018).
Boys and men may be forced to fight, and then as combatants become victims of GBV. Some male victims may in turn become perpetrators of sexual violence against others of either gender. A particular problem is posed by young male child soldiers who have been victims of sexual violence, and then perpetrate further atrocities themselves.
Thus a seemingly unstoppable cycle of sexual victimisation and passing on of trauma may be initiated. Unfortunately little is known about how best to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate traumatised former male combatants into society. And there is a dearth of research regarding conflict-related sexual violence which involves boys as a particularly vulnerable group. Conducting research in this area is fraught with ethical challenges. However, accurate statistics for such crimes would be a useful starting point, and would help to build up an evidence base regarding the incidence of GBV, to whom and by whom GBV occurs, and which contexts increase the risks of GBV.
Ferrales, Brehm and McElrath (2016) document GBV experienced by male refugees who had fled civil conflict and genocide in Darfur (Sudan). They suggest that the sexual violence experienced by men and boys had the effect of emasculating them in four ways, which they described as: demeaning male victims as being homosexual; reducing male victims to the far lower social status of females; inflicting genital injuries; and engaging in sex-selective killing (i.e. a focus on killing males in particular). They conclude that male-directed GBV reinforces existing gender inequality, but inflicts particular harm on male survivors because it deprives them of their traditional masculine identities.
Non-combatant men and boys have been, and continue to be, the most frequent targets of mass killing and genocidal slaughter, as well as a host of lesser atrocities and abuses (Human Security Center 2005). Gendercide Watch, an independent human rights group, has documented multiple examples of genocide where there was a particular focus on exterminating males (both adults and children), including the Anfal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988, the Armenian Genocide (1915-1917) and the Rwandan genocide (1994). Forced conscription is also sometimes considered to be gender-based violence by men against other men.
Sexual and gender-based violence, regardless of the genders of the perpetrator and the victim, is a very grave violation of the individual’s person and personal well-being. Consequences often remain with the victim for life, long after any physical injuries have healed. If we wish to facilitate the healing of victims, we need to develop a holistic perspective regarding sexual and gender-based violence. Established and outdated stereotypes regarding sexuality, gender and power relations need to be challenged. We need to fully understand that boys and men are also vulnerable in specific contexts, and may also be in need of protection.
Where international instruments focus on sexual violence directed at women and girls, consideration should be given to exploring the situation of both male and female victims.
Adequate mechanisms need to developed to encourage male victims to disclose their traumatic experience freely, knowing that they will be listened to and taken seriously. An example of this is men-only groups or workshops in which male victims of sexual violence are able to share their experiences. Careful facilitation of such groups would enable male victims to open up and to disclose their experiences.
Systematic collection of data regarding the incidence and nature of GBV focused on male victims is essential, in order to justify the provision of services and to leverage for funding.
Members of police and other protection services, government officials and NGO staff need to be educated about the realities of men as victims of GBV, and to take any reports of male victims as seriously as the reports of female victims.
Psychoeducation of communities regarding the nature and consequences of all forms of sexual violence and gender-based violence needs to be prioritised.
Strategies to provide assistance to men and boys on such a sensitive issue should be put in place. The longer these offences remain hidden, the more serious the physical, emotional and psychological damage is. In the words of a Congolese refugee who had experienced GBV, “The more I am hiding, the more I am suffering”.
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 A prime example is the current American president, Donald Trump.