Men’s silence is deafening and deadly.
James Brown of CBS Sports said this in a commentary on the NFL and domestic violence, in which he calls attention to the importance of ceasing to use sexist language and makes recommendations for the NFL to institute prevention education and bystander intervention programming.
I showed the clip to a youth peer education group I run as part of my job at STAR. Afterward, one of the young women in the group asked, “What did he mean about men’s silence being deadly? Does he mean that because men can’t talk about their feelings, that it comes out as violence?”
That’s not what he meant, but for all of us adults in the room—program managers and mentors—it stopped us in our tracks. “Healthy masculinity” was the topic of the day, and we thought Rosie was on to something. That’s not what James Brown meant, but it could have been.
In the field of sexual assault prevention, the standard line is that we need to “engage men” in sexual assault prevention—that we need “good men” to step up as “allies” to challenge sexism and sexist violence.
The longer I do this work, the more I question this approach.
Over the past few years, I’ve listened to and learned from many people who have been traumatized by abuse. I’ve heard stories from people who were sexually abused by an older sibling, forced as a child to have sex with a teenaged neighbor, raped by a trusted friend, physically and emotionally abused by a parent, and groped at bars by random strangers.
All of this is to be expected, right? There’s nothing surprising about these stories…except for one thing: all of these stories are of boys and men being abused and victimized, often by women.
Being trained in a field of “gender-based violence” and “violence against women,” and in a world that views rape as a form of violence that is committed by mostly men against mostly women, these were not narratives I was prepared to hear.
As someone whose job it is to educate and communicate about sexual violence and the trauma it causes, I was at a loss for how to reconcile these inconsistencies. Yet, I couldn’t gloss over the uncomfortable dissonance.
I know that experts estimate that one in six men have lived through some form of sexual violence. The more I learn, the more I believe it may happen even more than that. It is an issue that we are only starting to talk about. –Gabe Wright, rape survivor
To build on these stories that were disclosed to me, I began doing research. I found that there is much we do not yet know:
The rape of adult males has been so largely neglected and collectively denied that its invisibility has given rise to the notion that it just does not occur in our society. While some acknowledgement of male rape in prisons and jails has emerged in recent years, most people do not consider the sexual violation of adult males to be within the realm of possibility in non-institutional communities. When men are raped, they are usually assaulted by other men.
Although it is possible for women to rape men, this crime has been documented and researched to an even lesser extent than same-sex rape. – Ohio Dept. of Health
There is also much coming to light that warrants consideration:
Last year the National Crime Victimization Survey turned up a remarkable statistic. In asking 40,000 households about rape and sexual violence, the survey uncovered that 38 percent of incidents were against men. The number seemed so high that it prompted researcher Lara Stemple to call the Bureau of Justice Statistics to see if maybe it had made a mistake, or changed its terminology. After all, in years past, men had accounted for somewhere between 5 and 14 percent of rape and sexual violence victims. But no, it wasn’t a mistake, officials told her…
Stemple began digging through existing surveys…The experience of men and women is ‘a lot closer than any of us would expect,’ she says. For some kinds of victimization, men and women have roughly equal experiences. Stemple concluded that we need to ‘completely rethink our assumptions about sexual victimization,’ and especially our fallback model that men are always the perpetrators and women the victims. – “When Men are Raped,” Slate
I now incorporate information on sexual trauma experienced by men in all community education I conduct. The responses thus far have been encouraging and enlightening.
Moving Beyond the Gender Frame
If there’s one thing I would say to the field/movement I’m working within, it is this: we must approach men as trauma survivors first. Not as powerful, untouched, stoic, superhuman actors who should act on behalf of women who experience “violence against women.” In fact, we need to move away from that phrase—it is too limiting. There are far too many experiences (and root causes) of sexual trauma that are erased and dismissed by that phrase. Sexual violence cannot be accurately reduced to the label of “sexist violence.”
It can be challenging for many to view the issue of sexual violence from beyond the gender frame. Yet, that is exactly what we need to do.
It is true we live in a male-dominated society—a quick glance at our religious, social, political and economic institutions makes that clear. We also live in a society dominated by people who are white, able-bodied, and cisgender. We live in a society dominated by people who tend toward the sociopathic end of the spectrum. (That whole “conscience” thing can get in the way of the pursuit of power, control, and domination.) Various characteristics imbue people with power when they possess them. Humanity is complex, irreducible to a singular binary.
This is not to deny the realities of male privilege, nor the acts of domination in which some men engage, shored up by institutions that further entrench their prerogative. Yet in representing men-in-general in ways that focus only on the negative aspects of their interactions with women, the category ‘men’ clearly fails to encompass the spectrum of subject positions men occupy. As a result, it misses out on men’s experiences of vulnerability and gendered powerlessness, whether vis-ä-vis other men or women. –Andrea Cornwall, “Missing Men”
Sexual violence is used systematically as a political tool; it is also committed interpersonally to exercise entitlement and domination. Interpersonal power dynamics are influenced by systems of oppression, yet they are much more complex than our broad sociopolitical truths.
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.’ – “When Men are Raped,” Slate
If we are committed to fighting against power-based violence and establishing norms of respect, support, equality, and care, we must start recognizing men’s trauma as the deep and pervasive problem that it is. This, in part, requires that we recognize that women are capable of committing violence.
Women as Oppressors and Abusers
Men who commit “violence against women” also commit violence against men and the public. It is all connected. However, there are many forms of power that can be abused. An adult woman has power over a boy. A sociopathic woman has power over a man of conscience. Power dynamics exist and are manipulated everywhere, even in all-female settings. Regardless of sex or gender, we all have the capacity to commit and experience interpersonal power-based violence. Everyone is vulnerable at some point, in some way, in the presence of another willing to exploit that vulnerability.
I have observed that many of us working in the anti-violence field often blind ourselves to the violence and abuse that women commit, or we allow ourselves to qualify that abuse with the probable past victimization of a female offender. We do not as readily extend that same level of empathy and humanization to male offenders. When we do recognize women as offenders, we minimize and sanitize their violence.
This tendency to minimize or deny women’s violence against men, and violence experienced by men in general, is a tactic straight from the power and control wheel. When we do this, we are unintentionally wielding the tools of the oppressor against patriarchy‘s other victims.
Another misconception that we challenge in the anti-violence field is the false idea that physical violence and wounds are the be-all, end-all of violence. We work to raise awareness about the devastating impacts of psychological manipulation, exploitation of vulnerability, and abuses of trust. We raise awareness about the connection between the psychological and the physical. Then we fail to acknowledge and address men’s experiences of psychological and emotional abuse, types of abuse that do not require stronger muscles to perpetrate.
Buy-in to rigid gender roles is a root cause of what we commonly term “violence against women.” And while most of us working in the anti-violence field will passionately advocate for gender equality and try to raise awareness about the “tough guise” men are socialized to put on, we have ourselves failed to truly examine and unlearn these gender stereotypes about men—especially the stereotypes of personal strength and insensitivity.
We argue that patriarchy is bad for men, too, then we fail to meaningfully incorporate that most urgent of truths into our work. Instead, we view men primarily as perpetrators and bystanders. We hold the attitude that men don’t experience violence and trauma, or that if they do, it is somehow not as big an issue as the trauma that women experience. We approach this work as if men are relatively strong and unfeeling, and as if they can deal with trauma without support. All of this only serves to perpetuate the very gender stereotypes many of us claim to be fighting against.
Male socialization teaches all of us that men are the breadwinners and men are in control. Everyone is responsible and men are more responsible. When a mental health problem interferes with the ability to meet the expectations of being a man and to be responsible for oneself and one’s family, that can exacerbate stigma, experienced as self-stigma or shame as well as concerns about how one is perceived by others. The dominant values and myths within American society leave little room for needing help and being vulnerable; rather, they assume an invincibility that is incongruent with the recognition of the need for support, connection, and even help. –“Making Connections for Mental Health and Well-being among Men and Boys in the U.S.”
Disclosing and connecting with others to work through trauma is an integral part of human life. These gendered expectations are barriers to health and full humanity on all sides.
Recognizing Men as an Underserved Population
Men’s trauma, like women’s trauma, runs deep. It has been silenced, too. Men are dehumanized and objectified too, in a million ways—through professional sports, war, interpersonal violence, and rigid gender roles. Men and women perpetuate this reality.
Compared to women, men are at equal or greater risk for mental illness, and yet they are less likely to be correctly diagnosed or to receive needed mental health care…
From a very young age, boys learn that they shouldn’t cry or complain, they should be self-reliant, and they should tough out pain and hardship. Over time, this develops into a set of pervasive norms and behaviors that define masculinity in the U.S…The way American men are socialized also hampers healthy emotional development and discourages men from seeking help. For instance, norms around having control over one’s own emotions discourage emotional expression and competence, while norms around self-reliance discourage men and boys who have experienced trauma from seeking help and developing healthy coping mechanisms. – Making Connections for Mental Health and Well-being among Men and Boys in the U.S.
Men are an underserved population in the field of sexual trauma, and of trauma in general. We must change this. Silencing is a form of oppression, and men are silenced every day. For as many barriers as women survivors experience to accessing support for recovery, men experience added stigma related to victimization and vulnerability, and all of the masculinity-related anxiety that comes along with it. We must task ourselves with tearing down these walls.
It is imperative to understand that men do not have widespread access to resources like self-help books and support groups as do women survivors of rape. Given the extreme stigma surrounding adult male rape, a survivor usually deals with his issues in total isolation. – Ohio Dept. of Health
Men’s silence is deafening and deadly. Men’s bottled-up emotions and social isolation manifest in a variety of harmful ways, including through externalized violence, substance abuse, and much higher rates of suicide relative to women.
Men’s stories of trauma are there, but they are often hidden and silenced. The first step to interrupting cycles of violence is to hear and acknowledge these stories, encourage awareness and supportive recognition of them, and collectively fight for all of our rights to healthier lives, and more caring and equitable relationships.
Watching the World Cup last year in a packed New Orleans bar, I witnessed people laughing at male Argentinian fans who were crying at their team’s loss. “It’s okay to have feelings and emotions!” I yelled out, quoting Tony Porter, angry at this oppressive display.
We do it all the time. This is, in part, how we perpetuate violence: by sanctioning any display of masculine emotion that indicates “weakness” or vulnerability. Of course, what we need is for that to actually be true, that it’s okay for men to express their vulnerability and humanity. And we can all do something about that, starting with our expectations and treatment of the boys and men in our lives.
I no longer view men as potential allies. I view men as fellow survivors of an epidemic of sexual violence and trauma—an epidemic that connects to larger epidemics of violence, trauma, and domination—all of which directly impact and traumatize men on a global scale.
We must strive to recognize the limits of our current “common knowledge” and think critically about areas where our consciousness and conscientiousness may be lacking. The modern anti-rape movement can trace its origins to consciousness-raising discussion groups that consisted mainly of women. It is now time that we expand our consciousness-raising to include men’s experiences of trauma.
Our proposed solutions to a problem depend on our understanding of the problem. We have much more understanding to do.