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Sex assault victim advocates worry male victims don’t receive enough support

The Daily Nebraskan
April 25, 2016

By Andrew Barry

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that there was one sexual assault reported to UNLPD in 2005. In fact, there were two reports filed during that year. The error has been corrected. 

He didn’t know if he was drunk or drugged, but his body froze as his thoughts raced.

“I could tell you everything that happened, but there were periods of time where I felt like it was happening to someone else,” Caleb Byers said. “At one point in time, I actually went out of my own body, and I was looking down at what was going on.”

After being sexually assaulted by a 63-year-old in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in June 2012, Byers, who was 20 at the time, said he felt alone.

As April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, some national and local advocates are worried male sexual assault survivors aren’t receiving adequate support. Byers, who is a senior studying psychology at the University of Nebraska Omaha, didn’t report his sexual assault until about a year and a half after it happened. With a lack of physical evidence, the police recently dropped the case. He said he felt his experience was minimized.

“(Society) create(s) this environment where a male sexual assault is not seen as serious for a man as it is a woman,” he said.

Byers said he still regularly sees his assailant.

“Every time I see him, it sends me on the verge of a panic attack, and my chest gets tight,” Byers said. “It’s hard to breathe.”

According to the Journal of American College Health, about 1 in 25 – or 4 percent – of college men are sexually assaulted before they graduate. Other national studies show rates of 6 percent or higher. In fall 2015, a little more than 13,000 males were enrolled either full time or part time at UNL. Assuming UNL’s statistics are consistent with national averages, at least 524 current male students at UNL will be victims of sexual assault during their time in college.

Despite the statistics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department Sgt. David Dibelka Jr. confirmed there haven’t been any police reports made by male sexual assault survivors to UNLPD in more than 10 years.

The same study in the journal showed 1 in 5 – or 20 percent – of women said they had been sexually assaulted in college. Female reporting rates at UNL are likely less than 1 percent, but rising. In 2015, UNLPD responded to 23 reported sexual assaults of females, up from 17 the year before and just two in 2005.

On the recent “End Rape on Campus March” event Facebook page, sponsored by Voices of Hope, UNL PREVENT and Nebraska Wesleyan University, the organizers only listed statistics on females in the description. However, the study their data was pulled from indicated between 15 and 20 percent of college sexual assault survivors are male.

UNLPD Sgt. Aaron Pembleton said society needs to treat male sexual assault more seriously if reporting rates are to match reality. He said he believes UNLPD is fully capable of being sensitive to survivors and carrying out respectful investigations for men and women.

“Does it happen more often than it’s reported to us? Absolutely,” Pembleton said. “It’s hard to go to a certain group, especially with the stigma of police being white, males, masculine. (Survivors) think ‘Those people are probably the worst out of this public group.’”

Byers said there were several barriers to him reporting his sexual assault.

“I think it’s worse for males because the males have roles and are supposed to be dominant, assertive, stand up for ourselves, never let ourselves be taken advantage of,” he said. “It’s humiliating. It’s absolutely humiliating. I didn’t even want to admit to myself what happened, never mind recounting and telling the story of ‘losing my masculinity’ to somebody in a position of power.”

Byers and Pembleton agree sexuality issues play a significant factor in males reporting sexual assault. They said many survivors worry about how their assault reflects on their sexuality and if it will make people see them as gay. Byers speculated his sexuality was one of the reasons he was targeted.

Susan Foster, the director of the university’ Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, said some men don’t report rape for several reasons, some of which are the same for women.

“Many males find it difficult to accept their experience,” she said in an email, “they suffer denial and repression, they do not want to be stigmatized by societal expectations and stereotypes, they do not want to be viewed as a victim, they experience self blame and fear of hostility/doubt and judgment from their peers, law enforcement and medical providers.”

Legislation brought forward in February by Nebraska Sen. Adam Morfeld tried to make it easier for all survivors to report sexual assaults.

“I think that a victim of sexual assault is a victim of sexual assault,” Morfeld said. “Whether it’s male or female, I don’t think we should be making differentiations. For me, it is just about being inclusive.”

His legislation, which was shelved by the legislature this year after being attached to Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks’ anti-LBGT discrimination bill, would have made it more affordable for local law enforcement agencies to use rape-testing kits through state and federal funding. Morfeld said his work fighting for survivors of sexual assault will continue in the next session.

In the future, he wants to pass a grant proposal that would allow college campuses across Nebraska to have better reporting techniques, such as anonymous online mechanisms, hotlines and more prepared and educated faculty.

“College campuses, for a variety of reasons, have a higher per-capita incidence of sexual assault because there’s a lot more factors involved; younger people, drugs, alcohol, a lot of substance issues,” he said. “Making sure we have concentrated resources on college campuses to prevent, educate and then also providing reporting mechanisms for victims of sexual assault on college campuses is a priority for me.”

Many of these resources already exist for students and the general public through organizations such asVoices of Hope in Lincoln. The organization has a 24-hour confidential hotline, short-term counseling and other services for crisis intervention and advocacy. All of their services are free.

Morgan is the UNL campus advocate for Voices of Hope. She asked that her last name not be published due to the nature of her position. She said her job is to be a confidential source for UNL students to ask questions about sexual assault, either as survivors or as who she calls “secondary victims,” usually friends or family members of survivors. She said Voices of Hope is equally inclusive to all gender identities. But she said she’s worried because her office is located in the UNL Women’s Center, male victims might be hesitant to come forward.

“I want men to know it’s a safe place for men to come but also to get information,” she said. “I think often, others do react very differently, when, in fact, male survivors deserve the same information, validation and support as any female survivor would.”

Steve LePore, the executive director of 1in6 – a national organization dedicated to providing services for men who have experienced sexual assault – said the difficulty of coming forward after being assaulted varies among survivors, regardless of sex.

But men face different barriers to reporting, and those often have something to do with the organizations available.

According to LePore, one of the biggest problems for male sexual assault survivors is their access to services. While there are many organizations dedicated to female survivors, he guessed – correctly – there are no organizations in Nebraska specifically working with male survivors. In addition, many of the survivors he has talked to said they were initially treated as perpetrators when they sought help.

“One of our main issues as an organization is to de-stigmatize the issue by dialogue,” he said. “At the very top of the list is a misconception that is quite simply that men cannot be abused.”

Byers said he saw that stereotype play out during the investigation of his own sexual assault.

Despite the stigma, he insists through awareness, the public can empower men who’ve been sexually assaulted to view themselves as survivors rather than victims.

“For a very long time after my assault, I thought of myself as a victim,” Byers said. “That adjective defined me. It affected how I perceived the world and how I perceived myself.”

About one and a half years ago, he made a video recounting his experience and posted it on a website he made called wearenotpowerless.com. The website includes information about sexual assault, specifically male sexual assault, and links to other articles and advocacy websites.

“I see myself as an advocate, a voice for other survivors,” he said.

* * * *

The hospital staff couldn’t determine if the Byers twins were identical or fraternal.

As 24-year-olds, they still look similar to one another, with square faces, angular chins. Sometimes, stubble grows under their bottom lips. Byers is a little bit shorter, but both have lean, muscular bodies. They call themselves “meatheads,” often lifting weights together.

Between the two of them, they have four cats – all named after Sherlock Holmes. They both love superheroes and are avid gamers.

But when Byers told his brother, Lukas Byers, he was sexually assaulted, Lukas started laughing, he said.

“That was hard to hear, hard to see too,” Caleb Byers said. “I can’t tell you how many times he’s apologized since then. I think he’s been my biggest support in all of this.”

Byers said his brother laughed mostly out of shock. He knows now he has friends and family who support him. He identifies as bisexual, but for a long time, he resisted coming to terms with it and has only come out to his friends and family within the past year and a half.

“I’m dealing with the shame, humiliation and struggling with my own sexuality all at the same time,” he said. “It’s terrifying to admit to the ones you love that you’ve been taken advantage of, especially as a male in today’s society.”

As an advocate for other survivors, and through networking with different organizations, he said he felt himself grow in strength and self-understanding.

“I guess you could say I lived by the bottle,” he said. “I drank as soon as I woke up, before work, after work, at work, before I went to bed. It was my way of handling it. It was just numbing.”

He used his brother as his support system until he moved to attend the University of Iowa. Byers said without his support system, he had difficulties emotionally and physically, including self-injuring. He carved smiley faces and words like “shame” into his legs with razor blades.

“I was going to die,” he said. “The realization finally hit me that something needed to change.”

It took him two and a half years to find his strength again, and he wants other survivors to know one thing: “You are not alone, and you are not powerless.”

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If you are a victim of sexual assault and are in need of help, please visit Voices of Hope’s website to reach its crisis hotline.  

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