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We Need to Acknowledge Male Rape Victims' Trauma, Researchers Say

A new study debunks the theory that women are more likely than men to experience emotional trauma following a sexual assault.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

Photo by juan moyano via Stocksy

According to a recent study published in Women & Criminal Justice, men get just as depressed as women when they're victims of rape. And while that may seem intuitive, the study asserts that there is little research investigating how men experience the mental and emotional effects of being sexually assaulted.

Recent National Crime Victimization Survey results cited by the study's authors found that 38 percent of sexual assault and rape incidents were reported by men. In 1980, the number of rape reports by men was much lower: Male victims comprised only one to 10 percent seen in crisis centers, hospitals, and emergency rooms. And "while the stigma associated with male sexual assault is lessening," men still overwhelmingly refrain from reporting these crimes.

"Initially when we started this paper," Lisa Dario, a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University and lead author on the study, tells Broadly, "it was to test a criminology theory, which was proposing that when men are assaulted versus women, women are more likely to respond with emotions, depression or other self-harming behavior like cutting or drug use, and that men are more likely to respond with criminal actions. What we found was that was not the case."

Read more: Teen Rape Victim Sentenced to 30 Years for Stillbirth in El Salvador

Using data culled from the National Violence Against Women (NVAW) Survey collected in 1995-96—"The reason it was from the '90s is that there hasn't been anything as comprehensive and as rigorous since then," Dario says—researchers analyzed the responses of 11,860 adults in the US (5,922 men and 5,938 women). The survey gleaned information such as their demographics, household and relationship characteristics; whether they'd experienced any incidents of sexual victimization or assault; and a measure of any depressive symptoms.

To ensure the validity of their results, researchers conducted two tests of samples from the NVAW survey. Ultimately, they found that there was no difference between depression rates of male and female sexual assault survivors.

"We need to do a better job of addressing the consequences for both women and men."

"Our findings suggest that treatment provided to sexual assault victims is equally important for both sexes, due to sexual assault victims reporting greater depression severity than nonvictims," the study's authors write, regarding policy implications. "Our findings point to the importance of developing and implementing sexual victimization services for males. As is, extant research continues to find that barriers to services exist for male sexual assault victims."

Until now, the study of how men deal with sexual assault has been limited. The reason, Dario says, is because of the stigma that men can't be victims of sexual violence. Not only are people not asking the right questions, she explains, but also many men aren't reporting these crimes. "It becomes this hidden issue that we can't get to. And the only time we do really address it is when we're thinking about juvenile males, young men, or we're thinking about incarcerated men—there's plenty of literature on that. But when we're thinking about men who experience this trauma and need to go on living their lives, there isn't much research on that."

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The effects of sexual assault survivors not getting mental health treatment can be far-reaching, Dario says. "If we're also thinking about ways we can divert people from funneling into the current opioid drug epidemic," then it's important to consider the link between illicit drug use and sexual assault, she says. "We need to do a better job of addressing the consequences for both women and men. If we're encouraging people to report their assaults more often, then we can treat them so they can heal from this trauma and potentially not turn toward other methods of coping."