Men who are survivors of rape have praised a Hollyoaks’ storyline for helping men who have been sexually assaulted come forward and talk about their experiences.
One of the victims, Duncan Craig, founder of Survivors Manchester, was speaking on the panel at the Being A Man festival and said sensitive stories on popular TV shows are powerful in bringing much-needed conversations to the fore.
“Raising awareness of male rape is making it easier for men to talk about their experiences,” said Craig, “TV is an excellent media for this. If we don’t create the conversation, men won’t have the vocabulary.”
John Paul, the character played by actor James Sutton, was a victim of rape in Hollyoaks
In 2013-2014, Channel 4’s Hollyoaks approached a male rape storyline where a 16-year-old student raped his teacher.
The aim was to deconstruct stereotypes of male rape and tell a story not just about sex, but about the feelings of conquest, power and control from a schoolboy whose anger got the better of him.
The year the storyline saw the rapist finally end up in court, there were more than 3,500 incidents of rape or sexual assault against men, yet under 4% of men reported their experiences to the police.
Hollyoaks actor James Sutton, whose character John Paul was the victim in the storyline, joined Duncan Craig at Southbank’s Being A Man festival to discuss how the show broke down stereotypes of male rape.
They were also joined by Hollyoaks’ executive producer Bryan Kirkwood and Dr Joanna Jamel, a senior lecturer at Kingston University.
Dr Jamel, who has been researching male rape for 20 years, said too many films depict rape in stereotypical scenes, but Hollyoaks challenged this by using a schoolboy as the perpetrator.
“By raising the level of awareness of different victims of male rape, we are making it easier for people to talk about it and come forward,” she added.
“Males feel isolated in society and don’t know where to go. Rape is so gendered and that’s something we need to challenge.”
Looking at the rapes recorded over the past year, Craig said only one in 10 reports came from males – which is why he was pleased researchers at Hollyoaks came to him when they decided to cover the story.
Kirkwood, executive producer of Hollyoaks, was a lead in this sensitive storyline. He said he initially approached this topic in 2010 when he was working on Eastenders.
“On Eastenders, we were keen to tell a story with a gay man being attacked but we were told no.
“The quote was ‘No one wants to think where willies are going like that when they’re having their tea’. The show saw female characters being violated, yet we couldn’t do it from a male point of view.
“A few years on and I was at Hollyoaks, I felt it was the right time to relook at that story and have a gay man who was a teacher attacked by a pupil.
“In summer 2013, we contacted Duncan to tell him our ideas for running the story and Duncan made us promise that if we told it, we would tell the story of silence and follow the character.”
John Paul gives evidence
Kirkwood said Channel 4 was fully supportive of the storyline and they decided it would be possible to embark on such a sensitive storyline at the programme’s early time of 6.30pm.
Because Kirkwood and his team wanted to tell the story correctly and sensitively, he said talking to experts in the field was essential before any writers “even wrote a syllable”.
In preparation for the role, Craig sat down with actor James Sutton and gave him permission to “ask him anything”.
Craig said: “I said ‘if I cry don’t worry, let’s just carry on’. For me as a gay man, child abuse survivor and rape survivor it was really difficult.”
Sutton said he was immediately aware of the responsibility he had as an actor after being told about the storyline.
Talking about his meetings with Craig, he admitted: “They were some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever been a part of if I’m honest.
“As a human being I got so much out of it. We don’t talk about these things, men don’t discuss them.
“The words we used in researching are words I had never spoken before, some I had never even heard of.
“I learned a lot during the whole process and I know our audience have, too.
“We were serving awareness to people who have been in the situation themselves and to the media platform as a whole. It’s the thing I’m most proud of in my career.”
Craig said when he watched the scenes on television, it was “truly powerful”.
“It was like me looking in the mirror. I said to James ‘how the fuck did you get in my head?'” he said.
“It was so difficult but amazing.”
Kirkwood said the storyline is “one the best pieces of work” Hollyoaks has done.
He added: “In a field for male rape, this is now one of the biggest anchor points that we have as a cultural reference.”
Finn was found guilty
One way the impact of the show was measured was through monitoring and comparing how people responded to the storyline on social media.
Kirkwood said: “Watching the conversations unfold over a year has been very powerful.
“At the beginning we saw people tweeting things saying ‘John Paul probably enjoyed it’ but by the end, the same people were talking about it in a very serious sense.”
Craig agreed, saying he has a screenshot on his phone of the same person tweeting – at the beginning of the storyline poking fun at it and at the end telling someone else off for making crude jokes.
“On the back of this, we have had young men openly discussing rape,” Craig continued. “That’s a really positive thing.”
Sutton added: “Breaking down the myths on this storyline has been so key.
“We need to – and we have – got people talking about it younger. I’m 32 now and I’m only just talking about it.
“Men don’t know the words but with this storyline, people have begun to realise it’s alright to talk about male rape. When you listen to other people talking about it you can develop your own language.
“Our audience, including me, has all learned something truly important.”
Sutton recalled a letter he was sent by a male rape victim, which read: “Thank you for being the first time I’ve ever seen myself back on the TV and allowing me to to open up and say the words for the first time”.
Sutton added: “A change is absolutely about having more dialogue with this topic. The more informed we are, the easier life is.”