Last year, The Nation wrote a piece titled “Ten Things to End Rape Culture,” which, predictably, entailed a list of ways to combat rape culture in the United States. Though the list was decent, I had one pretty big, gaping problem with it—the assumption that men didn’t experience sexual violence or that women and people of other genders didn’t perpetrate it.
These assumptions are dead wrong and are a dangerous mistake that many make when discussing rape culture. And things may be worse than we initially realized.
In the recent update of the National Crime Victimization Survey produced by Bureau of Justice, the incidents of sexual violence against men jumped from 5–14% in previous years to about 38%. Worse yet, the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey recently added a category to what it counts as sexual violence (“being made to penetrate”) and the results were shocking: 1.270 million women and 1.267 million men said that they were victims of sexual violence. (And some analyses conclude that 46 percent of male victims reported a female aggressor).
No one can seem to identify the reason for the jump, but the numbers speak pretty loudly: Sexual violence against men has been drastically underreported—and it’s not clear by how much yet. This data doesn’t even include the systematic rape of people in prisons, a problem so bad that Reason labelled U.S. prisons “rape factories.”
“What does any of this have to do with rape culture?” you might be asking yourself right about now. “Gina, are you doing your crazy feminist thing and arguing that when men hurt it is also because of patriarchy?”
No—well, yes, but I’m not crazy, and I’m right about this. The under-reporting of male rape in the United States is absolutely because of rape culture and patriarchy, and this is exactly why men should be behind dismantling it.
Track the assumptions. The FBI and CDC are just now getting around to officially recognizing rape as something that can happen to men. As Hanna Rosin reports in Slate:
For years, the FBI defined forcible rape, for data collecting purposes, as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” Eventually localities began to rebel against that limited gender-bound definition; in 2010 Chicago reported 86,767 cases of rape but used its own broader definition, so the FBI left out the Chicago stats. Finally, in 2012, the FBI revised its definition and focused on penetration, with no mention of female (or force).
The definition is so new that they don’t even have data under it yet. The CDC finally got around to including definitions that would catch the sexual violence that happens to boys and men. This has taken so long because of understood assumptions about men’s sexuality. Namely, that they are lascivious and insatiable, and that they always want sex and will always take sex when it’s offered to them.
Sound familiar? This is the exact same narrative that people use to excuse and pass over rape of women—or at least to try and blame them for what happened to them. “Men can’t control themselves” so don’t get drunk at parties. “Men want more sex than women” so women must always be the ones to say no, to draw the lines, or to be responsible. Our narrative about sex in this country is one that paints men as ever-behardened, club-weilding neanderthals who think of and want nothing more than sex. This leads to the assumption that men cannot control themselves when they rape—and that there is no reason a man could possibly say no to sex (.
And this narrative—this norm that allows people to “normalize, excuse, or even condone rape” of people of all genders—is the essence of rape culture.
For every rape joke about women there are those about men. TVTropes says it best: “A man raped by an attractive woman is considered a lucky man, and a man being raped by an unattractive woman is comedy gold.” See also: the humorous rape of men in Wedding Crashers, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Get Him to the Greek and Horrible Bosses. These are all examples of rape culture working to silence those who are victimized by teaching them that what has happened to them is something they deserve, should have wanted, or should shrug off.
The expansion of our understanding of sexual violence is an important way to turn the tides, and Rosin thinks that part of the reason for this and the increase of reporting is that “gender norms are shaking loose in a way that allows men to identify themselves—if the survey is sensitive and specific enough—as vulnerable.”
This is a positive step, but it will not continue if men do not understand that rape culture is a thing and is a thing that hurts them in addition to people of other genders. As much as we can hope that men would step forward to help the abuse and denigration of others, perhaps now they will step up when they realize that they are harmed also.