"It had never crossed my mind that a man could be raped... You never think these things might happen to us as well.”
Photo courtesy of Channel 5
Before he was raped by two men he met on a night out in 2016, 23-year-old Sam Thompson thought that sexual assault was something that happened to women.
“It had never crossed my mind that a man could be raped,” Thompson says. “The focus is always on women. As a bloke, the only thing you worry about is that you might lose your keys or your wallet. You never think these things might happen to us as well.”
While the overwhelming majority of sexual violence victims are women, men can and are assaulted too. In England and Wales, 12,000 men are raped every year. According to RAINN, many men who speak out about their experiences can face additional feelings of shame and doubt—that they should have been able to fight off their attackers, that their assault is an affront to their perceived masculinity—due to our societal expectations of gender.
In September 2016, Thompson was on a night out in Manchester with a male friend when he was assaulted. After visiting a few bars and clubs, the DJ from Newark, Nottinghamshire lost his phone and became separated from his friend. “As you do when you’ve had a drink, you end up chatting to random people. They invited me for a drink with some other people and we all ended up in a hotel room, a big group of us.”
At some point, Thompson remembers, the group left the hotel room—leaving him alone with the two men who subsequently attacked him. “When everyone left I didn’t see the harm [in staying]. I didn’t feel like I was in any danger. So I stayed for another drink with them, and that’s when things started to get really hazy. You know when you have a nightmare and you wake up?"
Both men raped Thompson, although his memory of the assault—like many other survivors of sexual violence—is fragmented and piecemeal. “I can remember bits of it, not the whole thing together. I remember being moved for a bit, and I remember the pain of the actual penetration, and I remember them taking turns. I was in a state of shock—I was just, like, focusing on anything else.”
After the assault, Thompson wandered the streets of Manchester in a state of confusion and extreme shock. At one point, he went into a shop and bought a drink. “It sounds bizarre, but it wasn’t until I got to the bridge near where I lived that it hit me all at once. I was around the corner from my house and I knew I’d have to go back and face my girlfriend and my friend, and then there was this realization of what had just happened to me. I was in pain, and I just wanted to die.”
For a moment, Thompson stood on a bridge and considered suicide. “There was this inner conflict within myself, and then I decided against that, and walked back around the corner, to my flat.”
Thompson credits the decision to tell his girlfriend about the assault as one of the most significant of his life. “I walked through the door and burst into tears. It just came out. I think if I’d gone back to the flat and been on my own, I would never have done that. I’d have just kept it all to myself.”
Researchers estimate that men are less likely to report sexual assault than women: One 1999 study found that men don’t report rape because it jeopardizes their masculine self-identity. Other research has indicated that the biggest reason for men not reporting is a fear of being perceived as homosexual.
“Now I can use the word 'rape,' but it’s not easy to say," Thompson says. "You have these feelings like, Will anyone believe me? Plus you feel dirty and ashamed and you just want to shower. You have all these emotions going through your head. The last thing you want to do is pick up the phone and explain what happened to you.”
Thompson was in the minority of rape survivors, and male rape survivors specifically, who reported their attack to police. He also encountered challenges in doing so: “They [the police] weren’t used to dealing with male rape victims. Certainly the line of some of their questioning created more doubt in my mind that I didn’t feel believed and they weren’t going to act upon it.”
Thompson’s attackers were never convicted. In October 2016, the police notified him that they weren't pressing charges against the two individuals they had arrested in connection to his case. There was a lack of evidence, but Thompson didn't find this out until the following year, when he was given the opportunity to talk with the investigating officer on his case.
“It made me feel horrible,” Thompson says candidly. “Like devastated that I’d started to believe something was going to happen about it. I was so disappointed. I reported it straight away, I gave them all the forensic evidence, and I didn’t get a proper explanation as to why they reached the decision until April or May this year. I still don’t feel believed by the way they asked me the questions.”
Watch: Amy Ziering On Campus Rape and Why No One Believes Women
It is exceptionally rare for rape survivors to overcome the stigma that exists around being the victim of a sexual assault and speak publicly. But Thompson felt strongly that he had a duty to share his story with family, friends, and the wider public. Earlier this week week, he appeared on the UK documentary Raped: My Story, which aired on Channel 5.
“I wanted to turn a negative experience I’d had into a positive,” he explains. “At first, I did all this conventionally masculine stuff—refusing to have therapy, refusing to take medication, just doing what you think a typical man should do. When I started having therapy and expressing my thoughts and feelings, I started feeling a lot better. And then I started thinking that if I put my thoughts out there, other men who’ve had this experience might not feel so alone with that.”
Now, he feels it’s incumbent upon him to challenge toxic ideals of masculinity by explaining that anyone can be a victim of sexual violence. “Masculinity for me used to be being strong and brave. You know, you put up shelves, you don’t get upset, you don’t cry, you just get on with it. That’s a ridiculous, outdated way of thinking. Being a good man is just about being the best person you can be.”
He pauses. “The fact that this has happened to me doesn’t make me any less of a man. I’d hope other men would realize this too. This whole idea of masculinity is just an outdated practice. Men need to be able to express their feelings and show emotion when these things happen that aren’t their fault.”
UK viewers can watch Raped: My Story on Channel 5 here.