My (boy)friend was raped

Dear Alice,

I've been seeing this guy off and on for a few months. We're not a couple, but we're definitely more than just friends. (College is making it a bit difficult for us to actually be a couple.) But that's beside the point.

We were having a very serious discussion the other night, as he and I have already been through quite a bit. And all of a sudden he said that he was raped by one of his friends when he first started college. He's never told anyone that, except for a therapist that he saw for a while after that.

I've had female friends that have been raped (very few, thank god), and it just seems wrong to deal with him on the same level as I deal with my female friends. One, the relationship is different. Two, he's a guy, not a girl. There are obviously different sympathies that I need to give. The only problem is, I don't know how to show him that I am sympathetic towards him, that I am here for him no matter what.

Do you have any advice about how I go about this. I really want to be here for him, whether we remain friends, or become something more. Thank you for anything in advance.

Dear Reader,

Your (boy)friend is lucky to have such a caring companion, especially after a traumatic event like sexual assault. Rape can happen to anyone, but male survivors are often denied support and credibility. So, your instincts are correct — your guy friend may need special compassion to get through this tough time.

Since you have female friends who've been raped, you may already know that every survivor of sexual assault has a unique experience. For both men and women, rape can trigger a variety of reactions including shock, depression, anxiety, and anger. One of the biggest hurdles to get over when confronting male rape is the question, is Male Rape Possible? The reality is that male rape exists. However, men are rarely seen as vulnerable since people often assume it's easy for them to say no to sex or defend themselves. 

These misconceptions may lead male survivors to feel isolated, embarrassed, or "less manly." It's possible that your friend feels partly responsible for the assault since he was raped by an acquaintance, especially if they previously had consensual sex. Other aspects of the assault like being drunk or high, being unable to say no, or having had an erection may produce an undeserved feeling of self-blame. In addition, despite the fact that rape has nothing to do with sexual orientation, if a man is raped by another man stereotypes like "only gay guys get raped" may cause some male survivors to question their sexuality. Any of these feelings may drive men towards self-destructive behaviors like alcohol or drug abuse, picking fights, or retreating from friends and family. It's possible that you may experience some of these effects in your relationship. For example, your guy may seem distant or reluctant to be intimate.

By sharing his story with you, your (boy)friend has taken a brave step towards healing. One of the most powerful ways to support him is the simple act of listening and validating his experience. Just as you wrote above, perhaps you could say something like, "I'm glad you told me about your assault, and I want you to know that I'm here for you no matter what." Be patient and let him open up at his own pace. If and when he wants to talk, emphasize that you believe his story and know the assault was not his fault. Your friend may or may not take disciplinary or judicial action for his assault. Talking together about different options and then respecting his final decision are also ways to show you care.

You mentioned that your friend talked to a therapist after being raped. If it's been a while since the assault but he seems to be struggling, you may want to encourage him to seek help again. Talking with a therapist may help him to sort through lingering feelings. Also check out national organizations devoted to helping victims of rape, such as RAINN

Too often, male survivors of sexual assault feel silenced or ashamed ­­— that makes supporting your boy(friend) even more meaningful. Hopefully your friendship will carry you both through this tough time.

Last updated Feb 25, 2013
Originally published Mar 13, 2009

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