Metro

Men who are sexually assaulted face struggles tied to ideas of masculinity

Men have an especially difficult time talking about sexual assaults like the groping and unwanted kisses that four men allege were forced on them by Byron Hefner, the husband of Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Men have an especially difficult time talking about sexual assaults like the groping and unwanted kisses that four men allege were forced on them by Byron Hefner, the husband of Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg.

Men who are sexually assaulted suffer the same humiliation and shame as women — but they are frequently reluctant to acknowledge the experience and seek help, according to specialists in such cases.

Often embarrassed to be a victim, men have an especially difficult time talking about assaults like the groping and unwanted kisses that four men allege were forced on them by Byron Hefner, husband of state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

But not disclosing the assaults can come at great cost to their well-being, the specialists said.

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According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in three women and nearly one in six men were victims of sexual violence at some point in their lives. But many people who work with sexual assault victims believe the numbers for men are higher, because a lower percentage of men admit to being victims.

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“Those of us in the field — we see there are just as many men,” said Jim Struve, a social worker and manager with Weekends of Recovery, a national program that offers workshops for male sexual trauma survivors. “Men are more reluctant to step forward and say ‘me too.’ ”

Women who are sexually assaulted can feel they’ve failed to protect themselves as they were taught to do, said Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. But men typically never thought they could be at risk of sexual assault.

“So if it happens, you’re less than a man,’ ” Scaramella said, describing how the experience can be perceived. “You can still be feminine and be victimized. You can’t be masculine and victimized.”

On top of that, women are usually more comfortable with feelings of sadness and vulnerability, while men are more comfortable with anger, Scaramella said, adding that such a generalization doesn’t apply to all people.

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“What that means is it’s very hard to reach for help,” she said. “It tends to be a long time to disclosure for men.”

Adding to the distress is the mistaken confusion between sexual assault and sexuality. Specialists agree that sexual violence is a means of power and control, not an expression of sexual feelings, but many victims don’t see it that way.

Men feel great shame whether they are gay or straight, but the nature of the shame can differ, said Robin M. Deutsch, a psychologist and director of the Center of Excellence for Children, Families and the Law at William James College in Newton.

“If he’s not gay,” she said, “then he may question his own sexuality in a way that he hadn’t before, and wonder, ‘What is it about me that led to this?’ ”

Sexual assault can also strike at a man’s sense of masculinity, Deutsch said. “They should be in control of their bodies — that’s how they’re raised.”

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Struve noted that straight men may worry that people will think they’re gay. Closeted gay men may fear that disclosure of an assault would “out” them. And gay men also run up against confusion about the meaning of consent — thinking that by failing to prevent the assault they had somehow consented to it, he said.

With all those factors at play, it’s not surprising that none of Hefner’s four accusers agreed to be identified.

But they had another reason, one that applies to women as well: The accused perpetrator was seen as someone with influence who could endanger their work.

Some may have faced the extra challenge of being part of a marginalized group, the Rape Crisis Center’s Scaramella said. At least one acknowledged being an ally of the LBGT community.

“For any marginalized community, that is always a struggle,” she said. “You don’t want to air dirty laundry. You don’t want to derail hard-fought gains.”

But keeping the experience of an assault under wraps can have severe consequences for victims.

“If it’s not reported, it’s internalized as ‘this is who I am,’ ” said Deutsch. “Or it’s walled off and put in a compartment so your whole being is not available.”

Struve said men suffer both mental and physical harms. “By not dealing with it, you end up being at higher risk for drinking, using drugs, acting out. The immune system sometimes get compromised,” he said.

Many men, he said, throw themselves into activities that seem normal, even admirable, for a man, such as working long hours, engaging in extreme sports, or taking risks.

Their friends and relatives “thought they were excelling, productive, well-adjusted,” he said. “They were doing all these things as ways to cope with something they could never talk about.”

Men also might not realize that services are available to help them, Struve said. His organization holds weekend workshops around the country. The Rape Crisis Center has a men’s group.

“Just because these are men, expecting them to have some ability to be less than human is really part of the problem,” said Scaramella, of the Rape Crisis Center. “We should be thinking, ‘Wow, that must have been really something to go through, I hope they’re getting the support they deserve.’ ”

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com.