'Betrayed': Male rape victims slam Oscar-nominated filmmakers over focus on women
By Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor
Michael Matthews, left, and director Kirby Dick attend "The Invisible War" premiere after party at Innovation Gallery last month in Park City, Utah. Matthews has blasted the filmmaker for abandoning male victims.
Two male rape survivors who appear in "The Invisible War," an Oscar-nominated documentary about military sexual assaults, are criticizing the movie's brief focus on male victims as an ironic snub — and, in a fiery diatribe, one of the film's characters says the director "should be ashamed and embarrassed."
"We're being abandoned by (director) Kirby Dick. The guys feel betrayed," said Michael Matthews, a 20-year Air Force veteran who, in the movie, tells of his 1973 gang rape by three other airmen. The publicity campaign hawking the film — and its Academy Award candidacy — includes a website that shows the faces of six female victims of military sexual assault, and no male survivors of that crime, as well as formal screenings to which only female victims have been asked to attend, Matthews said.
"What the (bleep) is that about? They don't list any of the men on the website. He's making millions of dollars but he's not bringing any of the men to any these appearances all over the country like he's bringing the women," Matthews told NBC News. "I appreciate them putting us in the movie but, now, the men are not being represented at all. He has turned his back on us. And the movie, some of it, is hurting us."
Navy veteran Brian Lewis — who was raped by a male, senior non-commissioned officer in 2000 and then discharged from the Navy shortly after reporting the attack — said he and Matthews are disturbed that the film's fleeting attention on male victims, both on screen and in promotional tactics, symbolizes the way male sex-assault survivors have been marginalized by society and by some lawmakers investigating the issue of rapes within the armed forces. Lewis has a 10-second soundbite in the documentary.
"'The Invisible War' runs for just under two hours (99 minutes) and men received probably a lot less than five minutes. How frustrating would that be?" asked Lewis, 33, who serves on the board of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for service members who have been sexually assaulted by fellow troops.
"You can't really address the problem of military sexual trauma until you include the 56 percent of the victims — the men — and they are being ignored right now," Lewis said.
Dick told NBC News he empathizes with both men, and agrees that male rape victims are being "kept in the shadows" by their country, and said Matthews — who had the harshest words for the director — "has been phenomenal in terms of what he contributed to the film, and in terms of his continuing to push the issue forward both for women and especially for men.
"When people come forward to talk about this, there's not just a pain in that moment but there are nightmares afterward for most of these survivors. It's a very painful thing and they talk about it again and again and again. That, really, is true courage. We owe these men a great deal of gratitude for coming forward. These are the true whistle-blowers," Dick said. "I accept the fact that there are certain frustrations. But that is nothing in comparison to what Michael has accomplished and is accomplishing. And if it takes a little emotion to get that out, I'm 100 percent behind it."
Dick acknowledged that he and the movie's female producer purposely devoted the bulk of the screen time to the stories of military women who have been assaulted by men. (He added that the perception he or the producers are earning millions of dollars is "simply not the case.")
"In terms of making the film, we felt the entry point in this discussion was more women being assaulted because we felt it was a discussion that people would start to have," Dick said. "Our essential goal here is to have the military continue to change its policy (on investigating rape reports and disciplining predators) so that all men and women are protected in the military ... We felt that once the country started putting pressure on the military to make these changes, if and when the military does make changes, those will apply to men just as they will women. So we kind of felt women would get the discussion going and push the military to make the change for everyone."
'Nobody wants to talk about it'
According to Nate Galbreath, senior executive adviser to the U.S. Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), a 2010 survey found that 4.4 percent of active-duty women and 0.9 percent of active-duty men "indicated that they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact in the year prior to being surveyed."
That math equates to about 19,000 sex-offense victims per year inside the armed forces, including about 10,000 men and 9,000 women.
"There's a lot of disappointment in the male survivor community that this keeps being talked about as a 'women's issue,' and it's not," said Susan Burke, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who is spearheading a series of nationwide lawsuits meant to reform the manner in which the military prosecutes rape and sexual assault. She represents male and female military-rape victims.
"From interviewing hundreds of rape and sexual assault survivors, both male and female, there's a persistent pattern by the military in essentially even refusing to accept the allegation, where the chain of command basically says, 'We are not going to even report this.' And that is much more prevalent with the male victims," Burke said. "What I've seen time and time again: a male who comes forward to report rape and sexual assault is accused of being a homosexual."
But according to Dr. Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general, rapes are not about sex but are instead fueled by aggression and domination. The crime is almost an animalistic demonstration that the predator "owns" the prey. Many male-on-male rapes in the military are group attacks. Some involve drugging the victims.
"It's not about gay sex. Typically the predators are heterosexual men who have this need to assert power, control and dominance," Sutton said. "It's similar to the dynamics of what happens with incest — those family bonds, the trust, the loyalty. I mean, in the military, loyalty becomes this huge factor and that is so difficult for men and women to sort out."
She believes that many male victims never report sex assaults committed against them by other male service members often because "in society, people just don't know how to relate to them," and the confusion such survivors face among family or friends — after they eventually open up about their rapes — "can re-open very deep wounds," Sutton said. "It's almost unspeakable."
Matthews, 58, kept the attack against him secret for nearly 30 years before he finally told his wife in 2001. Today, living in New Mexico, he holds the rights to a documentary — now in post-production editing — that examines only men's stories of military rape and how those assaults changed those men forever. The title: "Justice Denied."
"These men feel ostracized in our society. Nobody wants to talk about the truth — that most of the rapes in the military (victimize) men. Nobody wants to talk about it," Matthews said.
"How long can they be ignored?"