How We Enter: Men, Gender, and Sexual Assault

published in Men Speak Out, Routledge. 2009.

My mother took me aside from my eighth birthday pool party to scold me. It was 1990, the summer after third grade, and we’d set up a big tent in our backyard. My sister wasn’t allowed to sleep in it at night. My mom gave her the same reason she gave for Kate not being able to play in the woods, only this time the evening news agreed. All the mothers were talking about the “Silver Spring rapist.” Pat McCall didn’t know what rape was. So he and I snuck around to the soda machines and I explained in a whisper in his ear, “Rape is when a man forces a woman to have sex with him,” and we ran out screaming toward the shallow end of the pool until I heard my mom call my name in mid-stride. She said that my friends and I were very young, and that I shouldn’t share such things because their parents might not want them to know about it yet.

That summer my friends and I inherited our first lesson in sex education: rape mythology. We crafted a common imagery in hushed tones in each other’s basements out of earshot of our parents who would be sure to censor us. There were dark men stalking alleys or, in our suburbanized version, the surrounding woods. And there were unsuspecting helpless women who fell victim to their attack, as these men carried out their plot, pushing themselves on top of women and forcing them into having sex. For our young, uneducated but highly imaginative minds, the story always stopped there. We had no concept of what sex actually was, other than that it was something dirty, wrong, and to be desired like grass stains on church clothes. It was something that women could give us and that some men took from them. We saw the potential power we, as man-boys, were to inherit; the manhood we were to adopt and avoid. We affirmed our own moral purity in knowing that we would never misuse that power. We learned that men are stronger than women, but that rapists are predator-types who abuse the power all men rightfully hold. As far as we knew, potential abusers remained relegated to alleys and bushes, living as a lurking threat. They were not people who played a role in any other part of our lives; not as mothers or fathers, not as neighbors, relatives, partners, or religious leaders. Surely we didn’t know any rapists. And, surely, we could not be abused.

As we’ve grown up, so have many of our understandings about sexual assault. However, the way men respond to sexual assault is still often based on these lessons we first learned as children. And so these attempts at addressing sexual assault perpetuate patriarchy rather than breaking it down. Working with a framework of men-as-attackers and women-as-survivors, our conception of power can only rest in the hands of men. In dealing with sexual assault, this makes “good men” the protectors and avengers and in general makes women preyed upon and in need of prayers. If this is our story, then gender is determined not by our biology, but rather by which side of the knife we’re on. If some of our earliest ideas of manhood depend upon having control over women, what does it mean to let go of that handle? Or even further, what does it mean when men feel the steel against their own throats?

Men’s groups dedicated to anti-sexist work have done their darnedest to raise consciousness about these issues. Feminist men’s groups I’ve been involved with focus on defying stereotypes by examining how we fit them. In these groups, we get emotional about not being in touch with our emotions. We patiently listen to each other talk about our impatience with our partners. With good reason, we focus on patriarchy as something we, as male-socialized people, do to others. We look at the outward effect of behavior we’ve internalized in order to be better organizers, better partners, better friends to the people in our lives. Whether we’re describing scenarios that involve dominating conversations or dominating other people’s bodies, from our position of masculinity, we analyze ourselves as potential perpetrators, always identifying with the person in power. We’re willing to examine in depth our effect on a fairy-tale She-ra but we’re unable to see ourselves as anything other than a He-Man, Master of the Universe. Examining our own moments of weakness is rarely a topic we talk about. Weakness would be too sharp a point to bring near our identities so inflated with masculinity. We are always strong, always the actor, never the acted upon. Thus, it is difficult to see ourselves as potential survivors, potentially vulnerable.

With patriarchy so pervasive, it’s no wonder that men have to struggle so hard to unravel their myths of supremacy. In order to do so, men must confront the very basis of their identity, to acknowledge our own vulnerability, and to begin rethinking and rebuilding meanings of power. This self-examination requires the very tools that the process of becoming men convinces us to abandon. From the time we are young, boys are taught we should not cry or express hurt. As bell hooks explains in All About Love, boys “must be tough, they are learning how to mask true feelings. In worst-case scenarios they are learning how not to feel anything ever.” At every point that we might imagine living without absolute control, without being masters of our destiny, there is another road sign rerouting us toward expressway erections.

But what happens when our lives and our lessons contradict? More specifically, what happens when men are the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of assault? For me, it took years before this possibility could be considered anything other than a joke.

I never classified my experience as sexual assault because it never fit my definition of abuse. It wasn’t forced. It wasn’t violent. It was inappropriately discreet; the epitome of “bad touch.” Importantly, I was a man-boy and they were women. I knew that as a “red-blooded American teenage boy” I was supposed to want sex all the time and welcome any chance at it.

I believed that I held the social power in that room and I wasn’t going to let these two women affect that. I wasn’t going to let them affect me. I walked out of that room confused. In all my previous ideas about abusive sexuality, the powerful man overtook or ignored the will and desires of the less-powerful woman. If a woman could do this to me, what did that say about my power and my masculinity? Besides, wasn’t this supposed to be kinky? Men are always supposed to want sex so this must be a joke. Women could never have power over me.

And thus, as long as I stayed in my manhead, this encounter when I was sixteen years old wasn’t an assault. It was a funny story to tell friends because the idea that I could have been acted on instead of being the crafter of my own universe, Charles in Charge, unaffected by the world around me, was absurd.

As long as I relied upon these early lessons of masculinity, sexuality, and power for my self-definition of manhood, I could neither deal with the reality of my own world nor effectively act in solidarity with the women and gender variant people in my life. My desire to maintain my own sense of power debilitated my ability to participate in efforts to actually end sexual violence. Without a broader systemic analysis, activist men’s groups deal with every assault case as another individual man gone wrong. For these groups, it’s up to men to use our strength and rationale to either bring the perpetrator back into the fold of appropriate manhood or expel him from the circle. The approach perpetuates patriarchy rather than finding strategies to redraw the systems that shape our world.

It wasn’t until I was in a men’s discussion about sexual assault where, in go-around fashion, people could make comments like “I passed out drunk and when I woke up, someone was on top of me having sex,” and then move on to the next person without any emotional content, that my male bonds began to break down. When we wrapped up the group, all I could say was how inadequate it was. The clock struck two hours and we were done. I walked to the nearby rocks and cried.

Later my partner at the time confronted me about the group’s collective lack of emotion in the discussion. She asked, “How can you all expect to struggle against sexual violence when you don’t let it affect you? When you don’t feel it?” I defended the group and said that men deal with things intellectually and that it’s a different, not a lesser, way of processing than emotional ways. I pointed to how I treated my own experience of being abused as an example. Then things shifted. This conversation with my partner forced me to realize that I did not have a different experience or a different relationship to my body. I had a detached one, an absence of a relationship with my body. She said, “It’s not a different experience, it’s half an experience.” I agreed. I wanted to be whole.

Most literature on male survivors of sexual assault describes a “feminization process” where men feel “less like a man” after being abused. Often, this state of being is described as standard but temporary, with multiple appeals to survivors to reclaim their traits of traditional masculinity: to be strong, to be courageous. Many resources available to male survivors assure men that they are still “real men” and explain that abuse causes most to question their sexuality and gender identity.

No one should have to survive abuse. But, at the same time, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for men to have to critically think through gender socialization. One of the effects of having social power, of having privilege, is the ability to live without questioning one’s identity; to assume, in this case, that hegemonic manhood is natural, normal, and preferred.

The existence of male survivors actually interrupts these myths. Our existence creates a space for redefining or abandoning constructed male identity. Patriarchy may not be the knife whose handle men firmly grasp and wield, but, rather, a double-edged blade that targets some and cuts us all.

It is not in redirecting, but in redesigning, our relations that all of our wounds can heal. With this new framework, I could neither be the Superman hero with the shadowy stranger in the alley as my foil, nor could women remain hapless objects in a world that I, and other men, create.

While men must grapple with the privilege and responsibility that socialization allots us, we can also un-puff our chests and end the posturing. We can strive to be something other than the action figures of our collective imagination.

Having lived through a harsh denial of our invincibility, having our scripts interrupted, we have the chance to either deny our experience—as I did for half a decade—or we can reject the role we’re expected to play and improvise a new place for ourselves. We can reinvent a world of sharp contrasts and create a space amongst the subtler tones, to dance in the hues between poles. We can stop viewing life in polar opposites and start becoming human as a way to own up to and fight against male privilege, and to end masculinist patterns of domination over others.

More often than not, discussions about male sexual assault are used by men to avoid responsibility for the power and privilege they maintain. The topic of men as victims, especially victims of the actions of women, is used to obscure the prevalence of male sexual violence. Worse yet, these are used as cloaked conversations coated with allegations of reverse sexism meant to maintain, not reexamine men’s power. Recognizing this dynamic creates an even bigger challenge to understanding that, according to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, one out of six boys will experience sexual assault by the time they reach eighteen. By comparison, though, one in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. What this means is that we need to include men as victims in conversations about sexual assault without decentralizing women’s experience and without taking away from the leadership of women and gender variant survivors. We must recognize that while sexual assault affects everyone, it is also a tool of patriarchy that specifically and disproportionately targets those assigned less social power.

Male socialization kept me from understanding that I had been molested, and women’s support finally enabled me to identify as someone who was—five years after the fact.

I bring this up crying on a bus ride with a guy friend. I tell him that he doesn’t know a thing about my past and I accuse him of assuming that I haven’t been abused. In doing so, I assumed the same of him. I was wrong. But he says he never thinks about it. It never registers. But then what do men let register with them? Are we so out of touch with ourselves and so in touch with trying to maintain power that we must deny our vulnerability to everyone? With no space to talk about ourselves as victims, we maintain the tough-guy persona that patriarchy demands of us. As bell hooks writes, “patriarchal masculinity requires of boys and men not only that they see themselves as more powerful and superior to women but that they do whatever it takes to maintain their controlling position.” If this is true, what must men do if we are ever to play an effective role in challenging sexual assault in our communities? What is at the core of our identities if we remove superiority over women and moral purity compared to more abusive men? What will give us permission to express our own vulnerabilities? What does real, positive masculinity look like?

To be honest, I rarely feel emotionally equipped to deal with these questions or mentally prepared to write about them. I get a knot in my stomach every time I think about sexual abuse and I have spent days in an inexplicable fog after reading or hearing yet another survivor’s account of assault. But I know that we can do better, that our conversations can become more inclusive, that our approach needs to change in order for all our attempts, from pummeling to processing, from ostracizing to education, to ever be effective. I write this because I want to get past the shock, the shock at my presence in survivor’s spaces and at my tears in men’s groups, to get past the bravado and the bitter days, the binaries and the ghosts I bring to bed. In this society, everyone comes out damaged goods. In setting out to transform the world we must also be ready to transform ourselves. Toward a world of healing, tomorrow is ours.


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