Boys and Men Are Still Suffering In Silence As Survivors Of Assault and Sexual Violence
CW: rape, sexual violence, intimate partner violence, mass incarceration, child abuse, assault, lynching
While the data and statistics regarding rates of rape, assault, and intimate partner violence against men is alarming, they don’t tell the entire story of this public health issue.
In 2016, the Joyful Heart Foundation partnered with Viacom and 1in6 to release a series of print and video ads aimed at raising awareness about myths and facts related to survivors of assault and sexual abuse who are men. The campaign included graphics featuring resources for survivors to access and included quoted phrases like “Why didn’t he tell anyone”, “That doesn’t happen to guys”, and “We don’t talk about that” in an effort to highlight the fact that conversations about men who are survivors aren’t happening as often as they should.
Given the unfortunate issue of underreporting, the data on this subject doesn’t offer a full picture of the horrifying reality. Reported incidents tell us the following (as detailed by the CDC):
- About 1 in 17 men in the U.S. were victims of stalking at some point in their lifetime.
- Nearly 1 in 4 men in the U.S. experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.
- About 1 in 14 men in the U.S. were made to penetrate (MTP) someone during their lifetime.
- About 1 in 3 men experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
- Nearly 56% of men who were victims of contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner first experienced these or other forms of violence by that partner before age 25.
Underreporting of these crimes is due to multiple factors including, but not limited to, feelings of shame and guilt of the survivor/victim that keep them from sharing their story, fears associated with coming forward, and worries that they won’t be believed. With respect to incidents during which the boy or man was MTP, the situation is even more complicated due to the fact that certain cultural ideas and norms don’t leave room for boys and men in narratives of victimhood. To add insult to injury, there are many instances of rape, assault, and other forms of violence against boys and men that aren’t framed as crimes or are simply ignored. From rape and MTP at the hands of teachers, religious leaders, and female partners to incidents like prison rape and child sexual abuse, power dynamics can impact the way these stories of abuse are framed and responded to.
Relatedly, survivors who are trans, gender fluid, gender queer, masc, and/or “present” as boys and men face the additional consequence of disproportionate violence against them given the unique ways that they are persecuted under heteronormative culture. So issues like underreporting and narratives that fail to capture the violent reality of their experiences with abuse are perpetuated.
Jim Sidanius, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in memory of William James and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, offers a scientific approach to figuring out why survivors of rape, assault, and other forms of violence who are boys and men are often forced into silence or ignored. Sidanius focuses on non-white boys and men in his work and for the intents and purposes of this passage they will be centered.
Subordinate males are the primary focus of the subordinate male target hypothesis (SMTH) as theorized by Sidanius. He argues, as simply explained by Gerry Veenstra in an article that compared Intersectionality Theory to SMTH, that “the discrimination experienced by the men of subordinate groups — primarily at the hands of men of dominant groups — is greater than that experienced by the women of the same subordinate groups.” In other words, non-white men, as opposed to non-white women, are the primary targets of race-based violence and discrimination.
When asked about what theories like Intersectionality get wrong about the subordinate male experience, philosopher and critical theorist Tommy J. Curry had this to say: “When we look at Sidanius and Pratto’s work on social dominance theory, Raewyn Connell’s explanations of racialized subordinate masculinity in the global South, or even Anthony Lemelle Jr.’s account of black masculinity within racial capitalism, we find vastly different (and more empirically based) accounts of the position males of racially subjugated groups suffer under. However, most theoretical engagements with black males not only do not cite these works, but have no knowledge these works even exist.”
He went on to explain that “Black males suffer higher rates of domestic violence, intimate partner homicide and child (physical and sexual) abuse than many other groups of men, but their suffering is thought to be irrelevant to theory.” He also lamented that “there are no theories of female-perpetrated violence against Black men and boys, nor are there theoretical accounts of the vulnerability Black males have to sexual assault.” After suggesting that the genuine lived experiences of Black men and boys are still invisible in literature, theory, and research in the fields of Gender, Critical, and Race Theories, he recommended that people read his book to find data to support his claim that Black men and boys are particularly targeted by oppressive systems.
The recently released Netflix miniseries When They See Us offers a heartbreaking account of the real life story of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. As teenagers, the boys were coerced into giving false confessions, tried for crimes ranging from robbery and assault to rape and riot, and received sentences ranging from five to fifteen years in relation to the 1989 Central Park Jogger Case.
The trauma, silencing, and violence suffered by Santana, Richardson, McCray, Salaam, and Wise are a part of a genealogy of subordinate male violence in the United States that has historically been perpetuated by systemic white supremacy. Tragedies like the murder of Emmett Till, the abuse and eventual suicide of Kalief Browder, and the ongoing harms suffered by Black, Brown, and Indigenous boys and men via mass lynchings and incarceration illustrate the complicated relationship between subordinate males and privilege.
In Curry’s The Man-Not he examines the various, unique vulnerabilities that subordinate males are subjected to in patriarchal capitalist societies. From barriers to higher education to proximity to State violence, surveillance, and control, the experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous boys and men are often marked by discrimination. Theories that automatically and necessarily classify subordinate males — like Black, Brown, and Indigenous boys and men — as privileged and generally dominant, given their gender as it relates to patriarchy, don’t offer a complete picture of the reality of how power dynamics impact their lived experiences.
In When They See Us, the threats of sexual violence, physical assault, and loss of innocence as experienced by Black boys and men specifically are showcased carefully. Data and statistics that track rates of people who are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes, abused and/or killed by police, coerced into giving false confessions, and at-risk of recidivism should supplement their findings with research related to Social Dominance Theory and Black Male Studies to ensure that ideas like “Black male privilege” aren’t alluded to in an effort to avoid perpetuating dangerous notions about patriarchy and power.
When it comes to violence against boys and men of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds, concepts like patriarchy and power play a vital role. While it necessary to analyze and critique the systemic, structural, and institutional forces that negatively, disproportionately, and often fatally impact people who are not men, it is also important to take into account possible weaknesses of the theories and frameworks we work with. One main weakness with many theories that seek to unpack and explain power dynamics and violence as they relate to marginalized people is that they often erase or ignore the unique struggles of people considered to be more privileged or have more power.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
- 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, etc.
- 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.
- 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.
- 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence (e.g. beating, burning, strangling) by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
- 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
In cases involving Black, Brown, and Indigenous men, the racist history of sexual violence against and global history of dehumanization of boys and men adds dimensions to the tragedies that are often erased from narratives about survivors. Further, popular discourse about survivors tends to center girls and women often to the detriment of boys and men.
If the point of liberatory movements is to dismantle systems of oppression, it’s necessary to consider new ways of thinking about interlocking and overlapping systems of oppression impact lived experiences and the ways we talk and theorize about them. Boys and men continue to suffer in silence while movements aimed at survivors ignore and erase their narratives. In an effort to ensure that there are more resources and safe spaces for boys and men to turn to for healing and guidance, it’s time to believe survivors of all gender identities and unlearn dangerous ways of thinking about power and patriarchy. There are lives that depend on it.