What About The Men?? Or Why Misogyny Harms Male Rape Survivors

August 13, 2008

Whenever an article appears in The Guardian decrying society’s attitude towards rape, whether it’s about the low conviction rate, or the “blame-the-victim” mentality held by many, inevitably several comments appear asking “what about the men?” It is absolutely true that men can be, and are victims of rape; which makes it all the more unfortunate that the people making these comments appear to be more motivated by misogyny then any real concern for the well-being of male rape victims. Instead, the fact that rape can happen to men is held up as a reason not to be concerned for female victims – a plainly ridiculous premise, as the victim of such a horrible crime is not consoled by the fact that it happens to other people. Furthermore, the gendered notions underpinning the mainstream discussion of rape not only hurt women a great deal, but also make men more vulnerable to assault.

First of all, let’s acknowledge right now that most of the victims of rape are women and most of the perpetrators are men. If this were not the case, rape as a crime would probably be taken a lot more seriously. The first rape laws in Western countries were not concerned about the violation of a woman’s body, but the damage by one man to another man’s property. Subsequent laws were concerned about the harm to women – but only if she was a virgin; non-virgins, by definition, could not be raped. Rape was widespread during colonialism (European) and slavery (American); the violent posession of a country/people involved the violent position of “it’s” women. Marital rape was still legal in the UK until the 1980s. The risk of rape is something at the back of most women’s minds; we change our routes home, be careful of who let into our house, watch who gets off at the same bus stop as us. While men may be careful too, choosing to avoid a ‘bad’ area at night for example, they are usually afraid of being mugged, not of being raped.

Unsurprisingly then, mainstream discussions around rape tend to be highly gendered, and based on “traditional” (read: Victorian) notions of gender roles and responsibilities. Most discussions that seek to minimise/justify rape fall into one of two categories: the entitlement discourse, and the female morality discourse.

Twenty percent of Britons believe that if a woman was flirting with a man that then rapes her, she is at least partially responsible. Women are expected to avoid certain places, dress in certain ways, not talk to certain men. The suggestion is that if a woman is flirtatious, and agrees to come into a man’s apartment, then she has implicitly consented to sex, and she cannot change her mind. In these situations, a man is entitled to sex – he cannot possibly be expected to restrain himself in the face of such “provocation”.

The idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies permeates society. I am not arguing that men biologically believe this to be true; rather, that being bombarded from an early age with half-naked women in advertisements, and a legal system that plainly does not consider rape to be “a big deal”, it is no surprise that many men begin to believe this message. Thankfully, most men’s behaviour is regulated by their brains and their consciences, and they do not commit rape. Nevertheless, this sense of entitlement still continues to affect the behaviour of many men who would never commit rape. The classic example is “nice guy” syndrome, where a man becomes friends with a woman to whom he is attracted on the theory that she will then sleep with him. He and the woman become friends, but she does not return his attraction, and sleeps with someone else. He then complains bitterly that she won’t sleep with him even though he was so nice to her!! Leaving aside the creepiness of only being friends with someone as a ploy to get her into bed, the bitterness the “nice guy” feels in being denied sex clearly indicates that he felt his “friendly” behaviour entitled him to sex. I, and several of my female friends, have had crushes on male friends in the past, but we never felt that their lack of interest in us merited ending the friendship. Rather, we tended to believe that their lack of interest indicated a problem with us rather than a problem with them.

This same male sense of entitlement to sex also endangers other men. Most male rape victims are raped by other men. The sense of entitlement remains, simply shifted on to the sex to which the rapist is actually attracted. A minority of male rape victims are raped by women. There has been an increasing consensus, since the late 19th century, that women are entitled to whatever men are entitled to. 99% of the time, this is a very good thing: women should be entitled to the vote, education, bodily autonomy, respect, etc. No one is entitled to sex whenever they want it, with whomever they want it. However, as long as society continues to suggest that men are entitled to sex, is it any wonder that a few women will decide that they have the exact same entitlements as men in this area as well?

The second idea underpinning attempts to minimise rape is that of Victorian female morality. Until very recently, women in the UK were expected to maintain certain standards of behaviour or dress, or else were considered “whores”. In fact, for mid-19th century moralists, the women working in factories and mills as part of the industrial revolution were no better than prostitutes. Even today, the shock and horror at the site of drunken women getting into fights, when similar behaviour from men merits barely a raised eyebrow, betrays the notion that women should somehow be “better” than men. No where is this truer than with regards to sexual behaviour – if a man cannot be expected to control himself in the face of a flirtatious woman in a mini-skirt (and let’s leave aside, for the moment, how insulting this is to men, suggesting that they are not actually adults capable of self-control), then a woman is expected to control him by dressing “appropriately” and not “flirting”, both of which are highly subjective terms. Hence the belief, mentioned above, that a woman who is dressed “provocatively” bears at least partial responsibility for her own rape.

At the very best, this indicates that women who contravene notions of female “respectability” are not deserving of societal support if they are attacked; at the worst, it suggests that rape is the “punishment” for women who contravene these notions. Both situations actually make it more difficult for male rape victims to come forward and receive support. If rape is a punishment for the “unlady-like”, this serves to feminise male rape victims, insinuating that they have been punished in a fashion reserved for disreputable women. They have lost their standing in the dominating group, the group allowed to dole out punishment, and have been relegated to a place in the subjected group, and furthermore, a particularly disgraceful and disgusting position within that group.

Clearly then, anyone genuinely interested in lending support to male rape victims, which is undoubtedly a worthy cause, should concern themselves with challenging the gendered notions that currently serve to minimise or justify rape. It is imperative that society recognise that no one is entitled to sex, that women are not to be held to a higher standard of behaviour to men, and that no one, female or male, is responsible, morally or legally, for being raped. Only then will we have a chance of ending rape – of women and of men – once and for all.

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