For male survivors of sexual assault, shame and stigma makes coming forward complicated

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A man sitting on a bed in a dark room.
For male survivors of sexual assault, coming forward can be complicated — and scary. (Getty Images)

As conversations about sexual assault continue to reverberate in the media — currently due to the ongoing trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, who is accused of helping billionaire Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse underage girls — there’s one area of the discussion that still doesn’t gain much traction: the plight of male survivors.

“I’ve been a survivor, I am a survivor,” said former NHL player Kyle Beach earlier this year, when he confirmed he was the “John Doe” who had come forward and accused former coach Brad Aldrich of sexually assaulting him in 2010. “I know I’m not the only one, male or female. I buried this for 10 years, 11 years, and it’s destroyed me from the inside out. I want everybody to know in the sports world and in the world that you’re not alone.”

Beach, 31, reached a settlement with the Chicago Blackhawks this week, as the story continues to send shock waves across the sport. It's also prompted athletes such as Aly Raisman and retired NHL goalie Mike McKenna to voice their support, and inspired rival schools to come together to fight for accountability in sports leadership and shine a light on the issue of sexual abuse in college sports.

More broadly, though, Beach now joins other male survivors who are using their voices to advocate for change. And that’s not an easy task, say abuse experts, as societal shame and stigmas tend to be a huge barrier when it comes to male survivors coming forward — and being believed. 

“Sexual assault, in general, is so often underreported. And it’s even lower for male survivors,” says Carrie Ward, CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which helped craft a 2019 bill removing the statute of limitations for sexual assault felonies in the state. She adds that “90 to 95 percent of males who are assaulted don’t report.”

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 43 percent of American men experience some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime, compared with 81 percent of women. And they share many struggles around coming forward.

“Things that male-identified survivors experience are similar to what all sexual assault survivors experience, and one of those things is the fear that they won’t be believed,” Ward tells Yahoo Life. Also at play is a fear that they’ll be somehow blamed for the assault, “that folks will assume there’s something they did that prompted the assault to happen. What people have always believed to some degree is that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen when something prompts it. But we know that’s not true. We know that bad things, like sexual violence, happen to people who’ve done nothing at all. The fault of sexual violence is always with the perpetrator. Never with the survivor.”

Male-specific challenges to being a survivor

Adding to these challenges are fears of their “manhood” or sexuality being questioned, due to false ideas perpetuated in society that men are supposed to be tough and not appear weak, which male survivors, gay or straight, risk when coming forward about being assaulted.

Barrett Pall, a gay former model who came forward about his sexual assault by a photographer in 2018 and is still speaking out about it, says he wasn’t certain how to even define what had happened to him. “I questioned: Was it even sexual assault? Was it even something that was sexual abuse? Is ‘rape’ the word?” he tells Yahoo Life. “I think the reason for that is because, especially in the queer space, we have not had a conversation about consent. What is inappropriate? What is not OK? That really hasn’t been a conversation for men, in general.”

Pall believes “patriarchy, toxic masculinity and misogyny” fuel misconceptions that male survivors are gay or bisexual if they’re assaulted by a person who happens to be male. “Homophobia is so rampant in our country,” he says. “Even if you’re not queer, the speculation that you could be is enough to keep a lot of men quiet. Because ‘If this happens to you, well, why didn’t you say no? You must be queer and wanted it.’”

Another challenge male survivors face, Pall adds, is overcoming the idea that sexual violence is about physical strength alone, and that men who are physically able to “push back” against their aggressors are somehow unable to do so because they are physically or mentally “weak.” But the reality is more complicated than that.

“Your body goes into fight-or-flight, and you are stunned from the shock,” Pall says of his own experience. “Then there’s the question of, like, if you’re a man and you get [an erection], that must mean you wanted it. But that’s not true. Your brain and body are not always aligned in those situations.”

Comprehending the body’s physical response to sexual violence is a huge challenge for survivors to grasp, says Jessica Leslie, program director of the National Sexual Assault Hotline at RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization.

“A lot of people don’t think men can be sexually assaulted because there is a physical response that happens that they think is under the control of a male, and therefore he is potentially to blame, or took part in the sexual encounter,” she says. “And that’s not actually true.”

The act of “freezing,” a common response experienced by survivors that renders a person unable to move during the encounter, is something many men find hard to comprehend. “A lot of people don’t understand how that works,” Leslie says. “But even the toughest of the tough will have a physical response where they’re unable to move and unable to do anything about the situation.”

Pall adds, “I think most people would say there’s an element of ‘blacking out.’ Your body’s reaction is trying to keep yourself safe, where you don’t even process what is happening until afterwards.”

An even more nuanced challenge, Leslie says, is when actions that are viewed as “acceptable manly behavior” — such as hazing — prevent survivors from truly understanding the situation and reporting it to authorities.

“Sexual assault under the umbrella of ‘hazing’ has been widely accepted,” she explains. “I think that for them to realize, actually, I was sexually assaulted, can be quite challenging because it seems like they’re going against the accepted norm of manly behavior or behavior between men in a sports environment.

“That’s why the Blackhawk situation was really important,” she adds. “Because looking at this from the perspective of men in sports, any sports, there is a culture around hazing and other types of sexual assault where it becomes very difficult to report or talk about it. And so when you have a situation like [the Blackhawks case], I think it helps other survivors feel like they can come forward.”

What can make a difference?

In recent years, supportive legislators have made sweeping changes to address protections around sexual assault survivors’ statute of limitations — or a window of time in which a perpetrator can be charged — in every state. According to Mother Jones, 34 states and Washington, D.C., have statutes of limitations on filing rape or sexual-assault charges that range from three to 30 years.

Other states are hoping to lead by example — including Illinois, which in 2019, with the help of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, passed House Bill 2135, removing the statute of limitations for criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated sexual abuse.

“That’s a huge accomplishment, something that had been in the works for many, many, many years,” Ward, of the coalition, says of the bill. “For so many survivors, by the time they were in a position to disclose what their experience was, or when they felt safe enough to share that experience, the statute of limitations had closed. And I think that does contribute to perpetrators getting away with sexual violence.”

Outside of legislation, however, Ward says that meeting the needs of sexual assault survivors starts where all movements do: in our communities.

“The first thing we can do with community members and colleagues and friends and family members is to believe people who disclosed that they’ve been sexually abused,” she says. “We need to recognize that the breadth of people who could be sexually assaulted is broad. Just because it doesn't fit with your worldview, or your thought of who is a rape victim and who is a perpetrator, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

Going through such pain alone, Ward adds, can make the trauma even worse. That’s why she believes it’s more important than ever for male survivors to share their stories, so that other survivors can be empowered to do the same.

“Just look at what Kyle Beach shared,” says Ward. “He explained in his interview that it was a painful and difficult 10 to 11 years of keeping that information. … I think the longer a survivor has to experience that alone, the more painful it is. We have to try and reduce that kind of trauma.”

Pall agrees. “No one wants to talk about this,” he says. “And I say that from a place of understanding. I too don’t want to talk about this. But if we don’t talk about it, nothing changes. We’re going to have to get uncomfortable to actually become truly comfortable.

“Whether you are queer or straight, this comes back to: What does it mean to be a man?” he continues. “Every single one of us at some point probably heard, whether it was direct or peripheral, ‘Suck it up!’ ‘Don’t cry!’ ‘Hold in your emotions.’ That … is not healthy for anyone, no matter how much of a man you think you are.”

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