By Fred Pelka
It was obvious to me at the police station that I was held in contempt because I was a victim. And we learn that blaming the victim is not for women only.
The man who raped me had a remarkable selfassurance which could only have come from practice. He picked me up just outside Cleveland, heading east in a van filled with construction equipment. That early morning in May I’d already spent a sleepless 24 hours trying to hitchhike from Oxford, Mississippi to Buffalo, New York, so it felt good when I was offered a ride through the western fringe of Pennsylvania. First, though, the driver told me he needed to stop along the way, to pick up some building supplies. We drove to a country club undergoing renovation, where I hung out with his co-workers while he signed for several boxes of equipment which we carried back to his van. Getting back onto the turnpike he told me about one more stop he had to make.
As a man, I’ve been socialized never to admit to beingvulnerable, to discuss those moments when I wasn’t in control. I know also how women and children are routinely punished when they speak out about abuse, how they are blamed for their own victimization. The examples are endless: Witness the contempt with which Anita Hill was treated. For these reasons and more I’m still reticent, years after it happened, to recount what happened to me that day in Ohio. This article marks the first time in 15 years I have publicly discussed it under my own name.
The second building seemed deserted. We went up a flight of stairs, down a corridor into a side room. I looked around for the equipment he’d mentioned, and noticed him locking the door behind us. He slugged me before I could react, forced me down with his hands around my throat. As I began to lose consciousness I heard him say, “If you scream, if you make one wrong move, I’ll kill you.”
The police told me later that the man who raped me was a suspect in the rapes of at least six other young men. During the assault his mood swung from vicious, when he promised to strangle me or break my neck, to self-pity, when he wept because we were both among “the wounded ones.” In that enormous calm that comes after the acceptance of death, I wondered who would find my body.
Most rapes don’t happen like this. Most victims know their attacker(s) — he is a neighbor, friend, husband, or father, a teacher, minister or doctor. The vast majority of rapes are committed by men against women and children, and the FBI estimates that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent go unreported. Rape is an integral part of our culture, and fully one third of all women in this country will be raped at some point in their lives. But this sexist violence does occasionally spill over onto boys and men. The National Crime Survey for 1989 estimated that one in 12 rape survivors is male.
For all this, nobody really knows how many men are raped each year, or how many boys are sexually abused. One study at the University of New Hampshire found that one in 11 young men surveyed had been sexually abused before their 18th birthday. I’ve seen articles which speculate that anywhere from one in nine to one in seven men will be raped or sexually abused in their lifetime, most often by other males, but these are little more than guesses.
“Since rape is generally misconstrued to be a sexually motivated crime,” writes Dr. A. Nicholas Groth and Anne Wolbert Burgess, “it is generally assumed that males are unlikely targets of such victimization, and then when it does occur, it reflects a homosexual orientation on the part of the offender. However, the causes of male rape that we have had an opportunity to study do not lend much support to either assumption.” Groth and Burgess interviewed men in the community who had been raped, and men who admitted to raping other men, and published their findings in the American Journal of Psychiatry. In half the cases they studied, the gender of the victim “did not appear to be of specific significance” to the rapist. “Their victims included males and females, adults and children,” and “may symbolize…something they want to conquer or defeat. The assault is an act of retaliation, an expression of power, and an assertion of their strength or manhood.”
In their article, Burgess and Groth dispute some of the prevalent myths about male rape. The first is that men simply don’t get raped, at least not outside prison. Of course, if men don’t get raped then what happened to me either wasn’t rape (the police asking, “Did you come?”), or I’m not a man (my male friends wanting to know how I could “let something like this” happen to me). The second myth — that all men who are raped or rape other men are gay—is a product of our culture’s homophobia, and our ignorance of the realities of sexual violence. Most people find it difficult to understand why a straight man would rape another straight man. But if you see rape as a way of exerting control, of confirming your own power by disempowering others, then it powerful and macho to force sex on a woman or child, think of how much more powerful you feel raping another man.
“I have a special place,” the man who raped me said after a long while. “It’s out in the country, where we can make all the noise we want.” It seemed obvious what would happen to me once we arrived at “his special place,” but I knew there was no hope for my survival as long as we stayed in that room. So I agreed to go with him to “the country.” I promised not to try to escape. It is perhaps an indication of his fragile hold on reality that he believed me.
We walked back to his van and drove away. I waited until I saw some people, then jumped as we slowed to make a turn, rolling as I hit the pavement. I ran into the nearest building — a restaurant — just as patrons were finishing their lunch. Conversation stopped, and I was confronted by a roomful of people, forks raised in mid-bite, staring.
“I think you’d better call the police,” I told the waitress. This was all I could say, placing my hands flat on the counter between us to control their trembling. She poured me a cup of black coffee. And then the police arrived.
The two detectives assigned to my case conformed to the standard good cop^ad cop archetype. The good cop told me how upset he’d seen “girls” become after being raped. “But you’re a man, this shouldn’t bother you.” Later on he told me that the best thing to do would be to pull up my pants “and forget it ever happened.” The bad cop asked me why my hair was so long, what was I doing hitchhiking at seven o’clock in the morning? Why were my clothes so dirty? Did I do drugs? Was I a troublemaker?
I used to be puzzled at how the bad cop obviously didn’t believe me, in spite of the fact that, by his own account, in the months before my assault six other men had come to him with similar stories. Then I heard of the Dahmer case in Milwaukee, how in May 1991 Dahmer’s neighbors saw him chasing a naked 14year-old boy, bleeding from the anus, through the alley behind their building. The responding officers returned the boy to Dahmer’s apartment, where Dahmer explained that this was just a lover’s spat, which the police believed in spite of the youth’s apparent age, and the photos scattered on Dahmer’s floor of murdered and mutilated boys and men. The police reassured a neighbor who called again, saying that everything was all right — this at the very moment Dahmer was murdering Konerak Sinthasomphone. Afterwards Dahmer dismembered Sinthasomphone’s body.
Sinthasomphone was one of at least 17 boys and men raped and murdered by Dahmer, their body parts stored in vats and freezers in his apartment. It was reported that his first assaults were committed in Ohio, so I had to brace myself before I could look at Jeffrey Dahmer’s photo in the paper. At first I was relieved to find that he was not the man who raped me. Then I thought how this meant my assailant is likely still out there, looking for more “wounded ones.”
Because I gave them such detailed information — the country club, the name painted on the side of his van — the detectives were able to locate my assailant not too many hours after I was brought into their precinct. The good cop asked, after I identified the rapist, whether I wanted to press charges. He explained how I’d have to return to Ohio to appear before a grand jury, and then return again for the trial, how the newspapers would publish my name, how little chance there was of a conviction.
“He says you seduced him,” the good cop said. “So it’s your word against his.” The bad cop glared at me when I told them there was no way I wanted any of this to be made public. “You mean,” he fumed, “I wasted my whole afternoon on this shit?” Standing in front of me with an expression of disgust, he asked, “How do you think this makes me feel?”
By then it was getting dark. I hitchhiked the remaining 200 miles home, studying every movement of every man who offered me a ride. I arrived at my apartment after midnight, walking the last 10 miles.
In the weeks that followed the assault, every stupid, insensitive thing I’d ever said about rape came back to haunt me. A friend of mine had been attacked several months earlier, also while hitchhiking. She told me just a few hours after it happened how she’d missed her bus, and didn’t want to be late to work. She said the man offering her a lift seemed normal enough, even “nice.”
“You should’ve waited for the next bus,” I lectured. Today I cringe at my arrogance. Hitchhiking, like walking alone after dark, or feeling safe on a date, at work, at home, is another perquisite to which only men are entitled. How dare she not understand the limits of her freedom?
While women tell me that the possibility of rape is never far from their minds, most men never give it a first, let alone a second, thought. This may explain why they react so negatively to accounts by male survivors. To see rape as “a women’s issue” is a form of male privilege most men would prefer not to surrender. They would rather believe that they can move with immunity through the toxic atmosphere of violence and fear they and their compatriots create. Being a male survivor meant I’d lost some of that immunity. No wonder I felt as if I’d been poisoned, as if I were drowning.
For years I pretended, as per the good cop’s recommendation, that nothing had happened, secretly feeling that I was somehow responsible, somehow less masculine. The turning point came with the media storm that swirled up around the Big Dan rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The movie “The Accused” is based on that incident — a woman assaulted in a bar while other men looked on and cheered. Naive as I was, I figured this was a pretty clear-cut case. Where the police might have doubted my will to resist (no broken bones, no massive lacerations), here was a victim overpowered by half a dozen men. How could anyone doubt that she had been brutalized? Yet, during the trial, The Boston Herald ran the front page headline “SHE LED US ON!” I realized then that, even had I been murdered, someone would have inevitably questioned my complicity: “He probably liked rough sex.”
It’s just this sort of victim-blaming that discourages survivors from reporting their trauma, or seeking treatment, but there are other factors which may discourage males in particular. Homophobia for one: The sort of gender McCarthyism that labels any man a faggot who cannot or will not conform to accepted norms of masculine feeling or behavior. Men who rape other men capitalize on this, knowing that straight victims don’t want to appear gay, and gay victims might fear coming out of the closet. Groth and Burgess report, for instance, that “a major strategy used by some offenders…is to get the victim to ejaculate.” This “strategy” was attempted in roughly half the cases they studied, and in half of those the rapist succeeded in ejaculating his victim. This confuses the victim, who often misidentifies ejaculation with orgasm. It confirms for the rapist the old canard about how victims “really want it.” And, as Groth and Burgess say, it leaves the survivor “discouraged from reporting the assault for fear his sexuality may be suspect.”
For male survivors of child sexual abuse there is also the unfortunate theory that boys who are abused inevitably grow up to be men who rape. One survivor told me it was for this reason he had decided never to be a father. Not that he’d ever wanted to abuse children, nor was there any evidence he ever would. He eventually came to realize that because some rapists are themselves survivors doesn’t mean that all male survivors of child sexual abuse turn out to be rapists.
Finally, rape-crisis centers, the only institutions in our society founded expressly to help rape survivors, are identified by some men as hotbeds of feminism, and many men take “feminist” to mean “man-hating.” It’s true that the vast majority of rape crisis counselors are women, that the entire stop-rape movement is an extension of the women’s movement. For the record, though, I have never felt any hostility in response when calling a rapecrisis center, this in spite of the fact that RCCs are often plagued by “hotline abusers” — men who call to masturbate to the sound of a female voice.
On the other hand, I’ve run across a good deal of hostility towards women from male survivors with whom I’ve talked. One man told me how certain he was that the counselors at his local RCC hated men, even though, by his own admission, he’d never called, and knew no one who had. A while back I attended a survivors’ conference organized by a Boston women’s group, attended by several hundred women and maybe a dozen men. One of these men stood up during a plenary session to shout at the women on the podium. As an incest survivor, he said, he felt “marginalized” and “oppressed” by the way the conference was run, despite the fact that a number of the workshops were specifically geared toward males, and that a keynote speaker received a standing ovation when he described his work with boys and men. Some male survivors even blame women for the denial and homophobia they encounter after their assault. They openly resent the (pitifully few) resources available to female survivors, as if any help women receive is at the expense of men. Even Geraldo has picked up this theme: His show on male survivors ended with an attack on rape crisis centers for their alleged refusal to acknowledge male victimization.
This hostility has been exacerbated by the so-called men’s movement, the Robert Bly/mythopoetic crowd, with their “Wild Man” and “Inner Warrior” archetypes. These men say a lot of absurd things about sexual violence, not the least of which is that “just as many men get raped as women.” This last statement is often repeated by Chris Harding, editor of Wingspan, which The Boston Globe calls “the bible of the new men’s movement.” Harding is generally quick to add that most of these rapes “occur in prison” — a statement which is as inaccurate as it is pernicious, assuming as it does that a disproportionate number of male rapes are committed by working-class and minority men. The men’s movement claims that rape is a “gender-neutral issue,” and thus has nothing to do with sexism.
What is ironic about all this is that what little acknowledgement there is of male victimization generally comes from the women’s stop-rape movement. To the extent that male survivors can tell their stories, it is because of the foundation laid by feminists. So this woman-bashing is as ungrateful as it is gratuitous.
One source of confusion appears to be the distinction between victimization and oppression. Male survivors charge that feminists see rape as a “man vs. woman” issue, emphasizing the central role male violence plays in stunting and destroying women’s lives, and they’re right. The distinction is that while many women, and some men, are victimized by rape, all women are oppressed by it, and any victimization of women occurs in a context of oppression most men simply do not understand. Rape for men is usually a bizarre, outrageous tear in the fabric of reality. For women, rape is often a confirmation of relative powerlessness, of men’s contempt for women, and its trauma is reinforced every day in a thousand obvious and subtle ways.
For myself, I don’t need for rape to be gender neutral to feel validated as a male survivor. And I certainly don’t need to denigrate women, or to attack feminists, to explain why I was abused by the (male) police, ridiculed by my (male) friends, and marginalized by thefmale dominated) society around me. It is precisely because we have been “reduced” to the status of women that other men find us so difficult to deal with. It was obvious to me at the police station that I was held in contempt because I was a victim — feminine, hence perceived as less masculine. Had I been an accused criminal, even a rapist, chances are I would have been treated with more respect, because I would have been seen as more of a man. To cross that line, to become victims of the violence which works to circumscribe the lives of women, marks us somehow as traitors to our gender. Being a male rape survivor means I no longer fit our culture’s neat but specious definition of masculinity, as one empowered, one always in control. Rather than continue to deny our experience, male survivors need to challenge that definition.
As Diana E.H. Russell says in The Politics of Rape, “Women must start talking about rape: Their experiences, their fears, their thoughts. The silence about rape must be broken.”
The same must be true for men. And so I offer this article as my first contribution to that effort.
I’ve been back to northern Ohio exactly once in the 15 years following that day. Seven years ago I was traveling from Boston to Chicago with a car full of friends. It was early morning, and I was sleeping in the back seat when we pulled off the highway, and steered onto a street that looked oddly, disturbingly familiar. Rubbing my eyes, I felt an unsettling sense of deja vu. And then I remembered.
“Time for some coffee,” the driver said, and I wondered then if we would eat breakfast at that same restaurant, if I would meet that same waitress. We didn’t, and I chose not to tell my companions what had happened to me all those years ago.
Today I think I might be less disconcerted. Today I think I just might have told them what happened.