The rape of humans

This Sunday morning, thanks to my empty fridge and bad shopping, I had to venture out for breakfast and came across a fascinating and harrowing article over my cup of coffee. An occupational hazard of working on sexual offences is having to read accounts of fairly harrowing stuff on a regular basis and I do sometimes wonder whether I might become a little jaded by it all. Yet every now and then, something happens to remind me both of the fact that I do care and of why I do what I do.

And my Sunday morning reading was just one of those moments. The article deals with the issue of the ‘rape of men’, and how it affects war-ridden countries and I highly recommend reading it (though you might not want to read it over breakfast, or any meal for that matter). It’s not just the account of what is done to these men that will knot your stomach, but also the account of what happens to them afterwards and how the victims seem condemned to a life of pain, physical, psychological and emotional excruciating pain.

As the article points out, the issue of male rape is a little considered issue, and this is true both in terms of war crimes but also regarding sexual offences in general. The rape of a man was only recognised in English criminal law in 1994, the same year that the courts (finally) held that non-consensual sex between husband and wife was still rape, even if they were married.

The legal formulation stays clear of any gendered approach and relies instead on the physicality of the act. Because rape can be committed by anal penetration, then it can be committed against men. This is one of the many ways the concept of rape has changed drastically over the last century or so. From ‘stranger-rape’ to ‘date-rape’, from vaginal penetration to anal or oral penetration and from female to male victim.

Maybe the next step is a more radical and even more important shift in our understanding of rape. Namely that it isn’t to do with sex or attraction at all. That it is about power, coercion and violence rather than sexual desire, and that it’s that behaviour as imposed on others which needs to be condemned, punished but also better understood.

This does not mean that an act of rape or sexual assault is the same as any act of physical violence, but rather that the sexual element of it is a consequence rather than a cause of the act itself. In the article, we hear from men who are highly traumatised by what happened to them, some even suicidal. The impact of being raped on these men is not just the act itself and the physical repercussions. It’s also how they are treated when they get back home, by their wives, their doctors and society in general.

The violation of one’s intimacy and sexual integrity, followed by a dysfunctional social response is what makes these crimes truly terrible. This is the same whether the victim is male, female or indeed a child, and it is the same if the act takes place in war-torn Africa, a dimly-lit park at night, or in a conjugal bedroom.

And so maybe we should stop fooling ourselves that raping someone is about sex: it’s just another, terrible way to hurt someone, which has incredibly traumatic consequences. And maybe if we do so, then we might realise that the problem here is violence, not sex. And while this will unfortunately not stop all rapes, it might just make things a little easier for the human victims of it…

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