We hear about women getting raped almost every day through newspapers, social media, and sometimes from our friends and family members. Sexual assault on women has become so pervasive that it is hard to come across a victim who is not female. By contrast, rape of males is still not recognised by the society and the state.
The popular conception is that men and boys are not raped or sexually harassed. Sexual aggression against male is a secret that is usually denied by both the perpetrator and the victim. Unfortunately, even the government, NGOs and human rights bodies consider male rape a controversial and taboo topic. Yet, every now and then a story comes out and sends shockwaves through the society.
One such story is that of Jamal Uddin from the Telihati Tepirbari village of Sreepur upazila in Gazipur, who on August 19 committed suicide after a group of men allegedly gang-raped him, recorded the footage of the incident, demanded a payoff, and later threatened to spread the video on social media, if he failed to pay. A mortified Jamal killed himself ultimately. His relatives said that he did so to avoid shame and dishonour.
Earlier this year, a boy of class-III was “mistreated” by his madrasa teacher in Feni. And, in Rajshahi, a 55-year-old madrasa teacher was jailed over charges of “sodomising” a teenage student.
The language used to report these incidents seems hesitant to acknowledge that a male body can be a subject of rape. This is probably due to the idea that a man can be mistreated or sodomised, but not raped. Perhaps the prevailing understanding of rape or sexual aggression is not broad enough to include men, since rape is considered a women’s issue. Thus the definition of rape in our society has been restricted to women alone.
One wonders, what causes this collective denial of male rape? And why is the male victim almost always invisible? The most important factor is patriarchy. To understand the context, it is important to know how the entire concept of sexuality has been shaped and how the discourse of sexual harassment, rape and abuse has been understood through the lens of the masculine social power structure.
Being a male victim of sexual assault stands in contrast to hegemonic or conventional norms of masculinity. Following the accepted gender norms, men are taught from an early age to be “strong”. They are expected to pursue and take pleasure in sexual activities. If they are attacked, they are also expected to be able to protect themselves. Being raped challenges all these preconceptions.
Consequently, sexually assaulted or harassed men are considered to be feminised “victims” and sexual objects—damaged, weak, powerless and helpless. Norms of masculinity even lead to attributing the blame to sexually assaulted men. In addition, more conventional practices of masculinity engender self-blaming tendencies that shape how men perceive the experience of sexual assault.
On the other hand, if we dig deeper into the social reality that presented suicide as a preferred option to Jamal Uddin than reporting the incident and seeking support, we would realise that in our patriarchal society, rape is essentially associated with social shaming of women, where male victims are invisible and the feelings of being humiliated irrespective of gender has no place in it. Thus, sexually assaulted men face multifaceted difficulties in coping with sexual assault and finding a way out. We need to understand that male victims are more likely to withdraw from social interaction, which was the case with Jamal Uddin.
A recent anthropological study on men’s experiences of sexual harassment in Bangladesh found that 1 out of 10 males encountered sexual harassment by another male or female. However, they did not disclose or report the incidents to others as it was against the expectations of the society.
The masculine perspective aside, could Jamal Uddin get justice if he, instead of committing suicide, went to court with his experience? In the Penal Code of 1860, with reference to Section 376, it is said, “Whoever commits rape shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine, unless the woman raped is his own wife and is not under 12 years of age, in which case he shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.” In addition, with reference to Section 9 of the act “Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act 2000”, it is said, “Whoever commits rape against a woman or a child, shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for life, and with the fine. If the victim dies as a result of the rape, the man shall then be punished with death or with life imprisonment, and also with a fine not exceeding Tk 1 lakh.”
The above quoted sections consider only women as victims of rape, and men as perpetrators. There is no provision or law that says if a man faces the same situation where he is raped or sexually harassed, either by a man or a woman, he would get equal justice. We are in a situation where disclosure of male rape is difficult as there is no support for the victim—legal, social, medical, or familial.
The question remains, what can we do now? For one, we need to revise the legal definition of rape, and make it gender-neutral and enact laws to provide justice to male victims of rape. But what is urgently needed is a change in our mindset: the perception of masculinity must change so that a male victim of assault does not consider himself a weaker being for no fault of his own.
Zobaida Nasreen teaches anthropology at the University of Dhaka.