Anyone who has watched TV or seen a movie knows the, “joke.” Our male protagonist is about to go to jail (usually for a crime they didn’t commit). They are terrified, not sure how they will survive in such an ordered system where violence is so common. In their moment of need, their friend comes to them and says, “I have one piece of advice for you – don’t drop the soap.” How many times have you heard that joke be used in your favorite TV show or movie? How about this iteration of it: Our dutiful, tough police force (or FBI force, CIA force, you choose) has just apprehended our bad guy. He is in the interrogation room and despite our team’s expert questioning, he will not budge and confess to his crime. So, our super tough head detective comes up to him and goes, “do you know what they do to guys like you in the pen? I wouldn’t recommend dropping the soap if I was you. Tell me what we need to hear and we’ll protect you from any new friends.” Scared straight, our bad guy confesses.

Assault in the Media

I will be the first one to admit it – I have seen these scenes more times than I can count, sometimes they have even produced a chuckle out of me, or a, “that’s right, that’s what he deserves!” I would venture to guess we have all seen and at some point reacted to one of these scenes as they are almost impossible to avoid. They have made an appearance in all kinds of media from films like Get Hard or Guardians of the Galaxy, to TV Shows like Law and & Order: SVU and even… Spongebob? We are oversaturated with this joke, so much so that it has become ingrained in our cultural dictionary. However, recently, as I have been looking at media more, I have been forced to ask the question – what is the actual punchline of this joke? In between the laughing, sweet justice, or Hollywood glamour I think we have blinded to the reality that this saying, “don’t drop the soap,” is poking fun at actual sexual assault and rape, and that there are countless men out there who have been sexually assaulted who are finding themselves at the butt of a joke.

“As I shared my story, I was told over and over that this was not abuse. This was just a joke.” Terry Crews said this when discussing his sexual assault in front of Senate Judiciary Committee about the then proposed legislation, “The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights,” in 2018. I can’t help but think if the reason people saw Terry Crew’s sexual assault as a joke is because the media, for decades, has been telling us that male sexual assault is just that – a joke. I hit hard on the, “don’t drop the soup,” punchline earlier, but it isn’t the only perpetrator. There are plenty of tropes commonly used in our media which portrays male sexual assault, either at the hands of other men or in the hands of women, as a punchline and not as the terrible, cruel, and sometimes life ending event it is. Because of how our media treats male sexual assault, men are not coming to counseling or getting the treatment they need for the traumatic event of sexual assault.

Media’s Favorite Punchline

Before looking at why media’s portrayal of sexual assault is so harmful, I think it is important for us to recognize what the media stereotypes even are. It is difficult when something is so embedded in our culture for us to even recognize where the problem is, and we can’t begin to make a change if we don’t see the problem.

As a whole, male sexual assault is played for laughs in media. However, breaking it down, we see that what we are really laughing at is the supposed, “emasculation,” of men. In our patriarchal culture, there is a societal norm that men are expected to uphold. This norm is sometimes coined as, “toxic masculinity,” and is defined as, “the cultural concept of manliness that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance, and that is socially maladaptive or harmful to mental health.” As a society, we expect men to uphold this unrealistic expectation of strength and stoicism – this expectation is what makes it hard sometimes for men to feel as though they can show their emotions or be vulnerable. This unattainable expectation causes immeasurable and lasting psychological and physical harm. The media’s depiction of male sexual assault enforces this concept of toxic masculinity. Under this umbrella, men are never supposed to be victims and, if they are, there is something wrong with them. Males who suffer sexual assault are shown as weak by the media and often effeminate, which in our culture is one the worst things you can portray a male as. When the media shows men being sexually assaulted, and asks us to laugh at it, we are unwillingly taking part in this toxic masculinity by shaming, embarrassing, and actually laughing at men who society deems as not fitting into its narrow standards.

Men Need Help Too

Media has convinced us that male sexual assault can’t happen and, when it does, it’s funny and something worthy of shame, as, “real men,” are strong and you must be weak if this happens to you. But that’s just media right? Surely as a culture we recognize that all people, regardless of sex or gender, who have been sexually assaulted deserve help right? Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. In general, across all gender identities, 2 out of 3 sexual assaults go unreported (RAINN, 2022). Focusing in on those who identify male survivors, it is estimated that over 10,800 males are sexually assaulted in the United States every year. However, only 13% report being sexual assault survivors, and even less report their crime to the law officials (Hopper & Strand, 2015). As a counselor, what is just as concerning to me is that only 17.6% of male sexual assault survivors sought out counseling after the assault (Masho & Alvanzo, 2010). This means that the majority of male sexual assault survivors are attempting to overcome the long-term psychological effects of sexual assault on their own. Even more concerning, recent studies have indicated male sexual assault survivors may be at a greater risk for PTSD.

Studies have shown that men are more likely to endorse, “power-sex beliefs,” or the belief that all sex, including consensual sex, inherently involves power, or that in sexual situations someone is always, “in control,” and has the power. Therefore, when someone who identifies male is sexually assaulted, they are more likely to feel as though their power, autonomy, and strength has been taken from them. This feeling is not helped by the fact that media enforces this image that males who are sexually assaulted are powerless. This power sex belief is linked to a higher risk factor for PTSD (Snipes et al., 2015).

Treatment Options for Sexual Assault Survivors

Media seeks to tell male sexual assault survivors that they are alone and should hide what happened to them in shame. However as counselors we know better – healing cannot happen in a vacuum – everyone needs a support system, care, and sometimes counseling to recover after traumatic events. There is hope for survivors of sexual assault to regain their power, safety, and joy.

Counseling offers many services which have shown successful in helping survivors of sexual assault, whatever gender they identify with. These treatments include EMDR (rapid eye movement desensitization), TFCBT (trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy), Somatic experiencing, Cognitive processing therapy, and so much more. Although they take different approaches, many if not all the techniques used with trauma ask you to recall the traumatic experience from a safe space. Then, together, we work through this memory bit by bit and help it loose its power over us. This can look different depending on which therapy is used. Personally, when working with trauma survivors I usually use somatic experiencing. When thinking about the traumatic event, I ask you to take note of your body and where you are feeling tension or discomfort as we discuss the event. We then go over the event together, focusing on how it interacts with your body’s experience of it. We may also work together to make a list of triggers, or outside events which triggers that same bodily reaction. I know – all of it sounds very overwhelming. However, that is why a counselor is in the room with you the whole time to guide you. This process can take however long it needs to, and if we can only get a few inches into the experience every session, that is all we will do. Trauma recovery is all about you regaining your autonomy and peace, and part of that is taking treatment at the rate you want to.

You Are Not Alone

Looking specifically at treatment for male sexual assault survivors, one of the biggest challenges isn’t the treatment, but rather just coming in. When for so long you have been told what happened to you isn’t real, but rather just a joke, it can be difficult or nearly impossible to believe that anyone will take you seriously or help you get the help you need. You might be scared, confused, angry, or simply lost. I understand this challenge, however that one brave step to attend counseling can make a world of difference in your life. As counselors, our goal is to be there for you and support your journey and healing, and we are here to listen to your story. Once in counseling, along with the treatments mentioned above, there are opportunities for us to work together to analyze the beliefs the media has put in our minds and determine which ones are no longer helping us, and maybe even hurting us.