Male Rape – A Vanishing Taboo?

Rape, despite its disgusting and revolting essence, has a strong place within the the storylines of the horror genre. It (usually) adds depth to tormented final girls, it acts as a catalyst for tales or revenge, and will normally be present on any “Favorite Exploitation” list out there. This is perhaps not surprising, as horror is meant to disturb and frighten us. It’s as common as any other real world terror in fact; the loss of a child or spouse, the loss of mental faculties, the pitfalls of falling in love with the wrong person, and even just the random acts of violence (like rape) that happen day in and day out.

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As how I suspect most genre fans may feel, I often find myself in the middle ground when it comes to the display of rape in film. For some, I definitely think it drives the stories and motivations of characters, like in The Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs, or Eye for an Eye. In others, it just seems to be there for no other reason than shock value, like Eli Roth’s Aftershocks or Rob Zombie’s Halloween. And time and time again, it’s inclusion will divide audiences into “that was needed” and “that was unneeded” oppositions.

This intro though is not meant to debate the presence of rape in genre films, but instead to act as a lead-in to discuss an even smaller facet of the plot point: male rape.

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Undoubtedly, everyone will quickly recall the most obvious and popular example of this: Deliverance. I saw the movie myself at a young age, after my mother explained to me what I would see if I watched it, and was strangely captivated. Men are just as much victims of being slashed and possessed in horror films as women are, but still rare is the notion, much less the portrayal, of a man being raped. I could go on about the reasonings behind this, from the fact that males are most often the aggressors of sexual violence to the fact that even male-on-male rape is seen as “gay” and thus discouraged in mainstream Hollywood. But instead, I’d rather take a look at the other cinematic examples of this ordeal, and bring up their merits, if any.

Let’s first get into a cliché of male rape; ‘The Redneck Male Rapist’. Like in Deliverance, there have been several instances of men who come from some backwoods culture becoming the aggressors of other men through both physical and sexual violence. How this even become a trope, who knows? I can only imagine it’s because there’s the base cliché about anyone from the rural reaches of the world being uneducated heathens who lack the same cultural constraints those from the cities and towns possess. But the presence is notable (albeit, mostly in comedies) and continues to survive in film.

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Several years ago, the hit show The Walking Dead brought this trope to life on our TV screens and to mainstream audiences. It occurred in season 3, when Rick, Carl, and Michonne randomly come across the group of men that a lost Daryl has been traveling with. The encounter quickly escalates… to murder and threats of rape. As expected, Michonne is a target of this latter threat, but then, unexpectedly to many, so is Carl. The men threaten to make Rick watch as they rape his own son! It was a disturbing bit of dialogue, made even more repulsive by the heavyset, dirty lunkhead holding Carl by the neck, but I felt it did help strengthen the idea that the apocalyptic world TWD exists in is one of extreme brutality and disturbing inhibition. The show never explicitly states that these men are backwoods hillbillies, but it’s not a hard stretch when you consider TWD‘s mythology includes the destruction of major cities and towns early on, leaving mostly rural survivors roaming the zombie-infested backroads. (As expected, this implication did NOT go over well with Rick Grimes.)

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An even more recent example, we had the low-key thriller Catch Hell. Ryan Phillipe, still hunky and fine as ever, plays mid-grade Hollywood star Reagan, set to film a movie down in the deep South. However, it turns out a pair of backwoods boys have different plans in store for him. At first, those plans just include kidnapping, blackmail, and a few “stay in line” beatings, but then start turning more complex when the dimwitted half of the duo begins to “enjoy” the actor’s company. At first, it’s just some awkward idolization, but eventually Reagan is drugged and nearly raped by his redneck fan.

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Another trope about male rape is when it’s used in a revenge scenario. The Rosario Dawson rape-revenge thriller Descent is a popular example, in which her character (having been raped earlier in the film) gets her final vengeance by convincing a large male acquaintance to enact the same crime upon her rapist. The indie horror Torched also utilizes this device, among many brutal others.

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Straightheads, aka Closure, starring the amazing Gillian Anderson, also tackles this idea of revenge, but instead of using another male as her weapon after being raped, Anderson’s character uses the barrel of a rifle to rape her rapist. A few of the I Spit on Your Grave films also make use of this form of retaliatory rape through use of inanimate objects.

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Another facet of fictional male-on-male rape sadly comes from the more common instance we hear on the news or through true crime media; adult predation upon younger males. Extending the reach of genre films to include crime thrillers and dark dramas, you’ll find a long list of films that include this plot point: The somewhat-true crime story of Sleepers is a notable example. In it, several young boys are victims of constant sexual assault during their time at a reform school. Years later, some of them have become hardened criminals who happen to get their chance for revenge. Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin also tackles the subject, and gives us two male characters who respond and grow from their sexual attacks in very different ways.

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In a broad context, it’s interesting to see the ways in which the rape of males differentiates from the rape of females within genre films. Women are most often the victims of the rape, who use it as a jumping off point for their character’s just and vengeful true selves. Their rapes are also very violent and prominent within the film. Male rape however often seems to come back as a form of punishment, and the depictions of it are usually shown off-screen in a strange version of sexism and decency. A disturbed part of me wonders if in the future the inclusion of male rape will reach the levels that female rape depictions have now, in which they’re strangely common in films that don’t really need to include them. But a hopeful part of me is looking forward to a film future where rape in general is only handled proficiently and with purpose, rather than just an intent to be extreme (ahem, Payton Collins: Serial Rapist).

NOTES* – I purposefully left out examples of prison rape in film, as they are fairly common but serve a different function outside the horror, suspense, thriller, and dark drama genres. I also did not include several popular indie films, since I wanted to discuss more mainstream attitudes toward cinematic male rape. Lastly, I am aware of many other foreign films featuring this plot device, but did not include them either, as frank sexuality and all that comes with it is still lacking broad acceptance with American audiences.

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