Criminologist Lisa Dario set out on a recent study with the assumption that men who had been sexually assaulted would display lower levels of depression than female victims. The hypothesis was based on previous literature: Multiple studies had found that men and women reacted differently to sexual assault, with women tending to display depression and sadness that often turned inward—for example, towards eating disorders or drug use—and men tending to display a tendency towards violence, and even to commit more crimes.
In fact, Dario’s team found no difference between the rates at which men and women who had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives experienced depression.
“When we began this study, we thought for sure that we would find that females who were sexually assaulted would exhibit higher depression scores than males who were sexually assaulted,” said Dario, assistant professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University. “I think this is probably because of antiquated ideas that men and women experience emotions differently. What we actually discovered, much to our surprise, is that sexual assault is traumatic regardless of gender.”
Unsurprisingly, victims of sexual assault of both genders reported higher levels of depression than the rest of the population. The May 2017 study, published in the journal Women & Criminal Justice, analyzed data from the National Violence Against Women Survey conducted in 1995-6 for almost 6,000 women and the same number of men.
The assumption that men and women react differently to sexual assault is also due to a gap in research, whereby male victims are “a hidden population,” Dario said. “Unless you’re a juvenile or an inmate, there’s very little research on sexual assault in men.”
Statistics suggest men are assaulted less often than women: One in five women in the US report experiencing rape at some point in their lives, compared to one in 71 men, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
Dario challenges that assumption. Under-reporting, in both genders, likely means both numbers are higher, she said. She says it’s likely that women are assaulted more often, but that the under-reporting among men may be more extreme because of the stigma associated with coming forward.
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