The invisible men: wartime sexual violence against males

By Justyna Maciejczak
In January 2009 Jean Paul – son of a wealthy Congolese businessman – was abducted by one of many
rebel groups operating in the territory of DRC. On the first night of his captivity he was raped 11
times. The rapes continued over the next few days. On the ninth day Jean Paul managed to escape
his oppressors and shared his dreadful story with the rest of the world (for more on this story, read
the article ‘The Rape of Men’, The Guardian, 17 July 2011).

What happened to Jean Paul constitutes a part of a bigger picture depicting the problem of sexual
abuses committed against men during war. The actual scale of this phenomenon remains unknown.
As Sandesh Sivakumaran notes:

“Although the evidence is largely anecdotal, it is likely that male sexual abuse in armed conflict is
more prevalent than we currently think, for the lack of hard numbers is due to the under-reporting of
the practice and the fact that it is not picked up by others rather than because the practice itself does
not exist.”

What we know about the sexual violence targeting men is that it is relatively widespread, as it occurs
in numerous conflicts taking place in different parts of the world. Chile, Guatemala, Argentina,
Greece, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Turkey, Iraq, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Sudan, the Central
African Republic, Burundi, Uganda , Rwanda – these are only some of the countries where the sexual
abuses against men took place. One study revealed that in the former Yugoslavia 80% of males held at the concentration camp in Sarajevo reported that they had been raped during their confinement.

According to the survey conducted in the 1980s in El Salvador, 76% of male political prisoners had
been victims of sexual torture. One of the recent studies conducted in Eastern DRC, which was
published in August 2010, sheds light on the scale of sexual abuses taking place in this region. The
rate of sexual violence reported by men was nearly 24%. These numbers, however, show us only a
small part of the problem as the vast majority of abuses remains unreported.

The male victims prefer to hide their secret from the world for various reasons. In many societies
admitting to being raped equals to social stigma. A man who was a victim of sexual abuse loses his
honour and masculinity in the eyes of his family and neighbours. He is no longer a respected member
of community, as he proved to be weak. If he cannot defend himself, how will he protect his family,
let alone the village? Many men, who decide to reveal their dark secret, may face dire consequences
of their confession. They risk being left by their wives and families, rejected by community or even
persecuted as homosexuals. There are not many incentives to encourage men to come forward and
tell their stories.

More importantly, even if men want to seek help, there are too many obstacles blocking their way
to full rehabilitation. In fact, it seems that no one is really interested in their plight. Local doctors
often ignore physical and mental symptoms which indicate that a patient had been a victim of sexual
abuse. Sometimes, even if the truth is revealed, there is no medical and psychological support
offered for male victims, as many rehabilitation programmes, run by medical institutions and NGO’s,
deny victim status to men. These institutions recognize women and girls as victims of sexual violence
and offer them treatment and therapy. Meanwhile, men, branded as perpetrators, but hardly ever as
victims, are being left on their own.

This one-sided approach towards conflict-related sexual violence, which draws a clear-cut lines
between victims (females) and perpetrators (males), does harm and injustice to both men and
women. As Lara Stemple points out:

“Ignoring male rape not only neglects men, it also harms women by reinforcing a viewpoint that
equates ‘female’ with ‘victim’, thus hampering our ability to see women as strong and empowered.
In the same way, silence about male victims reinforces unhealthy expectations about men and their
supposed invulnerability.”

In Eastern DRC 41% women and 10% of men who were victims of sexual violence said that the
perpetrators were females. This finding challenges our traditional perception concerning the
relationship between sexual violence and gender. At some point the victim has become the
oppressor and the oppressor turned into victim.

1 thought on “The invisible men: wartime sexual violence against males”

  1. The overall thrust of this article is absolutely necessary. Brava for helping to open the debate on wartime sexual violence.

    I would, however, expand on one critical point. You intimate that ignoring sexual violence perpetrated against men is indirectly deleterious to women on account of increased correlation between femininity and victimization. To push your argument a bit deeper, part of the broader problem stems from the perception that the act of rape is so deeply harmful to men on account of its ability to degrade hegemonic views of masculinity. In short, a man who is raped comes to be viewed as a failed masculine project; he has suffered a “feminine” violation. Thus rape itself provides gender roles which are deeply problematic. I suggest this in full recognition that rape is, prima facie, morally bereft in any event.

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