After I wrote a post about being a male survivor of sexual abuse, I got a lot of emails. Many of them were quite nasty, as were some of the comments on the blog. Several, however, were messages of support, for which I am grateful, though I haven’t had the mental energy to respond to all of them individually. A few other male survivors wrote, thanking me for speaking out. But the one email that sticks in my mind, and the reason I am writing this article, is the one that had the subject title “Advice for feminists re male sex abuse?”
The author, part of a very well known feminist group (I’ll leave them nameless) thanked me for writing the original article, and told me how she’d shared it with the other women in her group. They were extremely grateful to hear about another side of being a survivor, one which is, as I said in the original post, often eclipsed by rigid notions of gender roles in cases of sexual violence. The group was very interested in doing stuff in their local community to support male survivors as there was no existing support network (to be fair to them, there’s little to no support anywhere. Trust me, I looked), and therefore would I be able to write something about how feminism can help male survivors?
I was initially a bit taken aback by the request. Not that I didn’t feel flattered that a fairly well known group wanted my opinion on something as important as this, but purely on the basis of the fact that I am male, and I think I’m the last person to be telling “feminism” what to do. I may know a lot about feminism from an academic perspective (my field is Gender Studies after all) but I am acutely aware of how theories of emancipation are not abstracts – they affect people in the real world, and those theories can be undermined by those (often well-meaning) people who try to dictate them. I am male, and while patriarchy does affect me, and while feminism has helped me, it doesn’t give me the right to tell feminism what it should and should not be doing. Feminism is a movement for women, led by women, and the role that men can play in that movement is not a leading one.
That being said, what I can do is write a bit about how to support male survivors of abuse aimed at anyone. It might be that this is useful for feminist groups, anarchist collectives, or people outside of radical politics. I do not pretend that what I am writing is meticulously researched, academically sound work, with all the appropriate citations. I have only my own experience to go on, but I do believe that experience alone is not invalid evidence (contrary to some academic theories about gender). So what I am about to say is really based on the sort of things I wish I had heard, or know about, five or ten years ago when I was coming to terms with my own experience of abuse.
Sexual violence and abuse is, in my opinion, both gendered and non-gendered. By this, I mean that statistically speaking, women tend to suffer a greater proportion of sexual violence than men. That’s a given, numerically evidence fact. Similarly, those who belong to gender minorities (trans people, non-bnary people, and so on) tend to suffer more sexual violence and abuse than white, heterosexual men. So in this sense, sexual violence is gendered.
That fact, however, needs to be reconciled with the reality that not everyone who experiences rape fits into a pre-conceived notion of perpetrator and victim. The perpetrator is not always male, the suvivor is not always female. We have a very rigid logic we like to impose of sexual abuse and rape cases, and those logic is problematic when you do not fit into it, as I don;t. In other words, “believing” survivors is a key proponent of feminists movements (and, I would argue, any decent person) because so often women who are survivors are accused of lying, whether by policemen, lawyers, judges, the media or friends and family. This, of course, is appalling. However, if the apparently rigid logic is transgressed, then being believed is even less likely. To put this a different way – if a man says he has been sexually abused, and it doesn’t fit into certain scenarios, people don’t believe him.
I said “certain scenarios.” We have a discourse for situations when the idea of male rape is believable. These tend to be institutional. The Church is one, and the Prison is another. These environments, mainly homosocial, are accepted as risky places for male rape. They are also, sickeningly, a place for humour. Jokes about dropping the soap in prison are found everywhere. The recent Will Farrell comedy “Get Hard” makes a huge “joke” about how to avoid prison rape. A closing scene in an episode in the “IT Crowd” depicts two protagonists locked in a room with another (male) character who has just taken rohypnol and thus is horny and might want to fuck them. Hilarious. Also not how rohypnol works, as far as I am aware. Similarly, many jokes are made about Priests (especially Catholic priests) molesting boys. The humour is pretty unpleasant,
There is, of course, an extent to which mainstream narratives about sexual violence tend to have a pre-written scenario about rape. It occurs when a women is attacked in a dark alley way by a stranger, a stranger presumably armed. We know for that that this is nonsense. The vast majority of sexual violence takes place within intimate relationships, families, relatives, partners and so on. What I am trying to get at is that we silence male survivors by assuming they are not affected by sexual violence in relationships.
An example: when I first tried to talk about the fact that I was being abused by someone I had a romantic “relationship” (I put that in inverted commas because I am uncertain of the extent to which you can call it a relationship), they (a trained, medical professional, for the record) were sceptical. But didn’t you want the sex? I was asked. Implicit in that was a presumption about me as a man. Because I am male, I am always up for sex. I am a ravenous libido on two legs, and if consent is hazy, well, fuck it, I’m getting laid. This is another side of a patriarchal myth that affects women – a common form of rape apologism is to tell women they should “cover up” or otherwise shield their bodies from sexually voracious men. For this myth to work, we need to presuppose that men are willing to take any form of sex. What’s wrong with you? a woman did something sexual to you. Surely that’s what you want? You’re a man. After all, if you really didn’t want it, your probably stronger than her, so you could have stopped her, surely? Besides, she’s a very pretty girl, I’ve seen her around – this is the point where I walked out. The rape logic, which stigmatises female seuxlaity, also hits male sexuality. Women lie about rape because they don’t want to be seen as sluts, says this logic, and men always want sex, even if it is non-consensual, because they are men.
The reluctance to accept that sexual violence can occur in situations where sex might otherwise be consensual (i.e. relationships) affects men as well as women. It’s hard to say why this particular rape myth pervades; perhaps it’s based on a thorough misunderstanding of consent. Or perhaps it’s based on people not wanting to accept the uncomfortable truth that their boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, fuck buddy, or someone who they might be happy to engage in sex with might one day ignore them when they say no, I do not want to do that, I am not ready for that. My situation pretty much matched that description, and no one wanted to believe it. More so, I think, because I am male, and I’m supposed to always want sex.
Prior to this, I was abused when much younger by someone in an institutional setting. As a child, being a abused was a pretty much normal event for me. I was home-schooled initially, then sent straight to secondary school by parents who had never taught me anything about social interaction, protecting myself or anything at all outside their extreme Catholic theology. The remnants of that time still scar me, because I was bullied, and much of the bullying had a sexual edge to it. For example, once, when using a school urinal, I was grabbed from behind, caught in a choak hold, and had three boys from a year above me kick me repeatedly in the genitals, among other things, before one of them threw me on the floor and pissed on me. Their contact had a sexual element, without going into too much detail. I never told anyone about the event. The teacher at my school barely seemed to care, my parents were more likely to throw me out if I admitted to being sexually assaulted, and so I had to pick myself up, wash myself in a sink, and then go home and pretend nothing was wrong. I was 13.
Before even that, I was molested. Now, there’s a few things I might suggest to prevent that from ever occurring. One would be to ban home schooling, and also the Catholic Church, but I suspect that is my anger talking, rather than my reason. Really, the only thing I could suggest would be creating an environment where boys and girls can talk about what happened to them. In a strictly religious community, no one wants to hear something bad about the clergy. Even today, I won’t name my abuser. I don’t know if he has abused others (likely) or if he is even alive anymore (he was very very old when I knew him). Another thing worth remembering is that the molestation of children by older men and women does not just happen in institutional settings. I know people who were raped by brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and so on. Really, all I can say is this: the crime is diabolical, probably one of the worst imaginable. We have a special hatred for those who rape children, but we also, hypocritically, don’t want to believe it when children tell us what has happened, precisely because it is so awful. Really, we need to throw of our veil of delusion and face with sober reality that this an everyday reality for people, and it ruins people. If you are unwilling to believe a child because you don’t want to accept that molestors of all genders are found in all communities, and the threat is real, then I have no time for you.
I’m writing this feeling all quite calm, given the difficulty of the subject matter. The fact that I have recently begun to suffer from dissociative episodes has the unexpected bonus of allowing me to confront things that happened to me as if they were hypothetical incidents. Perhaps not the healthiest way of doing things, but we all have our coping strategies. A final point I’d like to make, however, is this – I have spoken out about what happened to me. Many people will not. I hope that by speaking out, I can do what I can to encourage others to do the same, but only if that is what they want. To supporters, however, I will say this – I may write about this on my blog, in a very public forum, but it doesn’t mean that entitles you to confront me on the middle of Kings Parade and say “I’m so sorry to hear you got raped!” at the top of your lungs, as one person did. Nor, does it give you the right to treat as different, as some delicate being who needs constant cups of tea, and whom you need to tiptoe around, as someone of the people I work with have been doing. I write about this stuff, because I wish to engage with it on my terms. I start the conversations, and I end them. It does not entitle you to ask, even in a well-meaning way. If you do ask, and I do not reply, don’t take that as me being stand offish. I am simply not the right frame of mind. The same goes for how people treat me – just because I am a male rape survivor, and me and mine tend to be read as an anomaly, you do not have to treat me any differently. I want your understanding, not to be treated as a sacred monster. I am still the same person I was before I wrote that original post. I still do comedy (badly), I still walk around listening to Machine Head, I still go out on demos (infrequently) and I am not changed, forever changed. I am a rape survivor, but my experience does not define me. My actions, my principles, and my work defines me. Now, it might be that this is not really advice, more of a public service announcement. Other survivors might behave differently, or want other treatment. My guidance is simple. Listen to them, for Christ’s sake, otherwise you could end up doing more damage than you thoughts, even with the best of intentions.
N.B – I am leaving comments open and unmoderated on this post, as I want to promote discussion. However, I do have the power to see your IP address, even if you are commenting anonymously. Please comment if you have something constructive to say. If you want to tell me to die, get raped, or suggest I should have videoed what happened to me and put it on the internet, as several people on my last post did, I will be handing your details over to the police. You have been warned.