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.


Good afternoon.

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 coordinator 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.

***

I never 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.

***

A few 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.

***

I need 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.

This entry posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Men and masculinity, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues, sexual assault. Bookmark the permalink. 

17 Responses to Claiming the Feminist Politics of My Survival

  1. 1
    Sebastian H says:

    Wow that was a great speech. Good job for being vulnerable and strong.

    I agree with most of it, but I have a quibble. But I want to be clear both that I agree with most of it and that it’s a quibble.

    “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 don’t think this is true, and I don’t think the current understanding of harassment leads to that. To the extent that “it is about power not sex” (which I know is a contested question) it seems likely that reducing the victimization of women without strongly addressing the victimization of men will cause the ‘it is about power’ element to be displaced onto men.

    I think that your discussion of consent in the women’s study class about consent is fascinating, and I wonder if it doesn’t reveal something different than what you identify. I feel like the current state of the theoretical discussion on consent is clear on ‘no’ but covers maybe 10% of actual human interaction on the stuff around ‘yes’. But like economists who face much the same problem, the first reflex of academic feminists is to insist that society needs to change to fit their theories.

    The discussion roils through the gay community every few years so it is easier for me to speak in that area. There are whole concepts that are pretty intuitive to people NOT trained in feminist thought, but which seem mostly or not deeply explored in feminist theory (or in some cases actively resisted in feminist thought). Non exhaustively they are implied consent, situational consent, and relational consent. I’m not even sure we have a good language to talk about it, but I suspect that developing one would be an excellent thing. I think one of the reasons feminists have resisted these areas despite the areas being obvious ways in which large portions of the population give consent is because perversions of these concepts end up being used by abusers. But because abusers pervert norms, I’m convinced that would happen with feminist norms as currently described too, so I don’t think “when perverted is used by abusers” is a damning objection. Especially since it can be largely rectified by focusing on the idea that an explicit “no” overrides implied, situation, or relational consent.

    So with respect to your students, a better understanding of consent might describe a date like this. Agreeing to go on a date gives situational consent to a gesture like reaching over the table and touching someone’s arm. You don’t need to affirmatively ask for permission to touch the arm because as an approach gesture that was implied by agreeing to go on a date. If the date goes well, you can approach for a kiss toward the end of it without it being an assault even if you don’t explicitly ask for it, and even if the intended recipient declines.

    Now again, ‘no’ overrides implicit factors. But acknowledging that implicit factors often lead to genuine “yes” would be a theory that describes human consent behavior much better.

  2. Sebastian:

    Thanks for the kind words. I really do appreciate them.

    I confess I had a hard time understanding what you were trying to say about the discussion with my students.

  3. 3
    Sebastian H says:

    Sorry I’m probably not clear about it, partially because the ideas are underexplored.

    I’m responding to “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.”

    I suspect that part of the problem is that most of what is talked about in the feminist discussion of consent has very little relation to the real world of sexual interactions. A huge portion of the focus on ‘consent’ is about a way of dealing with each other that isn’t related to how they actually deal with each other. You treat this as possibly a failure in them (to understand how feminist ideas of consent apply) but I treat it as a failure of feminist theory (to properly describe the large majority of cases where consent is effectively dealt with without things like “I specifically consent to you touching my arm”. “I next affirmatively consent to you kissing me”). I’ve heard it argued that something like 90% of interactions don’t really give consent. But that’s wrongheaded. most of those interactions really DO give consent, but using mechanisms which feminist theory largely ignores.

    So your students aren’t saying that they don’t want consent to be a big issue. They are hinting at the idea that our current discourse ignores to much of how valid consent giving actually functions.

  4. 4
    Ben Lehman says:

    Thanks for writing this. I appreciate it a lot.

    I wish I had your confidence that feminist efforts on behalf of female victims of male rapists would have carry over effects for us other rape survivors, but I really don’t. I think that it’s important that we back them anyway — all help to rape survivors is important; we don’t get a lot of it as a class — but I’m (probably irrationally) skeptical of any further help.

  5. 5
    Sebastian H says:

    I have to agree with Ben. We’ve seen “why don’t they build their own institutions?” or “why are they trying to co-opt women’s labor?” too often when male victims of rape try to use rape crisis centers or rape hotlines to really believe that helping build the feminist oriented structures will easily translate into helping male victims.

  6. 6
    Jake Squid says:

    We’ve seen “why don’t they build their own institutions?”

    I’ve totally seen that! Without exception, in response to men criticizing women’s shelters/demanding women’s shelters accept men.

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    In case any male survivors find this thread while googling for help, the organization 1in6 has a chatline and other resources for male victims of sexual abuse and assault. (I know that’s not useful for every survivor, but it may be helpful for some.)

  8. 8
    Ben Lehman says:

    To be clear: any organization that offers services to rape survivors needs to offer services to all rape survivors, regardless of gender (or race, sexual orientation, criminal history, gender of rapist, etc.) Doing otherwise is appalling negligence at best. Saying “why don’t you build your own institutions” in response to someone pointing this out is just doubling down on ignorance and neglect.

    Things have actually been getting better. Despite the fact that culture-at-large is still dismissive and belittling in response to these concerns, in recent decades, a lot of feminist survivor orgs have done just that. I know that Rape Crisis now accepts calls from non-women in most of its branches (maybe all, at this point, they were moving towards that last I knew). I know that a great number of domestic violence orgs have moved away from a dormitory shelter model and into a motel-based model (which is better for many reasons, including privacy and safety) which also accommodates non-female victims of domestic violence. This is great! Despite the ongoing knee-jerk discourse against survivors whose stories and genders do not fit into the patriarchal narrative of “all rapists are men, all victims are women,” there’s actually been a huge amount of progress.

    I know this in my head, but in my heart I can’t believe it’s actually true. This is my problem, I realize, and Richard’s post made me reflect on that. I appreciate his voice, and his confidence, in this. I genuinely aspire to that level of trust. There’s damage here that I, along with my society, am still healing from.

  9. Sebastian:

    So your students aren’t saying that they don’t want consent to be a big issue. They are hinting at the idea that our current discourse ignores to much of how valid consent giving actually functions.

    I think you’re reading something into either the talk I gave and/or the conversation I reported with my students that isn’t there. This isn’t to say you may not have a point when it comes to the larger conversation about consent, but the argument you are making is not what I was talking about when I gave the talk or what my students were talking about when they were complaining about the way, in their experience, guys tended to hit on them.

    Also, about the “helping women will help men” issue: Yours and Ben’s comments have made me realize that there are a couple of moments in the talk when I was not specific enough. In the passage you and he focus on, I was specifically not thinking of things like rape crisis centers, etc.—though it’s good to know, as Ben points out, that things are getting better. Rather, I was thinking about things like sexual harassment policy. I’ve seen this at work on my campus, where policies that are better written, better implemented, etc. end up making it easier for people to recognize harassment regardless of the gender of the victims, easier for people to report, and easier to enforce—and, just to be clear, these changes are often driven by women, which is why I wrote the words I wrote. Now, this does not mean that people’s attitudes about who is and who is not a perpetrator or victim don’t get in the way, but the existence of those people doesn’t mean that the policies, etc. aren’t also helping more people.

  10. 10
    Jake Squid says:

    To be clear: any organization that offers services to rape survivors needs to offer services to all rape survivors, regardless of gender (or race, sexual orientation, criminal history, gender of rapist, etc.) Doing otherwise is appalling negligence at best. Saying “why don’t you build your own institutions” in response to someone pointing this out is just doubling down on ignorance and neglect.

    I agree in theory. In practice, I’m a lot more ambiguous. There’s good reason to have women only DV shelters. There’s good reasons that women founded organizations to create women only DV shelters. If an existing women’s only DV shelter org doesn’t have the resources to create DV shelters for men, should they shut down? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I totally get the response – especially since a lot of the criticisms come from MRA’s and like-minded misogynists.

  11. 11
    Ben Lehman says:

    So, I can’t tell, because you’re being so vague (I don’t know whether it’s a discomfort with the material or just flat out obfuscation), but if your objection is that a shared-room, dorm-style shelter should be strictly mon0-gendered, you should be greatly enthusiastic about the phasing out of dorm-style shelters in favor of blocks of motel rooms, which are generally cheaper than dorms, can support victims of any gender, and give more privacy and safety to victims.

    It seems to me that there is literally nothing else about a DV shelter program that is even plausibly gender-specific. But maybe you can think of some justification for exclusion that I can’t?

    P.S. I think it’s worth noting that we’re on a bit of a tangent from Richard’s post, and check in about that.

    P.P.S. In this conversation I’ve felt it taken-as-read that the objections to serving male victims have been, historically, primarily objections to the existence of trans women. But I feel like I should make that explicit, not implicit.

  12. 12
    Ben Lehman says:

    Richard: Thanks for clarifying. That makes sense to me.

  13. 13
    Jake Squid says:

    … but if your objection is that a shared-room, dorm-style shelter should be strictly mon0-gendered…

    That’s not really it. As I have been led to understand, many women only DV shelters exist in the form they do because they were founded by and intended for women at a time where that sort of aid for women was grossly inadequate. Part of the service provided by these shelters was/is a secret location, hopefully, inaccessible to the abuser. As such, there was a fear that if these shelters were to be mixed gender, they could be infiltrated by the abuser, subjecting the victim to more potential abuse.

    I am also led to believe that a single location, dormitory style or otherwise, also makes providing social services to residents much easier.

    So, in practice, many DV shelters have been set up in this manner for decades. Is it feasible for them to change their structure, divest themselves of real estate and transition to blocks of motel rooms?

    I don’t know. But I can certainly understand the resistance to change.

    My knowledge may also be hopelessly out of date.

    But that’s why I’m with you in theory but a lot more ambivalent (the word I meant to use in my initial comment, of course) in practice. I admit that I could be totally wrong here.

  14. 14
    sweetpepper says:

    thank you for sharing your experiences. your perspective is important and I found the speech/piece well-thought-out and easy to follow.

    i’ve always thought there’s a lot to explore around ideas of power/masculinity in male-victim sexual assault. :( some similarities to women’s experience but certainly an extra layer there, too.

    and it is so hard to have your experience erased by popular narrative.

  15. Thanks, sweetpepper. I appreciate the kind words.

  16. 16
    Gracchus says:

    I’m going to assume I am preemptively banned from this thread

  17. Gracchus,

    For now, yes. If you want to discuss this, please take it to an open thread.

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