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Claiming the Feminist Politics of My Survival

Author’s Note: In March of this year, I was invit­ed to give a talk about being a male sur­vivor of sex­u­al vio­lence dur­ing my cam­pus’ Sex­u­al Harassment/Assault Aware­ness Week. Unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly for my cam­pus, where pan­el pre­sen­ta­tions on top­ics like this tend to be the norm when fac­ul­ty and/or stu­dents are involved, the per­son who invit­ed me offered me the chance to be the only speak­er. What fol­lows is the text of the talk I gave. The title is kind of a mashup of titles of two posts I’ve writ­ten that address this sub­ject in a much more frag­men­tary way: Towards a Fem­i­nist Pol­i­tics of Male Sur­vivor­ship and My Stu­dents First Taught Me to Claim the Pol­i­tics of My Sur­vival. This talk—which is long, about 7,000 words, and which con­tains graph­ic descrip­tions of sex­u­al vio­lence—presents a much more ful­ly fleshed-out ver­sion of the think­ing in those posts. I’ve divid­ed it into chunks that I hope will make for eas­i­er read­ing.

 

It’s not often that men like me, men who have sur­vived sex­u­al vio­lence, get to tell our sto­ries in the way that I have been invit­ed to tell you mine: not just at length, but as part of a pro­gram like Sex­u­al Harassment/Violence Aware­ness Week, which usu­al­ly focus­es almost exclu­sive­ly on men’s sex­u­al aggres­sion against women. There is good rea­son for that focus, of course. Women and girls are the tar­gets of men’s sex­u­al aggres­sion more fre­quent­ly and more sys­tem­i­cal­ly than men and boys are tar­get­ed by sex­u­al aggres­sors of any gen­der.

 

Nonethe­less, as rev­e­la­tions about Kevin Spacey, about the well-known con­duc­tor James Levine, and the fash­ion pho­tog­ra­ph­er Bruce Weber have shown—not to men­tion ear­li­er rev­e­la­tions about, for exam­ple, for­mer Speak­er of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Den­nis Hastert and for­mer Penn State defen­sive coör­di­na­tor Jer­ry Sandusky—men and boys are also tar­gets of sex­u­al aggres­sion, and we do not deserve to be left out of these con­ver­sa­tions just because our num­bers are small­er.

This is not the first time I’ve spo­ken pub­licly here at Nas­sau Com­muin­ty Col­lege about the fact that I am a sur­vivor. About twen­ty years ago, I was teach­ing an inde­pen­dent study in cre­ative non­fic­tion with two women of col­or, each of whom was also a sur­vivor of sex­u­al vio­lence. How we came to work togeth­er is a longer sto­ry than I have time for here, but what we worked on were per­son­al essays they each want­ed to write and pub­lish as a way of break­ing the silence in their lives and in their com­mu­ni­ties about sex­u­al vio­lence against women.

In order to get inde­pen­dent study cred­it, my stu­dents had to present their work at an end-of-semes­ter col­lo­qui­um in front of an audi­ence that would include, among oth­ers, the col­lege pres­i­dent and the vice pres­i­dent of aca­d­e­m­ic affairs. When the time came to start plan­ning for this pre­sen­ta­tion, how­ev­er, my stu­dents got real­ly scared. They were con­cerned they would not be tak­en seri­ous­ly. The oth­er stu­dents at the col­lo­qui­um would be pre­sent­ing con­ven­tion­al, research-based projects in tra­di­tion­al aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines. My stu­dents, on the oth­er hand, had done lit­tle or no research, at least not in the tra­di­tion­al sense; they had no facts oth­er than the facts of their own sto­ries to sub­stan­ti­ate what they had to say; and they wor­ried that what they had to say—which dealt, some­times explic­it­ly, with the most inti­mate parts of their lives—would be con­sid­ered inap­pro­pri­ate, and even insult­ing.

They feared they would be seen as noth­ing more than stereo­typ­i­cal women of col­or: emo­tion­al, trau­ma­tized, and not smart enough to cut it at the intel­lec­tu­al lev­el of their more schol­ar­ly white peers. To alle­vi­ate their con­cerns as much as pos­si­ble, I offered to intro­duce them with a state­ment about how mean­ing­ful it had been for me to work with them, to have been for them the kind of men­tor who sim­ply did not exist for me back in the 1980s, when I was start­ing to come to terms with my own expe­ri­ence of sex­u­al vio­lence. This way, I told them, any­one who had a prob­lem with what they said, would have to come through me, not just as a white male fac­ul­ty mem­ber, but also as a white male sur­vivor.

So that’s what we did. I read my intro­duc­to­ry state­ment and then my stu­dents read their essays. Each one, when she fin­ished, received a stand­ing ova­tion, and every­one who came to speak with them afterwards—from the pres­i­dent of the col­lege to the fam­i­lies of the oth­er stu­dent presenters—was warm and sup­port­ive and even thank­ful.

With one excep­tion.

A white col­league whose stu­dent had also pre­sent­ed came over to say that he was angry and dis­ap­point­ed. I had, he said, failed in my respon­si­bil­i­ty as an edu­ca­tor and an aca­d­e­m­ic. First, I’d treat­ed as seri­ous intel­lec­tu­al work writ­ing that was sen­sa­tion­al­iz­ing at best and, at worst, sala­cious and tit­il­lat­ing. It was none of those. Sec­ond, I’d allowed my stu­dents to present that writ­ing at the col­lo­qui­um, low­er­ing the lev­el of dis­course at what was sup­posed to be a cel­e­bra­tion of stu­dent intel­lec­tu­al achieve­ment to that of a trashy women’s mag­a­zine. Third, I had inap­pro­pri­ate­ly intro­duced my own per­son­al expe­ri­ence into the col­lo­qui­um, turn­ing that por­tion of the evening into a kind of group ther­a­py ses­sion.

I don’t remem­ber very well what I said in response, but my response isn’t the point right now. I’ve told you this sto­ry because I want to you to under­stand that even though this event is not a schol­ar­ly col­lo­qui­um, even though my talk is per­fect­ly in keep­ing with the theme of this entire week, once I agreed to give the talk, I also agreed to stand before you in much the same posi­tion as my stu­dents were back then.

You will walk out of this room today know­ing things about me that even some mem­bers of my fam­i­ly don’t know or that, if they do know, they choose to pre­tend they don’t. What this means, whether you real­ize it or not, is that you will walk out of this room know­ing things that you could use against me. Because no mat­ter how con­fi­dent and unashamed I may be as I stand here telling you that I was sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed as a child, to have been sex­u­al­ly vic­tim­ized in our cul­ture is still a mark of shame, and we all, if we are hon­est with our­selves, know how to use that shame, as my col­league tried to do, to silence and dis­miss those sur­vivors who choose to speak out.

In speak­ing to you today, in oth­er words, I am choos­ing to trust you—both those of you who are my col­leagues and those of you who might one day be sit­ting in a class I am teach­ing; and I am mak­ing this choice know­ing full well that some of you might choose to vio­late that trust. I believe the risk is worth it, how­ev­er, because being able to say out loud what I’m going to tell you has made the dif­fer­ence for me, as it has made the dif­fer­ence for oth­ers who have sim­i­lar sto­ries to tell, as it could make the dif­fer­ence for some of you here today who have not yet told your stories—being able to say out loud what I am now going to say to you has made the dif­fer­ence for me between liv­ing the life I have want­ed to live and feel­ing like the only life I deserve is the shame-filled half-life that the men who vio­lat­ed me tried to force me into.

Inev­er knew the first man’s name. When I pic­ture him now, I see a man some­where between my age—I’m 56—and ten years younger. I don’t think of myself as old, but I think of him as “the old man in my build­ing,” because that’s what he looked like to my 12- or 13-year-old eyes. He was white, with dirty-blonde hair and a mus­tache, and he was not quite as tall as I am. In my mem­o­ry, he walks with a bit of a slouch, his shoul­ders round­ed ever so slight­ly front­ward, as if he were always tired. I also remem­ber that he wore glass­es and that he had very kind eyes.

 

Short­ly after he moved into the apart­ment at the top of the stair­case on the sec­ond floor of the build­ing in which my fam­i­ly lived, he said hel­lo to me for the first time. We were stand­ing in the court­yard and he nod­ded to me, smiled like he’d known me my whole life, and said, “Hi!” The sec­ond time he did the same thing, and by the third or fourth time, a rit­u­al of greet­ing had grown between us. He would smile and say hel­lo first; I would smile, say the same thing back; and then, for a long silent moment, he would fix me with his gaze, while I stood there, too hap­pi­ly embar­rassed to move, wish­ing when he walked away that I’d done some­thing, any­thing, to pro­long our con­ver­sa­tion.

I was a lone­ly kid, the old­est of four in a sin­gle-moth­er-head­ed house­hold, and I was des­per­ate for adult male atten­tion and approval. So I was thrilled when, one day in late sum­mer, the old man did not keep walk­ing after our usu­al exchange. Instead, he fixed me with his gaze and asked, “When am I going to see you?”

I don’t remem­ber how I answered him, only that he smiled and went on his way.
Some time after that, I was head­ing out of our build­ing to meet my friends, and the old man hap­pened to be walk­ing down the stair­case lead­ing from his apart­ment to the front door, which we reached at the same time. As I went to turn the knob, he held the door shut with his left fore­arm, maneu­ver­ing me with his right till I stood fac­ing into the cor­ner near the mail­boxes where the door­frame met the wall. Cov­er­ing my body with his own, he ran his hands beneath my shirt and up the legs of my shorts; he groped my chest and bel­ly, squeezed my butt, cupped my crotch, and all the while, he kept whis­per­ing hoarse­ly into my ear, over and over again, “When am I going to see you?”

I had no words for what he was doing, no train­ing such as young chil­dren get now in how to scream No! to attract atten­tion and/or scare off an attack­er. All I could do was stand there till he was fin­ished; and when he was fin­ished, I ran. I don’t remem­ber how far or how long or in which direc­tion, but I ran as if I could leave my skin behind, as if run­ning would turn me into anoth­er per­son. When I final­ly stopped run­ning, in the small park across the street from the Luther­an Church, I sat a long time with the knowl­edge that my run­ning had undone noth­ing, that my body was still the body he’d touched.

I had no idea what to do with that knowl­edge, so I kept it to myself, pre­tend­ed every­thing was nor­mal. I even con­tin­ued say­ing hel­lo to the old man the same way I always did, forc­ing myself not to see the iron­ic twist he added to his smile.

A week or so lat­er, I was sit­ting with some friends in front of my build­ing, when the old man came home from food shop­ping and asked me to help him upstairs with the bags in his shop­ping cart. I want­ed to say no, of course, but I didn’t know how with­out rais­ing for my friends the ques­tion of why I was being so rude. The last thing I want­ed was to explain myself to them.

So I took the bag he point­ed to and fol­lowed him up to his apart­ment, where he opened the door and motioned me in ahead of him. I stepped inside, think­ing I’d leave the bag by the door and get out as quick­ly as I could, but he was too fast for me.

As soon as the door shut behind him, he pushed the shop­ping cart to the side, took the bag from my arms and dropped it to the floor. The cans at the bot­tom land­ed with a crash that shook the whole apart­ment. Snaking his arms around my waist, he pushed me fur­ther inside, and then he undid my belt and unzipped my pants, push­ing them down so they fell around my ankles.

All I could do was stand there, frozen to the spot where my feet had stopped mov­ing.

Look­ing down at me with a wide smile–I have the dis­tinct mem­o­ry he’d tak­en out his two front teeth–his eyes, at what I imag­ine must have been the fear in mine, grew ten­der. “You’ve nev­er had a blowjob before, have you? Don’t you want me to love you?”

In the silence with which I respond­ed, he gen­tly pulled my under­wear down and took my penis in his hands—I remem­ber think­ing his fin­gers were like a cage—and he told me how good it was, how beau­ti­ful and big, and then some­how I was sit­ting on the couch that had been a few steps to my right, and his own pants were down, and his penis, large and pur­ple, hung in front of my face.

His voice came from some­where above me, urg­ing me to play with it, at least to touch it, and the next moments are a blur in my mem­o­ry, but I can still feel his hands on either side of the back of my head, and I’m sure I don’t need to describe to you in detail what comes next.

The fol­low­ing day, the old man saw me stand­ing by myself in the court­yard. He stood a short dis­tance away and plead­ed with me to go upstairs with him again. This time, he promised, would be dif­fer­ent. He would move more slow­ly, be more gen­tle. I just stood there, star­ing off into space, refus­ing to acknowl­edge him except for one word, No!, which I said very soft­ly, with­out look­ing at him, and then I ignored him until he walked away.

He left me alone for the rest of the time he lived in my build­ing.

Some of you, I imag­ine, may be won­der­ing why I didn’t tell any­body. I some­times ask myself the same ques­tion. Or, to be more pre­cise, I some­times won­der how my life would have been dif­fer­ent if I had. Then I remem­ber that I did try to tell some­one. It did not go well.

 

I was sit­ting in front of my build­ing with my friend Vanes­sa when the old man hap­pened to walk by. He nod­ded in our direc­tion, paus­ing in front of me for the space of half a breath, but I stared right through him, pre­tend­ing he wasn’t there, and he kept walk­ing.
Vanes­sa, who had respond­ed with her own greet­ing, turned to me. “Why were you so rude?” she asked. “He was just say­ing hi.”

I con­tin­ued to stare off into space.

Oh, come on! Don’t pre­tend you didn’t hear me.” She grabbed my arm. “What’s wrong?” She fixed her eyes on me. I remem­ber how green they were against the light milk choco­late col­or of her face. She was my friend and she was con­cerned.

It’s no big deal,” I tried to brush her ques­tion aside.

But he looked right at you! Why did you act like he wasn’t even there?”

My thoughts were rac­ing and my mind went blank at the same time. I liked Vanes­sa; I trust­ed her. I want­ed to say some­thing, but I didn’t know what I could say that would make any sense. Even a state­ment as sim­ple as He touched me would not have meant back then, in 1974 or 75, what it would mean now. As I sat there, though, a sense of rage began to grow in me, an urge to speak that felt like it wasn’t actu­al­ly a part of me, and I some­how knew I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from speak­ing. So, try­ing to put as much ven­om into my voice as I could, try­ing to give the words that came unbid­den the weight of the accu­sa­tion I want­ed them to be, this is what I spit out: “He’s a fag­got!”

So he’s homo­sex­u­al? So what?” Vanes­sa answered. “Why is that a prob­lem?”

I was crest­fall­en. In fact, I didn’t think being homo­sex­u­al was a big deal at all, and I was actu­al­ly embar­rassed by my words. What I felt most, though, was sad­ness and shame. I couldn’t think of any­thing else to say and I knew that what I’d said did not come close to com­mu­ni­cat­ing what I meant. All I remem­ber is Vanes­sa and I star­ing at each oth­er across a silence nei­ther of us knew how to bridge.

Male homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, of course, has noth­ing to do with sex­u­al abuse. I want to say that again, Male homo­sex­u­al­i­ty has noth­ing to do with sex­u­al abuse. In the mid-1970s, how­ev­er, despite the fact that the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric Asso­ci­a­tion had final­ly decid­ed homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was not a men­tal ill­ness, the image of the per­verse and depraved homo­sex­u­al man look­ing for boys to vic­tim­ize and recruit was still quite preva­lent. More to the point, back then—and I know this may sound strange to you now—it was the only image read­i­ly avail­able to me to explain what the old man had done.

 

Today, except for its man­i­fes­ta­tions on the reli­gious right, we like to think that image has been thor­ough­ly dis­cred­it­ed. Yet a ver­sion of it does sur­vive in our cul­tur­al misunder­stand­ing of how male-per­pe­trat­ed sex­u­al vio­lence effects boys and men. The web­sites of both 1in6 and MaleSur­vivor, for exam­ple, two orga­ni­za­tions that sup­port and advo­cate for men who have been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed, list among the myths that need to be dis­pelled about us two beliefs: one, that some­thing essen­tial­ly gay in us attract­ed to us the men who vio­lat­ed us; and the oth­er, that even if we were not gay, the fact of hav­ing been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed by a man will invari­ably make us so.

I first encoun­tered the sec­ond of these myths in the mid-1980s, when I was a first-year grad­u­ate stu­dent at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty. I was at the very begin­ning of telling peo­ple about my expe­ri­ence with the old man in my build­ing, and I went to the library look­ing for books that might help me under­stand myself bet­ter. I found exact­ly one. I remem­ber sit­ting on the floor near the shelf where I found the book—I did not want any­one who knew me to walk by and ask what I was reading—and por­ing over the pages that dis­cussed a study of pop­u­lar beliefs about boys who’d been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed.

The results of the sur­vey showed that an awful lot of peo­ple thought some­one like me would end up gay. This both­ered me a lot. Not because being gay—had I been gay—would have been a source of shame, but because I under­stood that being gay, in this way of think­ing, was a mark of dis­ease, and the last thing I want­ed was for the peo­ple I told about myself to see me that way. The oth­er thing I remem­ber about that book is how the author com­pared this belief about boys who’d been vio­lat­ed to an appar­ent­ly con­gru­ent belief about girls who’d been raped, i.e., that they might very well end up choos­ing to be les­bians as a result.

This appar­ent con­gru­ence, though—the belief that sex­u­al vio­la­tion would some­how “homo­sex­u­al­ize” the victim—actually masked a deep­er incon­gru­ence. As the book’s author point­ed out, to pre­sume that the expe­ri­ence of rape would moti­vate a girl to become a les­bian would be to assume that the expe­ri­ence was so pro­found­ly repel­lent that she would active­ly avoid sex with all oth­er men for the rest of her life. On the oth­er hand, to pre­sume that a boy who’d been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed by a man would become gay would be to assume that the homo­sex­u­al nature of the expe­ri­ence, no mat­ter how painful or degrad­ing, would some­how com­pel the boy, who was of course assumed to be straight, to switch his pref­er­ence and pur­sue sex with men.

I don’t know if the myth about les­bian­ism still per­sists, but the fact that peo­ple still believe the one about abused boys does sug­gest that, on some lev­el, we see the sex­u­al vio­la­tion of boys and the sex­u­al vio­la­tion of girls as two com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent, almost mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, species of vio­la­tion.

Afew years after I found that book, I was sit­ting in a super­vi­sor train­ing ses­sion at a sum­mer camp in upstate New York. The focus of the ses­sion, which was led by a male psy­chol­o­gist, was how to deal with chil­dren who might choose to reveal to us, or to one of the coun­selors we were super­vis­ing, that they’d been sex­u­al­ly abused. While boys were of course also abused, he explained, it hap­pened so rarely, and the dynam­ic when deal­ing with boys was so com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent, he was going to use the word she as the gener­ic pro­noun for abused chil­dren. If he were to talk to us about boys as well, he said, he’d risk con­fus­ing us and that could lead to our mis­han­dling the sit­u­a­tion if a girl did choose to come for­ward.

 

I have no doubt this psy­chol­o­gist was fol­low­ing the best prac­tices of the time, but his words hit me like a punch in the stom­ach nonethe­less. With a rhetor­i­cal wave of the hand, he had made me, along with any oth­er male sur­vivors in the room, not to men­tion those boys who were being abused who would soon be our campers, van­ish.

Sad­ly, and iron­i­cal­ly, the #MeToo move­ment has treat­ed men who’ve been sex­u­al­ly vic­tim­ized in much the same way. Like that psy­chol­o­gist, the men and women writ­ing and advo­cat­ing in sup­port of #MeToo acknowl­edge that men are also vic­tim­ized. Like that psy­chol­o­gist, they point out, just as I did at the begin­ning of this talk, that women are vic­tim­ized far more fre­quent­ly and sys­tem­i­cal­ly than men are; but then, just like that psy­chol­o­gist, they make male sur­vivors dis­ap­pear from the con­ver­sa­tion, focus­ing the atten­tion they pay to men exclu­sive­ly on per­pe­tra­tors or enablers or bystanders (or, some­times, allies). The pos­si­bil­i­ty that those of us who are sur­vivors might have some­thing use­ful to add to the con­ver­sa­tion on our own terms isn’t explored at all.

Ineed here to step back for a moment and acknowl­edge explic­it­ly some­thing that has been implic­it in every­thing I have said so far. We would not be here in this room—there would not be a pro­gram called Sex­u­al Harassment/Violence Aware­ness Week; there would not even be a con­cept of sex­u­al harassment—were it not for fem­i­nism and the women’s move­ment. It was their work in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that gave us no choice as a soci­ety but to con­front and at least to start deal­ing with sex­u­al vio­lence against women. Indeed, sex­u­al vio­lence against men would still be invis­i­ble were it not for this work.

 

Except that I gen­er­al­ly sup­port­ed the goal of women’s equal­i­ty, I didn’t pay much atten­tion to fem­i­nism until I turned 19, which was in 1981—about six years before the episode with the psy­chol­o­gist that I just told you about. (1981 also hap­pens to be the year when sex­u­al harass­ment first became a vio­la­tion of the law.) That sum­mer, because a col­lege friend had giv­en it to me, I brought with me to my first camp job a copy of Adri­enne Rich’s book of essays, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. I remem­ber sit­ting in my bunk dur­ing an after­noon break and read­ing this pas­sage in the essay “Cary­atid: Two Columns:”

[T]aught to view our bod­ies as our total­i­ty, our gen­i­tals as our chief source of fas­ci­na­tion and val­ue, many women have become dis­so­ci­at­ed from their own bodies…viewing them­selves as objects to be pos­sessed by men rather than as sub­jects of an exis­tence.

As soon as I read those words, a small voice in my head began to speak—and I mean that lit­er­al­ly; I heard an actu­al voice. “But what about me?” it asked “What about what hap­pened to me?” I tried at first to pre­tend that I hadn’t heard it, that I hadn’t read the words to which it respond­ed, but I could not stand the way lying to myself made me sick to my stom­ach. So I stopped try­ing to deny what had just hap­pened and—after a moment of pure revul­sion, as the image flashed through my mind of what the old man did to me in the lob­by of my building—a dif­fer­ent feel­ing, a kind of relief and lib­er­a­tion, began to spread through me.

For the first time, I had a lan­guage with which to name accu­rate­ly what the old man had done, and to the extent that what­ev­er heal­ing I have achieved is built on that ini­tial nam­ing, I owe that heal­ing to fem­i­nism. It was through fem­i­nism that I first learned the only per­son respon­si­ble for a sex­u­al vio­la­tion, the only per­son to blame, is the per­son who com­mit­ted it; and it was through fem­i­nism that I came to under­stand how impor­tant it is for sur­vivors to tell our sto­ries, so that oth­er sur­vivors will know they are not alone, so that the col­lec­tive pow­er of our sto­ries will strip away the shame and silence and deceit that the per­pe­tra­tors of sex­u­al vio­lence rely on as a kind of pro­tec­tive shield.

Fem­i­nism taught me to see sex­u­al vio­lence as sys­temic, as the log­i­cal result of a male dom­i­nant cul­ture that treats women as sex­u­al objects—and right there I ran up against a very uncom­fort­able truth. The fem­i­nism I had dis­cov­ered was not actu­al­ly about me. Or, more accu­rate­ly, no mat­ter how much I want­ed it to be, it was not about me as a sur­vivor. Instead, it was about me as a man in a cul­ture that not only took my dom­i­nance for grant­ed, but active­ly pro­mot­ed and per­pet­u­at­ed it, whether I want­ed to be dom­i­nant or not. More­over, fem­i­nism showed me—by teach­ing me to look at my own ideas and behav­iors from women’s point of view—that I already believed in and behaved as if I was enti­tled to this dom­i­nance; that I had been social­ized into it from the time I was a lit­tle boy; that it was some­thing I wore as nat­u­ral­ly as my own skin, moved through like the air I breathed; and that, even though it was some­thing I hadn’t asked for, even though I might choose to live my life in oppo­si­tion to it, the fact that it was part of me meant I had more in com­mon with the per­pe­tra­tors of sex­u­al vio­lence than I thought.

To put this anoth­er way, when the fem­i­nism I dis­cov­ered was about me, it was about the way I was a man no dif­fer­ent­ly than any oth­er man in our soci­ety, includ­ing, and this was a very hard truth to accept, the men who’d vio­lat­ed me.

As a sur­vivor, though—and this is some­thing the fem­i­nism of the 1980s didn’t rec­og­nize at all—I am fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from five out of every six men. Think about that num­ber for a minute. As any­one who makes even the most cur­so­ry of for­ays into the aca­d­e­m­ic lit­er­a­ture on the fre­quen­cy of sex­u­al vio­lence against men will tell you, there is a dizzy­ing array of often-chang­ing, and some­times com­pet­ing, sta­tis­ti­cal find­ings and claims. The one num­ber that has been remark­ably stable—at least based on every­thing I have been able to find—is the one that says one in six men will have expe­ri­enced some form of unwant­ed, coer­cive sex­u­al con­tact before the age of 17. So sta­ble is that num­ber, in fact, that 1in6, the non-prof­it I men­tioned ear­li­er, takes its name from it.

That num­ber means that I am almost cer­tain­ly not the only male sur­vivor in this room, and that I have like­ly shared every class­room in which I have taught for the past three decades with fel­low sur­vivors as my stu­dents. It means there are like­ly to be at least one or two male sur­vivors in each class­room you sit in on this cam­pus and that a not insignif­i­cant num­ber of male fac­ul­ty, staff, and admin­is­tra­tors are also sur­vivors. Add to those men one in six of all the men liv­ing in Gar­den City, in Nas­sau and Suf­folk Coun­ties, in New York City, in New York State…Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. Just the num­ber of sur­vivors liv­ing in New York State alone seems to me large enough to sug­gest there’s some­thing as sys­temic about sex­u­al vio­lence against boys as there is about sex­u­al vio­lence against women. We just don’t know yet what it is.

Now take that 1 in 6 sta­tis­tic and apply it to Con­gress, to our elect­ed offi­cials across this coun­try, to our judges, our pros­e­cu­tors, police offi­cers, bud­get directors—all the peo­ple, over­whelm­ing­ly men, who pass and enforce the laws, estab­lish the poli­cies, set the pri­or­i­ties which shape our indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive civic lives. If one in six of those men was sex­u­al­ly abused as a child, it would be naïve to assume that this expe­ri­ence does not some­how shape the way they do their jobs. Even if we can’t yet see the sys­temic roots of sex­u­al vio­lence against boys, in oth­er words, it’s not hard to see how that vio­lence might still have a sys­temic impact on our soci­ety.

Talk­ing about sex­u­al vio­lence against men in these terms, how­ev­er, has not been a pri­or­i­ty. We are much more com­fort­able talk­ing about men as per­pe­tra­tors, enablers, or bystanders, roles that are con­gru­ent with tra­di­tion­al notions of man­hood and mas­culin­i­ty and that there­fore deny the sex­u­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that is such a large part of what it means to be a sur­vivor. Indeed, we have a hard time see­ing sex­u­al­ly vul­ner­a­ble men as men in the first place.

Some years ago, while dis­cussing con­sent in what hap­pened to be an all-female Women’s Stud­ies class, my stu­dents start­ed com­plain­ing about how tired they were—as one of them put it—“of all the fuck­ing clue­less ways that men keep hit­ting on us.” At the top of their list was the way so many men seemed to think that even the slight­est expres­sion of inter­est on a woman’s part was an invi­ta­tion to some kind of phys­i­cal inter­ac­tion, from touch­ing and hug­ging, to hold­ing hands, to kiss­ing, to grind­ing on the dance floor, to more. This was, they all agreed, a tremen­dous turnoff, and one of the things they found least attrac­tive in men.

 

So I asked my stu­dents how they would feel if a man they were inter­est­ed in asked per­mis­sion first, to hug them, for exam­ple, or to dance up close, or to kiss them. No way, they all laughed. That guy would end up being the needy, clingy type, “the kind of guy,” that same woman said, “who’d get all weepy and shit, and who wants a man like that?”

What they want­ed, they explained, what they desired, was a man who knew what he want­ed, who was con­fi­dent enough to take it with­out ask­ing, but who knew how to do that in a sexy and sophis­ti­cat­ed way. That sophis­ti­ca­tion, they explained, with a duh-I-can’t-believe-I have-to-tell-you-this tone in their voice, was part of what made get­ting hit on, when it was done right, real­ly hot.

So then I asked my stu­dents to imag­ine a sit­u­a­tion in which they weren’t sure whether a man they want­ed to kiss was inter­est­ed in being kissed. Would they con­sid­er ask­ing his per­mis­sion before doing so? They laughed at this ques­tion even more loud­ly than the pre­vi­ous one. They sim­ply could not imag­ine why they would have to. “What man doesn’t want it?”—again, that same stu­dent. “What real man, if you put it ready-to-eat on his plate, is going to say, ‘No thanks. I’m not hun­gry?’”

What if he did, though?” I asked. “What if he did say ‘I’m not hun­gry?’”

Then what the hell good is he?” came the response, and the rest of the class laughed.

My stu­dents and I had this con­ver­sa­tion about two thirds of the way through the semes­ter. By then we had cov­ered issues like repro­duc­tive rights, women’s health care, women in edu­ca­tion, and the pol­i­tics of house­work and child­care. When it came to those issues, my stu­dents had been pret­ty much unan­i­mous. In pur­suit of gen­der equal­i­ty, it was incum­bent upon men to change. Regard­ing sex­u­al con­sent, how­ev­er, there was clear­ly a line of change they did not want men to cross. Despite their com­plaints about all the stu­pid ways men hit on them, in oth­er words, what my stu­dents want­ed was not a fun­da­men­tal change in how men tried to pick them up. What they want­ed was for men to become bet­ter at what they were already doing.

To put this anoth­er way, by reject­ing as sex­u­al­ly unde­sir­able a man who would ask per­mis­sion to kiss them, by refus­ing to imag­ine as a “real man” a man who might him­self want to be asked, these women were not sim­ply insist­ing that men should behave ”like men.” They were also assert­ing and defend­ing the bound­aries of their own heterosexuality—staking out, as it were, the lim­its of their own desires. Whether they under­stood it this way or not, in oth­er words, my ques­tions had threat­ened them, and the ridicule they reflex­ive­ly heaped on the men I’d asked them to imag­ine sug­gest­ed just how deep that threat went.

I’d like to sug­gest that a sim­i­lar kind of het­ero­nor­ma­tive reflex—though not so obvi­ous­ly sexualized—lies at the heart of why we find it so dif­fi­cult to make room for male sur­vivors in our con­ver­sa­tions about sex­u­al vio­lence; why, when we talk about those men, we tend to do so only in the most super­fi­cial ways; and why, when we talk about the vio­lence itself, we tend to treat it not as its own phe­nom­e­non, but as an exten­sion of men’s sex­u­al vio­lence against women. Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, what I said ear­li­er about how #MeToo con­ver­sa­tions will men­tion men-as-vic­tims, but then focus their atten­tion almost sole­ly on com­bat­ting men’s sex­u­al aggres­sion against women. The implic­it assump­tion seems be that this focus on end­ing the vic­tim­iza­tion of women will, as a mat­ter of course, make things bet­ter for men as well.

Just to be clear, I believe that’s true—and I don’t mean any­thing I say next to imply oth­er­wise. I also believe it is true, how­ev­er, that to respond to sex­u­al vio­lence against men by look­ing through the lens of sex­u­al vio­lence against women is at best to mis­con­strue and, at worst, to ren­der invis­i­ble the actu­al expe­ri­ence of men who’ve been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed. It’s the inverse of a phe­nom­e­non that fem­i­nists have long crit­i­cized in fields rang­ing from health­care to lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, the idea that the male body and/or male per­spec­tive is the norm and the assump­tion that this norm auto­mat­i­cal­ly applies with equal valid­i­ty to women as well.

You can see what I’m talk­ing about far more clear­ly in an arti­cle called “Sex­u­al Vio­lence Against Men and Woman in War: A Mas­culin­i­ties Approach,” which was pub­lished in the Neva­da Law Jour­nal in 2014 by a schol­ar named Val­o­rie K. Vojdik. “When men are raped,” she writes,

they sym­bol­i­cal­ly lose their gen­der iden­ti­ty as men—who are social­ly con­struct­ed to dominate—and [they] are fem­i­nized and social­ly con­struct­ed as the female vic­tim. The rape of men thus turns the male into a pow­er­less vic­tim, a sym­bol­ic woman who is sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed by the per­pe­tra­tor through rape. (945)

To be fair, Vojdik’s agen­da is, in part, to explain why inter­na­tion­al law should rec­og­nize the rape of men as rape, which it did not do at the time of her writ­ing and, as far as I know, still does not do now. It makes strate­gic sense, there­fore, that Vojdik would base her argu­ment on an anal­o­gy to the rape of women, which has been a vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law since the 1990s. Vojdik, how­ev­er, doesn’t treat this line of rea­son­ing as a nec­es­sary strat­e­gy. Rather, as she says in her con­clu­sion, the anal­o­gy is cen­tral to achiev­ing her goal, which is to make “[sex­u­al] vio­lence against men” more vis­i­ble as a way of deep­en­ing our “under­stand­ing of…the con­struc­tion of cer­tain male bod­ies as mas­cu­line and dom­i­nant, in both war and in peace” (952).

Or—just to make this con­crete and personal—to deep­en our under­stand­ing of how forc­ing his penis into my bare­ly pubes­cent mouth helped the old man in my build­ing con­struct for him­self a “mas­cu­line and dom­i­nant” iden­ti­ty.

Vojdik is no doubt right that one pur­pose of rap­ing men in war is to fem­i­nize and sub­or­di­nate them, to rob them of the sense of man­hood and mas­culin­i­ty out of which their resis­tance might emerge, and thus to mag­ni­fy and cement in place the dom­i­nance of whichev­er side is doing the rap­ing. To apply that same log­ic to what the old man in my build­ing did to me, how­ev­er, seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive at best. As a twelve or thir­teen year old boy, I was already sub­or­di­nate. What pos­si­ble threat could I have posed to his sense of mas­culin­i­ty and dom­i­nance? More­over, how would you apply Vojdik’s log­ic when the per­pe­tra­tor is a woman, a mid­dle-school teacher for exam­ple, and the boy she vio­lates is one of her stu­dents? An occur­rence, by the way, espe­cial­ly if the boy is a lit­tle old­er, which many peo­ple still see as a pos­i­tive and healthy con­tri­bu­tion to the sense of man­hood and mas­culin­i­ty the boy is sup­posed to devel­op.

Vojdik’s log­ic here revers­es what I have always under­stood to be axiomat­ic in the fem­i­nist approach to under­stand­ing sex­u­al vio­la­tion: that both your analy­sis and your response should start with, should be root­ed in, the expe­ri­ence of the vic­tim, not the perpetrator’s agen­da. Rather, in oth­er words, than start by ask­ing what rape does to men as men, Vojdik starts by ask­ing what the peo­ple who com­mit that rape want to accom­plish. As a result, instead of try­ing to under­stand male sex­u­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty on its own terms, Vojdik treats it as deriv­a­tive of the sex­u­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty tra­di­tion­al­ly assigned to women. Or, to put it anoth­er way, because she focus­es on what the per­pe­tra­tors want to accom­plish, she tac­it­ly accepts their def­i­n­i­tion of man­hood and mas­culin­i­ty, which—like the one so enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly endorsed by my Women’s Stud­ies students—excludes sex­u­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty from what it means to be a quote real man unquote.

Iron­i­cal­ly, this view of male sex­u­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is also what dri­ves the myth that sex­u­al vio­la­tion will make a boy or man gay, since, with­in that ver­sion of mas­culin­i­ty, gay men can­not be “real men.” The con­gru­ence between this hate-filled, homo­pho­bic myth and Vojdik’s explic­it­ly fem­i­nist argument—perspectives we would nor­mal­ly think of as dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to each other—results, I would like to sug­gest, from the het­ero­nor­ma­tive reflex I described ear­li­er. Fem­i­nism, in oth­er words, may have giv­en us a lan­guage with which to name sex­u­al vio­lence against men as sex­u­al vio­lence, but we still don’t have a lan­guage for male sex­u­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that does not depend on an anal­o­gy to some­thing men are not: women.

This fail­ure to talk about male sex­u­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty on its own terms is one, large­ly unex­am­ined rea­son why our pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions about sex­u­al vio­lence and/or sex­u­al con­sent focus almost exclu­sive­ly on pro­tect­ing and respect­ing the sex­u­al bound­aries of women. The idea that men—gay, straight, bi, trans—might have sex­u­al bound­aries of our own; the ques­tion of how we might define those bound­aries, of what they might feel like to us; how we might express them in rela­tion­ships, in the process of flirt­ing, or when deal­ing with col­leagues in the class­room or the work­place; how those bound­aries might con­nect to our poten­tial for help­ing to con­ceive a child; or how we might teach boys about these bound­aries from the start—at least in my expe­ri­ence, none of this gets explored in our con­ver­sa­tions about sex­u­al vio­lence, except per­haps in the most nom­i­nal of ways.

 

To put this a lit­tle differently—since to describe what these bound­aries might look like and how they might work would prob­a­bly require a whole oth­er talk—one way of think­ing about the het­ero­nor­ma­tive reflex I described above is as a kind of blind­ness. Take me, for instance. To look at me now—six-foot-one, 240 pounds—I’m guess­ing it’s dif­fi­cult to see the skin­ny and ter­ri­fied twelve-year-old boy absolute­ly pow­er­less to stop the old man in my build­ing from forc­ing his penis into my mouth; and I’m sure it’s even more dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the shy, awk­ward, inse­cure, and des­per­ate­ly needy boy, who just a few years later—when I was fif­teen, and then for two or so years after that—could not stop anoth­er man from using my body as his play­thing (a sto­ry I have not told you for the sake of time).

One rea­son I imag­ine it’s hard to see those boys in me is that it’s hard to see the body I live in now as sex­u­al­ly vul­ner­a­ble in the same way my body was back then. The truth is, though, all it would take is some­one strong and/or pow­er­ful enough—and there is always some­one some­where who is strong and/or pow­er­ful enough—and they could do to me what­ev­er they want­ed. I live every day with that knowl­edge, and it has shaped in ways both large and small, con­scious and uncon­scious, long- and short-term, many of the choic­es, sex­u­al and oth­er­wise, I have made in my life. Some of you in this room know exact­ly what I’m talk­ing about and, in con­clud­ing, I’d like to speak direct­ly to you, not only, but par­tic­u­lar­ly to the men.

We are called, we call our­selves, survivors—a way of think­ing about our expe­ri­ence that we also owe to the fem­i­nism of the 1980s—and we use that term to mean that if some­one sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed you and you are here, then you are not mere­ly a vic­tim. To be a sur­vivor is to be some­one who act­ed, who did something—whatever it was you had to do; even choos­ing to endure pas­sive­ly what the per­son who vio­lat­ed you did to you—so you could walk away in pos­ses­sion of your life. I can­not say this strong­ly enough: If you walked away alive, you are in pos­ses­sion of your life, and if you are alive, there is hope, because the choice you made for your life means you have the strength to con­tin­ue to make that choice for the rest of your life.

And that, I think, is where I will end. Thank you so much for being here and for your kind atten­tion.

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