Creating Outrage: Three Factors That Predict The Public Response To Male Sexual Assault Victims

We, as a culture, really don’t understand boys or men. 

Over the last month, a group of boys sexually assaulted other boys in Sayreville, New Jersey. They were football players and this was part of hazing new team members. The assaults occurred over a period of 10 days. After the principal cancelled the remainder of the season, it became national news.

During the same time period, there were two different cases where female teachers were charged with raping their male students. In Maplewood, New Jersey, 34-year-old Nicole Dufault was charged with sexually assaulting several 15-year-old students. In Kenner, Louisiana, 24-year-old Rachel Respess and 32-year-old Shelley Dufresne, both teachers, were accused of having sex with a 16-year-old student. Neither of these cases made the national news. And just yesterday, we learned that 24-year-old teacher Megan Mahoney (pictured above) repeatedly had sex with a 16-year-old student at her Catholic high school in Staten Island, New York.

Let’s be clear about one thing: The local authorities believe illegal behavior occurred in all of these cases and charges have been filed. But it’ll be a while before any of these cases go to court and decisions are made “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Why the difference in coverage? I think there are four reasons.

Perceived Consent: In Sayreville, the boys who were assaulted were physically restrained by their teammates, so it’s clear they didn’t give consent.

We’re assuming that the boys who had sex with their teachers clearly agreed to something; in Louisiana, the case started when the boy was caught bragging to his friends.

But their agreement doesn’t make it OK and doesn’t change the laws regarding statutory rape. Adults are not supposed to have sex with minor children, even when those children consent. The laws do not contain any exceptions if the teen agrees to sex. When judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced 49-year-old Stacey Dean Rambold to a laughable 30 days because 14-year-old Cherice Moralez was complicit in their affair, the blogosphere erupted. (Cherice eventually committed suicide.)

No Harm, No Foul: Our culture doesn’t seem to care about male victims and sees boys as disposable. We make jokes about male victims. We don’t seem to believe that boys and men can and do suffer short- and long-term effects of being sexually assaulted or raped. Instead, we make excuses about “locker room culture” and wonder where the adults were, as if high school football players can’t control their behavior. When it comes to (presumably straight) boys with their female teachers, we insist that it’s every boy’s fantasy and guys always want sex, which makes it hard to believe any boy would ever refuse sex.

Widespread Punishment: The events in Sayreville didn’t become a story until the football season was cancelled. Many of the parents and teens who spoke to reporters lamented the cancellation of the season while barely acknowledging the assaults. They were disappointed because the team had competed for a state championship the last few years, at least one boy has had his NCAA Division I scholarship offer revoked and others will not be able to be scouted by NCAA Division I football teams for scholarships, and their sons had worked hard to make the team.

It all sounds a lot like the “riots” at Penn State after the Sandusky case. We’re now hearing reports that some of the boys who said they’d been assaulted have received death threats for speaking out. Apparently, we’re more concerned about the “innocent” bystanders than the victims. Yet it’s likely that some of these bystanders knew, just as some officials at Penn State knew about Sandusky.

A Recognizable Storyline: Maybe the issue isn’t really about how or why we react, maybe it’s about what the media thinks will get ratings. After all, if a news-media company isn’t attracting enough eyeballs, they won’t be able to sell enough advertising to pay their bills. We’ve certainly heard enough stories of hazing leading to the death of pledges or including the sexual assault of girls and women, so the Sayreville story has a small and interesting wrinkle: the sexual assault is male-on-male.

By contrast, who ever heard of male victims? But a few decades ago, there was no publicly recognized story for hazing, sexual assault of girls and women, or even the ills of drinking and driving. The media helped bring those storylines into common culture, they could certainly do it again here.

One thing is clear about these cases: We as a culture really don’t understand boys (or men). We don’t seem to understand that boys can be sexually assaulted and that harm can be done. Understanding those things would mean we’d have to rethink masculinity, particularly our notions about promiscuity and invincibility. If we really want to end sexual violence, we need to do a better job of responding to both male perpetrators and male victims.

Andrew Smiler, PhD is a therapist, evaluator, author, and speaker residing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). He is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” and co-author, with Chris Kilmartin, of “The Masculine Self (5th edition)”. He is a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and has taught at Wake Forest University and SUNY Oswego. Dr. Smiler’s research focuses on definitions of masculinity. He also studies normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him@AndrewSmiler.

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