Men also are victims of sexual abuse
“Dude, that’s us.”
This is what a former Ohio State University wrestler remarked to his teammate after reading about Lawrence G. Nassar, the doctor convicted of sexually abusing scores of young women, many of them at Michigan State University.
That former college wrestler is one of more than 100 men who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Richard H. Strauss, a former doctor and professor at Ohio State. A lawsuit filed by one of the men claims that Strauss, who killed himself in 2005, may have committed acts of sexual misconduct against as many as 2,500 male athletes.
Predictably, the scandal is beginning to engulf former staff of Ohio State’s athletic department, including Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who was an assistant coach on the wrestling team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At least six of the former college wrestlers claim that Jordan was aware of the abuse. Jordan, who is a contender for speaker of the U.S. House, denies having had any knowledge of misconduct.
The various investigations of Ohio State will presumably decry the collective indifference, callousness and failure to act. Greed too surely played a part, as sports programs have long been essential to the bottom line at many universities.
Whatever the official conclusions, the scope of this scandal should finally shift our understanding of how common the sexual abuse of men and boys is.
The facts are revealed when men are surveyed anonymously. In one such survey conducted recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men reported staggering rates of sexual victimization. Nearly 4 million men (and 5.6 million women) reported that they had experienced sexual violence in the previous year. And 2.2 million American men reported that, during the previous year, they had experienced “unwanted sexual contact,” which includes the kind of sexual touching and groping that many OSU men report. The CDC also found that most male victims were first sexually abused before age 25.
These and other anonymous surveys reveal that sexual misconduct against men is vast. High-profile scandals like the one at Ohio State are not aberrations, and they ought to serve as an urgent wake-up call: Women are not the only victims of sexual abuse.
The anti-rape movement has taught us that rape damages psyches. It has also taught us that in most cases rape is committed by someone the victim knows, and that there is nearly always an imbalance of power between the parties.
Sexual violence still affects far too many women. But as some in the #MeToo movement have begun to articulate, the thorough dismantling of the rape culture will require that we attend to the full range of victims. We need to recognize the risk faced by athletes in the locker room, teenagers in juvenile detention, male soldiers in the armed forces, same-sex couples in abusive relationships and countless others who don’t fit the victim stereotype.
Collective indifference toward male victims can be tied to gender stereotypes. Joking about male-on-male abuse remains socially acceptable, and male victims often face skepticism about why they didn’t do more to fight back. For many men, sexual victimization feels like an assault on their masculinity.
Straight men who are targets of abuse by other men sometimes feel shame because of homophobia in our culture, and gay men can feel that their sexual orientation is somehow to blame.
Though we tend to see men only as perpetrators of sexual abuse, there is clear evidence that many men are victims. The fight against sexual victimization needs to include them.