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Towards a Feminist Politics of “Male Survivorship”

I came to see myself both as a sur­vivor of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence and as a man com­mit­ted to fem­i­nism after read­ing the essays of Adri­enne Rich in the ear­ly 1980s, a time when, as far as I knew, no one was talk­ing about the sex­u­al abuse of boys. Rich’s polemic against men’s sex­u­al vio­lence against women gave me for the first time a lan­guage I could use to name as vio­la­tions what the men who’d sex­u­al­ly abused my teenage boy’s body had done to me. The seeds of what­ev­er heal­ing I have achieved, in oth­er words, are firm­ly root­ed in the fem­i­nist vision of gen­der jus­tice. Nonethe­less, tak­ing those roots for grant­ed, as I did for many years, inevitably papers over some dif­fi­cult ten­sions. For while fem­i­nism may have giv­en me a lan­guage with which to name my expe­ri­ence of sex­u­al vio­lence, and despite a grow­ing aware­ness among con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nists that men are sex­u­al­ly vic­tim­ized in much greater num­bers than pre­vi­ous­ly imag­ined, I have found lit­tle room with­in fem­i­nist dis­course for who I am as a sur­vivor of that vio­lence.

In “Sex­u­al Vio­lence Against Men and Women in War,” for exam­ple, pub­lished in The Neva­da Law Review, Val­o­rie K. Vojdik address­es her­self both to the fre­quen­cy and bru­tal­i­ty with which boys and men, sol­diers and civil­ians, are sex­u­al­ly vic­tim­ized dur­ing wartime, high­light­ing how invis­i­ble that vio­lence has his­tor­i­cal­ly been with­in fem­i­nist dis­course. Her goal, how­ev­er, is not to illu­mi­nate the expe­ri­ences of those boys and men as vic­tims and sur­vivors. Rather, she wants to make “mas­culin­ized vio­lence against men” vis­i­ble in order to deep­en fem­i­nists’ “under­stand­ing of…the con­struc­tion of cer­tain male bod­ies as mas­cu­line and dom­i­nant, in both war and in peace” (952, ital­ics mine). Vojdik’s focus, in oth­er words, is on telling us more about what we already know, or think we know, i.e., that per­pe­tra­tors’ bod­ies are male and that the goal of the vio­lence these male-bod­ied per­pe­tra­tors com­mit is to con­struct them­selves as “mas­cu­line and dom­i­nant.”

Grant­ed that deep­en­ing our under­stand­ing of how male dom­i­nance is con­struct­ed is impor­tant. Nonethe­less, Vojdik’s analy­sis actu­al­ly obscures more than it reveals about the boys and men who are the vic­tims of “mas­culin­ized vio­lence.” Else­where in her essay, for exam­ple, she writes that, “The rape of men [in war] turns the male into a pow­er­less vic­tim, a sym­bol­ic woman who is sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed by the per­pe­tra­tor through rape” (945). Giv­en this fram­ing, whether she intends it or not, Vojdik implic­it­ly pro­pos­es that the best way to under­stand men’s expe­ri­ence of rape is not to reveal what that expe­ri­ence might be, but rather to use wom­en’s expe­ri­ence as a mod­el. To put it anoth­er way, Vojdik does what fem­i­nists have long crit­i­cized male schol­ars for doing in fields as dis­tant from each oth­er as Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture and med­ical research: pro­ceed­ing from the assump­tion that their gen­dered per­spec­tive is the norm that applies every­where to every­one.

Adri­enne Rich, along with all the oth­er fem­i­nist writ­ers whose work helped start me on my path to heal­ing, pro­ceed­ed from the same kind of assump­tion. In the world of their writ­ing, sex­u­al vio­lence was com­mit­ted by men against women, full stop. Indeed, I don’t remem­ber any of them address­ing even the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a male vic­tim, let alone a female per­pe­tra­tor. The only way I could find myself in the world of this fem­i­nist writ­ing, there­fore, was to co-opt wom­en’s posi­tion with­in it, to view my own expe­ri­ence through the lens of what men’s sex­u­al vio­lence against women meant to women. To carve out, in oth­er words, a space with­in fem­i­nism not so dif­fer­ent from the one to which Vojdik argues male per­pe­tra­tors send their male victims—one where I was, sym­bol­i­cal­ly, a woman.

The dif­fer­ence, of course, is that the soci­ety I live in, because it sees the vio­la­tions I sur­vived as unman­ning by def­i­n­i­tion, has gen­er­al­ly want­ed me to occu­py that posi­tion (though things are begin­ning to change). Fem­i­nism, on the oth­er hand, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, does­n’t care that the men who vio­lat­ed me did so in ways that direct­ly par­al­lel men’s sex­u­al vio­lence against women; I am, in fem­i­nist terms, still a man in a soci­ety that licens­es men to com­mit such vio­lence. To pre­sume to occu­py women’s posi­tion in fem­i­nism, there­fore, even sym­bol­i­cal­ly, and even for rea­sons as sym­pa­thet­ic as mine might be, is still, when under­stood through a fem­i­nist lens, to exer­cise that license. To unpack this conun­drum, to ask what it means be both a man com­mit­ted to fem­i­nism in a world that priv­i­leges men and the sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed boy who grew up to be that man, is to ask what a fem­i­nist pol­i­tics of “male sur­vivor­ship” might look like.

Depend­ing on the mea­sure you use, stud­ies show that as many as 20% of men will—at the hands of both men and women—experience some form of sex­u­al vio­lence at some point in their lives. That we final­ly rec­og­nize these men as peo­ple who have been vio­lat­ed, rather than peo­ple who should learn to “suck it up” and move on; that we as a soci­ety have a grow­ing aware­ness that this vio­la­tion is a social and cul­tur­al (in addi­tion to being an inter­per­son­al) injus­tice; that we increas­ing­ly believe those who sur­vive this vio­la­tion deserve to heal, and that they deserve as well our com­pas­sion and our sup­port as they do so–all of this is root­ed in the work fem­i­nists are still doing to expose men’s vio­lence against women as gen­dered vio­lence and to estab­lish end­ing that vio­lence as one cen­tral goal of gen­der jus­tice. (It’s much eas­i­er to see this con­nec­tion if you imag­ine the per­pe­tra­tor to be a man, regard­less of the gen­der of his vic­tim; it’s much hard­er, giv­en the cur­rent state of affairs, to think through what it would mean to see as gen­dered vio­lence what hap­pens when a man is vio­lat­ed by a woman.) I am, in oth­er words, not the only male sur­vivor who has a stake in fem­i­nism, though I do think all too many fem­i­nists have large­ly and con­sis­tent­ly, by omis­sion if not com­mis­sion, mis­rep­re­sent­ed what that stake might be.

Cor­rect­ing that mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion seems to me a nec­es­sary step in mov­ing the fem­i­nist con­ver­sa­tion about gen­der jus­tice for­ward.

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