These past few weeks, Indonesia was shaken by two high-profile cases involving sexual assault which, upon surface-level observation, seem to be unrelated; one was perpetrated by a group of office employees and the other by a well-known celebrity. One was a one-time event that took place in 2016, and the other went on for years starting in 2011. However, the thread running through both cases is unmistakable: the victims are both men. As male sexual assault survivors are often excluded from discussions regarding the topic, these cases sparked a new conversation spotlighting an often overlooked demographic.
The first case concerns the glorification of an individual charged with molestation of a minor. This individual is no other than singer Saipul Jamil, who sexually assaulted a 17-year-old (known by his initials of DS) while he was asleep in 2016. After serving three years in prison, his release in September 2021 was celebrated by his supporters and broadcasted on national television without any sort of censorship. Among the most photographed moments of his release were shots of him being paraded in a red convertible. Likened by many to celebratory parades for Olympic champions, this string of festivities showcased him in a positive, triumphant light.
On the other hand, the second case involves a series of long-term sexual assault, bullying, abuse of power, and intimidation directed toward an employee of KPI Pusat (Komisi Penyiaran Indonesia, or the Indonesian Broadcasting Comission) known by his initials of MS. According to his open letter to President Joko Widodo, MS experienced multiple instances of the aforementioned abuses over the years that led to both physical and mental trauma, landing him in the hospital and leaving him with severe psychological damages. After his multiple attempts at reporting to authorities were met with a lack of significant response and further invalidation of his condition, he finally penned an open letter addressing the president directly, which went viral on social media recently. As the post gained public support online, the perpetrators he named in his statement threatened to sue him based on the Electronic Information and Transaction clause of the constitution (UU ITE) and KPI itself attempted to force him into signing a contract indicating that the above offenses perpetrated against him at the KPI office and by KPI employees never occurred.
Most people are aware of the prevalence of sexual assault or harrassment towards women and girls; however, those which affect men and boys are generally less talked about. According to psychologist Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D, ⅓ of men surveyed in recent studies have faced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, whereas 7.6 percent of all sexual harrasment charges reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) in 2013 were reported by men. This statistic does not include instances of sexual assault and rape committed against men, which falls under a different category of sexual abuse.
Actions that constitute sexual harassment include unwanted sexual advances, pressure to engage in sexual or romantic acts, unconsensual physical touches, and sexual coercion (usually involving threats or bribes to force someone into a sexual relationship). Men who adhere less to traditional gender-based stereotypes (for example, men who take time off work for childcare purposes) are more likely to face harassment or assault, but anyone could fall victim to such acts regardless of how they act, talk, or dress. About 1 in 6 males have experienced sexual abuse in childhood or adulthood, yet conversations on this topic remain limited and heavily stigmatized.
According to Robert T. Muller, Ph.D, men often struggle to identify that their experiences were traumatic and abusive in nature; in a study, merely 16 percent of men who faced sexual abuse recognized that they’ve been sexually abused as opposed to the 64 percent of women who faced similar cases of harrassment or assault. Many factors contribute to this trend, most notably the stigmatization of male sexual assault survivors and the notion that men need to “man up” when faced with a traumatic event; as a result, many male victims of sexual abuse ultimately underestimate the severity of the assault or harrassment they faced in fear of being perceived as weak. With this additional layer of societal pressure, the process of coping with sexual abuse becomes even more difficult for male survivors.
The impacts of sexual assault or abuse are different for each survivor. For many, it can have profound and lasting effects, manifesting in various ways over their lives. Some of these impacts are immediate and temporary, while the rest emerge later and can last through adulthood. Let us keep this in mind while we continue to read the rest of this section.
According to Chen et al. (2010), the general physical and psychological impacts experienced by adult survivors include:
On the other hand, sexual assault towards minors in particular would disrupt much of the processes that are part of their developmental years. In addition to common impacts shared with adult survivors, this could lead to disrupted self-identity development, learning issues, delinquency, urination and defecation problems, and more (Tewksbury, 2007).
However, male survivors as a whole could also face additional challenges relating to their specific circumstances. These circumstances are made unique by traditional male gender stereotypes that are still prevalent in Indonesia’s conservative, patriarchal society. Because of expectations that males should be strong and self-reliant, survivors tend to deny their emotions and subsequently lack the skills to express and/or manage them. This could then manifest as externalizing behaviors such as aggression (e.g. domestic violence); along with relational disconnect (e.g. dissociation, projection) and interpersonal difficulties (e.g. being over-controlling towards others to compensate for fear of having no control).
Here is the reality: male survivors are suffering largely in silence, and it isn’t because they don’t want to talk.
Our society is consistently placing survivors at risk for secondary trauma and secondary victimization. We do this by relying on and perpetuating myths about sexual assaults, as well as engaging in victim blaming. Unfounded stereotypes such as “men can’t be victims because they should be able to defend themselves”, “men who are sexually assaulted must be asking for it”, and “sexual assault takes away one’s masculinity” – which originated from the same traditional notion of male gender roles and expression – instill feelings of shame, low self-esteem, insecurity, and inferiority within survivors (Suarez & Gadalla, 2010). What few reports are made to law enforcement and other relevant figures or institutions tend to be disbelieved and left unprosecuted.
Lastly, survivors of sexual assault by perpetrators of the same gender (such as in Saipul Jamil and MS’ cases) could also be confronted by questions of their sexual identity. Some struggle with confusion and/or anxiety regarding this and may make inappropriate attempts to reassert their masculinity (Crete & Singh, 2014). Nevertheless, considering that a lot of stigma surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community still exists, societal concern for the survivor’s sexual identity might overshadow the coercion, manipulation, and/or assault that had actually occurred.
It is time that we recognize how we are preventing male survivors from disclosing their experiences and seeking help. We are depriving them of crucial support systems that would contribute to their journey of healing. And so, perhaps the first step we could take as a community is to accept our responsibility in creating these unfavorable circumstances. While it will take a lot of time and effort to enact widespread change in Indonesian society, we can start by being more compassionate and learning to maintain a safe space for these survivors’ voices to be heard.
Sexual assault affects individuals of all demographics, and despite the numerous long-standing perceptions and stereotypes regarding the topic, its effects are incredibly detrimental to both female and male victims. Accordingly, it’s more important than ever for us, as a society, to open our arms to support victims of sexual assault who may not have been traditionally represented in discussions regarding the topic. It’s crucial to ensure that male sexual abuse survivors are validated and treated with the same degree of compassion as any others, hence helping to diminish the inaccurate notion that men and boys are somewhat “less” victimized by sexual abuse.
By spreading awareness on this issue, society can better understand the extent of the struggles that male sexual abuse survivors face and participate in the fight against the ages-old stereotypes that have caused countless men to suffer in silence (even leading to, in extreme cases, suicide). Moreover, it is hoped that the community will collaboratively create an environment in which sexual abuse is less likely to happen. This can be made possible by learning to be perceptive and receptive to signs of abuse (as well as what one can do to stop it) and empowering survivors to stand up for themselves and their rights.