Art of Survival

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Five years ago, as Rommell Washington was leading a group therapy session for Lower East Side adults with HIV/AIDS, a young man who had been attending the program for four months hurried over with a terrified expression on his face and, in a panicky voice, told Washington that he could no longer come to the sessions. Then he rushed out the door.

A week and a half later, Washington was walking along Houston Street when he came across the young man, looking disheveled and in need of sleep. “He was walking around psychotic,” says Washington, who gently coaxed the man to a clinic, where he was taken into care.

It turned out that the man had been gang raped shortly before attending Washington’s program. He had left the therapy session because he had suddenly heard the voice of one his attackers in the room.

Washington says that experience was a key factor in his decision to apply to become New York’s first publicly funded counselor focused specifically on male survivors of rape.

The program, which started in July, is run out of the St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center Crime Victims Treatment Center in Harlem. Funded by a $52,500 grant from the City Council–which has already been renewed for next year–the program was designed with two goals in mind: serving men who have been raped and raising public awareness of the issue.

FBI statistics show that 7 percent of American men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. And that’s a low estimate, according to Louise Kindley, senior social worker at the St. Luke’s center, and a rape crisis counselor for 18 years. Kindley, who spearheaded the new program, receives the majority of her clients through referrals by hospital emergency rooms. Of these, 11 to 14 percent are men.

“That statistic is way higher than any statistic you hear about men who have been raped, way higher,” she says. In the year preceding the start of the new program, the center saw 110 male victims of sexual assault.

Washington started in June, and within two weeks already had his first two clients. Three and a half months into the program, he now has 16. These include men who are in long-term counseling with him, and those with whom he is working more informally, and who have yet to start attending the center on a regular basis.

Washington estimates that two-thirds of the cases seen at the St. Luke’s emergency room are related to gay clubbing or internet hook-ups. The remaining third are raped by someone they know–either a family member or a neighborhood acquaintance. A high proportion of the victims are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. His clients range in age from their early teens to their late forties. None were willing to be interviewed for this story.

Washington spends most of his time providing one-on-one and group counseling for survivors, but he also plans to give talks to organizations such as the Association of Black Social Workers and the Batterers Intervention Coalition.

Kindley hopes Washington’s work will help counter the prejudice and shame that often surrounds male rape. “If 1 in 10 women report rape, I would guess that 1 in 100 or 1 in 500 men report rape,” she says. If there’s a public perception “that good girls don’t get raped” she adds, there’s also one that “real men don’t get raped.”

T.J. Parsell knows this firsthand. He was raped at 17 by three men when he was an inmate at Jackson Prison in Michigan, doing time for armed robbery. Parsell, now 45 and president-elect of Stop Prison Rape, an advocacy group, kept quiet about his experiences for years. Then, in early 2002, he walked into a New York video store and found the sales assistants laughing at an episode of Oz in which an inmate had been raped. “That’s why people don’t talk about it,” he says. “It’s so deeply humiliating.”

Dr. Richard Gartner, former president of Male Survivor, an organization that advocates for male survivors of sexual abuse, has worked with sexually abused men for more than two decades. In his view, the cultural response to male rape is a result of the gender roles that society requires of men: It is not possible to be both a victim and a man.

“Men are supposed to be resilient; they are supposed to be in charge in sexual situations,” he says. “Both victims and non-victims who hear about it have that as their underlying state of mind. It doesn’t seem to matter how old he is, how strong he is; that’s still somewhere in the back of his mind.”

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