13/12/2021 | Writer: Hans Knutagard

As a social worker we meet sexual violence directed towards men there are among others two concepts we must deal with, namely guilt and shame.

Men's exposure to sexual violence and social work – out of a human right perspective Kaos GL - News Portal for LGBTI+

There is no way we could work for implementing of the human rights in our society without recognizing men as victims of various kinds of violence. For most of us it’s obvious that men are exposed to violence in wartime (Chynoweth 2021), in criminal activities or as a part of the honor codex. It’s not as obvious in the same way that men are exposed for violence in the family, in the religious group or as a part of being a member of society. Many times, when we think of this, we connect men with being the perpetrator of sexual violence against others, not being exposed to sexually violence themselves. Male rape challenges common understandings of rape. Until 1984 in Sweden, rape was considered to be the forcible carnal knowledge of a woman by a man. A man could therefore not be raped. This is still the case in many countries.

Why is it necessary to acknowledge sexual violence against men in our human right work? Because when we exclude any of the components like race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other from the rights, then they don’t become human rights, they will be rights for privileged groups. As social worker we meet many men in our profession, some of which have been exposed to different kind of violence. Let me elaborate some thoughts out of my research and experience with homo- and bisexual men who have experiences sexual violence that could serve as a basis for good practice in this area (Knutagård 2015 & 2016).

First of all we must enable the men to get in contact for help and justice and that is a reciprocal process. The men must know that they are not alone facing these issues, that is not okey to be exposed to violence like this and there are helping to receive. One process is inwards out – you acknowledge the problem as yours – and the second process is outwards in – you acknowledge there is helping to receive. A process we could call with Loseke (2003) claim making process where the actual problem becomes a social problem. For example, within the family children have been experienced physical punishment as part of their upbringing but at some historical time and in some cultures, this is now regarded as not legal anymore. For example, in Sweden, since 1979, all corporal punishment of children has been forbidden. There is a before and after. Using what’s called a social constructive perspective the beating has not changed but the way the society look at it has changed. Men who have been rape have to be a claim.

To deal with this phenomenon, we must understand the socialization process. I take my starting point in the cultural historical activity theory which has its origins with the Russian psychologists Vygotsky, Luria and Leontiev. A key notion for them is activity, where human beings meet other human beings and nature. Our everyday life is built up by different activities and everyone has its demanding structure, how to behave in order how to participate and what kind of action competencies are required to “survive” in the activity. We, as human beings, develops as we enter new activities – we get are personal competencies by attending school, be part of a workplace etc. At the same time the society takes its place in us – the socialization. Vygotsky (1978) claims that a person’s cultural development appears twice: first on the social level and then on the individual level. To understand a person, there must be an understanding of the activities the person is involved in and has participated in previously; “human practice is the basis for human cognition” (Leontiev 1978). Through the interplay between the demands of a person’s sociocultural activities and a person’s processes of capacities and skills she/he uses to meet these demands, an individual gains “personal action competencies” (Nygren 2008) to act in a certain way and to meet the demands of various contexts.

Our socialization is not coming from within, instead it has first been in the communication and relation of the people around us. The personal development goes hand in hand with the socialization and are for most of us in harmony. For example, when an individual feel being a non-heterosexual individual they usually do not have as many role models and can feel a dissonance about their sexual identity. If there instead are a hostile in the society towards LGBTQ the socialization process leads to an actions competence hiding their identity instead of developing it in a secure and a positive way to be a part of society. This put many of them in a position of vulnerability and with mental health problems. As a result of this they experience different violent attacks, like hate crime, totalitarian family violence or honor based violence and oppression, where the prominent of them are physical and sexual violence.

Male rape is still today one of the least recognized issues in our societies due to an interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, legal, historical, religious, and spiritual factors. Slowly men who have been raped are recognized specially regarding war crime, abuse in prisons and closed groups. In my research I have found it more common than that. Why is it quiet about it? The main reason is that men have no word for this and are prevented talking about it due to several social factors.

The commonly accepted view in the society that a man cannot be penetrated create a situation where male survivors generally are not believed, inhibits survivors from disclosing rape. This view is anchored in a traditional masculinity and heterosexuality where men can be likened to an unbroken circle that can penetrate others but cannot be penetrated. Due to this, men don’t have the words for the rape they have experiences and we as social workers must together with them find appropriate words to describe the abuse. This process is also dependent on how hostile the society, culture or family are to LGBTQ. With a high level of hostility homosexual men will not come forward in order not to be exposed to that violence as well. The same goes for heterosexual men who do not want to be included in the LGBTQ. That is a fact we must bare in mind that not only homosexual men get raped and as research shows most perpetrator are heterosexuals.

Above, we have touched on the context that surrounds LGBTQ individual. Many rapes start as friendly invitations as one informant said to me: "then you lower the guard" and with the rape the trust turns into a genuine mistrust and withdrawal. Another informant describes it as “now I cannot even hug my father, I haven’t done that in many years”. A mistrust that includes even the social worker and gaining some trust should be seen as a challenge. This lack of trust has a spiral process where the lack of trust lead to a withdrawal which in turn gives rise to self-destruction. Like Hampus, one of my respondents, who after the rape start with eating disorder, self-harming behaviour, depression, and very self-destructing sex. Even though he met a school counsellor, psychologist, and other health care staff, they did not ask one more question whether he had been exposed for sexually violence. For example, had a girl in Sweden sought help within the child and adolescent care on the same grounds as him, that question would have come up naturally. An initial question might be, "What brought you here? In this way, the social worker does not have to put words to the client's problems or illnesses, but can instead help the person to name and solve them,

As a social worker we meet sexual violence directed towards men there are among others two concepts we must deal with, namely guilt and shame. Guilt is the inward feeling and often used by the perpetrator for the victim to accept the abuse or not to reveal it. Shame is the feeling outward towards other people to makes us keep social ties. Shame either draw us back to the community or push us away. If we don’t recognise our shame and deals with it can take two ways. On one hand unrecognised shame can lead to aggression towards other people. In many cases are violence and hatred shame-anger directed against others. On the other hand, internalized shame leads to anger against oneself and in worst cases to suicide. When we are dealing with sexual assault on men, we also find the shame that leads to shame across the generations. As an example, only after the great John Jay report (2004) was published with documented abuses by Catholic priests in the United States did some men appear in two remote villages in Alaska. It turned out that almost all the men in these two villages had been raped by a missionary who worked there. The feelings of shame had made them keep quiet about the abuse for 30 years (Lobdell 2005). Thirty years later the boys who had been exposed became aware that they were not alone, and, in this way, they could process their feelings of guilt and shame. We can find the same thing in other remote areas. This shows that we as social worker we must have the competence to address these feelings, dress them in words so that they become manageable.

A phenomenon, connoted to guilt and shame, is the experience of “frozen helplessness and submission” That’s a feeling we can get when we are exposed to what Randall Collins (2008, s. 83) call “forward panic”. The concept derives from the panic that makes soldiers run away during war, but also makes them run forward towards the enemy. The soldiers go into an emotional tunnel of violent attack, which occurs in an atmosphere of superiority. As a result of the perpetrator’s sudden attack, known as an asymmetric synchronization, the victim is paralyzed, as my respondents stated. Collins uses an historical example to illustrate the

concept. At the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC, the Macedonians trapped the Persians’ mercenary infantry. The latter were “rooted to the spot by the unexpected catastrophe rather than from being out-manoeuvred” and this “is a phenomenon reported time and again from battlefields: the rabbit-like paralysis of soldiers in the face of a predator's unanticipated onslaught. They were soon surrounded and hacked down on the spot” (Collins, 2008, s. 103). This passivity, by the men in the study, contradicts the core of their masculinities, since this puts the men in what might be described as, an effeminate position.

When it comes to rape of women their passivity and not resistance has been put in the frame of them being women and weaker than men, not as an universal biological reaction for a unexpected forward attack. The men I have interviewed have all experiences this frozen helplessness and have had bad feelings about not making any resistance. Some things they had seen as very unmanly and something that could be seen as a sign that they agreed to the rape. The same goes for ejaculation. Adam, who I interviewed, said: “I’ve always felt tremendous guilt just because he made me come. If you have sex with someone, then a part of it is that the person probably gets satisfaction. We know that those who get satisfied provide some kind of confirmation. If you do so in such a situation, it becomes cruel. It’s not what you want. It felt like a pain because he made me come. I felt like it shouldn’t be that way.” For us as social worker it’s crucial we address these two issues thoroughly and that in relation to the social culture of masculinities, sexualities, and homosexuality’s.

Therefore, gender and power are important elements to address in the social construction of masculinities, a dynamic process that is constantly shifting and in motion. I found that paramount to understanding male rape are the ways these perceptions of masculinities are developed and how men perceive themselves. These perceptions include male invulnerability, male superiority, male violent and aggressive behaviour and homophobia. Secondly most of us have an image of how to engage in sexual behaviour by proceeding step by step, like a ritual guided by scripts, to hugging, kissing, caressing, and so on. Sexual scripts (Gagnon and Simon, 2005) can be described as internalized social conventions that make us think and act in a certain way when it comes to sexual practice. They consist of intrapsychic, interpersonal, and cultural scripts that intertwine like a cord of three strands. The break of sexual scripts by the rape is so powerful and seems to hit the respondents at their core of identity, in their trust towards other people. Finally, one consequence of the rape that most men I interviewed experience was that their homosexuality or more Western culture’s perception of homosexuality becomes apparent, a sexual orientation filled by society with stigmatization, discrimination, taboo and shame.

The impact on men’s lives of not seeking help is exemplified by Timmy’s experience. He was 27 years old, was raped, sold sex to other men, served time in a juvenile detention centre, been the target of hate crimes due to his being gay, and is now HIV-positive. Here is a paradox. Many people who have been raped go on to self-destructive sex such as selling sex, and those who sell sex are often raped in the course of their work. During the interview, Timmy stated that the worst aspect for him is the untreated anxiety from being raped the first time. He struggles with the shame of it and all the questions. What did I do? Am I worth anything? Am I so sexually violated that there is no reason to live? By addressing the trauma of male rape, the social worker is then able to provide support for other social and health problems.

What can we do as social workers? We must start making male rape visible and put it on the national and international agenda. This will facilitate a discourse for the men and enable them to articulate their experiences. We have also to provide a good health service, social inclusion and social justice for male survivors. Doing so requires us to challenge the stigmatization and discrimination that are associated with male rape and homosexuality. For example, Mac an Ghaill and Haywood (2012, s. 581) argue that a shift to a “broader cultural perceptions of homosexuality is leading to a recalibration of masculinities that is based upon inclusivity”. Therefore, we must develop non-oppressive social work practices that are inclusive of LGBTQ people. In order to accomplish this, many social workers need training in developing attitudes (e.g., reflecting on one’s own sexual orientation), greater knowledge, in relation to LGBTQ and enhanced skills, such as in creating an LGBTQ-friendly environment, for example provided by KAOS GL. In the longer term, we must take part in the work of reconstructing masculinities. That is one part in the fight for the human rights.


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*This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kaos GL Association and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.


Tags: human rights