Making Masculinity Visible to Sexual Violence…

Cowburn, M. (2010). Invisible men: Social reactions to male sexual coercion – bringing men and masculinities into community safety and public policy Critical Social Policy, 30 (2), 225-244 DOI: 10.1177/0261018309358308

Most of us are prepared to accept that men perpetrate most sexual violence (the lunatics in the men’s rights movement, notwithstanding). However, as Cowburn (2010) illustrates, the majority of prison treatment programs for sex offenders neither take account of the issues of gender and masculinity nor their potential positive role in the rehabilitation process (p.229). By omitting these essential considerations, these programs stymie any possible, worthwhile ‘behavioural and attitudinal change’ (2010, p.230). Cowburn (2010) argues, and I would concur, that we need to understand how and why men behave ‘as men’ (p.230) when it comes to sexual violence. ‘We’ here, I would think, should as much refer to sexual offenders as it does to everyone else in the community.

Male violence, including male sexual violence, retains a disturbingly high level of acceptability within the community. That most sexual offences are perpetrated by ‘men who kn[e]w their victims’ (2010, p.230) means that we are seldom talking about ‘stranger danger’ out there but rather, our boyfriends, partners, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, teachers, priests, coaches, and so forth (2010, pp.233-234). Men we know, men we respect, men who we might love and care for. To at once revere and be repulsed by someone who you might have been close to, perhaps for your entire life, cannot fail to generate extraordinary emotional tensions. Moreover, it begs the question, how could any man sexually abuse anyone to whom he would claim to be close?

Cowburn (2010) refers to several mechanisms by which we, as a community, obviate addressing the reality of male sexual violence. One of those mechanisms is ‘denial’ (2010, pp.233-234). Because the reality is so shocking, and the extent of the problem so great, we alternatively focus on a discrete, stereotypical subset: the ‘evil, sick’ (2010, p.234) sexual predator who in no way corrupts the sanctity of family, church, school, etc. Indeed, that stereotypical male perpetrator bolsters our misplaced faith in the safety that we might expect from the aforementioned institutions. Sexual violence, thus, remains a hugely hidden problem, with reporting rates exponentially lower than what is really happening behind closed doors (2010, pp.230-231).

We will not affect a much-needed decline in sexual violence so long as we refuse to acknowledge the actual characteristics of the problem (2010, p.237). That must include, according to Cowburn (2010), critical reflection upon the strong links between dominant forms of masculinity and male violence against women (p.240). Too many men continue to hold if not also practice the most despicable, misogynistic behaviours and attitudes, for example, that ‘sexual aggression is normal’, that ‘sexual relationships involve game playing’, that ‘men should dominate women’ and that ‘women are responsible for rape’ (2010, p.231). These behaviours and attitudes are so ingrained in our collective mindset that we can sometimes forget that they are not biologically given…

Reprinted with permission from Strong Silent Types - Stuff About Men.