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“Men are raped too” isn’t just for trolls anymore

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2011 by knightofsummer

I see the argument of “if rape happened to men we’d care” a lot in activist circles, and it bugs me.  Rape has happened to a number of men I care about and people don’t care.  Lil Wayne on Jimmy Kimmel is a perfect example of people not caring; a guy says he was raped and it caused long term psychological damage and the other two guys in the room think it is hilarious.  Far too often activists don’t seem to care either, because acknowledging those survivors would disrupt their simplified anti-rape narrative, where it is only about gender, and is something men do to women.  There is the fear that if we admit men are raped, it will become all about the men, and that there aren’t enough resources for women and so any help that goes to male survivors is coming out of the mouths of female survivors.  However, by failing to include them we are either saying that those men don’t count, which is the same thing rape culture says, or we are claiming they are less important than the women we are paying attention to, which too often comes back to intersectionality.

We still wouldn’t care about rape because rape isn’t just about men doing something to women, it is about someone asserting their patriarchal right to sexually dominate another human being who is devalued by our oppressive society.  Neither of those roles is exclusively gendered, but one of them is, by definition, valued more by our oppressive society.  Even if more rapes happened to men we wouldn’t care, because patriarchy still cares more about the rapists than about survivors.  These statistics are deeply involved in intersectionality: class, race, sexual orientation, cis/trans perception and age all increase the risk of a man being raped just like they increase the risk of a woman being raped.  Even though the “men are raped too!” meme is used to derail rape discussions, I think it is an important point in dismantling rape culture (as well as not erasing or dismissing some people’s lived experiences, and isn’t that what this is supposed to be about?)

By ignoring that dynamic we get an incomplete picture of sexual violence, even if it does let us avoid some derailing tactics used to try to silence women.  I believe the correct approach is to suggest that those people move to their own space, like this blog is, even though I hope that women choose not to erase male survivors.  Those discussions need to be approached from a different angle, though, not just asking “what about the menz!?!” but rather by answering the question “what about men?”  Which I will attempt to do here.
We can see that rape isn’t taken any more seriously when it happens to men in our treatment of prison rape.  Rape in men’s prisons is a common punchline, which I personally saw used in the last year on the TV shows Bones, Castle and Psych, two of which are relatively serious in tone.  Such rape is frequently blamed on the victim, sometimes simply for being in prison, often for being too feminine (the language of being someone’s “bitch” makes it clear that these crimes assign the female gender to the victims, and “being punked” that it is an emasculating act of dominance.)  The justice department is unwilling to pay for the measure it’s own study found would reduce the incidence of prison rape (for both men and women), and some people have argued that they shouldn’t because the threat of rape makes jail a worse threat for men.  Similar to how the threat of men raping women is used to police women’s behavior and gender performance, the threat of men raping men is used by our culture to police gender performance and behavior, with devastating consequences for the victims of rape.  In the meantime, rape in women’s prisons is ignored all together, not even joked about, because rape is considered something that men do to women, rather than a dominating, gendered crime of control, power and sadism.
This is not to say that all sexual violence experienced by men or women is committed by men, but the portion of rape culture devoted to the percentage that is not is focused on erasing it from existence and pretending it can never happen, rather than leveraging it to control behavior.  Deconstructing the ways in which such crimes of power and dominance are also supported by these same dynamics of gendered sexuality is important, but I’m not going to do it right now.  I will simply say that it does happen, and no matter what the trolls want you to believe it is part of the same dynamics and tacitly approved by the same rape culture as crimes committed by men against women.
Why is this of vital importance?  First, because the threat of rape contributes to rape.  Men fear speaking up against rape because it makes them vulnerable.  The cost to men of speaking up against rape is often being treated as rape-able by other men.  More than that, there are some forms of rape that explicitly play off these fears.  Group rapes and public party rapes both use the implicit threat of “you are either the rapist or the victim” to convince men to commit actual, horrific crimes.  Rapists are more likely than the average population to have been sexually assaulted while children, as they attempt to assert their lack of vulnerability by hurting others.  Rape culture is based on the premise that men are aggressors and women victims, as well as that the victims deserve or want it.  Even the fact that men seem to believe saying that men get raped too makes rape less terrible is a sign of rape culture, as though the important thing were the gender of the victim and not the horrific power trip of the criminal.  By instead turning it back around and acknowledging the pain and fear male victims experience we can strip away the persona of unrapability men who rape wear.  Teaching men that rape is never their fault, providing resources and support for survivors and breaking down the ways the threat of rape is used to control their lives diminishes the power the rape of men has as a tool of rape culture.
This is important, because the threat to men of being raped has far reaching consequences for other areas of progressive activism.  I believe much of homophobia is fueled by this fear.  Men fear men’s sexuality, and they especially fear being the target of it because it is so strongly associated with rape.  I believe that much of the decline in homophobia among young men has accompanied anti-rape activism and, less positively, assurances that gay men aren’t interested in them.  On the other side, the fear of loosing sexual access to women, and thus becoming valid targets for other men, has led to much of the abuse targeted at lesbians over the years.  Additionally, I believe that some misogyny comes from this fear, as in order to avoid being a valid target for rape men have to decry their own feminine and so disdain anything feminine.  Survivors, of both genders, who had lived through sexual assault also sometimes internalize those messages, and come to hate femininity because they believe their own femininity led to their victimization.  Because many male survivors were young, and other men witness the dynamics of the rapes their mothers or sisters or brothers or fathers experience, this has a long-term, lasting impact on the prevalence of misogyny in our culture.  This is certainly a contributing factor to transphobia; the trope of “a man in a dress” is disruptive partially because it disrupts these assumptions of rape-ability being associated with feminine dress, and trans women are one of the demographics with the highest incidences of rape (again, related to intersectionality).
Solving the problems of male violence against women will, I believe, ultimately require embracing a model of gendered violence that explicitly includes male victims and addresses men’s fears as well as women’s.  By ignoring or diminishing the importance of some survivor’s stories we can never fully understand the dynamics at work or address them in the broader population.  Even if a smaller percentage of men than women experience sexual violence, the threat of sexual violence is targeted at everyone, male and female, to a degree that has to do with many axis of oppression, not just gender.  We do not have to dismiss women’s experiences, reduce the resources available to women or force women be around men in order to acknowledge the pain of male survivors, support them and pin the blame for their assaults firmly where it belongs.  If we do not we are reproducing the oppressive dynamics that society inflicts on them every day.  It does not take much to acknowledge male survivors, and it certainly does not take giving in to trolls.  Notably, I recommend an approach of turning it around: “that is another post, but I’m curious; why do you think that makes rape okay?” or “rape jokes okay?” or “rape culture okay?”
In the meantime, by treating anyone who suggests that men are raped too and maybe it would be nice if we didn’t go out of our way to exclude some survivors as a troll, you alienate not only male survivors, but also people at various other points of intersection.  And if you suggest that society takes the rape of men seriously, or would take rape seriously if more of it happened to men, you are simply showing a lack of awareness of the broader dynamics at work.

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