Last week, Sweden announced the opening of a male rape crisis center–the first one specifically for men in the world. We talked with medical professionals about why male rape survivors need their own clinic.
Photo via Evan Dalen / Stocksy
Last week, Sweden announced the opening of a male rape crisis center at a hospital in Stockholm. It will operate out of the hospital at Södersjukhuset, a major emergency care facility in the Nordic region that already operates a 24-hour walk-in sexual assault clinic for women and girls. According to Rasmus Jonlund, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party, which spearheaded the initiative, the clinic is the first of its kind in the world. Like the clinic for women, the male treatment center will be free of charge and open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The hospital announced its plans to open a clinic specifically for men in June. In statements published by VICE News, doctors placed specific emphasis on addressing the fact that male rape is "extremely taboo," both in Sweden and around the world.
The treatment and responses the male clinic offers will not differ significantly from those of the clinic for women and girls. "The existing clinic for female rape victims [has] been given a broader mandate and mission," said Anna Starbrink, Stockholm County Council's commissioner for healthcare, in an interview with Broadly. "Since it's basically the same clinic, the basic organization and methods shouldn't be different. How to organize the men's clinic was a topic of discussion, but we and the professionals [at the hospital] concluded that this was the best solution. Now the same clinic can give good health care, with respect and professionalism, regardless of the patient's sex or gender identity."
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According to Starbrink, the Liberal Party made "put[ting] the spotlight on, and improv[ing] care for, male victims of rape and sexual assault" part of its platform during elections in 2010. While the treatment for male and female victims will be similar—though, Starbrink pointed out, "all patients have to be treated respectfully and individually based on their own needs, background, and pre-conditions"—discussing male rape requires a different set of strategies than discussing sexual assault against women. In 2010, the CDC included "being made to penetrate someone else" in its definition of sexual violence. However, as Hanna Rosin points out in Slate, "'Made to penetrate' is an awkward phrase that hasn't gotten any traction. It's also something we instinctively don't associate with sexual assault."
The very act of seeking help can, for men, initially stir a fear of increasing—rather than decreasing—vulnerability.
Indeed, it wasn't until 2012 that the FBI changed its official definition of "forcible rape" from "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will" to "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim." Despite the popular notion that men make up a relatively small percentage of victims of sexual assault, in 2013 the National Crime Victimization Survey released a statistic that shocked many: Out of 40,000 households surveyed about rape and sexual assault, 38 percent of victims were men. After the survey was published, Lara Stemple, a researcher with the Health and Human Rights Project at UCLA, told Rosin that the experiences of male and female sexual assault victims are "a lot closer than any of us would expect."
"Anyone, male or female, who has been sexually assaulted, is, by definition, coming to terms with their sense of vulnerability," said Peter Pollard, a spokesperson for 1in6, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of and support for male victims of sexual assault. "For men, the process is complicated by widely accepted norms, which teach boys from a young age that it's socially unsafe for males to express vulnerability, fear, or sadness. So the very act of seeking help can, for men, initially stir a fear of increasing—rather than decreasing—vulnerability."
When dealing with male victims in particular, experts noted that the clinic should respond to individual needs, and that for men, it can be especially difficult to seek treatment because of taboos about male sexual assault. "Men sometimes feel a need to posture in a way that declares their invincibility before accepting help. That might take the form of anger, hostility, or discounting visible injuries," Pollard continued. "A service provider, especially in an emergency department, needs to be attuned to various coping strategies that a man might use and not get hooked by or become reactive to those defenses."
For counseling men who have been raped, it's essential to address fears they will have about the rape making them less of a man.
"For counseling men who have been raped, it's essential to address fears they will have about the rape making them less of a man, and to be very careful about using language that could scare them away," said Dr. Jim Hopper, a researcher, therapist, and clinical psychologist who specializes in psychological trauma and is a part-time instructor at Harvard Medical School. "For example, identity labels like 'victim' and 'survivor' can send some men running in the other direction. You really want to be treating them with the utmost compassion and respect. During the assault, they were disempowered and related to as an object, so it's super important to relate to them in a way that is giving them choices and power."
When asked if the Swedish clinic might spur similar facilities in the US, Pollard was also careful to note that one of the most difficult aspects of treating male victims is the stigma. "It would be wonderful to expand resources in the US for men who have been sexually assaulted," Pollard said. "I think, though, that it might actually be a greater challenge to get men to walk into a clinic visibly identified as treating males who had experienced sexual assault than it would be to staff such centers."
Hopper agreed. "[The Swedish clinic] may be in a hospital setting, but the reality is that very few men are going to come forward immediately after having an experience like [sexual assault]," he said. "The vast majority of people [the clinic will] see will be guys that are waiting days, weeks, months, even years to come in."
Though she said Sweden "would welcome interested professionals and politicians to come and visit and take part of the knowledge and experience we have assembled" in creating the facility, Starbrink was realistic about the clinic's power to decrease sexual assaults—at least right away. "I don't know if the clinic in itself can prevent the crimes and the assaults," she said, "but they can ease the suffering and give both the right physical and psychological care, and the help to seek and take legal action.
"Rape is shameful—for the victims," she continued. "That is a fact we need to change. The shame should only be on the perpetrator."