Don’t piss on their shoes: Why women need to listen to the survivors of male rape.
In the recent discussions on rape culture — usually online but increasingly face-to-face — I see three rough ‘types’ of male contributors to the discussions. The Mansplainer, The Ally, and the Survivor.
Type 1: The Mansplainer is your typical #NotAllMen! contributor. He’s the one usually going on about how ‘decent’ men are tarred with the same brush as the ‘few rotten apples’, and that it’s ‘sexist’ for women to assume that all men are predators and sexual assailants, because that’s judging an entire gender for no other reason than they have a penis. He’s dismissive of the experiences of women, oblivious to how many women are reporting and disclosing how routine sexual assault is, because he cannot see the world from their perspective. He’s butthurt and conflates the mild discomfort of a bruised ego (women assuming the nice guy is a threat) with the banal, ubiquitous, exhausting evil of being the continual mark for sexual assault — the reality of the female experience.
Type 1 will come across as sympathetic and reasonable in the fact of all those negative, hurt ‘bitter’ women, and he has every feminist on the thread grinding her teeth in frustration, because he genuinely believes that rape is rare, and that it’s only “a few” men doing it and everyone else should be given the benefit of the doubt:
His comments may look something like this (cabbaged from a real discussion):
“Given some women’s experiences, it easy to see how their perspective might lead them to believe all men are predators, but it simply isn’t true…I’m sorry for the acts of a few bad apples, but there needs to be room in your view point to recognise there are mostly good men in the barrel.”
No matter how many women try to explain what it’s like to be a woman, he doesn’t get it, until Type 2, the Ally, (the rare, rare Type 2) shows up.
This is the man who gets it. He explains to the legion of NotAllMen hashtaggers that they need to shut up, just shut up for once about themselves and their egos and listen to women. Type 2 will explain to the men — not the women — how he used to think just like them, but changed when he realised what most of the women he knew had to go through their entire lives. Type 2 echos what the women are saying, and Type 1s will listen to him, usually, because men listen to other men. Type 2 uses his male privilege to help the women. Type 2 is rare, and Type 2 is loved. His contribution might look something like this:
Hey, Type 1, I used to be sitting in the same seat you are when it comes to this stuff, and it took the patient explanations of many different women before I twigged to the fact that I was talking reasonably while being, on the exterior, a lion about ten feet tall, and the women I was talking to about this were tiny lambs, known to be delicious to lions. It was like a light switch flicked on. Suddenly I was seeing what I look like through the eyes of my friends and colleagues, women. . .I look like these other men even if I’ve never stalked, or raped, or groped a woman in my life. So, with that light switch going on, I realised that I’m part of the problem if I do nothing. I need to actively pursue empathy, understanding that women smile at strangers not because they are pleased, but to forestall an imminent physical attack. Men are rage-filled, hormone-induced, very strong, very big, predators. We are men, Type 1, We are those things. Even if we don’t behave that way. That’s when my life changed. When I realised how much power I’ve had without knowing it.
No matter how many women survivors are saying this to the Type 1s, they will generally only start to shift their position when a Type 2 male shows up and uses his male privilege to echo and amplify what the women are saying (the discussion I’ve quoted involved eight female sexual assault survivors, and two Type 1 men. I shit you not).
And then there’s Type 3. The male (or male-bodied) survivor of sexual assault. He’ll try and speak about his own experiences, and argue that women survivors get all the help and attention. No one acknowledges his pain. No one cares. No one believes him. He’s come into the discussion ready to talk about this shit, and writes something like this (here I’m paraphrasing from memory):
Well I was raped by a woman. I was drunk at a party, ended up in the bedroom, and she came in and started manipulating my penis until I got hard. Then she fucked me. I didn’t want to have sex, but I was too drunk. It’s completely destroyed me, and no one will listen. I’m treated as though I “got lucky”. My own body betrayed me, and people laugh. I’m suicidal, and people treated it as a joke.
Or, most often something like this:
I was raped repeatedly as a child by my youth group leader. He had a group of men who’d pass me and my friend around. I’m not allowed to talk about this. I’m never believed. Men are raped too, and there’s no help for us. No one gives a shit.
These men — the Type 3 survivors — when they enter the #MeToo discussions, are shouted down by women. Yes, yes they are. Shut up and listen to the women. Why do men always have to make these discussions about them? They’re treated with the caustic contempt — in fact greater caustic contempt — than the Type 1 Mansplainers.
Now I’m throwing down this challenge to women. We need to stop doing that. Because we know what it’s like to be silenced survivors. We need to give these men a place to speak. Rounding on Type 3 males in these discussions is a terribly isolating experience for these men and male-bodied survivors, and it’s turning potential allies to foes.
The Type 1 Mansplainer will smugly point to the Type 3s with a “see, I told you so,” to the women. “Men are raped too! Women rape men as well!” They use this to silence and control the discussion. They will however actively silence Type 3s as well. Disbelieve them. Ignore them. Laugh at them. Say their narcissistic attention seekers. Call them delusional. And if you want to see how catastrophically harrowing this can get, read some of the accounts of Jimmy Saville’s victims. Trigger warnings abound, and if you’re not triggered at least a little by male disclosures of rape and childhood sexual abuse (CSA) then you are crass, compassionless monster and a miserable human being.
There are two kinds of trauma we’re talking about here we speak of sexual violence. The first is our personal trauma, then one we share with male survivors, the common ground. This is the direct experience of rape, or repeat sexual assault. This is the silence encoded into us if we were sexually abused as children. This is the groping. This is the lewd catcalling. Personal trauma is what you experience as an individual, the trauma that feeds into the broader culture. For someone who’s a woman, her personal trauma is part of the cultural trauma and vice versa. When we experience trauma, unless we work on it, we start acting out of it. Rape is of course not the only kind of personal trauma. The Jewish person who is subjected to the k-word and has Nazi swastikas sprayed on his parent’s tomb stones. The African American who is shot at by cops as he’s ‘driving while black’. Our personal traumas are what give us the empathy to say to other survivors of different kinds of abuse; “Hey, I get it. Me too. In different ways, but me too.”
The second kind of trauma is cultural trauma. This involves our history, our inherited ideas, the experiences of our ancestors, our friends and family members. If we occupy an underprivileged position in society — if we’re black, or Jewish, or a woman, or disabled — then even if we have not personally experienced trauma, we know someone who has.
For someone who is African American, even if he hasn’t been called the n-word, he knows someone who has. Even if he hasn’t been stopped or shot at by the cops, he knows someone who has. Even if he has not been racially fetished by ‘sexually curious’ white women who then accused him of sexual assault (yeah, fuck yeah I’m going there), he knows someone who has. And at the back of it all, the historical spectre of slavery, the thing he cannot shake, because it’s bound to blood and bone. My great-grandma was a slave. She told us of the Massa who would strangle the babies in the cradle if they looked too white… Don’t tell him this racism isn’t a culture. Don’t piss on his shoes, Whitesplainer, and tell him it’s raining.
For Jews, the shoah, the holocaust. Enough fucking said. Don’t attempt to talk about Israel without first understanding the crushing reality of this cultural trauma. Don’t even. I get you want to talk about human rights abuses in Gaza. I get that. But do it with the clear understanding there are only fourteen million Jewish people left on the planet because of what we did to them. Don’t piss on their shoes, Goysplainer, and tell them it’s raining. Don’t tell them this antisemitism isn’t a culture. Not when they’re scrubbing swastikas off their parent’s tombstones in 2017.
In the case of rape and sexual assault, I started a discussion in my writer’s group and found that seven of the female contributors to the discussion were survivors of rape, and two were survivors of CSA and rape. My author group isn’t a survivor support group, it’s a professional network. And yet the survivors were in the majority. They shared experiences of being raped, groped, assaulted, catcalled, driven out of workplaces. Many had been repeatedly traumatized. Don’t tell me this isn’t a culture. Don’t piss on my shoes, Type 1 Mansplainer, and tell me it’s raining. This is the norm for women, not the experiences of ‘some’ females and the actions of a ‘few bad apples’ men.
When women started the Me-too discussions, they were highlighting this cultural trauma. Their personal traumas were symptoms of it. When male survivors tried to disclose their experiences during those discussions they were highlighting personal trauma. Many women—unable to articulate that the discussion was about cultural trauma because so many personal traumas were bing shared, felt deeply ambivalent or even hostile to male disclosures of rape. Rape culture discussions were not the place for men to disclose, and so many women felt it was just another bunch of men trying to silence them or divert attention from the real issue of pervasive gender-based violence against women and girls.
In turn, the Type 3s were silenced, driven away, isolated, and driven to despair and bitterness. I understand they shouldn’t have tried to divert the discussions to their personal trauma, but, come on folks, we know people act of their trauma. For a man, in this culture, to walk into a group of strangers (in real life or online) and say, “I was raped. I was sexually abused,” means he’s broken his silence in a society that does not even accept male rape exists. He’s done a metric asstonne of work to even get to this point. His pain, his courage, his experiences need to be recognised and validated because breaking the silence is the hardest thing to do.
Nowhere is that silence more embedded, more insidious, more difficult to break, than in the case of a man, or male-bodied person, who was raped as child. The silencing is encoded into his very developmental process. Breaking it goes beyond anything you or I, with our nurtured, loving childhoods, have any conception of. Yeah, I was raped. Brutally raped, dear reader, in a way that would send most of you to places of deep, dark anger. My experience pales in comparison with some of my friends who are the survivors of male rape. Compared with those men and assigned males at birth, I’ve had a blessed and comparatively pain-free life.
Here’s the thing. There is no common space for men to disclose and discuss rape and sexual assault as personal trauma. There are no spaces at all. We’re only just beginning to listen to male survivor’s stories. When male survivors come into women’s discussions, they’re maybe not expressing themselves in the best way because, (duh!) survivors have trouble expressing themselves at all. That is the nature of the cultural silencing of survivors. It works. C’mon, we know this. This is Feminism 101.
Treating a Type 3 survivor like he’s a Type 1 mansplainer is miserably cruel, and re-traumatizing. Since he was most likely target as a child, it’s beyond cruel: I’d go as far to say that driving him out of discussions is evil.
So here’s my solution:
Type 3 — Male survivors. When you enter a discussion between women on rape culture, understand you’ve been personally traumatised, but haven’t experienced the cultural trauma of gender-based violence. The cultural trauma what this discussion is about. So, turn yourself into a Type 2 Ally for the duration of the discussion. You have a bit of male privilege, you can turn to that Type 1 Mansplainer and his petulant “men are raped too!” and say “yeah, tell me ALL about that, Mansplainer. I’m a survivor. The women are talking about their entire gender. Why don’t we shut the fuck up and listen to them for once?” In that way, as an ally, you open the discussion from a position of shared common ground. And women will love you for it, and then they will listen to you.
Women — When men or people who were assigned male at birth disclose they’re survivors, acknowledge the disclosure. Believe them. Do it even if they’ve not realised this is a cultural trauma discussion. Explain to them the difference between personal and cultural trauma. And then listen to them, believe them, bring them in as your allies, not your opponents. Treat them as though they’re a Type 2, and they will most likely become one.
As women we repeatably say we cannot dismantle rape culture — and the patriarchy that nurtures it — without men. These men, the survivors, are our natural allies. Rather than turn friends to foes, we need to listen, nurture, and provide spaces for them to talk about their experiences, not contribute to the trauma of being silenced.
I don’t want to be in my 80s, like my babyboomer sisters, and still be protesting rape culture. I want it to change. For women. For men. And especially for children.
And to my allies who are men who have been raped, or transwomen (I have not forgotten you in all of this, I promise) who have been raped: I will work harder, I will do better, to make sure your voices are heard, and that you have the spaces to break your silence. I will not tell your experiences don’t matter. Or tell you — especially those of you who were assaulted as children — that this isn’t a culture.
I will not piss on your shoes, and tell you it’s raining.
You’re not invisible. In the words of Asia Kate Dillon:
I see you.
I hear you.
I believe you.
And you matter to me.