Invisible Violence: Masculinity and the Construction of the Un-rapeable Male Body
The fight against sexual violence has been going on for many years now. Typically thought of as a problem that afflicts mostly women, feminists have been on the front lines of this battle since the Second Wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s. Overwhelmingly, women are the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of male perpetrators. Despite gains made by feminists in raising awareness and combating the prevalence of sexual violence, it remains a major issue. As recently as 2008, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the 52nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women by launching a campaign to end violence against women, stating that one out of every three women in the world is likely to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime (Segal 105-06). Arguably, sexual violence can be viewed through a gendered lens and requires as much attention as we can give it. In their attempts to focus people’s attention on the problem of women’s sexual violation, Second Wave feminists helped create an ideological link between masculinity and violence. While it can be helpful to analyze the roots of sexual violence through the ways in which we are socialized into masculinity and femininity, critics have noted major problems with this analysis. Some of the most well-known Second Wave feminists, from Susan Brownmiller to Catharine MacKinnon, promoted the view that “all men are either rapists, rape-fantasists, or beneficiaries of a rape-culture” (Segal 114). Feminist theorist Lynne Segal draws attention to this statement, arguing that this position “perversely endorses rather than challenges the gender binary it is so crucial to question” (114). The result of this link between masculinity and violence has been the construction of the un-rapeable male body; sexual violence against men has been omitted from discourse and erased from public consciousness. According to research, sexual violence against men is a pervasive but highly unreported phenomenon (Bourke 242). This paper aims to explore how our Western conceptions of masculinity, femininity and rape itself have led to the idea that rape only happens to women, as well as the effects these conceptions have on male victims and the availability of men’s victim support services. It is my contention that the social construction of masculinity, with its promotion of power, control, sexual aggressiveness and stoicism, has created and perpetuated the idea that men are always active subjects who cannot be sexually violated. With this version of masculinity, constructed in opposition to femininity, along with the prevalence of male rape myths, we have created a world in which male victims of sexual assault are met with disbelief, ridicule, and stigmatization and in most cases, have no recourse or access to victim support services. As Lynne Segal also suggests, in order for feminists to move forward in the quest to eradicate all sexual violence, we must acknowledge the fact that men can be victims, women can be perpetrators, and “all human bodies are fundamentally dependent and vulnerable” (121).
The reasons behind the invisibility of violence against men are complex and tied to notions of sex, gender and identity. It is not enough to question the accuracy of the report rates of male rape or to investigate the myths surrounding it; in order to begin understanding why male sexual assault is an unacknowledged phenomenon in our society, one must examine the very nature of the gender categories into which we are socialized and how those identities affect our conceptions of sexed bodies and rape. Although the biological determinist perspective has existed for many generations, it garnered much attention during the Second Wave feminist movement. In Susan Brownmiller’s uncompromising polemic, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, she accounts for the existence of rape being due to an “accident of biology . . . [without which] there would be neither copulation nor rape” (14). According to Brownmiller, men simply have a structural capacity to rape and women have a corresponding structural vulnerability (13). For obvious reasons, an ideology such as this completely precludes the possibility of male rape. Treating biology as an inescapable truth, biological determinists construct men as active subjects who have the ‘natural’ ability to rape, and therefore lack a vulnerability to it.
In addition, because men and women, femininity and masculinity, are constructed in opposition to one another, the conception of man as the naturally active subject automatically renders woman the passive object. Thus, despite the fact that Brownmiller and her contemporaries were actually fighting for women’s liberation, they also helped contribute to the image of woman as the passive victim, the “natural prey” (Brownmiller 16) of the human male. This view is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it constructs rape as an inescapable fact of life that has existed since the beginning of time. If biology is indeed our destiny, and biology is the reason for rape, it seems quite impossible to conceive of a world in which rape is not simply a fact of life. Secondly, Brownmiller’s view completely ignores the possibility of men being victims, and women being perpetrators, of sexual violence.
The biological determinist perspective not only constructs men’s and women’s bodies in a very narrow way, it also contributes to an extremely limited conception of rape. As well, the biology used in defense of this perspective is itself socially constructed. As Joanna Burke has pointed out, the penis has been metaphorically coded as a weapon and the vagina as a passive receptacle (24); the most striking example of this can be found in the first item of the rapists’ charter which states that it is “impossible to sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard” (Bourke 24). One will note, however, that there is nothing inherently violent about the male penis – it has been assigned this meaning through social constructions of biology and gender. Bourke draws attention to the fact that there are myriad ways to sexually violate a person: “fists, tongues, bottles and broom handles are some of the ways a person can be violated. And the vagina is not the only part of the body that can be forcibly entered. What about the anus or mouth?” (8). Evidently, this narrative of rape in which men are always the perpetrators is a fiction; it has been constructed from beliefs about biology and gender.
While our conceptions of sex, gender and rape may be socially constructed rather than naturally occurring, one must remember that social constructions have very real and lasting effects in our lives. A significant example of these effects can be found by examining the legal definitions of rape. As late as 1996, the law in Georgia stated that rape had only occurred when a man had carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will (Donnelly & Kenyon 443). Similarly, Bourke has noted that in many cases in the UK, “legal statutes decree that rape involves the forced penetration of a vagina by a penis” (8), while others “refer to sexual acts committed ‘against a woman’s will’” (8). In these cases, a man who has been sexually violated is unable to define his experience as rape; the law does not apply to men. The most a male victim could hope to charge his perpetrator with is the lesser charge of sodomy, the legal definition of which includes a consensual and nonconsensual component. Thus, male victims not only experience symptoms similar to the rape trauma syndrome that has been observed in female rape victims (Smith 102), but they are told their experience is un-definable by law. The linguistic agency of naming their sexual assault is taken away from male victims.
How is it that the myth than men cannot be raped is so prevalent as to have been inscribed in law? This myth pervades not only the institution of law, but of academia, as well as the social and cultural subconscious. As Joanna Jamel has noted, “attitudes to male rape within society are reflective of historical conceptualizations of rape, explaining why research on male rape is over 20 years behind that of female rape” (488). Obviously, the invisibility of sexual violence against men is a deep-rooted and complex problem. Changing law and public perception requires challenging our conceptions of rape, as well as our understandings of gender and gender relations, that we learn from the time we are children. Michael Kimmel asserts that “gender has joined race and class as one of the axes around which social life is organized, and through which we can gain an understanding of our own experiences” (4). Thus, the ways in which we understand masculinity and femininity affect how we understand sexual violence. Traditional Western notions of masculinity have centered around aggression — sexual and otherwise – competitiveness, danger and a sense of entitlement (Kimmel 141). For instance, architect and inventor of the skyscraper, Louis Sullivan stated his ambition was to create ‘masculine forms’ that were strong, solid, tall and commanding of respect (Kimmel 4). Alternately, femininity is understood to embody the opposite characteristics. Furthermore, research has shown that children absorb sociological messages about gender and understand that they are either a boy or a girl from a very young age; this understanding has actual consequences for what they may or may not do (Gerson & Peiss 142). We carry these understandings of gender identities and roles into adulthood, where they continue to govern our thoughts, behaviors and attitudes. Gerson & Peiss note that “gender awareness permeates most facets of everyday life in either real or symbolic ways” (143). The conclusion one can draw from this is that our understandings of gender and sexed bodies affect our understanding of sexual violence as something that cannot happen to men.
Feminists have often argued that women’s bodies and sexuality are conceptualized as objects or property that can be stolen or taken (Marcus 399); conversely, the formulation of a masculine identity includes an unspoken sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Analyzed this way, one begins to see how our culture supports and perpetuates rape against women. A previously unforeseen effect of this analysis though, is that it renders sexual violence against men virtually invisible. As theorists from Lynn Segal to Denise Donnelly to Joanna Bourke have argued, men are victims of sexual assault at the hands of male and female perpetrators. The problem is that this side of sexual violence is unseen and ignored. This means that, despite the fact that evidence shows significant numbers of men are victims of sexual violence, people still believe the myth that men cannot be raped and women cannot perpetrate sexual violence; this is because those behaviors do not fit within the parameters of what we deem masculine and feminine traits. Thus, despite the fact that research on sex differences has shown no quality or trait is associated exclusively with one sex or the other, gender attribution is so strong that it frequently distorts the empirical phenomenon (Gerson & Peiss 143).
In a similar argument to that of Gerson & Peiss, West & Zimmerman promote the concept of ‘doing gender’ (147). They look at the performative nature of gender and analyze the effects gender display has on our behavior and attitudes. The work of West & Zimmerman is useful for critically examining how and why sexual violence against men is so incomprehensible a concept as to be absent from public discourse and law. The authors assert that performances of gender identity are repeated so often as to become naturalized. They note that gender is often fashioned in situations that seem conventionally expressive, such as a the ‘helpless’ woman next to a flat tire, but in fact, these situations do not so much allow for the expression of natural difference as for the production of that difference itself (West & Zimmerman 156). Thus, as Gerson & Peiss also argued, differences in displays of gender are accepted as natural effects of biology. What we call gender difference is actually the “sociocultural shaping of ‘essential female and male natures’ [that then] achieve the status of objective facts” (West & Zimmerman 160). Furthermore, West & Zimmerman argue that these ‘objective facts’ of gender difference are “rendered normal, natural features of persons and provide the tacit rationale for differing fates of women and men within the social order” (160). Consequently, the narrative that men are the ‘natural’ rapists and women the ‘natural’ victims of our species is exposed as fiction. The flip side of this narrative, similarly exposed as false is the myth that men cannot be raped and women cannot be active perpetrators.
If it can be understood, then, that male rape is a serious problem requiring attention and critical analysis, the next step is to examine the myths and realities of male rape. Due to the fact that male rape has been such an unrecognized problem, the statistics and information available are somewhat limited, but research indicates there are a number of prevalent beliefs about male rape, most of which are untrue. Most people would not recognize male rape as an urgent problem in our society, but if forced to face the issue, would exhibit belief in multiple victim-blaming male rape myths. Most often, the motivation behind male rape is thought to be homosexuality (Anderson par.7); in addition, male victims are likely to be blamed for their own rape and are likely to be viewed negatively by health workers and police (Anderson par. 6). While upsetting, one can easily see where these beliefs come from after analyzing the characteristics of Western masculinity. A study conducted by Irina Anderson found that male rape victims often invoke homophobia in the participants; the male study participants had the strongest emotional homophobic reactions. Anderson argues that due to the cultural pressure to conform to sex and gender roles, men appear to reinforce their ‘maleness’ by attacking gay men (par. 7). Whether the male rape victim is actually gay or not is often immaterial, as people will assume so by the fact that he was raped by a man. Bourke, for instance, points out the fact that male rape victims are often assumed to have triggered their abuse by being homosexual; they secretly desired it and thus set up a situation in which they could ‘cry rape’ (243).
The situation for male rape victims is no better when the perpetrator is female. In these cases, rather than being assumed gay, the victim’s experience is construed as a lucky encounter, rather than a traumatic sexual assault. In a study done by Cindy and David Struckman-Johnson, while they found that the majority of participants disagreed with all female rape myths, male rape myths still operated strongly when the perpetrator was a woman (97). Men are thought to always want sex from women so the idea of a woman ‘raping’ a man becomes ridiculous. In his investigation into social cognitions about male rape victims, Ronald Smith found that male victims are thought to have encouraged their attackers, as well as the belief that men cannot function sexually unless they are aroused (103). Therefore, a male victim who experienced an erection, or possibly even ejaculation, during their assault would be believed to have enjoyed the experience and not have been raped. Contrary to this popular belief, the documented fact is that men can experience an erection or ejaculation as a direct result of feeling intense negative emotions like anger and fear (Smith 103). Unfortunately, many victims themselves are not aware of this fact and consequently feel extreme shame and confusion over their response to the attack.
The myths discussed so far are generally applied to male rape that occurs outside institutional settings. The one place in society that male rape is recognized, still ignored, and even joked about is in the prison system. Laura Kipnis asserts that it is likely that as many men as women are raped every year in the United States; we simply do not recognize these male victims because they are incarcerated at the time (136). Kipnis makes a valid point. It would seem that the sexual violation of men is thought not to exist, except for in prison, where it is accepted as fact and passed off as ‘not that serious’. Conservative estimates are that twenty percent of all inmates in the U.S. are sexually assaulted or forced into unwanted sex; furthermore, at least seven percent are actually raped (Kipnis 136). Again though, “the general view of male prison rape seems to be that it isn’t comparable to what women experience” (Kipnis 137). Kipnis guesses that perhaps the reason prison rape only enters the public consciousness as a joke, rather than a serious problem is because the people affected by it are criminals and are therefore deserving of whatever happens to them (138). This attitude once more ties into the current construction of masculinity that idealizes strength and stoicism. This is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, what this line of thinking communicates is that if these hardened criminals are real men, they should be able to handle whatever happens to them, including being raped in prison; on the other hand, it can also be flipped around to say that if a man is so weak that he can be sexually violated by another man in prison, then he has been feminized and is deserving of whatever happens to him. Either way, men in prison are much more likely than their civilian counterparts to experience being raped, yet male prison rape continues to be joked about in popular culture and go unnoticed everywhere else.
It can also be argued that the average middle-class North American does not have any firsthand experience in a prison setting, and is therefore gathering information about male prison rape from some other sources. Helen Eigenberg surveyed a number of sitcoms, commercials and films in order to analyze how male rape is depicted in popular media. The majority of her study focused on movies about prison in particular. Although male prison rape is a large problem, as Kipnis points out, Eigenberg found that people perceive the rate of male rape in prisons to be even higher than it is. She states that “it appears that the average person in our culture assumes that almost everyone who fits the stereotypical victim profile will be raped in prison” (Eigenberg 58). Similarly, while research indicates that the rate of male rape in prison is somewhere between five and fifteen percent, “the fear of rape is a central defining characteristic of the prison experience” (Eigenberg 57). Working from a social constructionist view of reality, Eigenberg suggests that depictions of male prison rape in films support and perpetuate the ideals of hyper-masculinity in our culture. All of the films surveyed focus on male main characters that are stoic, defiant, can withstand any circumstances, and won’t be broken by the correctional system (Eigenberg 63). Eigenberg also noted that even when films did not have an explicit rape scene, most still made reference to prison rape in one way or another. This fact is very telling of a popular culture that simultaneously manufactures fear of, and jokes about, prison rape. Ultimately, Eigenberg argues that the depiction of hyper-masculine characters in these films “seems to convey the notion that a ‘real man’ cannot be raped or would fight to the death before he was raped” (65). Once more, we are back to conceptions of masculinity and male rape myths. The films studied by Eigenberg perpetuate the notion that strong male bodies cannot be sexually violated, and if they are, it is only at the hands of one or (often) many even stronger, hyper-masculine men.
How do popular film depictions of male rape relate to the lived reality though? The study done by Eigenberg was meant to examine the social construction of prison rape through film, comparing that to actual social science findings from the field (60). Another theorist that asserts the power of films to construct and shape our social reality is Henry Giroux. He agrees with Eigenberg that films are a part of culture that we view and construe meaning from. Giroux argues that we are more than passive viewers of film; we interact with the films we see and our beliefs, opinions, attitudes and ideas are somewhat shaped by information we absorb from them. According to Giroux, popular films, such as those included in Eigenberg’s study, “play as teaching machines” or “function as public pedagogies” (4). What one can glean from this assertion is that, consciously or not, we learn something from the films we watch. Internalized by viewers, this knowledge is reflected back onto culture through attitudes and opinions that have been partially influenced by whichever films we have viewed. Thus, if Giroux’s analysis is correct, the films in Eigenberg’s study teach us that prison rape is an inevitable reality for any male prisoner not measuring up to traditional notions of masculinity. In addition, they also promote the idea that weaker men are feminine, and thus, their bodies can be penetrated.
Many forces act upon the construction of the un-rapeable male body. Popular culture, conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and the understanding of rape itself all contribute to the idea that men cannot be victims of sexual violence. The most pervasive male rape myths are a powerful deterrent to eradicating sexual violence against men. The most common male rape myths when the perpetrator is male are that it does not happen outside of prison (Struckman-Johnson 85) or that the victim is gay and brought on their own attack (Donnelly 446). Conversely, male victims fare no better when the perpetrator is female; in fact, male rape myths are more commonly believed when the perpetrator is female. In these cases, it is often believed that the victim likely encouraged or initiated the sexual contact, was less likely to have been forced, was more likely to have enjoyed it, and was less likely to have been traumatized by the attack (Smith 103-04). Combined with pressure to conform to cultural ideals of masculinity, these rape myths create huge barriers for male victims who want to report their assault.
Since male rape began to be investigated, it has come to the attention of academics studying this problem that reporting rates for males are incredibly low, even less than the already miniscule rate for females (Donnelly 442). According to the London Rape Centre in the early 1990s, 90 percent of male rapes went un-reported (Bourke 242). Men who do report their attack to the police often report the physical assault, keeping the sexual assault secret, sometimes for many years (Jamel 499). The fear of disbelief and stigmatization, paired with traditional male gender role socialization makes it difficult for men to admit to having been sexually assaulted (Donnelly 442). This under-reporting leads to a lack of awareness about male sexual violence in police, victim support services, and the general public. Jamel has noted that the police are not properly equipped to deal with male rape victims, partially due to low reporting rates; police officers noted that because male rape is so under-reported, they do not get the opportunity to develop their skills or subject their work to a peer review (Jamel 498). In addition, this lack of awareness has extremely negative effects on the availability of support services for male victims. In Donnelly’s study, a number of the agencies she dealt with felt that sexual assaults against males aren’t a problem because they never get male clients. Donnelly points out that “few acknowledged that the reason [for this] might be that they were unresponsive to these men’s needs” (444). One can see the harmful cycle that has developed; due to insulting rape myths and a lack of support, male rape victims usually do not report their victimization; low report rates have led to under-awareness of the problem in the institutions of law and police, as well as in victim support services.
The construction of the un-rapeable male body has led to the invisibility of sexual violence enacted on men. Ideas of masculinity, femininity and rape have shaped our understanding of the male body as un-penetrable. Not only does this tunnel-vision of sexual assault harm the many men who are victims of rape, it also creates barriers in the quest to eradicate all sexual violence. Feminists have as much of a stake in ending male rape as men do. Lynne Segal has tried to communicate this idea for years, arguing that in order to understand and deconstruct violence, we must sever the tie between it and masculinity (106). Downplaying the sexual violation of men in order to conceal the reality that men are indeed rapeable moves us no further along in the fight to end rape (Segal 112); continuing to gender sexual violence in such a one-sided way clouds the reality of the problem. Laura Kipnis voices a similar concern about our tendency to construct men as active and women as passive in the script of sexual violence. According to Kipnis:
If you don’t have to be biologically female to become a rape victim and if being biologically male really isn’t a guarantee of inviolability against unwanted penetration, would this new math, if it filtered into general social consciousness, go some way toward reconstituting the gendered psyche? (140)
If rape were finally construed as an equal-opportunity form of victimization (Kipnis 140), perhaps we could begin to re-conceptualize gender and sexual violence. Making sexual violence against men visible is a vital step in the process of deconstructing it.
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