Study: Sexual assault just as emotionally traumatizing for men

BOCA RATON, Fla. — It’s up to us to change the way we talk about sexual assault, so why is there a lack of awareness when it comes to male victims? A new study finds that men can be just as impacted emotionally and mentally after sexual assault as women are, and experience the same harmful and distraught outcomes that follow, particularly depression.

Male sexual assault victims often are ashamed to speak out about what happened, aren’t taken seriously, or have to face society’s misconstrued idea of “masculinity.” Researchers at Florida Atlantic University and Sam Houston State University conducted a study spotlighting the lives of male victims.

Sad or ashamed man
A new study finds that men who are sexually assaulted deal with similar emotional trauma as women and are at great risk to suffer from depression.

Prior to this study, very little research existed on the effects of male sexual assault survivors or how their cases (whether unwanted, forced or abusive sexual experiences) differ from females. The goal of the study was to diminish sexism and prove how sexual assault cases and depression in men are underreported and understudied.

“When we began this study, we thought for sure that we would find that females who were sexually assaulted would exhibit higher depression scores than males who were sexually assaulted,” says lead researcher Lisa M. Dario, Ph.D. in a university news release. “I think this is probably because of antiquated ideas that men and women experience emotions differently. What we actually discovered, much to our surprise, is that sexual assault is traumatic regardless of gender.”

The authors used a sample of 11,860 adults, split nearly evenly among men and women, pulled from the National Violence Against Women Survey’s database. The approach they used, the “General Strain Theory,” explains deviant behavioral, emotional, and cognitive adaptations to negative life events – in this case, sexual assault.

Among the most eye-opening outcomes from their research is the possibility that men may experience depression more than women (completely opposing the sociological theory that suggests men are more likely to respond with anger and criminal activity) because they don’t have as many accepting and welcoming support systems available or social media outlets as women. Therefore, it’s common for men to keep their emotions inside and feel alone, without a healthy recovery.

“If left untreated, sexual assault victims may look for other outlets to process their emotions; untreated depression may lead to negative coping mechanisms, like drug use,” said Dario. “We do know that people who experience strains, like sex assault, are more likely to use illicit drugs, and we certainly need to be mindful of halting an already nationwide epidemic of opioid and other drug misuse.”

The researchers also found that while men made up between 1 to 10 percent of rape reports in crisis centers, hospitals and emergency rooms in 1980, that number ballooned to 5 to 10 percent of all reported rapes in 1997. They also noted that men in the military are more vulnerable and more likely to not report.

Presently, the estimated statistic is that 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual assault.

The authors hope the study will help close the gender gaps that exist for sexual assault and give men the appropriate environment for them to speak out about their experience and receive the healthy support they need for healing.

“There is no room for ‘sexism’ in sexual assault research [by ignoring male victims] and we must bring attention to an issue that impacts men equally, especially if we know that their negative emotional responses are treatable,” says Dario.

The full study, “Do the Mental Health Consequences of Sexual Victimization Differ Between Males and Females? A General Strain Theory Approach” is published in the journal Women & Criminal Justice.