Widespread ignorance of the sexual assault of males is part of a culture of silence. Dez Wildwood speaks up, showing the links between sexual assault, sexuality and male power.
Sexual assault is prevalent in Australia, yet it is still largely a taboo subject. In the last 20 years or so the women's movement has done much to open up discussion of sexual abuse. That groundwork has made it possible for men who, like me, have been sexually assaulted to speak out about what we have been through and to seek help in overcoming the trauma of abuse.
Both females and males are victims of sexual abuse. Conservative estimates are that one in 11 boys and one in four girls are sexually assaulted in some way by the time they are 18 years old. Almost all sexual violence, 97 percent, is committed by men, but males are still a significant proportion of all victims: 26 percent of under-18-year-olds.
Recent research in the USA suggests that as many as 20 percent of males have been sexually violated as children. In addition to this we must recognise the incidence of sexual assaults against adult males. Sexual assault takes many forms including child sexual abuse, rape, sexual harassment, incest, and any other form of sexual violation. It is never the fault of the victim. The responsibility rests squarely with the offender and with our society, a society that condones and promotes sexual violence.
Sexual assault has devastating consequences for its victims, including those who survive it. They are left struggling to overcome the emotional and social effects of the trauma they have endured.
A culture of silence
IT is particularly difficult for boys and men to disclose that they have been sexually assaulted. Our society conditions us to believe that males are always to be "in control": of their emotions, of other people, and of their environment. They are taught to define themselves as men by the extent to which they successfully achieve this control. Consequently most men do not expect to be "victims", and especially not sexually. When this does occur it often comes as a shock, being so outside men's normal experience. Not only is it difficult for men to accept being sexually assaulted, it is also common for men to live in silence since the reactions of others compound the sense of being victimised. Just as the survivor finds it difficult to believe what has happened to him, so do others respond with disbelief. When a man discloses that he has been sexually abused, he is often punished further when his "manhood" and his sexual orientation are called into question.
Sexuality and sexual assault
THE motive for sexual assault is not primarily sexual pleasure or satisfaction, regardless of whether the victim is male or female. It has to do with power, control, domination and humiliation. Sexual assault is a form of violence in which "sex" is used as a weapon against the person being abused. As a consequence most of us male survivors have some concerns about our own sexuality, whether it be related to our male identity, our status among men, the masculinity of our behaviour, our sexual preferences, the frequency and satisfaction of our sexual activity, or our capacity for sexual intimacy. These problems affect our everyday lives, often for years after the abuse has ended.
Generally speaking people assume that when a male sexually assaults or rapes another male the offender is homosexual and the victim is too. These popular misconceptions are based on the myth that sexual assault is mainly about obtaining sexual gratification, and people ignore issues of power and control. Research has shown that most males who sexually assault other males are heterosexual in orientation and that most survivors of sexual assault are also heterosexual.
To assume that offenders are homosexual protects and exonerates the heterosexual offender and unfairly places suspicion and blame on the gay community. To assume that the victim is homosexual has negative consequences for the survivor regardless of whether he is straight or whether he is gay. For both there is the additional social stigma of being considered gay, along with the sense of blame for the attack. This blame is based on a failure to make clear distinctions between consenting and nonconsenting sex.
Although sexual abuse creates confusion and concern about sexuality, it does not determine the survivor's sexual preference. It is the survivor alone, not the abuser, who determines what his sexual preferences are and whom he is willing to have sex with.
From victim to victimiser?
ANOTHER myth that stigmatises and silences male survivors is the misconception that victims grow up to become victimisers. Although it is undeniable that many, perhaps most, sex offenders were abused as children, to say that being victimised as a child predestines one to become an abuser would be laughable if it weren't such a serious and offensive assumption. Sexual assault is always the choice of the abuser, regardless of whether the abuser was victimised as a child. Men who have been sexually abused as children respond to their abuse in a variety of ways. Some are so appalled by the devastating effects of abuse on their own lives that they become determined to make the world a safer place. This may take the form of ensuring that their own parenting is responsible and nonabusive, working in human-service fields, learning appropriate skills of assertion and communication, or fighting social injustice through activism. Other survivors continue to experience themselves as powerless victims, continually struggling to survive from day to day. They lack the capacity and the will to abuse others, and are often subject to being reabused themselves.
THE sexual assault of males by males supports and reinforces the patriarchal nature of our society. It builds and strengthens hierarchies of male power, and is an extension of male domination over females. As Ann Game and Rosemary Pringle state in Gender at work, "Patriarchy is a structure that gives some men power over other men, and all men power over women."
The way these hierarchy of male power is strengthened through sexual violence against males varies from situation to situation, but it seems to occur in at least three broad contexts:
1) Within families and extended families
The offender is usually an older male, often holding a position of trust and having direct regular access to the victim. Examples are: father, uncle, cousin, brother, stepfather, grandfather, next-door neighbour, youth leader, teacher, religious leader, coach. One consequence of the sexual abuse is that this offender exerts considerable power over the victim and consolidates his power over others, including women, in the family or in a general social context.
2) Where a man seeks to gain or maintain status as "top dog"
In this context the offender targets another man whom he perceives as having significant social power, particularly among other men. This social power has usually been obtained through aggression, "toughness" and machismo. By humiliating this man through sexual violation and creating a general climate of fear and terror, he places himself at the top of the pyramid. This climate of fear based on brute strength further disempowers women. This type of assault occurs most frequently in male-dominated environments such as men's clubs, prisons and the armed services.
3) Where a man or a group of men punishes a man for being different
Here the offender or offenders punish another man for behaving or appearing differently from the stereotypical macho norm. By sexually violating this man they are saying his behaviour is unacceptable for males, and they are more easily able to continue their own conformist behaviour unchallenged. This abusive action helps to maintain a gulf between the accepted behaviour of men and the accepted behaviour of women. It effectively keeps the sexes different, polarised, and facilitates men's general domination over women. Divide and conquer. Examples are: punishing a man or boy for enjoying poetry, speaking softly, wearing a bright shirt, being an artist, having a small stature, doing housework, appearing "gay", being educated, and expressing tender feelings.
Most offenders are male, but sexual assault of males by females can and does occur. It's important to acknowledge that some men and boys have experienced being sexually assaulted by a female or females, and as such they deserve support. In the words of "Edward", a member of a Melbourne support group for male survivors: "No one, heterosexual or homosexual, man or woman, has the right to rape another heterosexual or homosexual, man or woman."
SEXUAL assault is a traumatic, devastating experience for victims or survivors regardless of whether they are male or female. It takes enormous courage to face what has happened and embark on a journey of healing.
For male survivors there are many social pressures and patterns of male conditioning that make it difficult to acknowledge being abused, to speak out about it, and to seek appropriate help in overcoming the trauma.
When a male survivor discloses to us that they have been sexually abused, it's essential that we believe them, take them seriously, and refrain from judging or blaming them. It's unlikely they're making it up, since there are usually no social gains to be made from fabricating a story of abuse.
Above all, survivors of sexual abuse need to feel heard and accepted.
First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995