EastEnders’ male rape storyline is helping me tell the world about my own sexual assault
An EastEnders storyline exploring male rape has empowered one man to share his own experience of sexual assault.
Edwin Rothwell had just started university when he was “groomed” and sexually assaulted by an older man.
What followed was a painful and difficult time for Edwin. It took several years for him to even accept within himself that he had been sexually assaulted. Nine years after the incident, he found the courage to report it to the police.
Edwin has never spoken publicly about his sexual assault, but he has decided now is the time because of a storyline airing on EastEnders.
On Monday’s EastEnders episode (23 May), Ben Mitchell (Max Bowden) was raped by barman Lewis Butler (Aidan O’Callaghan). The devastating scene has won praise for putting a spotlight on sexual violence as it impacts the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the specific barriers facing male survivors.
Like so many other sexual assault survivors, Edwin buried what had happened to him. His whole university experience was “ruined” by the assault – he went on to struggle with PTSD and social anxiety.
He has also struggled with being around other LGBTQ+ people. He has never been to a Pride march to this day – the assault made him “reject” being part of the community.
“This is the community I should be a part of, and when this assault happened, I felt like the LGBTQ+ community was a threat and that it was a dangerous place,” Edwin explains. “I know it’s not, but I was so young when this happened to me, I didn’t really have much else to base my experience of the community off.”
He continues: “I believed what he had done to me was what happened in the gay community and I believed that it was just a routine sort of thing – that I should just accept that what he did to me is just how gay men behave. That’s rubbish – I shouldn’t have thought that for such a long time, but I did.”
Because of the assault, Edwin felt unable to be intimate with another man for more than a decade.
“All those so-called ‘best years of your life’, I was actually scared to death of intimacy because it felt life-threatening.”
One of the reasons I didn’t want to report it at the time was that I was afraid the police would laugh at me.
To make matters worse, Edwin was terrified of reporting the assault to police. His experience is borne out by the statistics – according to Rape Crisis England and Wales, four in five men and five in six women don’t report their sexual assault to the police (the charity’s stats make no mention of non-binary people), with many saying they felt embarrassed, feared being humiliated, or thought the police wouldn’t be able to help them.
“One of the reasons I didn’t want to report it at the time was that I was afraid the police would laugh at me,” Edwin says. “I just felt that a gay man walking into a police station saying, ‘I’ve been sexually assaulted, I didn’t want to have any sort of sex with this guy,’ I felt that I would be laughed out of the police station.”
Sadly, when Edwin did work up the courage to go to the police nine years after the assault, he was horrified when a police officer called his case “weird”.
“Was it homophobia? Was it not? My suspicion is, you’re calling the case weird, there’s something underlying there that you’re not telling me.”
His experience with North Yorkshire Police quickly went from bad to worse – at times, he felt that they were more concerned about how his attacker was feeling.
“They’ve repeatedly brought up the fact that he is suffering to me and I think, ‘Oh wow, he’s suffering. Why are you so keen to tell me that?’ They’ve told me he’s very upset and he’s struggled with his mental health, and I just don’t buy it.”
Ben Mitchell will be at the centre of a new storyline after his character is raped by Lewis. #EastEnders has been working closely with various charities and organisations on the storyline. To find out more, please visit @bbceastenders on Instagram and Facebook. pic.twitter.com/FV1eN8mau8
— BBC EastEnders (@bbceastenders) April 24, 2022
The police ultimately decided not to press charges against the accused. Edwin has filed a complaint and an independent adjudicator is currently assessing his case.
In addition to the challenge he faced in getting the police to take his case seriously, Edwin also struggled to access any meaningful supports that would help him deal with the trauma of his assault. He was referred to an independent domestic abuse service by North Yorkshire Police, which wasn’t particularly helpful given his experience had nothing to do with domestic abuse.
“I was like, ‘Well that doesn’t fit for me because I haven’t experienced domestic abuse,’ and then it was geared towards women too,” he says.
Edwin was first inspired to open up about his assault by Hollyoaks
In the background, Edwin knew he needed to get help so he could open up about what he had gone through and pursue justice against his attacker.
“I actually had the Survivors Manchester website bookmarked for two years and I would occasionally look at the website and think: ‘One day I’m going to call them and get help.'” He eventually worked up the courage to call them – they were able to help him access therapy as well as help with reporting the assault to police.
A decade before the EastEnders storyline helped Edwin share his story publicly, one of the things that helped him better understand his experience was when Hollyoaks tackled the issue head on. In 2012, the Channel 4 soap aired a storyline which saw a teenage boy rape his male teacher.
“When I saw that Hollyoaks storyline, I was like: ‘Oh, this is a crime, men do suffer with this too.’ The penny dropped for me then that what had happened to me was something I needed help with.’”
Then, in 2018, the character David Platt was sexually assaulted on Coronation Street. That helped Edwin start a conversation with his loved ones about what he had been through.
The shame lies with the victims and survivors of these crimes, but actually I’m a blameless victim of crime.
“I used that to tell my mum what had happened to me. I watched that episode with her and I was able to say: ‘What just happened to David, something similar happened to me.’ It took a lot of courage to tell mum because I didn’t want her to be upset, but she was very supportive. Having the TV show there to help that conversation along was amazing, and now EastEnders has come along and it’s helping me to tell the world.”
Edwin thinks storylines like this one are important because they make sexual violence visible – they have the power to show survivors that what they experienced is not OK and that they’re not to blame.
“The shame lies with the victims and survivors of these crimes, but actually I’m a blameless victim of crime. I did nothing wrong and it’s not my responsibility that someone assaulted me. I feel like I’ve got a lot of fight in me for this cause – entertainment is one of those soft tools of power that can influence hearts and minds a lot easier than politics or anything else.”
He continues: “Hopefully with Ben Mitchell in this [EastEnders] storyline, people will see that he’s not to blame and that he’s not actually changed as a person because of what happened to him.”
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When approached for comment, a spokesperson for North Yorkshire Police said: “North Yorkshire Police takes all allegations of sexual assault and abuse seriously and we encourage victims to come forward and report it to us. We fully investigate all reports and specialist support is available for all victims.
“If any victims feel they have not received the level of service they would expect from the force, they can register a complaint through the North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner via our website.”
Rape Crisis England and Wales works towards the elimination of sexual violence. If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.
Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.