The pioneering documentary The Invisible War has directed a spotlight to the problem of rape in the U.S. military. One voice in particular stuck out to me, a man named Michael who joined the service right out of college. Michael was brutally gang raped by fellow servicemen. And Michael’s rape is shockingly common. The reality is anyone, and everyone is vulnerable to becoming a sexual violence target.
But the issue of male rape, which happens to over 30,000 men in the military, made less than 5 minutes of the documentary. Why? Stigma. Men especially are likely to be silenced by the crime. Russell Strand, a Chief Family Advocate in the Law Enforcement Training Division of the U.S. Army, observes in the film: “Masculinity cannot be victimized, because if you’re a leader, if you’re a masculine person and you’re victimized then you are weak.”
But, Michael’s story shows both the tragedy of male rape and a glimmer of hope for survivors.
Meet Michael, 42, and his wife Geri.
Michael joined the service in 1972, right out of high school, and he loved it. He was attracted to being able to travel and get educated through his time in the service. He felt like he was living the dream. But one day his entire world was turned upside down.
When he was 19, he went to the chow hall alone. All the sudden he found himself being raped as other service men pulled down his pants. He was frightened and humiliated and, perhaps worst of all, silenced. He was told to shut up or he might die. And that’s exactly what he did. For over 30 years he remained silent about the crime.
After his rape, Michael felt like he had lost his identity as a “man.” It was absolutely devastating. He couldn’t protect himself and he was scared to death to even report the rape to his commander. That single act destroyed essential parts of his life. Unable to cope with the emotional consequences of the rape, his past marriages suffered. He continued to blame himself for the rape and choose not to expose his pain of the trauma to anyone In fact, Michael just recently told Geri, his current wife of over 20 years, about the crime. He was afraid she would leave him and it was one of the scariest moments of his life when he told her. This would be the first time he would tell anyone-ever-of his rape. Geri was horrified, saddened and angry for Michael, and committed to supporting him as he speaks out. After 30 years of remaining silent, Michael felt he had to speak up about their sexual violence in order to move on with his healing.
Michael remembers what it felt like to release such painful and humiliating memories. Michael shared how he held back tears, “We sat together and sobbed. It felt like this great weight had been lifted off of me.” It wasn’t medication that cured him; it was the simple act of sharing his testimony with someone he loved and someone who cared about him that saved him.
After he exposed the truth to Geri, Michael was able to move forward in his healing. He now has become a living example of what happens to men when they are raped, and how it’s possible move forward. Michael understood that what happened to him was in fact a crime, and it was something he no longer had to be ashamed of. Sometimes these stories don’t end with a happy ending, but luckily Michael’s decision to share his story has allowed him to become a role model for other survivors. And fortunately, Geri continues to support Michael in his healing process, one that has been painful and agonizing. Now Michael knows he is not alone, that Geri will be there to help him recover from the shame he had placed on himself for 30 years.
Michael’s powerful testimony of male rape violence, of which some male survivors have describe as the “stripping of their manhood,” turns into a story of forgiveness, peace, hope and most importantly love. The sad thing is, anyone-almost everyone-can be a victim, or a survivor, of rape. And because of the way we view masculinity in society, male rape survivors find it harder and more shameful to speak up because they will be viewed as “weak”. Since men are assigned the role of “protector,” rape assaults a fundamental sense of personal identity and sense of place. Despite the inherently violent nature of the crime, male survivors view society as unsympathetic, or, worse, told to “man up.”
Men are held to a different standard than women, a standard that can be harder to voice and continues to hold them silent in their trauma. They are not just ashamed of their rape, they are expected to know how to protect themselves. If they can’t, too many commanders blame the men by dismissing them as not being “man enough.”
As a society, we need to be more outspoken about male rape to allow male survivors to heal. We need to hear their voice so we can better understand what they need to move forward. Michael found peace in reclaiming his voice and I hope it serves as an inspiration for the thousands of other men to begin their own personal journey of recovery. I know Michael’s story is not unique, but he had the courage to share it with the world. The first step of healing is becoming aware.