Everyone’s buzzing about a new PSA featuring male celebrities talking about sexual assault.
“Beautiful” “powerful” and “moving” were words I was actually sick of while reading the writing about it. I wanted to puke because unlike those who are so embedded in advocacy culture, I saw a glaring omission: men were not mentioned at all.
At the beginning of the video, in rotation, the actors talk about how it happens to our mothers daughters sisters and friends. When they speak of victims, they talk about how if they saw it happening they would “help her” and speak up. Never once in the video do male victims of sexual assault even garner a mention.
That tells me that this video and its associated campaign have nothing to do with stopping sexual assault and everything to do with making women think that that’s the goal because it plays into the age-old accepted stereotype that only women can be victims of sexual assault.
Who does that help, really?
Now this wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the day before this campaign was released we didn’t have an article in Slate (of all places) that claims men are sexually assaulted almost as often as women are based on the National Crime Victimization Survey. In speaking with someone who’s more learned on the subject of the survey, I learned that there may be some caveats and the data should be taken with a grain of salt as far as providing statistics, but at the same time I think that you can take away the fact that it happens a whole hell of a lot more than we’re admitting publicly. Even among people who discuss this sort of thing regularly, the mere mention of male sexual assault victims immediately sets forth the gnashing of teeth and the accusations of minimizing female sexual assault. In fact, here’s conversation I had on Facebook where that exact thing happened.
The mere implication that we should create more awareness for male victims of sexual assault put this woman into an aggravated straw-man-beating frenzy. Not only that, but in spite of the fact that the article says the numbers are close, she continues with the “overwhelming majority” comment, providing no statistics to back up her claim other than the implication that “everyone knows.”
If that doesn’t exemplify the problem, what does?
Male victims of sexual assault are almost universally shunned and ignored. It’s not manly to admit you were sexually assaulted, particularly if it’s by a woman. There aren’t any “battered husband” shelters. In fact, I’d bet many people don’t even believe adult males can be sexually assaulted at all and they’re shocked to find out that they can be.
We keep trying to raise awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence, but we don’t really approach the issue except with the blinders of gender on. When the video opens with male celebrities talking about how “it” happens to our mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends, they’ve already defined who victims of sexual assault are: women. If a man is watching that video, or sees this campaign, does he even bother pursuing the issue? I wouldn’t.
In fairness, some are trying to shed light on the issue. Project Unbreakable is doing amazing things in shedding light on sexual assault regardless of gender identity, and even came out strongly against recent posts mocking male victims of sexual assault, saying that it was real and prevalent and the victims should be treated with respect and BuzzFeed posted 25 male survivors of sexual assault with the quotes they were told as they were assaulted.
This man holding this sign is what sexual assault looks like if you’re a man.
Instead of creating a campaign that opened the country’s eyes to all sexual assault victims, we’ve created one that goes with the same old tropes we’ve heard before. That isn’t to say that female victims should not be treated with dignity, respect, and their perpetrators punished, but in fairness to women, we’ve heard their story to the exclusion of others.
One of the straw-man arguments used in the Facebook chat I posted above was that I wanted the end of support for women because there wasn’t parity. That clearly isn’t my position. In fact, I take a similar position to the author of the Slate piece I mentioned earlier.
Now the question is, in a climate when politicians and the media are finally paying attention to military and campus sexual assault, should these new findings alter our national conversation about rape? Stemple is a longtime feminist who fully understands that men have historically used sexual violence to subjugate women and that in most countries they still do. As she sees it, feminism has fought long and hard to fight rape myths—that if a woman gets raped it’s somehow her fault, that she welcomed it in some way. But the same conversation needs to happen for men. By portraying sexual violence against men as aberrant, we prevent justice and compound the shame. And the conversation about men doesn’t need to shut down the one about women. “Compassion,” she says, “is not a finite resource.”
That’s the key. When that person I was talking to said “The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are men against women,” she did exactly what Stemple (as noted, a feminist) said we shouldn’t do: define male sexual assault as aberrant.
Stempel also notes that discussing how this happens to men doesn’t need to shut down a conversation on how it happens to women, which is exactly what I wanted: a conversation that included both sides and both angles.
We could discuss this issue for all eternity, but when the reinforcement of the discussion happens in the outside world, it has to be consistent with the truth. The star-studded campaign strikes me as a cynical attempt to rally women to say “Hey, look what they’re doing for me” and garner votes rather than call attention to an important issue.
I commend the White House on its recent pressure on colleges and the military with regards to sexual assault. These are great steps that need to be taken and will definitely help to make the changes we need to make and see to it that reports of sexual assault aren’t swept under the rug to avoid bad attention. Nothing would make me happier than watching the number of convicted rapists rise in response to an effort to finally pull them out of the dark holes they hide in. But, and call me a revolutionary for saying this, I think that male victims deserve that same respect. That same level of dignity. That same societal compassion we keep asking be shown to women instead of the erasure that we have now.
That’s where the opportunity was missed.
Compassion is not a finite resource. It’s time we stopped treating it like it is and that only half the population is entitled to it.
Update: A friend of mine shared this on the Facebook link to this post. She said the following:
“i’ve encountered male survivors of childhood sexual abuse while healing from my own past. our genders are different but our stories are so similar. the damaging residual effects are often identical. part of what keeps victims from emerging from the experience as survivors is shame and secrecy. there is a saying in recovery: we are only as sick as our secrets. when we talk about what happened, we can begin to heal. i am not saying that it is “easy” to talk about as a female but there is heightened awareness and sensitivity for us as opposed to males. and males whose perpetrators are female…this oftentimes not only isn’t taken seriously but something that people joke about. this keeps the male victims living in shame and secrecy. it keeps them suffering and acting out. as painful as my recovery has been, the dark places i existed in before were horrific. that’s where too many male victims exist. this campaign could help them emerge into the light and reclaim their lives. a missed opportunity indeed.”
Header image via Womens E-News on Flickr