You do know somebody.
I’ve never been particularly athletic or the most toned guy. I’ve always dressed a bit more stylish than my male colleagues — more often than not choosing jeans and a linen button down over gym shorts and a hoodie.
In grade school, I never really got into video games, I always kept my room clean, and I wore a puka shell necklace because I idolized Kenny Chesney and thought that it made me cool like him. My classmates thought otherwise.
In fact, anyone who knew me growing up assumed that I was gay because I didn’t conform to the hegemonic masculinity that was standard of the time. This assumption of me, fused with typical classroom gossip, was a source of constant criticism and bullying throughout my childhood and even long into my high school career.
Those who know me best today, know that one of my greatest interests is this same exterior idea of “perception”. I’m tirelessly curious to understand why people say things, and why they don’t say things; why they think things, and why they don’t think things; why they do certain things, and why they don’t do certain things.
When I came to college, I learned about social issues and injustices that I never knew existed because those issues and injustices were not something I had to deal with firsthand as a truthfully straight, cisgender, able-bodied, white male from a middle-class white family in Springfield, Missouri. The people that I met and the stories that I heard no doubt widened my perspective. And prior to my time at Mizzou, I don’t even think I can genuinely say that I knew then how toxic the gender binary is, or that I understood the gravity of rape culture, because it was never something that I had been exposed to or fully grasped up until that point.
Having had the privilege of serving on the It’s On Us task force at Mizzou over the past couple of years has been an enlightening experience — one in which I believe truly paved the way for this widened perspective. It’s allowed me to become more of an individual; to realize that we do all face our own respective adversity, but even more so, that we all deal with such adversity in our own respective ways. However, growing up, denouncing the perception that I was gay — whether by myself or by those who knew me best — was still not enough to prevent my sexual assault from happening.
As a man who undoubtedly supports the It’s On Us mission, it’s been interesting to observe the perceptions that other men have of me and my male colleagues who also serve on the task force… at least what I’ve recognized the perception to be, which is that we’re these “white knight” masculine figures who are only advocating for women because it makes us look good, or because it “helps us get laid.” Or even that shared perception of both my male and female colleagues, which is that we’re all “militant feminists,” as if identifying any other way or believing in anything otherwise prevents one from supporting sexual assault survivors. Certainly, such perceptions are problematic in and of themselves, but they also downplay the larger issue at hand: The prevalence of sexual violence and a misunderstanding of what it means to consent.
Beyond stereotypes, I believe that society ignorantly views sexual assault through the same patriarchal lens that we’ve become comfortable looking through for centuries, which is in fact shows that image of a woman losing Her power to a man. And in fact, this is why sexual assault is so often deemed a “women’s issue”.
To be clear: I’m not sharing this story to say that one gender’s survivors deserve more attention or advocacy than another. As we know, there is a vastly disproportionate number of women who are survivors of sexual assault to men. But, the simple fact that there is a quantifiable number in which to determine proportionality across gender is, at its very core, why “even one is too many”. This is a human right’s issue — not a gender one.
I’m sharing my story to shed light on a side of this issue that is too often overlooked, but reaches just as far as that which paints a woman being taken advantage of by a man. In fact, I’m shedding light on a side of this issue that narrates a vulnerable man being taken advantage of by a more privileged man. From the day I committed and dedicated myself to this cause, I’ve seen the blatant validation of a myth that men do not or cannot experience sexual assault. They can. They have. They do. And they will continue to if we don’t create a more inclusive environment that supports them and encourages them to come forward and share their story.
And in fact, the leading fear of men telling their stories is homophobia. Though I’m not gay, the common perception that I am is certainly what’s prevented me from telling this story for the past 4 years. The common perception that I am is actually attributed to a number of personal matters that I invisibly deal with everyday, regardless of how secure others may think I am socially, professionally, academically, and extracurricularly. We all have edges, some sharper than others.
As I look back on my experience and come forward in honesty, I ultimately hope this illustrates that there are no “you may know somebody who”’s.
You do know a bartender or a bouncer who could have acted on their impression of a situation. You do know a professor who may have been a little too willing to help out. You do know somebody in power or privilege who has used it to justify their actions. You do know a woman who has been sexually abused, and if you’re reading this you do know a man who has also had such an experience. And for that woman or that man… action, support, and empathy is needed for so much more than just one week when people decide to sign a banner or wear teal ribbons to esoterically initiate that action, support, or empathy.
As a survivor, for years I’ve asked myself forms of the question: Was my assault even that? If I don’t feel affected by it every day, does that make it invalid? If it is invalid, will sharing my story hurt or offend others who live with a greater stigma every day? Even recently, I tried re-writing this in a way that allowed me to escape sharing my story, while still fully expressing the weight of this issue. I could not.
Starting tomorrow, the recent baseball game will fade from memory. The ribbons will be removed from backpacks, the profile pictures will change, and teal clothing will sit in many of our closet’s because — let’s face it — teal is not the easiest color to work with. And in a couple of weeks, it’s very possible that the widespread attention to sexual assault prevention — be it during It’s On Us Week of Action or during the past MSA election cycle — could evaporate entirely.
But, I’m sharing my story so that those of you who feel passionate about eradicating sexual violence this week, feel that same passion next week. I’m sharing this story so that you realize sexual violence and sexual assault knows no boundaries. Sexual violence and the culture it’s bred in will continue to permeate campuses near and far; it will continue to permeate society. And we must continue talking about it.
But when we do, I personally ask that you please recognize the barriers men face when choosing whether to speak out about a sexual assault (re: the way we’re socialized or expected to behave in society), but also recognize that all survivors, male and female, be believed and supported by those around them, and allowed to make their own decisions about what courses of action to take in their individual experiences.
Because it is on all of us to support one another across gender, race, sexual orientation, societal status, education level, and every intersection therein.