Tuesday, Slate published an article by Hanna Rosin titled “When Men Are Raped,” arguing that men are sexually assaulted with an incidence significantly higher than previous estimates, and that the perpetrators in such cases are frequently women.
The article takes a fairly nuanced and sympathetic look at sexual assault as it is experienced by men, which is commendable and is a stance that needs to be taken much more often, as male sexual assault is too frequently underreported and marginalized. However, the article appears to reduce some feminist arguments to strawmen, which is unfortunate to see from Rosin (although not without precedent).
In the article, Rosin frequently references the idea that “our fallback model [is] that men are always the perpetrators and women the victims,” which is (fortunately) not the case. Not many of even the most ignorant of adolescents likely believe that it is physically impossible for men to be raped, but that it is less common than female rape. And, indeed, it probably is less prevalent, but new data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, as cited in Rosin’s Slate article, indicate that 38% of sexual assault victims are men.
That men are victims of sexual assault should not come as news to feminists, especially because it is observed so frequently in prisons, and I also doubt that many feminists deny that women perpetrators of sexual assault against men exist and contribute to the male rape victim demographic. However, the fact that men frequently under-report rape (especially when perpetrated by a woman, but in general), and are less likely to recognize an incident of forcible sex as rape due to stigma, does little to help the cause.
Further, patriarchal attitudes, which are frequently credited with perpetuating female rape culture, are also responsible for the same problems that contribute to the problematic marginalization of male rape. Male-centric ideas, such as that men are stronger than women and cannot be victimized by them, simultaneously cause male privilege in society and male oppression in the context of sexual consent. The harm that these myths do to male victims of sexual assault cannot be overstated, and if men should oppose the patriarchy for no other reason, then at least they ought to consider the harm they do to themselves by perpetuating such ideas. The patriarchy hurts men and women alike, but in very different ways, and the ways in which it hurts men are insidious and subtle.
Patriarchal notions ingrained in society can be blamed for the unjust treatment of female perpetrators in relation to male perpetrators; rapes perpetrated by women and against men are seldom taken seriously, and this is a major sociological problem. The famous case of Joyce McKinney in 1977, in which the female perpetrator was sentenced to a mere twelve months in jail and was not charged with rape (as the definition of rape was not broad enough at the time to include sexual assault by women against men) highlights this inequity.
What is possibly more shocking is the fact that, in the US, in the aggregate more men are raped than women (when documented prison rapes are counted).
Yet the fact that we focus so much on female rape is no mistake; to let any of these facts detract from the gravity that is violence against women would be a great injustice. Too often, rhetoric about the often-forgotten demographic (in this case, male rape victims) is used to dismiss the object of primary focus (or female rape victims), especially by men’s rights groups. Intersectionality is all about recognizing that marginalized victims are oppressed just as much as the victims who are often fought for, and it means at the same time not marginalizing the experiences of others in the process. We must fight for the recognition of male rape while never ceasing to protect women from the horrible crime that one in six will be a victim of.
Perhaps it should come as little surprise that 46% of male victims reported a female perpetrator. female wardens frequently victimize inmates (responsible for 89% of juvenile rape victims, as reported in the Slate article) and female caretakers or family members victimize children. Of a group of people given institutional power, a certain percentage will always abuse it, and it would stand to reason that a proportional number of that percentage is likely to be female.
The devastation experienced as a result of male sexual assault is exemplified by a story relayed to me by The Flounce’s Jen Pinkley, who once at the age of nineteen served as a sexual violence advocate for a male victim. A passage from an interview with her is included below.
When I had my very first shift where I was tasked with doing crisis intervention at the local hospital . . . even knowing that it was possible for men to be victimized, I was stunned when I walked in after that very first page and saw a young man lying in the hospital bed.
He wasn’t much older than I was, a smallish white kid, probably early twenties. He’d been brought in from the county jail. He still hadn’t been processed so he was wearing street clothes, and after his SANE exam, he’d be taken back to the jail in handcuffs, processed and put into a cell.
I gathered up the courage to kick the cops out so I could talk with him privately, and I sat on a chair near the bed and . . . mostly I just sat quietly for awhile, letting him cry. I asked him if I could get him something to drink, I asked if it was okay to touch his hand. I wanted to pull him into a hug and never let him go.
It was heartbreaking.
It was a lot for my sheltered nineteen-year-old brain to process.
He opened up eventually, telling me that another inmate in the holding cell had held him down while a third guy raped him. I just let him talk. When he was done, I gave him as many poorly rehearsed talking points as I could remember. I talked about the SANE exam and about the resources that were available to him.
He cried some more.
The cops came back in with the SANE nurse and insisted on staying in the room while she performed the exam . . . And as soon as the nurse was done collecting the evidence, before I could even peek my head in to talk with him again, the police were escorting him from the room in handcuffs.
That’s the last time I saw him, and in more than fifteen years of doing volunteer work on and off, that’s the only time I’ve ever been called out to advocate for a male victim.
I guess in the back of my mind I knew that [rape of men] happened, but until it was staring me in the face, it was just some abstract concept. I felt like such an asshole, because I felt powerless.
And I had this guy in tears who had experienced the ultimate powerlessness, and it was just life-altering for both of us.
I know in my heart that it’s because men have so much more difficulty bringing their rapists to justice. I know it’s because they are shamed by law enforcement and society and they’re not supposed to be seen as weak. To be a man and a rape victim is something that must be so surreal and just–I can’t imagine how painful that must be for them, to experience that and to feel as if they don’t have the same resources as women, that they can’t speak out and claim victim status as easily as a woman can.
But in the more than fifteen years of doing this kind of work, I’ve learned that it’s not exactly easy for women to report rape either. Their experiences are just as traumatizing, just as painful, just as terrible as that kid I saw in that hospital bed back when I was green as hell and only nineteen years old. Women get raped and taken off to jail in handcuffs all the time. And women are treated like shit by law enforcement after they’ve been victimized.
The fact remains that men are going to experience rape and its aftermath in a markedly different manner than women as a result of socialization and gender politics. Yet, rather than rendering this an issue of male rape versus female rape, we should seek to recognize the fundamental similarities among the varied experiences of rape victims male and female alike. Rape is rape, regardless of the gender or sex of the sufferer. Promoting unity among sexual violence survivors and advocates on the issues of rape is one of many first steps to eradication of the act.