ANCHORAGE, Alaska — When Standing Together Against Rape held a crisis line training session this spring, one thing stood out: out of 10 trainees, only two were men.
The crisis line, which is staffed in large part by volunteers, is the hub of STAR’s advocacy efforts. Callers use it to find out how to report a rape, access resources in the community, or simply to talk with someone about how to cope with the trauma.
STAR, an Anchorage-based advocacy group, has battled for years against the perception that sexual violence only affects women.
Erin Patterson, who is STAR’s lead advocate, says that’s why more male volunteers are needed, especially to take calls from survivors of sexual assault.
“We want women who have been hurt by these crimes, we want children who’ve been hurt, to see more men get involved,” Patterson said.
Shannon Bell couldn’t agree more. He’s a former STAR staffer who continues to answer the crisis line as a volunteer. He regularly takes three shifts a month, something he’s done for eight years. During that time, he says he’s taken at least 600 calls and only 5 percent were from men.
From his experience as a therapist, Bell says he knows that men are vastly under-represented when it comes to reporting sexual assault, largely because of cultural attitudes.
“There’s a reason women outlive men by 10 years,” says Bell. “And part of it is tied into the constricted emotional roles for men; we can’t talk about feelings.”
Bell was one of the presenters at STAR’s recent 40-hour training program, where there were two large posters on the wall, with drawings of a man and a woman, hand-sketched with felt markers. Both had strips of masking tape covering their mouths, with reasons why sexual violence goes unreported written on each piece of tape. For men and women, those reasons were very different.
Bell told the group that men are constrained by society's attitudes and expectations -- as well its limited definition of masculinity.
“’Deal with it like a man?’ What does that mean?” Bell asked the new volunteers.
“Sissy” and “pansy” were among the words Bell scrawled on the board behind him.
“The worst thing a man can be called is a girl,” said Bell. “So how do we ask for help when our lives have been shattered?”
Bell says males fear they may be perceived as homosexual if they disclose abuse by another male -- and if the perpetrator is female, they’re likely to be misunderstood, because people don’t take the crime seriously and laugh it off.
“Society views that as lucky,” said Bell. “Emotionally, the feelings that are left inside aren’t lucky. It’s about powerlessness, and that could really be confusing.”
Bell says men sometimes don’t report sexual assaults because they ejaculated during the incident and fear they won’t be believed, since people will assume it was a pleasurable experience.
Bells says the lack of understanding about how the male body responds in a sexual assault is one of the biggest barriers in reporting the crime. He told the volunteers they’re critical in helping male victims work through their emotions and shatter the myths surrounding male sexual assault -- information that’s needs to be understood by society at large.
One of this year’s recruits, who would only like to be identified only as Sam, says he was inspired to sign up as a volunteer in part because of Gov. Sean Parnell’s “Choose Respect” campaign, which asks men to choose respect over violence.
“It’s bigger than two people on the line, says Sam. “It’s bigger than this organization.”