'Physical violence has gone through the roof': Cork unit treating men for sexual assaults by females

The head of Cork’s Sexual Assault Treatment Unit tells Sarah Horgan that every sexual assault victim, of whatever gender or background, should be treated with respect, and society still has much to learn.
'Physical violence has gone through the roof': Cork unit treating men for sexual assaults by females

Margo Noonan at the Sexual Assualt Forensic Examination and Treatment Unit in the South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital. Picture: Dan Linehan

HEAD of the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit at Cork’s South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital is urging people to take sex attacks by female perpetrators seriously after seeing men with horrific injuries present to the hospital for help.

Margo Noonan said that most men suffering in this way are too afraid to report the abuse.

Ms Noonan revealed that 28 sexual assault victims have so far availed of the service this year, with patients from all genders and walks of life.

While the predominant group affected by sexual violence is female, Ms Noonan said there is a cohort of victims silenced by misconception and stigma. She referred to men who had suffered a rape at the hands of a female partner. The assaults saw them physically harmed and forced to commit sex acts against their will.

Ms Noonan has seen men who have sustained serious injuries during sexual assaults.

“A man being forced to penetrate a woman against his will is a very difficult concept for people to grasp but it’s something we have seen here,” she said. 

“There were two men that came here who had suffered horrendous assaults. However, neither of them reported these attacks to Gardaí because the perpetrators in both cases were female.

“It’s almost impossible to get a guy to come in and say they were assaulted by a woman. The only reason they came to us was because they had injuries and they didn’t know what to do with those injuries. They were only visible underneath the clothes and included severe genital injuries. This was kept a secret from their families so they didn’t have that support.”

One of the men, Margo met at the facility, had been referred to the unit by another service.

“Physical violence has gone through the roof. I’ve seen things that I never want to see again.

“One of the men was referred to us from another service. They saw the condition he was in and knew this was where he needed to be. The saddest thing he said was that he wasn’t able to defend himself. He felt he would be considered in the wrong if he even tried. This man felt he had to stand and take it before making it to a safe space.”

MALE VICTIMS

She said that male victims need to be acknowledged in order to break this stigma.

“Historically, if you look at male rape it appeared to take place in only three situations. It was always between gay men or in a prison or conflict zone. Usually, a man is more likely to report abuse at the hands of another male than a woman, even if they do so reluctantly. If we’re not acknowledging that this isn’t right, how can we expect anyone to ask for help? They don’t like to think about it or acknowledge that it can happen but we’ve seen it. As males, many feel that they are trained to be the protectors. This means that if they hurt in any way they often feel as if they have failed or their masculinity has been challenged.”

The health professional stressed that every rape victim should be treated with equal respect.

“Sometimes people feel that if we talk about this, we are somehow taking away from a female abuse victim’s suffering. It can’t be denied that there are men hurting women. I see it every single day and all of society’s power needs to come down on them as punishment. Nonetheless, we need to make sure that we don’t lose our more vulnerable members of society in the process.

“Until it is accepted that this is universal and we keep that divide, nothing is going to change. Of course, violence against women is a huge issue but there is another cohort who also need our help who we are going to lose if this isn’t addressed. It shouldn’t be a case of pitting one against the other. We need to unmask the multiple faces of sexual violence. When someone asks me “what does a rape victim look like?” I tell them to look in the mirror because it could be any one of us.”

She said that perpetrators need to be held accountable regardless of their gender.

“If you choose to hurt somebody you should have to pay for that choice. Why should a victim have to pay for an abuser’s choices? That’s not how a society should work. If we don’t hold perpetrators to account it takes away from the perceived seriousness of the situation and that’s ludicrous.”

Misconceptions around sexual assault victims, Ms Noonan pointed out, comes in many forms.

“I’d have the parents of older women say to me “I’m so mortified my daughter let herself get raped”, yet many of us still feel it’s our sons alone who need to be educated. This is not just about educating sons. It’s about educating everyone.”

Other vulnerable groups treated by Margo Noonan and her team include members of Cork’s homeless community.

“We had one person who had around five different visits because they were vulnerable. One woman said that she couldn’t believe I was being kind to her because she was a drug addict. It’s a sad reflection on society when someone doesn’t feel deserving of any sort of kindness.”

Some presenting to the hospital are experiencing sexual abuse within marriages or intimate relationships.

“Even if they don’t go to the gardaí we always encourage them to come to us if something happens. It means they have a document of their injuries so it’s like building a story for them for when they are eventually ready to report the crimes. The most important thing is that we support them in the choices they make and are there for them.”

To find out more about Cork’s South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital visit www.sivuh.ie.

Sexual Violence Centre Cork is also available to sexual abuse victims. To find out more visit www.sexualviolence.ie.

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