Boys will be… sexual violence victims too

Originally published in The Neglected Issue by Utblick Magazine

“Sexual violence against men is a horrendous crime that often goes unheard, unseen and unspoken” — Centre for African Justice

Conflict-related sexual violence is a widespread issue across the globe, from Afghanistan in Asia to Colombia in South America. The term ‘femicide’ and calling it ‘a systematic pattern of destruction toward the female species’ demonstrates the tendency to think of sexual violence survivors exclusively as female, but is this the whole truth? A growing body of research pays attention to the under-reporting of male sexual violence victims. This is not to dismiss the fact that women constitute the majority of conflict-related sexual violence victims, nor to say that the issue of wartime sexual violence is not gendered at all. Rather, this research asks if the issue is as gendered as we might think, and more importantly, “why sexual violence against men and boys often goes unheard”.

The history of conflict-related sexual violence is as old as the history of war and armed conflict itself, but it was not until the 1990s and after the horrifying mass rapes in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, that wartime sexual violence finally became widely recognized as a part, rather than just a tragic by-product, of war. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 in 2008 marked an important milestone, demanding “the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians with immediate effect”. The resolution was an important message to the world to start raising awareness about conflict-related sexual violence and to start considering this violence a potential tactic of war.

Conflict-related sexual violence has since gained widespread attention in media, policy reports, NGO projects and within the academia, often considered a gendered issue since the majority of victims or survivors are women and girls and most perpetrators are men. The story most often told, as Maria Stern and Maria Eriksson Baaz point out in their book Sexual Violence as a Weapon of war? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond, is the story of the female victim/survivor raped by a man in (military) uniform. Stern and Eriksson Baaz say there is a binary of the man/perpetrator and woman/victim, and that male sexual violence victims are often treated as feminized exceptions. When reading about male victims in war, the story often told is that he is a victim of other, non-sexual, violence. An Amnesty Report about the conflict in South Sudan in 2017 said for instance: “If men are caught they are killed, If women are caught they are raped”.

A growing body of research has, however, started questioning the dogmatic gender binaries in stories told about wartime rape. It should be emphasized that the intention is not to redirect focus or funds for female sexual violence victims, but rather to add a more inclusive and coloured lens to what is otherwise often seen as too black and white. A challenge for this research has, however, been to estimate to what extent men and boys fall victim to conflict-related sexual violence. Studies are in general quite small, and there is a widespread consensus among academics, NGOs, international organisations and such that conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys is widely under-reported. There are some cases which challenge the presumtion of solely female victims, such as Yemen and Afghanistan, where men and boys made up a third respectively almost half of the reported sexual violence victims in the UN 2020 Secretary General Report on Conflict-related Sexual Violence. The general trend is, however, that men and boys constitute very few or none of the victims in statistics, even though researchers believe this does not correspond with the reality.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

The issue of under-reporting must in turn be treated as a possibly contributing factor to the prevailing idea of male victims as exceptions. It therefore becomes important to ask why there is a problem of under-reporting of conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys in the first place, in order to make a change.

One great challenge posed to the ability to get accurate numbers of male sexual violence victims seems to be the stigmas which keep many boys and men silent in about their experiences. Stern and Eriksson-Baaz writes:

“Being a victim – especially of sexual violence – symbolizes ‘failed masculinity’, which occupies a position of weakness associated with femininity”.

We might therefore assume that being a male victim of sexual violence can sometimes come into conflict with the man’s or the boy’s masculine identity and that some male survivors choose to not report out of shame of failing to live up to certain masculinity norms. We should moreover ask ourselves if the dominant gendered story of wartime rape might have had a negative impact on the idea of a sexual violence victim as something feminine. There is furthermore some evidence showing that male sexual violence victims do not receive much support from their social communities, which might also hinder men from reporting. In a report for the International Review of the Red Cross, an interview with one male sexual violence victim from the Democratic Republic of Congo is being raised as an example.

He says: “I’m laughed at …The people in my village say: “You’re no longer a man. Those men in the bush made you their wife.”

Another stigma regards the fear of being considered homosexual. Studies shows that when the perpetrator is a man, which often is the case, the male sexual violence victim tends to be identified as homosexual. This is not only sometimes culturally unacceptable but also illegal in some states, preventing some men from reporting since they do not want to risk being socially or legally punished. A Human Rights Watch report about Syrian sexual violence victims raises this concern saying that although Syrian law defines rape in gender-neutral terms, “every sexual intercourse against the order of the nature” is criminalized and “punishable with imprisonment by up to three years” which in practice could include male sexual violence victims too. The UN 2020 Secretary General Report on Conflict-related Sexual Violence similarily identifies South Sudanese law against homosexuality as an obstacle for South Sudanese male conflict-related sexual violence victims to report the assaults.

Besides the stigmas there are also sometimes other circumstances which complicate the reporting of conflict-related sexual violence again men and boys. Research shows that it is not unusual for wartime sexual violence against men and boys to take place while the victim is in detention as a war prisoner or such, or that the victim is raped by another soldier in his own armed group. Retrospective reports show that 80% of the men in the Sarajevo Canton concentration camps were exposed to sexual violence, as well as 76% of the male political prisoners in El Salvador in the 1980s. Since aid is typically aimed at civilians, these men and boys fall out of the scope of both help and statistics.

Finally, a pressing issue is the sometimes limited amount of health and support services on the ground available for men and boy survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Human Rights Watch have found that while support services for Syrian women and girls who has fled to Lebanon are scarce, services for other sexual violence victims are even more limited. Since these services fills an important role for documentation, we cannot exclude that the lack of them might negatively affect the reporting of numbers of male sexual violence victims in war.

Conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys have historically been a neglected issue and it remains to be seen how the problem is dealt with in the future. Important progress has been made on the international arena, such as the UNs recognition of conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys as an emerging concern, and a more gender-neutral language in reports about conflict-related sexual violence. But many challenges remain and there is still neglect on the ground both in social communities and the in aid services provided. In the forefront is the issue of under-reporting which must be dealt with in order to better understand the reality of conflict-related sexual violence and to provide the same aid for male sexual violence survivors as is provided to female survivors today. Of course it is also important to note that it is not only men’s and boys’ stories that often goes unheard. There is as much a need for a LGBTQ+ perspective on these issues too.

If the perspectives are not widened, there is a risk of ending up in a vicious cycle where the under-reporting of male sexual violence victims confirms the established idea of male survivors as exceptions, leading to less attention and less resources on the ground which further complicates reporting. Conflict-related sexual violence does have an important gendered dimension, but the dichotomy of female victims and male perpetrators must be challenged. Boys will not only be boys as in male perpetrators — No, boys will be sexual violence victims too.

Vilma Ellemark

Vilma Ellemark is a political science student, co-host of the feminist show F-EMME on K103 Gothenburg Studentradio and writer for Utblick since spring 2021