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On October 27, 2016, the Women and the Law Program at American University Washington College of Law hosted an event on violence against men and boys, particularly focusing on sexual abuse in armed conflict, genocide and within the correctional system.

Professor Susana SáCouto, the Director of the War Crimes Research Office at the Washington College of Law, discussed the strides made in recent years in the international community’s stance towards sexual abuse that occurs in situations of mass violence, such as during armed conflict or genocide.  She explained how rape can now be tried as a war crime, an act of genocide, torture or inhumane treatment, and a crime against humanity.  Even the U.N. Security Council has begun discussing the issue of rape during armed conflict as a concern for global peace and security.  In asking why lawyers should focus on the sexual abuse of men when most victims of rape are women, SáCouto responded by explaining that the sexual abuse of men and boys tends to reinforce the same stereotypes and cultural norms that give rise to the sexual abuse of women, thereby contributing to the vicious cycle of gender-based violence. When investigators visit regions where mass violence has occurred, they sometimes forget to ask men about any sexual abuse the men might have suffered, even though they remember to ask the women about it.

Professor Brenda V. Smith, the Project Director for the United States Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections Cooperative Agreement on Addressing Prison Rape, discussed the sexual abuse of men in correctional facilities, particularly cases where the perpetrators are female correctional workers.  Smith explained that in cases involving female and male correctional officers, “Women were framed as this perfect person, this perfect worker, incorruptible and above desire.  This leads to men not being allowed to supervise in women’s prisons [when female inmates are bathing or nude], but women can supervise men and boys and conduct intrusive searches of them.”  She discussed the 2012 Wood v. Beauclair case, where a female correctional worker sexually assaulted a male inmate and argued that the act was consensual because of their past romantic relationship.  The court found, however, that because of “the enormous power imbalance between prisoners and prison guards,” the act was not consensual, showing some advances in the way that courts address the sexual abuse of men in prison.

The advances that SáCouto and Smith discussed might seem small, but they are significant.  The International Criminal Court has held government officials accountable for rape by their troops during armed conflict by defining rape as both a war crime and a crime against humanity.  Including rape as a form of torture and inhumane treatment also allows international human rights lawyers to invoke the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which is binding on all member States of the U.N.  Despite this, lawyers still face plenty of hurdles when seeking justice for the sexual abuse of men and boys. The prevalence of gender stereotyping that SáCouto and Smith discussed, such as investigators forgetting that men can also be sexually abused or correctional facilities believing female officers to be ‘above desire’ and incapable of assaulting men, make it difficult for male victims to speak out about abuse. The awareness raised by events such as the Women and the Law program’s event is vital for further progress in justice for male survivors.