Colleges and universities still have a long way to go in addressing sexual violence and harassment on campus. The experiences of male students, and the particular challenges they may face after sexual trauma, should be part of the conversation.  

More than half of sexual assaults among college students occur in the fall. Resources, survivor stories and investigation into what’s being done to protect those at risk in the Pittsburgh area. Explore the series.

Nearly 30 years ago, I experienced sexual violence on campus at Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college in northwest Pennsylvania. It has affected every aspect of my life since. 

And while I’ve spent most of my life feeling as if I’m alone, I know I’m not. 

While 26.4% of undergraduate women experience rape or sexual assault, 6.8% of male undergraduates do, too, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network [RAINN]. Male undergraduates are also five times more likely to experience sexual violence than men the same age who aren’t students.

My story shows that toxic masculinity, rape culture and patriarchal attitudes can lead to violence against men, too. And like me, men who experience sexual violence may face barriers in seeking and receiving help due to the self-doubt, shame and stigma perpetuated by harmful stereotypes about masculinity.

And while I’ve spent most of my life feeling as if I’m alone, I know I’m not. 

I began my freshman year at Allegheny College in 1992. At the time, I was excited for the opportunity to learn and leap into adulthood. 

As a sensitive kid who liked music and school, I never really fit in my hometown in rural, deep-red Butler County. I wanted college to be different.

It was, at first. I loved my classes and believed that I had found friends in a small group of three men. Because I didn’t have much experience with friendship, I wasn’t sure what to expect. 

During the fall term, my best friend of the three started dating a young woman. I was happy for him. But my friend was troubled. 

He had a temper and a habit of dominating others physically. Once, when another male student said something he didn’t like, he grabbed the guy by the neck with one hand and, to his pride and everyone’s amazement, lifted him a few inches off the floor like Darth Vader. Another time, when I mentioned my interest in joining him on the rugby team, he threw me against the wall to see if I was tough enough to join him. 

I wasn’t.

My friend’s girlfriend broke up with him the following spring. When she did, he tore apart the rotary phone in his room (this was the early 1990s) and punched a hole in the wall. 

Weeks later, she approached me. She said he wanted to get back together, but he frightened her. She asked me: What should I do?

My stomach fell. But I took a deep breath and said what anyone should: Trust your instincts. You have no obligation to be with anyone who makes you uncomfortable. Do what makes you feel safe.

She took my advice. And that was that. Or so I thought. 

Craig Maier sits for a portrait in his home on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

My circle suddenly started excluding me from meals. When we did hang out, our time together always devolved into rough-housing, where I was somehow always on the bottom of the pile. I told them to stop. Eventually, they would. 

I felt confused but decided I could handle it. After all, what could they do to me? A man can protect himself, I thought.

My friends’ behavior soon got stranger, more threatening. My roommate looked up from his book one day and said in a slow, sing-song voice, like Mister Rogers: “You know, you’re such a small man. So small. Watch yourself or someone could break your back.” I grimaced but dismissed it as a sick joke.

When it came, the assault took me by surprise. Without warning, I found myself thrown to my dorm room’s shaggy carpet, my roommate pinning my hands above me and the last member of our group holding my feet so I couldn’t move. My best friend straddled my chest and molested me.

I don’t know how long it lasted. I was frozen, their laughter ringing in my ears. 

My dorm room door was open. 

People were walking by.

Male college-aged students (18-24) are 78% more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.

RAPE, ABUSE & INCEST NATIONAL NETWORK (RAINN)

A few days later, once I recovered enough, I confronted them in my dorm room. The one who held my feet locked the door and blocked it with his body. Then, they demanded my apology.

I needed to apologize because, in their eyes, protecting a woman broke what I now understand to be the code of silence keeping patriarchy in place. I was a bad friend. What I thought happened didn’t happen, they said. If I told anyone, no one would believe me. They would find out. And then they would really hurt me.

As they pushed harder and harder, something inside me broke. I started screaming and hitting myself. They found that hilarious.

Afterward, I transferred to Duquesne University, ostensibly to study music. Telling no one and diving inward, I studied compulsively, gained 50 pounds and stopped making friends. I never left Pittsburgh because I was too scared to be on my own. 

I was stuck for years. I told three therapists — all board-certified, progressive women I hoped would listen — what happened to me. None thought it was worth addressing.

One even rolled her eyes and laughed. “What happened to you happened because you’re weak,” she said. “You needed to fight harder.”

Another, a few years later, was confused why I was so depressed, underemployed and socially isolated. “You know,” she said, “the only thing holding you back is you.”

So I held it in. I “manned up.” Slowly, things did get better. I finished my Ph.D. at night and became a professor at Duquesne.

Craig Maier hopes sharing his story will help lift the veil on male experiences of sexual violence in college. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

But part of me is always in that dorm room. In 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford brought her allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I broke down sobbing. Parts of her story felt too much like mine. 

This time, though, I had a male psychologist who took me seriously. I gradually learned about trauma and undertook training to become a coach focusing on trauma-informed leadership development.

Now, I’m wondering how my story can help others. For me, it raises four pivotal questions. 

First, what support — and protection — do male allies on campus need from their universities and peers to intervene strongly and safely? 

One answer to this question involves helping young men find what I so desperately wanted when I started college in the first place: healthy friendships. 

Writing my story now reminds me of how much I ached to belong, how alone I truly was and how I had no clue how to make friends who cared about me. And my struggles aren’t unique. Because men’s brains mature more slowly than women’s, we typically enter college intellectually ready but lagging behind emotionally and relationally.

Encouraging men to broaden their friendship networks outside of fraternity and dorm cultures not only sets them up for happier lives. It also loosens the hold of potentially harmful social environments and gives men places to turn when they need to resist and call out toxic relationships and behaviors.

Second, how can we recognize and respond to the violence men on campus experience instead of justifying or downplaying it? 

My story suggests that perpetrators of violence against women may also be victimizing men, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. But when they experience or witness abuse, men can feel pressure to shrug, grin and bear it, no matter how much it harms them physically, emotionally or morally.

Teaching and empowering men to notice and name when they’ve been verbally demeaned or physically dominated — even when it’s done as a “joke” — puts their more aggressive peers on notice. And it breaks the code of silence that puts women and men alike at risk.

Third, how can we reduce the shame men feel regarding their sexual trauma? 

Silence and shame surround all forms of sexual abuse, but for men, these experiences can bring special challenges because so many men and women assume “real men” should be able to fight back. 

As a result, men who have experienced sexual assault may feel that if they couldn’t stop their abuse, or that if they became aroused during it, something must be wrong with them. For some, internalized homophobia makes the shame even deeper. 

Fourth, how can we open safe spaces for men who experience sexual violence on campuses to find justice and healing? 

My experience suggests that the cultural demand to “man up” can lead men in pain to drift in isolation, and the “help” they do receive can accentuate their sense of powerlessness and humiliation. 

So when we see a man struggling and stuck, we need to check our impulses to roll our eyes, ridicule or dismiss and instead open up our curiosity. He may be carrying more than we think. Simply stopping to hear his story — without trying to “fix” him — can make his pain easier to bear and open the door to healing.

As we make campuses safer, we can’t take the spotlight from women’s pain. But we can broaden the beam and make it stronger. 

Because real change will take all of us.

Craig Maier (www.craigmaier.com) is a trauma-informed leadership coach in Pittsburgh focusing on social sector and faith-based organizations. If you want to reach Craig, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

Our process:

For this project, conducted over six months, PublicSource held interviews in person, on the phone and via Zoom with survivors and then worked with them to corroborate their accounts to the extent possible. We asked for any notes, legal documents, journal entries, emails and texts and/or asked to be connected with people in whom survivors confided at the time. The provided documentation was used to further detail the survivors’ experiences and provide independent verification for our robust fact-checking process.

Reporting on sexual violence requires journalists to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness while mitigating harm and the retraumatization of survivors. 

PublicSource reporters adhered to industry best practices for trauma-informed reporting, including those developed by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. From the onset, reporters strived to ensure survivors understood how their stories may be shared in the project and remained in touch as the reporting process continued. 

They practiced empathetic interviewing and worked with survivors to determine how they’d like to be identified. In journalism, anonymity is typically granted to people who have experienced sexual violence. PublicSource provided varying levels of anonymity to those who have shared their stories of sexual violence with us to respect wishes for privacy and to prevent further trauma. Their identities are known to us, and the information they’ve shared has been vetted.

The reporters also reviewed the profiles with the survivors, reading back quotes for accuracy, in an effort to ensure they felt in control of how their stories were told. They remained open to survivors’ comfort levels with participation changing and, as needed, provided opportunities to decide if they’d like to continue.

PublicSource is grateful to the survivors for going through this process with us and sharing their stories with the Pittsburgh community to improve understanding of the risks of sexual violence and its effects on college campuses.

Explore this series

The Red Zone

More than half of sexual assaults among college students occur in the fall. Resources, survivor stories and investigation into what’s being done to protect those at risk in the Pittsburgh area.

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