Science, Medicine & Health

A Call for Help

This piece accompanies George Severs’s longer article in History Workshop Journal 97 titled Male rape: survivors, support and the law in late twentieth-century England and Wales, where it is accessible on open access.

Content warning: This article discusses male victims of rape and sexual violence.

Male survivors of rape and sexual assault are currently the subject of much discussion. Netflix’s 2024 hit show Baby Reindeer tells the story of protagonist Richard Gadd’s real life experience of, amongst other things, being sexually abused and raped as a man. Millions of people around the world have watched this series. As a result, there is greater public awareness of the ways in which the criminal legal system, the NHS and rape crisis centres deal with male survivors of sexual abuse.

Baby Reindeer is the latest dramatic representation of male survivors of sexual violence, with storylines featuring recently in popular soap operas including EastEnders. If male victims of rape and sexual assault are increasingly visible in popular culture, this has not been the case in historical research. My article in issue 97 of History Workshop Journal, which grows out of my work on the Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters (SHaME) project, examines the landscape of advice, support, care and legal redress available to raped men in late twentieth-century England and Wales. One man’s experience allows us to navigate that landscape alongside him.  

One evening in early 1992, Rhys* was raped in central London. His assailant was a taxi driver who trapped and overpowered Rhys in his vehicle before abandoning him in one of the capital’s backstreets. This horrific incident, although unique to the victim, was not an isolated case. A report published in 2022 suggested that half of all men have experienced ‘unwanted sexual experiences’, forty-two per cent ‘have experienced at least one sexual crime, as legally defined’, and one in ten men have been subjected to rape ‘or non-consensual penetration’ in England and Wales.

Photo by Giuseppe Milo, Wikimedia Commons

The support available to Rhys in 1992 was not comprehensive. Having been found in an alleyway by police officers, he was taken to the casualty department of St. Mary’s Hospital, instead of to a victim examination suit or a sexual assault referral centre (SARC) where forensic evidence could have been collected. We don’t know why the officers decided to take Rhys to St. Mary’s instead of one of these alternatives. Until November 1990, men were barred from being examined in the Metropolitan Police Service’s victim examination suites. Perhaps these officers were unaware that this policy had changed. Having arrived at St. Mary’s, the casualty department was so overwhelmed that Rhys was faced with a long wait. He reported feeling ‘too embarrassed to hang around’ and ended up leaving without being seen by anyone.

Beyond the state, there were relatively few services available to men like Rhys. Many victims of rape and sexual assault sought advice and support from rape crisis centres which had been established across the country during the 1970s, by feminists working within the women’s liberation movement. Very few of these centres would take calls from or provide services to male victims given the huge number of women who relied on their chronically underfunded services having suffered at the hands of violent or abusive men.

In the end, Rhys reached out to Switchboard, the lesbian and gay helpline established in London in 1974. By the early 1990s, Switchboard was a well-known resource for information about a variety of subjects, including support following an act of sexual violence. Of the helpline’s many callers, a small number were men who had been sexually assaulted. Volunteers would listen to these callers’ experiences before referring them on to other more specialist services.

Some male survivors were referred to queer services regardless of their own sexuality. The London Rape Crisis Centre (LRCC), for example, often referred men who called their helpline to London Friend, which had operated as the ‘befriending and counselling arm’ of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality since 1971. Some men may have found this a useful referral but, as one LRCC volunteer remembered, ‘a lot of the men said, you know, but I’m not gay and so I don’t want to ring a gay male counselling service’.

Perhaps Rhys was not aware that, just a few years earlier, a dedicated helpline had been established for male survivors of rape in London. The group, which was called Survivors, was established in London by Martin Dockrell and Richie McMullen in 1986, and by 1988 its telephone helpline was up and running. Calls increased rapidly throughout its first year, and by December 1988 they were receiving five times the number of calls they had taken in January. Contacts increased dramatically year on year. In 1992, Survivors was receiving around 800 calls a year, and by 2002 this had risen to 5,138 calls.

As the services available to male survivors of sexual violence grew, more and more men attempted to access them. Clearly, though, not all were able to do so. Having received no medical attention and minimal interest from the police, Rhys found himself drawn to Switchboard rather than the Survivors’ helpline. We don’t know why, but it reminds us that groups like Survivors weren’t able to reach every man seeking advice following an act of sexual violence. The history of male survivors of sexual violence is fraught with silences and moments of invisibility, even as male survivors became more recognised societally, psychiatrically and legally in late twentieth-century England and Wales.

* Rhys is a randomly selected pseudonym.

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