I am going to repeat myself about this a little further down, but let me say up front that this post is in response to the comments in this open thread for male survivors of sexual abuse/violence started by Abyss2Hope. First, though, since this is my first post on Alas, and since my comments in various posts here will not necessarily provide adequate context to what I want to write about and why I take the approach to it that I do, let me offer a brief introduction: I am a poet and writer and a professor in the English Department at a large community college in New York City, where I have been teaching composition, creative writing and literature for the last seventeen years. I tend to structure the content of my classes such that, even if the topics themselves are not explicitly feminist—such as the course in Middle Eastern literature I am teaching this semester—I can make feminist analysis a part of how I teach them. Indeed, feminism has been central to the way I understand the world since my late teens-early twenties, when reading Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence was the only thing that convinced me I wasn’t crazy (a few years later it was Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse). I will have more to say about that further on in this post. For now, let me just say that I have been writing and publishing about issues of manhood and masculinity from a feminist perspective since 1988, when the first of two essays I wrote on women’s reproductive rights was published in Changing Men Magazine. Since then, I have published pieces in more than a few other journals, including this one in Salon.com that might have turn out to have some relevance to this discussion. If you are interested in seeing more of my work, you can find excerpts on my website. You can also visit my own blog, where this will be cross-posted.
My point in providing these links is not primarily to hawk my own writing—though I will, of course, be very happy to have more readers —but rather to give you the opportunity, should you be interested, (and I guess this is also the academic in me) to see what I write here in the context of a body of work and a perspective I have been developing for more than half my life. My experience here on Alas, especially in threads where the intent of the original post is to expose male privilege as fully as possible, particularly as that privilege is expressed through rape and other forms of violence against women, is that the substance of the ideas originally put forth too often gets lost, as commenters shoot from the hip in ways that either intentionally derail conversations or do so because people are more concerned with their own personal agendas than with actually reading what others have to say. (Anecdotally, and this is also a point I will return to later on, it seems to me that while men more than women are guilty of these derailments, it is not only MRA’s and other anti-feminists/critics of feminism who do this. I had my head quite rightly handed to me in a thread about women and rape that I completely derailed because I got defensive about something I shouldn’t have gotten defensive about.)
While I have no illusion that this post will be any different—though I certainly hope that it is—the issues that arise when male survivors of sexual violence confront feminism, either as an ideology put forth in books or in the bodies of feminist women and men, still need to be talked about. These issues are complex—which is why I have called this post “A Beginning”—and, indicative of this complexity, perhaps, is the fact that while I have already declared my bias in favor of a feminist analysis of things, I do not belive that feminist discourse is a place where male survivors ought to expect either to speak or to be heard in a way that places our experience at the center of whatever is being discussed. Indeed, the post you are reading has its origins in a comment I made to Daran in Abyss2Hope’s Anatomy Of A False Rape Accusation – Part 2. Daran, in a comment that he has since acknowledged was rooted in a misreading of a comment by Q Grrl, made the following statement:
The complaint isn’t just that feminists talk solely of male on female rape, but also that male rape survivors are excluded from services.
Later on, he restated this concern in this way:
I still find [Qgrrl's] characterisation of those who advocate for the admission of male rape victims to the discourse as “wankers” who “whine” to be offensive. “Respect” is not a one-way street.
I am not interested here in resurrecting either Daran’s misreading of Qgrrl or the discussion that followed it. I have quoted these statements by Daran because I think they say quite succinctly what he and other men see a shortcoming of feminist discourse about sexual violence, i.e., that it does not, by defintion and even by design, make room within itself for a space that can adequately account for the experience of male survivors. I think this concern has validity, though I disagree with the ways in which Daran pursues it—at least as far as I have been able to tell in the short time I have been reading him—and so my response to him read, in part:
You know, Daran, as a man who was sexually abused when I was a child, I have quite a lot of sympathy for a position that is critical of the way in which men are often left out of the sexual-assault discourse, feminist or otherwise. When I was in my late teens and early 20s and just beginning to come to awareness of what had been done to me, no one, and I mean no one, was talking about the fact that boys were sexually abuse; people were just beginning to acknowledge publicly the degree to which it happened to girls [...] I would love, therefore, the opportunity to be part of a conversation among men about what it means to be a male survivor of rape and other forms of sexual assault that takes as its starting point not the fact that feminism does not include men in its discourse, which is where you inevitably start these discussions, but rather our experience of men of being sexually violated (and, yes, also of having our experiences dismissed, etc. and so on).
In response to this comment, A2H started an Open Thread For Male Survivors of Sexual Violence, naming me as moderator and asserting that while the problem of “male survivors of sexual abuse/assault being left out of the sexual-assault discourse” is
a real problem that merits attention[, it] too often [...] gets mentioned as a way to attack efforts to fight sexual violence directed at girls and women or as an excuse to attack feminism or feminists. That exploits male victims and they deserve better.
Toy Soldier found this a less than inviting introduction, asserting in another comment that A2H’s words were “antagonistic, accusatory and inaccurate.” Ultimately, despite the fact that I posted two or three comments trying to start a discussion of ideas around male survivors and feminism, and at least one or two others, including Jake Squid, tried to move the conversation away from what Amp rightly called “a lot of mutual suspicion and dislike here, on both sides,” the thread devolved onto the topic of what it would take for male survivors who have had negative experiences with feminists on Alas and elsewhere to feel safe posting here. Ultimately, it became clear that the roots of the open thread for male survivros in A2H’s thread on false rape accusations, coupled with the fact that Alas is an explicitly feminist blog, was a problem for at least some of the people who might otherwise want to join this discussion. Hence, this post, which will, I hope, give the discussion a fresh start.
I do not want to deny or trivialize what it feels like for male survivors who have had their experiences of abuse dismissed, denied or trivialized by women or men speaking in the name of feminism. I have had that experience as well, and, as anyone who has survived an assault of any kind must know, to have that experience denied is to be forced to relive the shame and isolation of the original assault. However, someone who speaks in the name of feminism does not represent all of feminism, even if what they are saying can legitimately be called feminist, and it is with feminism that I want to start, not feminists, because if this discussion were to start with a focus on what feminists have said and done or not said and not done when it comes to male survivors of sexual abuse, we would end up right where we ended up in the thread started by Abyss2Hope, with a whole lot of suspicion and mistrust, and we will have gone essentially nowhere.
I was around 19 when I first started to name as sexual abuse what I had experienced at the hands of two different men at two different times of my childhood, and one of the things that enabled me to name that experience was reading the essay “Caryatid: Two Columns,” in On Lies, Secrets and Silence. I remember distinctly being at summer camp, sitting on my bed during my day off and reading and rereading the following passage:
[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 the subjects of an existence.
I don’t know why, but those words pushed a button somewhere in me, and I began to ask—in fact, I actually heard a voice in my head asking—”But what about me? What about what happened to me?”
Yet even as successive readings of that essay, along with the other pieces in Rich’s book, offered me a way to begin to name my own experience, it also identified me as a man with the same power and privilege that the men who abused me had used to abuse me:
Rape is the ultimate outward physical act of coercion and depersonalization practiced on women by men. Most male readers…would perhaps deny having gone so far: the honest would admit to fantasies, urges of lust and hatred, or lust and fear, or to a “harmless” fascination with pornography and sadistic art.
I was fascinated by pornography; I had fantasies that combined lust and fear; and it was impossible to miss the cynical accusation in Rich’s use of the word “perhaps.” The message was clear. Whatever else might have been true about who I was, I was also, by definition, the enemy, and I did not know how to speak at one and the same time as both a survivor of male sexual violence and someone who participated in it. I don’t know why this paradox did not lead me to reject feminism outright, except to say that reading feminist writers like Rich convinced me that feminism, more than any other ideology I had encountered, pointed to a way of living my life that was antithetical to the way the men who abused me were obviously living theirs.
Nonetheless, the paradox was silencing, so silencing, in fact, that a few years later—and this was after I’d started telling people I’d been abused—in a training session at a different when day camp, when the male session leader told us he was going to use “she” as the generic pronoun referring to kids who might choose to tell us they’d been sexually abused, I found myself unable to confront him about the way that choice rendered me and my experience, not to mention the experiences of the other men and, perhaps more importantly, the boys at the camp who’d had the same experience, invisible. Yes, part of why I didn’t speak up had to do both with the very public nature of the forum I’d be speaking in and the adversarial nature of what I’d be saying, but I also couldn’t speak up because I didn’t have the words, the conceptual vocabulary not only to say “This isn’t fair,” but also to point out that boys’ experience of abuse, my experience of abuse, needed to be understood on its own terms and not as a perhaps anomolous subset of the experience of girls; and one reason I did not have that vocabulary was that it was not to be found in the feminism I’d been reading. (To be fair, no one else had that vocabulary either. At that time, and I am talking here about more than 20 years ago, barely anyone but feminists was willing to acknowledge that sexual abuse happened to girls; no one had even really considered—at least as far as I know—that it was happening to boys as well.)
It was not until a couple of years later, when I was in graduate school, that my perception of the lack of such a vocabulary became the need to develop one. It started when a female friend of mine persuaded me that I should think of what happened when I lost my virginity as an instance of date rape. I have written about that experience here, on my blog, and so I am not going to retell the whole story. What is most relevant here is that, as I came to understand that my friend was wrong, that the girl with whom I had sex for the first time had not raped me (and if you want to know more about that, you need to go read the post on my blog), I also began to articulate distinctions between the ways in which feminism was helpful to me as a survival of child sexual abuse and the ways in which it could not be and, more importantly, was unreasonable for me to expect it to be. Some of these, in no particular order, include:
1. Women, not men, are the subjects of feminist discourse; and men, when men are part of that discourse, are the objects of its analysis. This is not merely the logical result of the fact that most feminists are women; it is a deliberate political stance intended to subvert and ultimately eliminate patriarchy/male dominance. As such, whether you accept a feminist analysis or not, it is pointless to ask feminist discourse to admit men’s subjectivity on an equal footing with women’s—and equal footing is what would be required if one were to try to turn feminism into a forum for dealing with the experience of male survivors of sexual abuse/violence. Stephen Heath’s essay “Male Feminism,” in Men In Feminism, does a great job of articulating the problem of male subjectivity within feminism, but without a specific reference to sexual abuse. (I should also be clear that when I talk about people who do not accept a feminist analysis, I am not talking about people who believe that feminism is itself an oppressive ideology the purpose of which is to subjugate men, or any of the myriad variations on that theme that run through the various strands of conservative discourse out there. I am thinking of people who believe there are other forms of political analysis that adequately account for the kinds of gender imbalances that feminism addresses and that seek the change of those imbalances in the direction of greater equality.)
2. At the same time, however, feminism names the structures—political, socioeconomic, cultural and even psychological—that normalize the kind of power hierarchy that leads to the sexual abuse and exploitation of both boys/men and women/girls. Broadly speaking, feminism gathers these structures under the label patriarchy or male dominance. Curiousgyrl gets at this point in a comment where she points out that “men systematically rape male children and other men [because of the] way that male dominance works; there [are] not only benefits for exercising male dominance but consequences for refusing or being unable to do so.” I realize that her formulation very neatly elides the fact that there are also female abusers. What I will say about female abusers for now is this: the boys/men they abuse are also suffering the consequences “of refusing or being unable” to exercise male dominance. In other words, even if female abusers do not neatly fit the feminist paradigm of the dominant and abusive male, boys and men who have been abused by women still suffer their abuse within a male dominant context, and it is feminism that first named that context for what it is. Still, the phenomenon that curiousgyrl points out is a structural one; it does not get at male survivors’ interior experience, and it is that experience I am hoping this post will motivate people to discuss.
3. Feminism, more than any other socio-cultural/political form of analysis, articulates the different positions boys/men and girls/women occupy vis-a-vis sexual violence. When a girl or woman is raped, the rape enacts, confirms, affirms her status in a male dominant society as a sexual object; it makes explicit that part of the social script for what it means to be a woman that says a woman exists to be used sexually by men. On the other hand, when a boy or man is raped, the rape interrupts his status as a sexual subject; it turns him into something he is not supposed to be in a male dominant culture. Part of talking about men’s experience of sexual abuse on its own terms, it seems to me, has to include the taking apart of this aspect of the experience; and I do not see how we can talk about this without coming to the conclusion that male sexual subjectivity in a male dominant culture is built on the denial of precisely the vulnerability that abusers exploit. This conclusion, carried to its logical political and socio-cultural ends, is a quintessentially feminist insight.
Some things about the discussion and moderation:
1. This thread is open to anyone who has something substantive and constructive to add to a discussion of feminism and male survivors of sexual abuse/violence. My title includes the world “child” in parentheses because child sexual abuse is what I experienced, and so, for me, a central motivation in taking the time to write this post is something I said in this comment:
[G]iven the number of boys who are sexually abused–statistics I have seen range from 1 in 5 to 1 in 7–the problem of the sexual abuse of boys cannot be framed, simply, as the individual problems of those boys who have been assaulted. The problem needs to be politicized [....]
2. Daran argues that the result of the exclusion of male survivor experiences from feminist discourse has material consequences in that male survivors are sometimes refused services because they are men and that organizations which would serve men are either refused or have a hard time getting funding. This is a serious issue, but I do not think this thread is the place to have it What I want to talk about here are the ways in which we talk about male survivors’ experiences, the ways in which we conceptualize it, because those things will form the foundation of how we argue for services and funding.
Okay, I guess that’s it for now. Let’s see where this discussion takes us.