Rape culture punishes boys too

A Colorado case shows boys can be assaulted too -- and too often, teachers have ignored or even laughed about it

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published June 24, 2013 6:26PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-590956p1.html'>Kris Schmidt</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Kris Schmidt via Shutterstock)

The endlessly repeated argument that rape is just one of those things that guys can't help doing because girls can't stop provoking them ignores a simple, brutal reality: Males don't just perpetrate sexual violence – they are the victims of it as well. And when they come forward, male victims often face a raft of suspicion, bullying and blame, as a heartbreaking recent case out of Colorado proves.

The father of a Norwood student says that after a wrestling tournament last year, three of his then 13-year-old son's teammates "bound him with duct tape and sodomized him with a pencil" on an empty school bus. The attack came to light when the victim's father heard one of the perpetrators bragging about it to his dad afterward. But that was just the start of the family's nightmare. The boy's father was the school's principal. Two of his attackers? The coach's sons.

After the victim's father reported the incident to police, the assailants pleaded guilty to sexual contact without consent and third-degree assault -- but it was the victim and principal who were tormented at school. The man says students taunted the boy on his Facebook page, verbally berated him, put "Go to hell" stickers on his locker and wore shirts supporting the perpetrators – shirts paid for by the mother of one of the accused. And he says the coach, who was also president of the school board, shrugged off the attack, telling him, "This happens 1,000 times a day around the U.S." The father subsequently resigned from his position as principal. His family has since moved to a town 200 miles away, where his son continues to wrestle and play football. The school, meanwhile, gave the coach a letter of reprimand for leaving the students alone and then renewed his contract.

The hostile responses a teenage boy has had to endure in the wake of a vicious assault are truly stomach-turning. What makes the story far more depressing, however, is that it's not unique. As PRI reports Monday, as many as 10 percent of high school boys report they've been the victims of "rape, forced oral sex or other sexual assault." And Bloomberg News reports that "More than 40 high school boys were sodomized with foreign objects by their teammates in over a dozen alleged incidents reported in the past year" -- a sharp rise from a decade ago. Recent incidents involved boys being violated with "a broken flagpole outside Los Angeles; a metal concrete-reinforcing bar in Fontana, Calif.; a jump-rope handle in Greenfield, Iowa; and a water bottle in Hardin, Mo." And, Bloomberg adds, "In at least four cases of sodomy hazing last year, the coach or supervising teacher was alleged to have known about it, ordered it, witnessed it or laughed about it."

The increase in reports may reflect a greater willingness on the part of victims and their families to come forward, though it's clear from the Colorado case that the repercussions for male sex assault victims are often still severe. There's a humiliating stigma attached to male abuse, and a jeering intolerance for boys who are viewed as ratting out their friends. A local Norwood resident told Bloomberg News last week that the wrestling team incident had been "blown out of proportion," while another recalled, "When I was in school there might have been bullying, but there was none of this crap about telling the school. How you going to be tough if you don't get bullied sometimes?"

So just in case anybody needs reminding: Rape is not a character-building rite of passage. Nor is rape something that only happens to girls. To even begin to suggest so, to presume that holding down a human being and sodomizing him is some kind of playful roughhousing, to dismiss it because it's so widespread, normalizes rape. It teaches boys not just that it's what they're expected to do, it's what they're expected to put up with. It says that violation is acceptable. It rewards pathological behavior and it stigmatizes victims. It says that the horror here isn't sexual assault or even getting caught for it, it's complaining that it happened. "My son was the outcast," the father of the Colorado boy says. "He was made to feel like he was the one who caused the whole thing."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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