On Being Raped

Could one man’s harrowing story encourage more male victims of sexual assault to come forward?

on being raped illo.

Mike Dawson

When he was 18, Raymond M. Douglas recounts in a new book, he was raped. It was late after a party at the home of a hard-drinking priest, and Douglas had picked the short straw among his friends to stay behind and make sure the guy was OK. In retrospect, Douglas writes, the priest probably wasn’t as inebriated as he seemed, for if he had been, he wouldn’t have been able to use his size advantage to overpower his victim, pin him down, and beat him into submission.

On Being Raped, Douglas’ slim volume about that four-hour experience and everything that followed, is as much a political treatise as a memoir. It serves as a declaration of the rights of male rape victims within a culture that still believes such things don’t happen, not to real men. The conviction of his rapist many years later gave Douglas only a modicum of solace, he writes, for he still feels those four hours with him now, decades later, and they constitute a nearly unmitigated loss.

Douglas, now a middle-age history professor at Colgate University whose previous books have largely focused on 20th-century Europe, never says where he grew up, but describes it as “a country where conventional Catholicism was infused into every aspect of life.” At that party on that fateful night, he homes in on the moment others will assume he should have known better—and in this, his story is like that of so many female victims who’ve come before.

After helping the fumbling priest remove his shoes, put on pajamas, and get into bed, Douglas acceded to the priest’s request first to stay with him for a few minutes—“I can’t get to sleep on my own in the dark”—and no, not to sit in that chair over there.

“No, don’t be ridiculous,” he said crossly. “You can lie down on the bed. There’s any amount of room. I’ll be out like a light in ten minutes. Just kick your shoes off. I don’t want you messing up my quilt.” Without waiting for a reply, he reached across and flicked out the bedside light.

At this point, you’re doubtless drawing the conclusion that if I fell for that one, I deserved anything I got. And now we have the first invariable component of the rape script: the list of charges. Prisoner at the bar, how could you have been so stupid?

In recent years, a civil rights movement on behalf of male rape victims has begun to take shape, even as we struggle to get our hands around the scope of the problem. We don’t know how many boys and men are raped, and for a long time, we didn’t even have the language for it. Only in the past few years did the federal government expand its definition of rape to include male victims. (The old, outdated definition used for gathering national crime statistics, which considered only forcible vaginal penetration by a male perpetrator, had been the same for the better part of a century.) A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that between 1 and 2 percent of men had been the victim of a rape, but experts say that because of underreporting the real number could be much higher.

Within a culture that still struggles over what kind of rape counts—what qualifies as what Whoopi Goldberg called “rape-rape”—the male rape victim’s experience can wind up rendered invisible by assumptions. Female victims face questions about their character; male victims face questions about their masculinity. If, to be counted as a victim of “rape-rape,” a woman must be attacked by a stranger while wearing nothing provocative and must resist perhaps to the point of death, the possibility of an adult man’s sexual vulnerability remains for many people simply unthinkable.

“I never heard of, of rape and a man,” the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno told a reporter in 2012, describing his befuddlement when he first heard an accusation that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had been seen sexually abusing a boy.

Douglas did not go to the police. He wanted to, but his confidence about being believed slowly ebbed in the hours after his captor released him. Surveying his body in the mirror, he discovered that his bruises and scratches didn’t look as garish as they felt. He imagined the questions from police officers weighing the word of a teenage security guard over that of a priest. Why did he go to the party, and why did he stay behind? Why did he lie down on the bed? Were there any witnesses? An anti-sodomy law in his country at the time meant that if police did not believe he’d fellated the priest under duress—duress meant being choked and punched so hard in the head his peripheral vision vanished—he and the priest might both be arrested.

Time would later prove that decision to have been less paranoia than a sober assessment of the cultural climate. He writes that he did go to church officials three times to report his experience, only to be brushed off, and that a state inquiry into the church’s cover-up of predatory priests many years later would reveal that police were often in the habit of assisting church officials in hushing up such crimes. Decades after the rape, Douglas was contacted by a police officer who found his name in church files, and who confirmed his long-held suspicion that he was likely just one of many victims.

The priest was eventually convicted of raping another boy, Douglas writes, but because of bad health, he never served a day in jail.

Douglas discovered when he went to get counseling shortly after the crime that he was something of a unicorn—a man who wanted to talk about being raped to a treatment community that didn’t buy the premise. He checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, where an official told him that this account was a fantasy and that he should come to terms with his homosexuality. He went to a local rape crisis center, where deeply ideological counselors struggled to situate his experience within a political framework that posited rape as a means of patriarchal oppression and viewed him as an enemy by virtue of his sex.

Douglas left his home country, threw himself into his work, and did not venture out on a date till he was 36. To this day, he says, he has nightmares and periodic depressions. Despite his marriage and daughter and professional success, he writes that “I am compelled to acknowledge that being raped is the most consequential thing that has happened to me.” That four-hour experience was an introduction to evil he cannot now unknow, and it has cast his life in shadow. This bleak outlook is leavened only by his observation that the state of affairs for male rape victims looks the way culture and the courts looked for female victims five or six decades ago. “Men are raped, all over the world and on a daily basis,” Douglas writes. “Nobody knows just how many victims there are, but all the indications are that it’s a very large number indeed.” If we’ve reached a tipping point, if our culture is finally ready to believe in male rape, expect many more accounts like this one.

On Being Raped by Raymond M. Douglas. Beacon Press.

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