The topic of rape is a taboo and hardly ever spoken about in family settings in Bangladesh, and even in those rare situations when it is talked about, people almost exclusively refer to women being raped by men. The concept of male rape is entirely alien in this country. People typically have no idea that it is even possible for a man to be raped, and hence the subject is virtually never discussed in contemporary Bangladeshi society. Statistically, the victim of one in every ten rapes is a man. This number is much higher than most people think it is, and it is probably still too low, as men are even less likely to report rapes than women.
There are many misconceptions people have regarding the issue of male rape. As a result, male rape victims in Bangladesh face much confusion, frustration, and trauma.
The first and most common myth is that men cannot be raped. This thought is pathetic, of course, and it stems from the patriarchal belief – existing in many societies – that men always want sex, and hence cannot be raped. In Section 375 of the Bangladesh Penal Code, rape is defined as “sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances falling under any of the five following descriptions:
• Firstly. Against her will.
• Secondly. Without her consent.
• Thirdly. With her consent, when her consent has been obtained by putting her in fear of death, or of hurt.
• Fourthly. With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband, and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married.
• Fifthly. With or without her consent, when she is under fourteen years of age.”
Note that there is no mention of a man being raped by a man, or by a woman, because both cases are considered to be impossible. I recently talked to a victim of male rape, Hridoy (not his real name), and this is what he told me:
“I did not know that it was rape at the time, as I had always thought only girls can be raped, but I definitely felt violated when he did that. I did not have anyone to talk to either as he was my hujur. He taught me how to read the Qur’an. Who would believe me over him?”
This is not an uncommon occurrence. Pubescent Bangladeshi boys often go through experiences in which “trusted” family members, teachers, hujurs, or Arabic teachers sexually exploit them. In most cases, these children have nowhere to go, no idea what happened to them, and no opportunities for counselling or therapy. Of course, rape among men does not only occur between young boys and older men. It is a problem that affects all age groups.
Hridoy also told me:
“I often find myself confused about my sexuality. Now that I am older, I know what that is. But does it mean that I am gay? I mean I did have sex with a man, right?”
Hridoy asked me this, with questioning eyes, wondering what answer I could give him. What he feels is what most male rape victims feel, confused, dazed, unsure of what had happened, and why it happened. The question that haunts Hridoy is whether their voices will ever be heard, whether young men in Bangladesh will ever get guidance on this matter, or whether they will continue to live a life filled with questions about one of the most basic aspect of a human being’s life: their sexuality. Of course, if an adult man performs sexual acts on a young boy, that’s child abuse. It is often linked with paedophilia and has nothing to do with homosexuality. Homosexuality is a normal and healthy sexual orientation, which people are born with. In contrast, paedophilia is a psychological disorder that must be condemned as abuse if practiced.
The second rather odd but depressingly common assumption is that women cannot rape men. The argument that is usually given in support of this claim is that men cannot be erect unless they are sexually aroused, and that they therefore can partake in intercourse only voluntarily. This argument is not only highly erroneous, it is also sexist. Rape is frequently used as a method to exercise power, and in these instances it has nothing to do with sexual arousal or the need for sex. It is a power relationship that, for example, enables older women to rape younger boys. The law often classifies this as sexual assault rather than rape. A classic example is the definition of rape in English law. The British 2003 Sexual Offences Act implies that rape occurs only if there is a penetration of the anus, mouth, or vagina by a penis. Note that the penetrating object must be a penis for the definition of rape to apply. Accordingly, if a female penetrates a man’s anus with an inanimate object, this does not constitute rape, but sexual assault. This double standard again exists due to patriarchal assumptions about sexuality, and fails to give men the protection they deserve. I mention British law because Bangladesh follows a common law system which is based on the legal system of its former colonizer.
That being said, I should mention that, while I have personally not interviewed any male who has been raped by a female, I have come across many young Bangladeshi males who have been victims of sexual abuse by older tutors, cousins, and other family members. The common factor I found when researching this topic is age, which seems to have played a major role in all of these assaults. In most cases, male rape or sexual assault victims are younger than their aggressors. It’s a persistent yet silent problem that continues to plague Bangladesh. There is no relief as this crime does not even exist in the law books. Like many things taboo, society turns a blind eye and the result is a population of very confused, emotionally damaged, suppressed, and angry men with nowhere to vent, and nowhere to seek refuge.
Wake up, Bangladesh! This is important.
Shudha Chowdhury is a lawyer and human rights activist.