Women are told that they could have prevented the rape by wearing more modest clothing or not walking alone late at night. Men are told that there wasn’t a rape to prevent.
My student stood braced against the wooden podium at the front of our public speaking classroom and, with a deep breath, addressed the computer station and chair at the far end. Eye contact! I wanted to remind the nose and mouth peeking out from under the low brim of a hat, but thankfully I kept quiet long enough to understand.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is a very personal topic for me,” the speech began, “because I was sexually abused.”
Every semester, a handful of students share stories of rape and/or domestic violence with me. Most of the time, these accounts appear in more private narrative essays or assignments that call for deep personal reflection. Occasionally, they appear in speeches. But never before had I witnessed a classroom confession from anyone like my student in the hat—because he is male.
In last week’s Slate article entitled “When Men Are Raped,” Hanna Rosin discusses the latest results of the National Crime Victimization Survey: that in 38% of rape and sexual violence crimes in 40,000 households, the victims are male. Thirty eight percent. The tagline to Rosin’s piece reads, “Men are raped almost as often as women in America. We need to talk about this.”
The flood gates opened. Some commenters told their stories or applauded Rosin for her attention to this issue, while some, predictably, threw themselves into a “who has it worse?” e-battle with members of the opposite sex. “This kind of sexism,” one commenter finger-wagged to another who questioned the claim that men and women fear rape almost equally, “is exactly what comes from feminists making sexual victimization into a women’s problem rather than a human one.” And after reading through several threads of let me minimize or invalidate your experience soapboxes, I began to realize that if we ever want to have a productive conversation about rape, we need to stop turning it into a competition.
Last October, an anonymous male told his “It Happened to Me” rape story on xoJane. He drank, blacked out in his dorm room, and woke up with a girl in his bed who “confirmed all the details.” One commenter on the Slate piece shared that he was frequently manipulated into having sex with a woman who threatened to hurt herself if he didn’t comply. Preston Mitchum, in a detailed account for Role Reboot last week, remembers being raped as a child by his stepfather. None of these experiences are more or less painful, or closer to “legitimate rape” than the others. I take issue with the 38% not being broken down according to the ages of victims and ages and genders of perpetrators only because that additional information would give us a better idea of where to target prevention efforts and how best to help the victims.
Until then, we need to get on board with the basics.
The Penetrator/Penetrated Dichotomy Diminishes Male Victims
It’s a concept as basic as biology: The sperm penetrates the egg; the penis penetrates while the vagina is penetrated. To be male is to be active. To be female is to be passive. So what happens when a perpetrator turns that power structure on its head by targeting a male? A hell of a lot of confusion.
In every female-on-male rape story I’ve read, the victim felt some combination of guilt, uncertainty, outright denial, and self-directed anger for not “manning up” and extinguishing these emotions. The author of the xoJane piece coped, temporarily, by “bragging to…neighbors” and “proclaim[ing] that sex was awesome.” He explained: “The more I bragged, the more the agony subsided.”
In telling men to suppress their feelings and “grow a pair,” we create a false standard of fearless, power-hungry, sex-crazed masculinity. Women are told that they could have prevented the rape by wearing more modest clothing or not walking alone late at night. Men are told that there wasn’t a rape to prevent.
Sexual Arousal Is Involuntary
Part of the challenge in wrapping our brains around male rape, and specifically relatively new categorizations like “being made to penetrate,” is understanding that sexual arousal is not a consensual “yes” but a biological reflex. We kick when the doctor taps at our knee. Prickly goose bumps cover our arms when it’s cold. Our bodies know when it’s time for sex, but unlike our minds, they cannot distinguish between consensual and non-consensual.
According to the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault, “in misidentifying ejaculation with orgasm, the [male] victim may be bewildered by his physiological response…and, therefore, may be discouraged from reporting the assault.”
Sexual arousal (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to rape, yet it is more difficult to apply this idea to men given that an erect penis or male ejaculation is more readily observable and because men are “supposed to want it.”
Newsflash: Just like women, sometimes they don’t.
Vague Language Means Vague Understanding
When we substitute the uncomfortable r-word with terminology like molest, abuse, and even assault, we create a hierarchy of sexual acts. Softer phrasing leads to softer penalties. Sympathy shifts from victims to football coach demigods who knew and said nothing. Men who covered up decades of child rape are recognized as saints.
In order for victims to take control, they must tune out the voices who caution that “everyone should be very careful in what they say.” They must reject what someone else thinks is or isn’t rape in favor of their own words and memories, no matter how unsettling, just as Preston Mitchum does: Condom wrapper. Excruciating pain. I felt a man…inside of my 11-year-old body.
Saying these things is power; hearing them is understanding.
When I looked at my student, I didn’t see a distraction from or a negation of the overwhelming odds that a woman will be raped in her lifetime. I saw a person who was hurting and who wanted to tell his story. “When I practiced this speech at home,” he told me later, “it was the first time I had said what happened to me out loud. And it felt so good.”
I don’t know how his journey to inner peace will end, or if it ever will. But I know that’s how it starts.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the media. Find her on Twitter.