Men get raped. They make up an estimated 14 percent of total victims, although we’re pretty intent to collectively pretend that’s not true. Occasionally, there’ll be a bit of tip-toeing around military sexual assault. Otherwise, the discussion is largely limited to prison rape jokes with few punch lines smarter than “Don’t drop the soap.” Male victims in any other context are made invisible. It’s as if we’ve come to believe rape is so inconceivable outside of jail or the Army that it simply doesn’t happen. So, what about when it does?
Enter “American Crime.” The show’s second season explores a community wrapping its head around the sexual assault of a young man at a party for the school’s basketball team. The first two episodes quietly prod at the question of whether a man can be raped. The writers don’t so much ask if it can happen — of course, it can and does — as they dangle the incident in front of their characters, forcing them to grapple with it in various stages of societally induced delusion. In the third and most recent episode (the show airs Wednesdays on ABC), that conflict is explicitly driven to the foreground. As law enforcement makes the steps to classify the incident as a rape, we see perspectives shift from questioning tones and raised eyebrows to straight-up denial.
“It didn’t happen, because boys don’t get raped,” says Terri, the mother of a potential suspect. “First of all, boys don’t do that to other boys, and even if he could, the boys fight back.”
In the moment, she’s not just defending her son Kevin, who she’s learned for the first time may have been involved in the attack. Instead, she’s fiercely confident in her circular reasoning: It didn’t happen, because it doesn’t happen.
In the same moment, her husband, Michael, flies off in a rage, running into Kevin’s room and physically demanding answers. His otherwise calm and levelheaded disposition bursts under this new information. Terri protects herself by outright rejecting the possibility, while Michael is so terrified by it, he loses all control, as if he actually can’t handle the thought.
Meanwhile, the victim, Taylor, tells his therapist he was met with ridicule even when he reported his account to the police. “People lose their minds when something happens to a girl,” he says. “They have rights groups supporting them. They have lesbians out hating men. But a guy?”
“You really believe people don’t care when a male is violated?” comes the response.
“If I put a mattress on my back and carry it around, do you think they’re gonna put me on TV?” he spits back. “I just want it to be over.”
At the behest of his mother, Taylor is repeating and reliving what happened that night, although as viewers we still don’t have the full story. In a way, the audience is made to experience the unfolding of details along with the other parents and kids in the school. What exactly does rape mean for a young man? Why would other young men do that to him? Why would popular kids/athletes do that to him?
With a young woman, there would be no question as to cause. Certainly, “young woman gets raped” wouldn’t be enough of a premise for an entire season of a show. It’s almost too commonplace to be the entirety of anything other than an episode of “Law & Order.” The party setting alone would be enough to reduce the incident to the collateral damage of too much drinking and a sexy outfit. There would be a disgusting mess of victim blaming, which would be wrong and bad, but certainly no question of whether rape was possible to begin with. Taylor’s sexual assault is confounding to each new person who hears of the story. Their eyes harden a little at the news there was a rape; they’re outright confused when they hear it was a boy.
“American Crime” quickly becomes a portrait of larger cultural perceptions. The true mystery of the show is not “who raped Taylor,” but how the characters surrounding him manage to convince themselves he could never be raped in the first place. Given the intricacies of the stigma surrounding male victims, it’s not especially hard for them to ignore his story altogether. Consider the story currently unfolding at Ooltewah High in Tennessee. When a freshman basketball player was penetrated with a pool cue last month, officials responded by effectively pretending nothing happened. According to the Washington Post, an assistant coach witnessed the assault and failed to report it to authorities, allowing his team to continue to play.
The microcosm of “American Crime” likely informs and is shaped by horrific events like this, yet is no more steeped in patriarchal misconceptions of masculinity than our own disturbing reality. All the stigma and shame that female victims face is paradoxically compounded by the greater respect we grant male bodies. We accept that men get beaten or murdered, but rape — the total overpowering of one’s worth — is too much to process. And so, we origami it down to the smallest possible size and file it away as an impossibility, letting male victims languish in silence. Men don’t get raped, because men don’t get raped.