“Dude, that’s us.”
This is what a former Ohio State University wrestler remarked to his teammate after reading about Lawrence G. Nassar, the doctor convicted of sexually abusing scores of young women, many of them at Michigan State University.
That former college wrestler is one of more than 100 men who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Richard H. Strauss, a former doctor and professor at Ohio State. A lawsuit filed by one of the men claims that Dr. Strauss, who killed himself in 2005, may have committed acts of sexual misconduct against as many as 2,500 male athletes.
Predictably, the scandal is beginning to engulf former staff of Ohio State’s athletic department, including Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who served as an assistant coach on the wrestling team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At least six of the former college wrestlers claim that Jordan was aware of the abuse. Jordan, who is running unashamedly for speaker of the House, denies having had any knowledge of misconduct.
The various investigations of OSU will presumably decry the collective indifference, callousness and failure to act. Greed too surely played a part, as sports programs have long been essential to the bottom line at many universities.
Whatever the official conclusions, the scope of this scandal should finally shift our understanding of how common the sexual abuse of men and boys truly is.
The facts are revealed when men are surveyed anonymously. In one such survey conducted recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men reported staggering rates of sexual victimization. Nearly 4 million men (and 5.6 million women) reported that they had experienced sexual violence in the previous year. And 2.2 million American men reported that, during the previous year, they had experienced “unwanted sexual contact,” which includes the kind of sexual touching and groping that many OSU men report. The CDC also found that most male victims were first sexually abused before age 25.
A survey of students at 21 colleges and universities, conducted between 2005 and 2011, found that 4% of men and 7% of women have experienced forced intercourse during college. College men, like college women, reported nonconsensual sexual touching and unwanted sexual acts when they were passed out, asleep or too drunk to consent.
These and other anonymous surveys reveal that sexual misconduct against men is vast. High-profile scandals like the one at Ohio State are not aberrations, and they ought to serve as an urgent wake-up call: Women are not the only victims of sexual abuse.
The anti-rape movement has taught us that rape damages psyches. It has also taught us that in most cases rape is committed by someone the victim knows, and that there is nearly always an imbalance of power between the parties.
Sexual violence still affects far too many women. But as some in the #MeToo movement have begun to articulate, the thorough dismantling of rape culture will require that we attend to the full range of victims.
We are right to be concerned about the young women who are preyed upon at college parties. But we must also recognize the risk faced by athletes in the locker room, teenagers in juvenile detention, male soldiers in the armed forces, same-sex couples in abusive relationships and countless others who don’t fit the victim stereotype.
Collective indifference toward male victims can be tied to gender stereotypes, such as the belief that all men are sexually insatiable — the idea that, for men, “any sex is good sex.” Joking about male-on-male abuse remains socially acceptable (“don’t drop the soap”), and male victims often face skepticism about why they didn’t do more to fight back. For many men, sexual victimization feels like an assault on their masculinity.
Straight men who are targets of abuse by other men sometimes feel shame because of homophobia in our culture, and gay men can feel their sexual orientation is somehow to blame. Many male victims report involuntary sexual arousal during abuse, a normal physiological response that can cause humiliation and a reluctance to report.
Though we tend to see men only as perpetrators of sexual abuse, there is clear evidence that many men are victims. The fight against sexual victimization needs to include them.