How Male Rape Survivors Are Finding Help Online

Researchers find that men use throwaway Reddit accounts to disclose sexual abuse — some for the very first time

(Illustration: Tara Jacoby)
Feb 24, 2016 at 4:28 PM ET

“The first person I’ve ever told will be the internet, apparently,” reads the title of a Reddit post from earlier this year. “I experienced a single incident of sexual abuse about 30 years ago at the hands of a slightly-older peer,” the writer says. “Literally nothing has ever been normal since then: panic attacks, insane migraine-style headaches that don’t respond to the usual treatments, depression, and social disengagement to the point of basically staying indoors.”

His story is just one of countless examples of men disclosing sexual abuse online—and a new study shows men are much more likely to turn to forums like Reddit to share stories of assault, where they can take advantage of the platform’s anonymity.

This author, using the anonymous handle ptsd-throwaway-acct, goes on to describe the incident at length, which he says happened when he was just eight years old. He tells of the ongoing struggles that have resulted, and then poses a few questions about where to find help. “Thanks, anonymous strangers,” the post concludes.

A paper, published in the (lengthily titled) Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, analyzed similar posts made in 2014 to three abuse-related Reddit forums. The researchers, from Drexel University, the University of California, Irvine and the Georgia Institute of Technology, found that people turned to online forums to share stories of abuse online in relative anonymity, often for the very first time.

“Talking about one’s experiences, feelings, and thoughts, and asking for support, are fundamental needs that often remain unmet for abuse survivors,” said lead researcher Nazanin Andalib. “In our analysis we found that people sometimes referred to unmet disclosure-related needs when posting online. In other words, sometimes people have never shared these experiences with anyone before online or off and they feel they need to.”

But the report’s standout finding is that male abuse survivors were significantly more likely than women to use throwaway accounts, a one-time-use profile, as opposed to a pre-existing account. Which is to say: men were more likely to disclose when granted total anonymity—both from their real-life and existing online identities. It’s interesting to note that past research has found women are more likely to use throwaway accounts on Reddit in general.

The authors speculate that “a variety of masculinity ideologies, norms and gender roles play a part in discouraging men’s help-seeking behavior. So this finding highlights the importance of anonymous platforms and identity segmentation tools, such as throwaway accounts on Reddit, to encourage support-seeking in populations that otherwise find it hard to self-disclose and ask for help.”

It isn’t just Reddit where this occurs. The online community has over 12,900 registered users and many, if not most, prefer anonymous usernames that are not associated with their real identities or social media accounts. On Tumblr, boys and men frequently submit anonymous questions to blogs about sexual abuse—and it’s clear many feel there’s a lack of resources for male survivors. One anonymous user writes to the blog All About Abuse, “Do you have ANYTHING for transmen victims of abuse?” Another anonymous user who asks the blog Abuse Diary, “How do you feel about support for male survivors? Especially when their abuser was a girl? My abuser’s name is Ashley… ”

An estimated 68 percent of sexual assaults go unreported—and men are even less likely than women to report their assaults. But, as the authors point out, “These online forums have created alternative spaces where disclosures that might have otherwise remained silent have a voice, and people can seek support.”