“The Character Wouldn’t Call it That”: How Male Rape is Minimised in Popular Culture

Something has been bothering me lately. Have you ever noticed that once you take note of something it starts popping up everywhere? This is one of them. And according to Google it’s a topic that has been addressed by much wiser, more influential and more eloquent people than I, but I’m putting my two cents in anyway.

Media has an impact on our society. And I’m not referring to The Media, (capitalised, lightning in background, mournful wail), but just media. Books, TV shows, movies. A bestselling book will be read by thousands of people hungry for a story. A hit TV show will be tuned into by thousands and thousands of viewers weekly.

The thing is, when you’re reaching this kind of audience, messages that you give become very important. A recent scandal that comes to mind is Game of Thrones, where people called out unnecessary and gratuitous rape scenes. What’s interesting to me is that people notice this, and will address this, but sometimes I feel like hardly anyone seems to care about the portrayal of the thing I’m about to bring up.

I’m talking about male rape. Not rape by a male, but rape of a male. There have been a couple of occasions where I have seen it brought up in TV shows. And it’s almost the way it should be portrayed. The rape happens and it’s made clear that the victim’s role in the rape has nothing to do with a lack of strength or ‘masculinity’. The character is shown suffering. They are genuinely (horrifically) affected by the event. This is a good thing. These stories are the truth of unfortunately far too many people out there, and their truth deserves to be shown.

There is, unfortunately, a problem with the way I see male rape portrayed. And that problem is that the word ‘rape’ is Never. Mentioned.

My first example of this is from the Australian show “Please Like Me’. In it, one of the main characters, Tom, is bullied and intimidated into sex by his girlfriend. At first, it seemed like the most sensitive, perfectly handled portrayal (I apologise for using the word ‘perfect’ here to describe ‘chillingly accurate rape scene’) of the rape of a male I could imagine. There was no weapon (not that there is something inherently wrong with using a weapon, but it does seem to send the message that the only situation in which a guy can be forced to have sex with a girl is if a gun is present), but the desperation of the character is still clear. You feel how he feels – scared, intimidated, trapped. Following this, the treatment of Tom’s emotional state is likewise well-handled. He doesn’t bounce back and forget about it. He is affected. Deeply. We see him sitting silently in a bathtub, staring ahead. We see him pulling away from his friends. We see him struggling with relationships, be them platonic, sexual or romantic. Let me stress again that this is all spot-on.

So spot-on, that if the victim had been a female, the word rape would never have had to be mentioned. Female gets screamed at by her boyfriend, isn’t allowed to leave the room until she gets on the ground, at which point he angrily mounts her and hits her while doing so – I think you’d be hard pressed to find a person who wouldn’t immediately understand that this character was raped. So you can imagine how frustrating it was for me to check for the online reaction to this rape and find nothing more than crickets. Recap after recap after recap of this episode at best ignored the rape, at worst referred to “Tom’s romance-related depression’ or commenting on how his depression stems from his treatment of women, and the fact that he now has to reap the consequences. Excuse me, but what!? Is rape an acceptable consequence for cheating now?

Even the show’s creator, Josh Thomas, expressed surprise that the rape of this character was so thoroughly ignored by basically everyone. But I don’t think he should’ve been surprised. Because Josh Thomas purposefully left out any acknowledgement of the rape in his own script, due to his opinion that Tom’s character isn’t the type to address this. And I understand what he’s saying. But I think this choice was damaging.

Male rape is so rarely addressed in storylines, and is so ignored and denied by our society, I do not believe that writers have the luxury of being artistic when dealing with a male character who has been raped. It is ingrained into the heads of so many people that men cannot be raped, that they will simply not realise that what they are watching is rape. And if they are not told otherwise, they won’t learn a thing. They won’t be forced to confront their own biases and stereotypes. They won’t have their beliefs challenged. There will be no opportunity for them to re-examine their thoughts and opinions on rape. None of this will occur, because the viewer will not have, at any point, even realised that what they are watching is rape.

And you know what this says to the guys watching this show who have been raped? This says ‘your experience does not matter. It does not exist. We as a society do not acknowledge that it exists. This is not a big deal. You have no right to suffer. You have no right to ask for help.’

A similar storyline occurred in the US ‘Shameless’, in which the character Mickey is raped in front of his boyfriend, Ian, by a woman while his own father holds him at gunpoint. The scene brought me to tears. It is horrific. Gut-wrenching. Graphic. And once again, what follows? Mickey, withdrawing and suffering, and not once is it ever acknowledged out loud that what happened to him was rape. Instead, the audience almost seems to be encouraged to side with Ian, who doesn’t understand why his boyfriend has pulled away, and takes it personally, rather than offering him support and comfort, or trying to seek help for him. Once again, it seems like creators are using the fact that the ‘character would not call it rape’ to avoid calling a spade a spade.

I strongly believe that it is useless to address the very-real-issue of male rape if you are going to refuse to specifically refer to it as such. Yes, in an ideal world the audience would be educated enough to immediately identify the scene for what it is. But that is not where our world is at. We live in a world that denies, to a rape-victim’s face, that their feelings have validity.

I implore you, if you are a writer or a creator of any kind, and you want to include a storyline about male rape (or, for that matter, anything that society considers controversial, or minimises), please, please don’t gloss over it. You are a writer. If your character wouldn’t ‘call it rape’ then please, have another character find out through some other way so that character can call it rape. If you have a character that is being discriminated against due to race, gender, religion, sexuality or otherwise, have someone state it. If someone has been wronged, state it. If you don’t, you’re not being deep. You’re not being clever. You are, intentionally or not, sending the message to the audience that ‘this is okay’. You are sending the message that the event, whatever the event may be, has little significance.

You are not patronising your audience by spelling it out. Our society desperately, desperately needs it to be spelled out. We need to see beloved characters that we have bonded with go through these things, so we can understand them, and maybe learn something about them, so that if, in real life, one of our male friends says to us ‘my girlfriend forced me to sleep with her’, our first thought is that This. Is. A. Bad. Thing.

It seems like common sense. And it should be.

But it’s not.


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