I just started college a couple of weeks ago and already there has been a rape and a sexual assault reported to the police from our campus. Considering that only a very small percentage of sexual assaults are even reported to the police, it’s sickening to imagine what the actual number looks like. This is very depressing, but sadly, not shocking. One in four women will be sexually assaulted in college.
Sexual violence isn’t only a woman’s problem, either; 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18. Because of the myths and societal attitudes, men report even less than women do. People think that men cannot rape other men or that being raped by a man somehow means that they are gay.
There are obviously then a lot of intersections between gender and violence and using gender as a lens in which to examine sexual violence in particular can be give a telling perspective in framing the issue. The ways in which sexual violence impact the world and also individuals often is constructed and understood through gender.
Let’s examine this relationship more closely.
Obviously, this figure says a lot about how sexual violence is perpetrated. Men account for perpetrating almost all cases of sexual violation and this has a very key root in how men in our society are socialized to encounter sex.
Men are taught that women’s sexualities belong to them. Women owe men their bodies and men are entitled to receiving sexual favors from women. Rape is about power and control. Women in our society do not have the same social power that men do and from a larger cultural perspective and that makes them much more vulnerable to be targets of all kinds of assault.
There’s also the fact that masculinity is highly valued in our society and in our society, masculinity means violence, aggression and unearned power that is exerted in dominance over others. This exertion is very present in sexual violence.
Victim Blaming Comes From Sexism
One of the biggest problems with sexual violence is victim blaming, which occurs when the person that was victim to the crime is blamed for it’s happening. “
“Why didn’t you say no?”
“Why were you out alone anyway?”
“You shouldn’t have drank so much.”
These are all common themes that you hear people ask survivors of sexual assault, placing the guilt for the crime on to them and removing responsibility from the perpetrator.
You most commonly hear victim blaming being thrown at female survivors (who account for 90% of all those sexually assaulted as it is), especially in regards to their whereabouts, attire and relationship to the man in question.
This blaming comes from our societies wrong assumption that sexual violence is inherently sexual. Men just can’t keep it in their pants and if sexually provoked, it is only natural that the rape, so the story goes.
Women then are in charge of being the sexual gatekeepers and deciding what the line is of going “too far,” since men will obviously say yes to anything. Therefore, this line of thought leads to the conclusion that sexual violence committed against them must be their fault, because they were in some way asking for it.
All of this is very, very untrue. Sexual assault and rape are crimes of power and control. They have very little to do with anything sexual. Sexual violence doesn’t happen because of a man’s uncontrollable lust, but rather his desire to gain the upper-hand over someone and take their power and autonomy away.
This gendered narrative of sexuality (and the myth that men have uncontrollable, animalistic desires and women are basically asexual) plays out in many other areas of our culture, too. It’s part of how we navigate gender and sexuality as a society. Until we change this, we will continue to see this divide of power in sexuality between men and women.
Sexual Violence and Sexual Orientation Don’t Mix
Men experience rape and sexual violence too and it’s important that we both acknowledge this and refuse to buy into the cultural notions about what this means. There’s propaganda that suggests that a man is raped is somehow not masculine or not strong because he didn’t resist or even gay because man-on-man rape occurs with anal penetration.
Just like I said before, sexual violence has nothing to do with sex- it’s all about power. A man who is raped can have any sexual orientation (same with the rapist) and the violence has nothing to do with any type of sexual desire.
Men have to face the questioning of their masculinity when they’ve been sexually violated, as we tend to see survivors as having had something taken from them and being in a position of weakness. Men are not questioned in the light of provocation or sexual prowess, but instead in the light of not fighting back. After all, if they were stronger, or a “real man” they would have stopped it, right?
Penetration as Value
Our society gives preference to the penetrator in sex. The person who is penetrating is seen to have the power in a sexual act and is therefore socially rewarded (as power is rewarded in our society). Just think about the phrase “fuck you,” which is often thrown at others as an insult. You are saying that they should be fucked, i.e. penetrated and that that is not a position that they want to be in. Being the penetrated is to be on the weaker side of sex.
Because of this notion, it makes us very uncomfortable to view men as being sexually violated, since heteronormativity dictates that men are always the penetrators and women the penetrated and this power dynamic is what is appropriate and expected. Going outside of that in rape challenges the ideas we hold about masculinity and dominance and being a man who who’s power was violated by another makes us see the violated as weak and therefore not ‘manly’ enough. It is these mistaken notions of power and masculinity that cause us to shame male survivors for the crimes committed against them, instead of blaming the perpetrators for acting in such vileness.
Sexual violence and gender have a lot of similar undertones of masculinity and femininity at their intersections. Sex is framed and understood in our society by gender (after all, sexual orientation, virginity and sexual acts wouldn’t make sense without gendered terminology) and because of this, it echo’s in the dynamics of sexual violence. It’s not something that can be understood without looking at sexism, masculinity and social norms about men and women’s sexuality. Until we deconstruct gender and how that shapes our ideas about power and control, we will never be free of the chains that tie us to a dangerous ideology that causes us to blame the victim and not the perpetrator.
**If you want to get help in dealing with sexual assault call the RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) hotline toll-free 24/7 at 1.800.656.HOPE**