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National Poetry Month, #MeToo, Leaving Neverland, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month—All In The Same Post

On Feb­ru­ary 27th, at the invi­ta­tion of 1in6, an orga­ni­za­tion that advo­cates for male-iden­ti­fied sur­vivors of sex­u­al vio­lence, I attend­ed the Oprah Win­frey screen­ing of Leav­ing Nev­er­landthe doc­u­men­tary in which James Safechuck and Wade Rob­son tell their sto­ries of being sex­u­al­ly abused by Michael Jack­son when they were chil­dren. Watch­ing the film, espe­cial­ly in a room filled with fel­low male sur­vivors and our advo­cates, was a deeply mov­ing expe­ri­ence, as was watch­ing after­wards as Oprah inter­viewed Safechuck, Rob­son, and Dan Reed, the movie’s direc­tor. (A friend has told me you can see my face on cam­era dur­ing the tele­vised ver­sion of the inter­view.)

If you don’t know much about Leav­ing Nev­er­land,this New York Times arti­cle by Wes­ley Mor­ris pro­vides as good a sum­ma­ry as I have read, not only of the sto­ry the movie tells, but also of many of the issues it rais­es. Espe­cial­ly if you’ve nev­er giv­en seri­ous thought to the process by which men who prey sex­u­al­ly on boys groom their vic­tims, I hope you will take the time to watch this film, which is still stream­ing on HBO.

Almost two months have passed since I was a mem­ber of that stu­dio audi­ence. Since then, very few days have gone by when my thoughts have not turned to the renewed com­mit­ment I felt after­wards to what­ev­er small con­tri­bu­tion my own work as a poet and writer might make to the grow­ing nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about sex­u­al vio­lence against men and boys. Since April is both Nation­al Poet­ry Month and Sex­u­al Assault Aware­ness Month, I thought I’d take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to share some of those thoughts with you.

When­ev­er I per­form poems that deal explic­it­ly with my own expe­ri­ence of sex­u­al vio­lence, I will inevitably be approached after­wards by at least one man from the audi­ence who wants to thank me. Usu­al­ly, he will speak in hushed tones and euphemisms; some­times, he’ll pull me gen­tly aside so we can have a few moments of semi-pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion. One time, a man even fol­lowed me to the bath­room after I was done read­ing and wait­ed out­side the stall for me to fin­ish, just so he could tell me, with­out the risk of any­one else in the audi­ence hear­ing, how much my poems had meant to him. These moments of cama­raderie and sol­i­dar­i­ty with fel­low sur­vivors stand in stark con­trast for me to the more com­mon expe­ri­ence I have of peo­ple approach­ing from the audi­ence to say Thank you for your courage or, some­times, for your vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty—as if the point of my read­ing had been to dis­play those qual­i­ties for their con­sump­tion, not to invite them into the expe­ri­ences my poems explore.

The peo­ple who say such things are always sin­cere and well-mean­ing. They intend with their words not only to acknowl­edge my expe­ri­ence, but also to offer their sup­port. So I do not mean to be unkind when I point out that, regard­less of their intent, their words leave me feel­ing that they have done nei­ther, instead mak­ing me feel like I might as well have been an actor read­ing lines writ­ten by some­one else, not the per­son whose body was vio­lat­ed and who tried to say some­thing about what sur­viv­ing that vio­la­tion might mean.

I thought about this recent­ly as I reread Sarah White’s love­ly and thought­ful review of my book, Words For What Those Men Have Donein the May-June 2018 issue of Amer­i­can Book Review. (The first link will take you to an online excerpt of the review; the sec­ond to a PDF of the entire thing.) What struck me, what I had­n’t real­ly noticed the first time I read it, was that White dis­cussed the poems that deal with my own expe­ri­ence of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence pri­mar­i­ly as rev­e­la­tions of how my “life and gifts have schooled [me] to speak for [anoth­er] abuse victim…one who is female, Third World, and, most shock­ing­ly, a child.”

Refer­ring here to Shashir, a girl from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go, whose sto­ry I tell in the poem from which my book’s title is tak­en, White is not wrong to con­nect my choice to write about sex­u­al vio­lence against women to the ways in which I have come to under­stand in my own life what it means to be a sur­vivor. Nonethe­less, by using that con­nec­tion to frame her review, White reduces my survivorship—if I can coin that term—to a site of empa­thy and alliance with women, char­ac­ter­i­za­tions I cer­tain­ly would not dis­avow, but which bare­ly touch on what my poems might have to say about the issue of sex­u­al vio­lence against men and boys in and of itself, not to men­tion about how being a sur­vivor has shaped my life in par­tic­u­lar.

In mak­ing these obser­va­tions about White’s review of Words For What Those Men Have DoneI am not sug­gest­ing that she did me or my work a dis­ser­vice. The skep­ti­cism she voic­es at the beginning—to which the review itself, as I said above, is a love­ly and thought­ful response—about whether or not “a male Amer­i­can poet…[can] claim…to speak for a [female] abuse vic­tim” is not unfound­ed. Men, after all, do not have the best track record in this regard, so that aspect of my book is per­fect­ly fair game for a review­er. Nonethe­less, the sub­text of this skep­ti­cism posits a dis­con­ti­nu­ity between who I am now as the adult man who wrote Words For What Those Men Have Done and the twelve-year-old boy I was when the first man who vio­lat­ed me vio­lat­ed me. To put that a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly, in review­ing my book, White did not a pri­ori grant me in my adult (and, I will add, white) male body that twelve-year-old’s expe­ri­ence of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and pow­er­less­ness. Only after my poems con­vinced her that my “claim to speak of the atroc­i­ties hint­ed at in [my book’s] title” was valid did her skep­ti­cism give way to see­ing me as cred­i­ble.

By way of con­trast, con­sid­er how Maya Phillips frames her dis­cus­sion of a book of poet­ry that also deals with sex­u­al vio­lence against men, Jeri­cho Brown’s The Tra­di­tionI haven’t read it yet—which she reviewed recent­ly in The New York Times: “Brown cre­ates poet­ry that is a cat­a­log of injuries past and present, per­son­al and nation­al, in a coun­try where black­ness, par­tic­u­lar­ly male black­ness, is akin to ill­ness.” One of those injuries, “allud­ed to through­out the col­lec­tion,” is rape. Nowhere in Phillips’ read­ing of Brown’s work, how­ev­er, does she even hint at ask­ing if he, in Sarah White’s words, “could be suf­fi­cient­ly acquaint­ed with” the injuries he pre­sumes to write about. Phillips, in oth­er words, starts from the assump­tion that Brown is cred­i­ble, that there is no dis­con­ti­nu­ity between who he is—particularly the fact that he is African Amer­i­can and gay—and the sub­jects about which he pre­sumes to write.

This seems to me as it should be. Who else would be “suf­fi­cient­ly acquaint­ed” to write about the risks of liv­ing in the Unit­ed States as a gay Black man? What struck me as I read Phillips’ review, how­ev­er, was that she also seemed to accept as a mat­ter of course that a con­nec­tion exists between those risks and the rape that Brown expe­ri­enced. In oth­er words, Phillips seems to take for grant­ed that both the rape and the fact of Brown’s sur­vival are social­ly, cul­tur­al­ly, and polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed to the socioe­co­nom­ic, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of liv­ing in a racist and homo­pho­bic soci­ety. To put that anoth­er way, Phillips grants Jeri­cho Brown in his body the expe­ri­ence of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and pow­er­less­ness that Sarah White did not at first grant me in mine.

This dif­fer­ence between the two reviews also makes sense to me. Jeri­cho Brown’s race and sex­u­al­i­ty put him at risk in Unit­ed States soci­ety in terms that include his gen­der by def­i­n­i­tion. Sex­u­al vio­lence against a man like Brown, there­fore, should be read with­in the con­text of the sys­temic oppres­sions under which he lives. My race and sex­u­al­i­ty, on the oth­er hand—I’m white and straight—do not put me at risk. The sex­u­al vio­lence that was com­mit­ted against me as a boy, there­fore, is much more eas­i­ly reduced to a mat­ter of indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence, mak­ing the ques­tion of what it means to have sur­vived and heal from that expe­ri­ence a pri­mar­i­ly ther­a­peu­tic one—which is, I think, a fair approx­i­ma­tion of the posi­tion Sarah White took in her review of my work.

Here’s the prob­lem with that posi­tion, though. It flies in the face of the num­bers, per­haps espe­cial­ly when it comes to sex­u­al vio­lence against boys. As I said at the begin­ning of this essay, I attend­ed Oprah’s screen­ing of Leav­ing Nev­er­land at the invi­ta­tion of 1in6. The orga­ni­za­tion takes its name from the sta­tis­tic that approx­i­mate­ly 1 in 6 boys will expe­ri­ence some form of sex­u­al coer­cion before the age of 16. (For an in depth dis­cus­sion of this sta­tis­tic, see this page.) That’s an awful lot of boys. More­over those boys cut across just about anyline that you can imag­ine: race, eth­nic­i­ty, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, cis/trans, class. Indeed, based on those two fac­tors alone, sex­u­al vio­lence against boys would seem to have a lot in com­mon with sex­u­al vio­lence against girls, for whom the preva­lence is not much dif­fer­ent, pegged gen­er­al­ly at 1 in 4 or 1 in 5, and which we take for grant­ed is a sys­temic social and cul­tur­al issue that tran­scends indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence in a way that we do not seem to do when we talk about boys

The dif­fer­ence, of course, is that sex­u­al vio­lence against girls fits both con­ser­v­a­tive and pro­gres­sive cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives about sex and gen­der in a way that sex­u­al vio­lence against boys does not. Con­ser­v­a­tives, for exam­ple, tend to under­stand the idea that men pur­sue women for sex, with all that entails for how men and women behave towards each oth­er, includ­ing men’s sex­u­al vio­lence, as, broad­ly speak­ing, an evo­lu­tion­ary imper­a­tive, one that serves the needs and inter­ests of both gen­ders. Pro­gres­sives, on the oth­er hand, and par­tic­u­lar­ly fem­i­nists, see that same idea as a core ide­o­log­i­cal imper­a­tive that needs to be undone in achiev­ing gen­der equal­i­ty. In each case, men’s sex­u­al vio­lence against women is under­stood to be a log­i­cal con­se­quence of the over­ar­ch­ing het­ero­nor­ma­tive struc­ture. Con­ser­v­a­tives, how­ev­er, will tend to see such vio­lence as a sad­ly pre­dictable aber­ra­tion with­in that structure—i.e., there will always be men who can’t or won’t con­trol themselves—while pro­gres­sives, and fem­i­nists in par­tic­u­lar, will see men’s sex­u­al vio­lence as one of that struc­ture’s foun­da­tion­al build­ing blocks, a fea­ture, in oth­er words, not a bug.

This shared het­ero­nor­ma­tive lens means that nei­ther the con­ser­v­a­tive nor the pro­gres­sive mod­el is well-equipped to account for sce­nar­ios of sex­u­al vio­lence that are not male-on-female, per­haps espe­cial­ly when the per­pe­tra­tor is a woman. It also means that, regard­less of intent, hold­ing onto this lens is tan­ta­mount to defend­ing a het­ero­nor­ma­tive world view. You can see this defense at work most obvi­ous­ly, per­haps, in the con­ser­v­a­tive cul­tur­al myths about boys who have been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed, espe­cial­ly the one that says a boy who was vio­lat­ed by a man is cer­tain to become gay. Even among pro­gres­sives, though, het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty tends to win out when male sur­vivors try to be heard side by side with our female coun­ter­parts. One rea­son #MeToo became con­test­ed ter­ri­to­ry, for exam­ple, both as a hash­tag and as a move­ment, was that many women saw the addi­tion of male voic­es as dilut­ing a nec­es­sary focus on the spe­cif­ic per­va­sive­ness of men’s sex­u­al harass­ment of and sex­u­al vio­lence against women.

That con­cern is not unfound­ed. Male sur­vivors, after all, are no less prone than any oth­er man to co-opt­ing wom­en’s spaces and dis­miss­ing or triv­i­al­iz­ing wom­en’s voic­es and expe­ri­ences. Equal­ly to the point, what­ev­er else may be true about sex­u­al vio­lence against men, it is also true that we do not face in our dai­ly lives the kind of per­va­sive and inva­sive sex­u­al objec­ti­fi­ca­tion that women do. There are, in oth­er words, moments when silence and sup­port are the best con­tri­bu­tions men can make.

At the same time, how­ev­er, keep­ing male sur­vivors on the mar­gins of the #MeToo con­ver­sa­tion ulti­mate­ly lim­its what that con­ver­sa­tion might accom­plish. By way of exam­ple, as I point­ed out in Claim­ing the Fem­i­nist Pol­i­tics of My Sur­vival, a talk I gave dur­ing Sex­u­al Assault/Harassment Aware­ness Week at Nas­sau Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege, con­sid­er that if one in six men are sur­vivors of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence, then so are one in six

elect­ed officials…judges…prosecutors, police offi­cers, bud­get directors—all the peo­ple, over­whelm­ing­ly men, who pass and enforce the laws, estab­lish the poli­cies, [and] set the pri­or­i­ties which shape our indi­vid­ual and collective…lives.

What would the #MeToo con­ver­sa­tion be like, what kinds of pol­i­cy pro­pos­als might emerge, what kinds of changes that we don’t now envi­sion might be envi­sioned, if those men were engaged not just as men-in-author­i­ty, but assur­vivors,as men whose rela­tion­ship to the val­ues that nor­mal­ize sex­u­al harass­ment and assault is medi­at­ed through the expe­ri­ence of hav­ing been assault­ed them­selves? What would hap­pen if male sur­vivors in gen­er­al were able, in those same terms, to be part of that con­ver­sa­tion?

I do not know the answer to that ques­tion. What I do know, though, is that we would not be hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion about sex­u­al vio­lence that we are most com­fort­able with, in which men, includ­ing men who are sur­vivors, are treat­ed pret­ty much exclu­sive­ly as per­pe­tra­tors, enablers, bystanders, or allies. If noth­ing else, watch­ing Leav­ing Nev­er­land has per­suad­ed me more than ever that it is time to move out­side that com­fort zone. Con­sid­er this an invi­ta­tion to join me.

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