Men and boys count among the victims of sexual violence. Estimates and contexts vary, but it seems that worldwide, they make up around 10% of victims of sexual violence. According to Rees Mann, the founder of South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, one in six adult males in the country have been victims of sexual offences in their lifetimes and, in 2012, 19.4% of all sexual abuse victims were male. But men are up to 10 times less likely than women to report sexual violence against them.
In a 2017 news report, an anonymous victim says he tried to tell his closest male friends about being raped. They laughed and said, “What, are you gay now?” and he responded with, “I am not gay. I was raped.” He then withdrew from them. Some feminist activists are reluctant to focus on the male victims because they think it will undermine long-fought-for attention for female victims.
My argument is that activists and scholars must rethink their neglect of male victims. Men and boys as actual or potential victims (not only as perpetrators) must be explicitly integrated into our understanding of and resistance to sexual violence. At the same time, we must resist creating victim hierarchies or ranks.
While there are likely differences in how the aftermath of sexual violence plays out for women and men – think of unwanted pregnancy, for example – there are also remarkable overlaps.
For instance, the Human Rights Watch report We Will Teach You a Lesson (2013) deals with sexual violence perpetrated by Sri Lankan security forces against political detainees. Both women and men experienced deep shame and stigma because of the sexual nature of the violation. Fear of judgemental reactions from others, fear of reprisals and the wish to avoid stigma led both groups to censor themselves to the point of hiding their ordeal from friends and family. Sexual violation as one form of torture was undeniably meant to inscribe on the victims a message of humiliation, subjugation and impotence.
Thus, instead of assuming that sexual violation is necessarily somehow worse for either men or women, we must instead look more closely at the apparently greater struggle male victims have to become socially visible.
Without forgetting how long it took for women victims to be taken seriously, one must nevertheless ask in whose interest it is that currently there is a systemic erasure of male victims. As long as society trivialises or denies what happens to some men, the degrading injustice done to them is doubled.
There are three main reasons feminist activists should take on the cause of male victims of sexual violence.
First, it is a matter of gender justice. The aim of feminism has never been to invert the gender hierarchy, but instead to fight for gender equality. Ignoring the male victims is gender discrimination.
Second, the inclusion of the figure of the male victim into our imagination around sexual violence helps us to see aspects of this type of violence more clearly. Specifically, it helps us to expose some of patriarchy’s most pernicious lies.
Third, the overt inclusion of male victims can help to create broader solidarities against sexual violence, exposing the delusion that it is a “women’s problem”. It will show that patriarchal oppression and the sexual violence needed to uphold it is harmful to all of us and destroys democracy.
Why feminists must take up the cause
The first reason is a matter of justice. The reality of male rape is most likely to surface in jokes related to prison rape, which trivialises the suffering. There is a widespread assumption that men, especially certain kinds of men (effeminate, young), will routinely be raped in prison. It is even sometimes viewed as a legitimate part of state punishment. Yet, prison rape is a serious human rights violation that has received little attention from human rights activists and feminists worldwide. There is increased recognition of male victims of conflict related sexual violence globally, but not in peace time.
The second reason for taking male victims seriously is because it challenges some of our core assumptions about sexual violence. The destructive aims and outcomes of a sexual attack, and in particular its power dimension, are easier to “see” when the victim is pictured as male. It is precisely this evocative image of the sexually humiliated male victim that makes it so dangerous to patriarchal societies.
French philosopher Michel Foucault’s famous insight that sexuality is “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power” gets obscured when women are imagined as natural and timeless victims of sexual violence, and men as natural sexual predators, immune to sexual humiliation. In contrast, the “spectacle” of the male rape victim brings home that sexual vulnerability is a social and political, and not a natural, biological condition. Prison rape shows vividly how “sex right” (masculine, impenetrable) on the one hand, and sexual exploitability (feminine, vulnerable) on the other, do not pre-exist or cause sexual violence, but are the two opposed but related outcomes of sexual threat and violation.
Under patriarchy, sexual vulnerability becomes ideologically gendered as a male vs female issue. But the reality of the rape of men shows that is not the absence of a penis that renders one sexually violable with impunity; it may be something more like the absence of prison currency, such as cigarettes or powerful allies. All power is socially constructed in the end.
Male-on-male rape thus exposes the lies that naturalise “heteronormative” (straight) rape and illuminates the scaffoldings of power that keep it intact. It shows that “rape culture” is a socio-political phenomenon that keeps women and other feminised groups subjugated. Furthermore, “male rape talk” is very carefully policed, because the destabilising spectre of homosexuality emerges on both sides of the violation. It has the potential to demean both perpetrator (as bestial) and victim (as homosexualised), and therefore rape conversations about male victims are even more tightly contained. This is especially true in homophobic societies like South Africa’s, as we have seen in the news report quoted above.
So, to include male victims of sexual violence in our campaigns, consciousness raising and activism, in my view, threatens patriarchy much more than it threatens feminist aims. Rather, it furthers feminist aims of contesting and disrupting patriarchal patterns of interpreting sexual violence and must be incorporated as a matter of urgency.
Finally, it is also likely to open new avenues for alliance building and solidarity across not only the sexes (women and men) but also more widely, in terms of non-binary and homosexual allies. In this way, the fight against sexual violence and misogyny is not diluted, but rather shows a fuller understanding of the different guises of its opponent.
This is an edited extract from the author’s chapter in the new book Intimacy and Injury, published by Manchester University Press.