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 Neverland, the 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 Done, in 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 Done, I 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 Tradition—I 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 any line 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 as survivors, 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.