SOUTH AFRICA: Sexual violence among men neglected

Published: October 18, 2011

CAPE TOWN, 18 October 2011 (PlusNews) – Almost 10 percent of South African men have experienced sexual violence by another man, according to new research that probes the complex relationships between male victimisation and HIV risk.

The findings presented at the annual Sexual Violence Research Initiative in Cape Town by Kristin Dunkle, assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in the US, are based on a household survey conducted among about 1,740 men in two of  South Africa’s nine provinces – KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape – by the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Published in 2009, the research became commonly known as the "MRC rape study" and showed that more than one in three South African men admitted to having raped a woman – but little attention was paid to sexual violence experienced by men.

Many male survivors had reportedly been forced to engage in typically low HIV risk acts such as thigh sex, in which a man placed his penis in between their thighs, or masturbation. However, about 30 percent reported being anally or orally raped.

Men who have sex with men (MSM), or men who choose to have sex with men but do not necessarily identify themselves as gay, were more than nine times as likely to report having been raped than other men. About 3 percent of men reported sexually assaulting another man, about half of those who reported having raped a man.

Mirroring previous South African studies that showed an elevated HIV risk among men who commit intimate partner violence and the women they assault, Dunkle’s work found that the perpetrators as well as the survivors of male-on-male sexual violence were generally more likely to be HIV positive.

There was one exception: rape survivors who did not identify as MSM. HIV prevalence among this group was not significantly different from men who have never been sexually assualed.

Love hurts

While the apparent lack of HIV-risk among male rape-survivors who are not MSM may seem puzzling, Mary Ellsberg, vice president of research and programmes at the International Centre for Research on Women, said the difference is almost certainly indicative of partner violence among MSM in relationships, and likened it to the rising HIV risk that accompanies women in abusive, long-term relationships.

"From previous MRC studies we see that [high HIV prevalence] results  from a combination of factors for women who are beaten and raped by their husbands – they are having consistent sexual encounters with these men," Ellsberg told IRIN/PlusNews.

"But we also know that women who are raped only once by a stranger – while they can contract HIV from the rape – don’t have a higher HIV prevalence than other women overall. The rape of men who aren’t MSM also seems unlikely to be ongoing, so it’s an infrequent exposure and it makes sense that their risk is similar to the general population."

The situation is different men in relationships with other men, who could be in long-term relationships with high risk, abusive men with whom they would have sex with, either consensually or not, over time.

A quarter of MSM who had been raped were HIV-positive. Intimate partner violence between men could also explain why four times as many MSM reported having committed sexual violence against another man.

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