When No One Calls It Rape: Addressing Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys

Amrita Kapur and Kelli Muddell
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There is no doubt that the scope of the problem for male victims is large. The World Health Organization has identified sexual violence against men and boys as a significant problem that has been largely ignored by nongovernmental organizations, health care providers, government agencies, criminal justice authorities, and others. The violations can take many forms, including rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, enforced nudity, and being forced to perform sexual acts with others. Very commonly, sexual violence against men is committed in situations of detention. Studies have shown this pattern in contexts such as Chile, El Salvador, Libya, Sri Lanka, Syria, the United States, and the former Yugoslavia.

Transitional justice mechanisms—including truth commissions, reparations programs, and criminal trials—are well placed to begin tackling some of these issues as part of efforts to address legacies of violence. Yet, although the problem has been addressed by some transitional justice efforts in certain countries, there is still wide variation and inconsistency in terms of the responses to these violations and attempts to involve male victims of sexual violence in these processes.

The risk that male victims will remain invisible and left out of responses to sexual violence is significant, unless their rights and concerns are given a specific focus comparable to that now increasingly given to female victims.

A number of factors contribute to the generally lackluster response by both state and nonstate actors involved in implementing transitional justice processes. One is the tendency to conflate sexual violence with violence against women and girls, which contributes to the perception that it is a women’s issue, thus limiting the responses available to victims falling outside of this group, including men and boys. This means that male victims’ experiences of sexual violence continue to be underreported, misunderstood, and mischaracterized in transitional justice processes.

Another issue is under-reporting, which is particularly relevant for truth commissions as the statements they receive from victims not only inform their final reports, but also typically contribute to the creation of victim registries and the design of reparations programs, and even prosecutions. In many cases, male victims are reluctant to acknowledge the sexual nature of the violations committed against them. This can happen in order to avoid the social stigma attached to such acts or due to the fear of being perceived as weak, labeled homosexual, or being accused of having “wanted it.” Even in instances where men report acts of sexual violence, those receiving the reports rarely handle the report with the sensitivity and awareness they require. Medical practitioners, for example, may not be adequately trained to recognize, identify, or treat male victims or they may themselves accuse male victims of homosexuality or otherwise perpetuate social misconceptions about these crimes.

"The risk that male victims will remain invisible and left out of responses to sexual violence is significant, unless their rights and concerns are given a specific focus comparable to that now increasingly given to female victims."

In terms of specific transitional justice responses to sexual violence against males, despite some modestly encouraging signs in places such as Peru, Kenya, and Chile, for the most part this type of violence has been ignored or treated as physical violence, rather than sexual violence. Indicative of this situation, truth commissions in East Timor, Sierra Leone, and South Africa took special measures to facilitate female victims of sexual violence to come forward, but did not take comparable measures for male victims.

International and hybrid tribunals have similarly failed when it comes to the characterization of sexual violence as such when committed against men. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the International Criminal Court, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone each failed in varying ways to explicitly recognize the sexual dimension of various forms of violence committed against men, instead opting to characterize such acts exclusively as torture or cruel or inhumane treatment. Only the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has made nominally greater progress in identifying forced fellatio between two brothers as rape and hearing evidence of other acts of a sexual nature committed against men.

Looking ahead, this report also points to some progress toward addressing sexual violence against men and boys in certain contexts. Some innovative and even unconventional routes have been taken to provide male victims with some form of justice and reparation. For example, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia broke ground in recognizing men as victims of forced marriage (and not limiting victims to women). In Kenya, male victims were among those who filed a collective petition with the Kenyan Constitutional and Human Rights Court, while others have sought reparations from the UK Government, for violations committed against them during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s–60s. In Peru, amendments to the language in the country’s Comprehensive Reparations Plan allowed 280 additional male victims of sexual violence to access reparations.

While sexual violence against men and boys is slowly being incorporated into the larger understanding of sexual and gender-based violence, work is still needed to increase awareness about both the issue and actionable responses to it for transitional justice institutions. This includes greater acknowledgement about the existence of male victims of sexual violence and the myriad challenges limiting their full access to and participation in truth, justice, reparative, and reform processes.

A UK-funded memorial in Kenya to Kenyans killed and tortured by British forces during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s is part of a 2013 out-of-court settlement by the UK government by which it agreed to pay £20 million (USD $30 million) in compensation to Mau Mau veterans, at an unveiling ceremony held on September 12, 2015. (nKiruu Photography/jothee/Flickr)


Sexual violence against men and boys is slowly becoming a part of the discussion about justice and accountability for crimes. Despite the fact that this type of violence is pervasive across contexts and causes significant and enduring harm to both victims and their communities, it has typically been ignored or considered as simply physical rather than sexual harm. In addition, sexual violence has often been defined as violence against women, including by service providers, so that male victims are at risk of being excluded from benefits that are available to women victims.

While not consistent across contexts, there is an emerging trend toward recognizing and addressing sexual violence against men and boys. While the South African TRC failed to identify sexual violence as “sexual violence” as such in a consistent manner, it did recognize that male victims of sexual violence had suffered violation. Notwithstanding numerous institutional failures to typify violence accurately or provide gender-sensitive procedures that support men and boys, there are aspects of practices in Peru, Kenya, and Chile that are encouraging. The potential for reparations through court cases is made more real by the successful outcome of the Mau Mau litigation against the UK Government, albeit out-of-court. When reparations programs are limited to truth commission lists of those who testified, as in South Africa and Sierra Leone, and where there is no specific attempt to recognize or reach male victims of sexual violence, many such victims will be ineligible to receive reparations. Inaccurate or incomplete characterization of violations against male victims by truth commissions—or by courts—can exclude them from reparations programs and support structures and/or from an adequate criminal justice response.

Individual perpetrators’ criminal accountability for sexual violence against men and boys can only be achieved through prosecutions. While the rape of men and boys has been charged and prosecuted, the sexualized nature of many forms of violence beyond rape has been largely overlooked or denied by international tribunals, including the ICTY, ICTR, Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the ICC. The ICTY’s Češić case is an exception, setting a progressive example that the ICC declined to follow by refusing to recognize sexual acts other than rape as sexual violence. The ECCC will have the opportunity to extend the jurisprudential understanding of victims of sexual violence when it considers rape in the context of forced marriage.

Greater consciousness about the existence of male victims of sexual violence and their likely vulnerabilities is essential to enhancing their access and participation in processes aimed at achieving acknowledgement, accountability, and reform. Thus, acknowledging and addressing sexual violence against men and boys is a critical component of comprehensive and effective transitional justice.

Detainees in the Manjača Camp, near Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where incidents of sexual violence are alleged to have occurred, 1992. (Photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY.)


There are simple, achievable approaches to overcome many of the existing challenges to responding to the rights and needs of male victims of sexual violence, drawn from lessons learned. The following recommendations are for those involved in formulating policies or implementing initiatives.

For Truth Commissions and Truth-Seeking Bodies

**1. Properly conceptualize, identify, record, and code sexual violations other than rape against men and boys so they are not subsumed in other categories, such as mutilation, torture, or beatings.**A significant part of the problem is a lack of information. Broad surveys and mapping of conflicts and repressive regimes conducted by truth-seeking initiatives can help to gauge the scale of sexual violence against men and boys and inform appropriate responses. By excluding male narratives of sexual violence, truth-seeking entities will fall short of the goal of ensuring inclusion of all victims, particularly the most hidden and vulnerable.

2. Recognize that males may have been specifically targeted for sexual violence, and that their experiences may differ from, but are just as serious as, the experiences of women and girls. Accordingly, any focus or chapter of a final report on sexual violence should encompass sexual violence committed against males as well as females. The option of closed hearings should also be offered to male victims of sexual violence.

3. Train interviewing staff in techniques that will increase their capacity to elicit the experiences of male victims of sexual violence. Being able to recognize indicators of sexual violence when engaging with men is a prerequisite to capturing when, how, and why such crimes may have been committed.

4. Provide safe spaces for male victims of sexual violence, particularly boys, to participate and testify in truth-seeking processes. Procedures reflecting these changes may include men-only hearings, guidelines for victim testimony regarding the gender of commissioners present, and a trained victims and witnesses section designed to support men and boys.

5. Advocate that male victims of sexual violence be consulted and remembered as part of memorialization efforts and public apologies.

For Criminal Justice Actors

1. Recognize sexually violent acts as inherently sexual in nature, capable of being prosecuted and convicted independently of other physical violations. This includes recognizing that males forced to perform sexual acts with others are also victims of sexual crimes.

2. Educate investigators, attorneys, judges, support staff, and others about how to identify, include, and support male victims of sexual violence. For example, knowing that in many contexts male detainees face a considerable risk of sexual violence should lead to sensitivity to the possibility of harms when investigating abusive detention.

For Reparations Programs

1. Use gender-inclusive language in victim registration that does not obscure or reclassify abuses against male victims. This neutral language should span the lifetime of the endeavor, from the legislation, statute, or mandate through to operations and final decisions or reports.

2. Ensure the registration and implementation processes treat male and female victims of sexual violence with comparable sensitivity and privacy.

3. Design reparative measures to incorporate psychological support appropriate for and available to male victims of sexual violence, and material support that provides income-generating alternatives for men unable to continue with previously held positions. Recognize, for example, that the psychological effects of trauma may render male victims unable to fulfill traditionally “male” head-of-household responsibilities, like working in the public sphere.

For Institutional Reform Initiatives

1. Decriminalize homosexuality to ensure male victims are not afraid to come forward to report violations. Laws against homosexuality and the social stigma around it put homosexual men and boys at higher risk of abuse, and compound its consequences by making it difficult for male victims of sexual violence to seek and receive medical, legal, or social services.

2. Adopt gender-neutral language in all legislation and other government policies and programs on sexual violence and related forms of violence.

3. Train and educate police and relevant government officials and employees to recognize male victims of sexual violence and to identify the signs and risk factors of such violations.

4. Ensure serious consequences are provided for members of security sector forces who commit sexual violations against males. Given men generally comprise the majority of those detained, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse by detainers. Without punishment for sexual violations, perpetrators are likely to perceive these as less serious than other crimes.