6 Ways Jokes about Violence Against Men Harms Male Victims

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Andrew Smiler lists six reasons why we should stop laughing at male victims of violence.

There’s a meme going around these days about a man who buys his wife a mood ring so he’ll know how she’s feeling. When she’s in a good mood, it turns green. When she’s in a bad mood, it leaves a big red mark on his forehead. That’s got to be the most literal punch-line I’ve ever seen.

Maybe you find that funny.

Perhaps you caught Bill Maher’s commentary on a recent study revealing that boys and men are sexually abused at much higher rates than Americans expected. He joked that they weren’t abused, they just “got lucky” and mocked them for not understanding that.

Maybe you find that funny.

You’ve surely heard jokes about male prisoners who smell bad because when they drop the soap in the shower, they can’t bend down to pick it up.

Maybe you find that funny.

Although it’s fiction, Any Dufresne (Tim Robbins In The Shawshank Redemption) may well be the only guy you know who’s been in prison. You probably didn’t find his attempted rape funny.

Many people were shocked when we learned about priests molesting and raping boys. I don’t know anyone who thought that was funny.

The moral of our story seems to be that it’s funny when men are the victims of violence, as long as the victim isn’t innocent and no one gets killed.

When Ivan Lopez opened fire at Fort Hood a few weeks ago, he killed three men: Sergeant First Class Daniel Ferguson, Staff Sergeant Carlos Lazeney-Rodriguez, and Sergeant Timothy Owens. I’m guessing you don’t think that’s funny at all.

The moral of our story seems to be that it’s funny when men are the victims of violence, as long as the victim isn’t innocent and no one gets killed.

I’m sure a meme that joked about a woman ending up with a welt on her forehead from her husband’s ring would be reported as offensive. I know a comedian who joked about a woman getting raped would be damned all over the Internet; just ask Tosh. Violence against women isn’t funny, but violence against men is hilarious. WTH?

When we publicly laugh at male victims of violence, we’re mocking them for being victims. That sends a pretty clear message, and one that’s a central pillar of the manbox: Don’t be a victim.

Rapper Chris Brown got the message. In an October interview, he revealed that he lost his virginity at age 8 to a girl he thinks was 14 or 15. He talked about this as a conquest and took it as evidence of his sexual prowess—he was irresistible at age 8. I suppose Maher would agree. But many writers called it rape and rightly pointed out the double standard: no one would dare suggest that an 8 year old girl who had sex with a 14 or 15 year old boy got lucky; they’d call it rape.

The double standards and the jokes hide male violence from view and are part of the reason that the US doesn’t really deal with male victims on a national level. You’ve probably never seen these stats:

  • Men and boys make up approximately 75% of the victims of homicide, triple the rate of women and girls, a ratio that has remained fairly constant since 1980 according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey revealed that approximately 6% of men—one in 20—has either been raped or forced to penetrate someone else. Christopher Anderson, executive director of Male Survivor, reports that when all forms of sexual violence are combined, the rate is almost 25% of men. (see comments.) The rate of 1 in 6 men is also commonly reported.
  • The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) estimates that 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner every year. Assaults are committed by gay and straight men, known intimates and strangers.
  • In the US Military, men “are an estimated 53% of victims, and yet nobody seems to be paying attention to them,” according to Chris Kilmartin, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Behavioral Science and Leadership at the United States Air Force Academy. Kilmartin notes that the chance of any given man in the military being sexually assaulted is lower than for any given woman, but since men make up more than 85% of the military, the total number of male victims is higher.
  • In the study that Maher mocked, Bryana French and her colleagues surveyed nearly 300 high school and college males. More than 40% had been pressured to engage in sex they didn’t want to have; half of them, approximately one-fifth of all the guys who completed surveys, ended up having sex when they didn’t want to. Isn’t that the basic definition of rape: being compelled to have sex when you don’t want to?

So what? Why does it matter that we don’t take violence against boys and men seriously? A few reasons. And let me acknowledge up front that most of the individual effects aren’t unique to men.

  1. It reinforces our cultural notion that any male should be able to protect himself against any attacker. At this level, it tells us that any male victim is at least partly responsible for what happened. This same logic that says a woman who wears a short skirt is partly responsible for being raped. And if you’re partly responsible for your own victimization, then you don’t really deserve our sympathy or help.
  2. Despite the numbers, we don’t really devote national resources to solving the problems. All of the attention to sexual assault in the military has been about female victims. Discussions of male-on-male homicide only gets systematic attention as “black on black” or “inner city” violence, limiting the problem to a particular ethnic group or geographical setting. Yet boys and men of all ethnic groups and in all locations are homicide victims.
  3. Humor is one way we relieve stress. By telling jokes about male victims, we don’t have to deal with something that might be difficult, we can just relieve our anxiety and move on without thought.
  4. For individual male victims, it reinforces the notion that any male victim is less of a man because he couldn’t defend himself. Many victims are ashamed at having done something stupid that may have contributed to their victimization, but it’s often compounded for guys because they’re ashamed that they were unable to defend themselves.
  5. For male victims, this all makes it harder to admit they’re victims and get help. That means much less support from friends and family members. It may also mean a shorter lifespan, as Will Courtenay argues in Dying to Be Men.
  6. For male victims, the unhealed trauma often leads to decreased empathy for others. That’s one piece of the puzzle that’s common among school shooters, family mass murders (or “domestic terrorism” or “household terrorism”), and other acts of mass violence.

When you make a joke or laugh about male victims, you send a message to victims that you’re not entirely trustworthy. You are literally laughing at their pain. So next time you’re contemplating making fun of male victims, or laughing when someone else makes fun of them, ask yourself if that’s really the message you want to send. Maybe it’s not funny after all.

 

author’s note: statistics regarding male victims of sexual abuse updated on April 24, 2014.

photo by Andrew Rennie/flickr

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About Andrew Smiler

Andrew Smiler, PhD is a therapist, evaluator, author, and speaker residing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). He is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” and co-author, with Chris Kilmartin, of “The Masculine Self (5th edition)”. He is a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and has taught at Wake Forest University and SUNY Oswego. Dr. Smiler's research focuses on definitions of masculinity. He also studies normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him @AndrewSmiler.

Comments

  1. Dr. Smiler, great article. But there is one point that I feel is important to make. The statistics that you cite form RAINN that refer to male rape are outdated and, I would argue, grossly underreported. The data in the RAINN study is from the National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey from 1998. This data is more than 15 years old, and was collected at a time when there was virtually no awareness of male sexual victimization (the title of the study should say it all).

    The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey actually presents a far broader snapshot of sexual violence. While only 1.4% of males report experiencing rape, it is important to note that “made to penetrate” is not included as a form of rape. If we include “made to penetrate” as a form of rape (as I argue we should) the total prevalence of rape rises to 6.2% – or more than 1 in 20.

    Further when we take the full spectrum of sexual violence into account 23.6% of males in the US – roughly 1 out of every 4.5 – will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes.

    Christopher M. Anderson
    Executive Director, MaleSurvivor

  2. Anonymous says:

    Can we just agree that laughing at violence against ANYONE is horrific???

    • Andrew Smiler says:

      I might sound like a typical guy here, but I do think there are times when violence can be funny – The 3 Stooges for example. Then again, that never included rape or death and was done in such an absurd way as to be clearly divorced from reality IMO.

      • I also agree that actually violence is funny, and there is a reason why the things that we feel uncomfortable with make us laugh. The difference between a funny joke about violence and a non-funny joke about violence is not the type of violence but what message is the joke giving, how do we feel about the characters in the joke.

        A female friend shared a meme recently, and this is similar to the “mood ring” gag, and I took offence to it. In fact she’s posted things before that I found misandryistic, as well as plenty of stuff that a cursory glance at Snopes could have prevented! Anyway, instead of commenting this time I realised “oh, I can unfollow her. Awesome! Wished I’d thought of that before.” The meme was this. A male character is saying “A big thank you to women. Thank you for not murdering us in our sleep.” And my self-centred possibly over-sensitive side read that in it’s misandryistic interpretation as saying “men are so infuriating and/or loathsome that it is only by our mercy that they are not murdered in their sleep” – at which point I unfollowed her. And then making breakfast I thought “or is it a misogynist joke. Is the message actually women are so irrational and emotionally unstable that it’s a wonder we’re not all murdered in our sleep.” – I decided this interpretation was also offensive. Here’s why it really isn’t funny though – unless you actually believe one of those two prejudicial things the joke falls flat – it’s an observational joke with a false prejudicial observation (or possibly two false prejudicial observations – since I’m still not clear which prejudicial observation it is trying to make). A good joke requires absurdity and surprise, and the surprise element in this joke is pretty weak. But yes, good comedy violence abounds – what is offensive, and makes a bad joke, is if the joke suggests that the victim deserves it with no good reason given except a characteristic upon which prejudice can be based (race, class, gender, sexuality) – violence depicted as unjust would be funnier, because that would be pathos (we would identify then with the victim – life is unjust – the victim is an everyman character, and violence is his banana skin) – violence depicted as just, but just because, (in which case the audience is invited to identify against the victim – the victim is a hate figure) that gives a very unpleasant message.

  3. Generally, I understand rather edgy and rough comedy. Usually, my problem is not the jokes themselves, but the disparity between genders. Because we have to be incredibly PC around women, men become the punching bags. The butt of the joke.

    Jokes against men wouldn’t bother me so much if similar jokes towards women weren’t so outrageous in comparison.

    But frankly, yeah, I know what you’re saying. When you can kill 200 men in a movie, and it becomes controversial because a woman was slapped, there’s very much a male disposability element to the whole thing.

    As I see it, when you feel there is a safety net – people there for you when you are down – you express your inner turmoil through acts that cry for help. But when there is no safety net, and losing your support specifically because you need it, inner turmoil turns to violence. You don’t just attempt suicide by downing pills. You put a bullet in your head. You don’t cry for help that you don’t believe is there. You simply plan to die. Perhaps the resentment of this disparity is what drives suicidal men to kill others before killing themselves.

    “To put it simply: men are neither supposed nor allowed to be dependent. They are expected to take care of others and themselves. And when they cannot or will not do it, then the assumption at the heart of the culture is that they are somehow less than men and therefore unworthy of help. An irony asserts itself: by being in need of help, men forfeit the right to it.” Peter Marin- “Jill gets welfare, Jack becomes homeless.”

    Perhaps I quote that too much.

    • Andrew Smiler says:

      That’s a good quote Webz.

      I think the laughter and the gender disparity are both problems, and the issue can – and should – be approached from both perspectives.

    • What a great point you make. I talk to my daughters all the time about what i call the “Disposable Soldier”. It is very common to see a dozen or more soldiers (of any type or era) sent in to rescue one woman. Ten may die in the ensuing conflict, but as long as the woman was saved, it’s a happy ending.

      I was sexually assaulted at a very, very young age by a much older girl. I hate the word, but it was rape. It happens far more than you think.

      We need to teach our children that men’s lives aren’t disposable. Only when they learn to respect their own lives, will we fully be able to stop looking at violence as a form of entertainment.

  4. Sure, we can just agree to that. But that’s not the point. There’s a stigma describing male victims//survivors as such. The stigma has negative repercussions. It’s an issue that seems to follow a gender binary, so trying to solve it we need to look at men’s experiences. When you see statistics like men are 3 times more likely to die of homicide, and that we joke about violence towards men.. there seems to be an issue worth discussing particular to men, even though all violence is horrific. If you’re goal is to stop violence, you have to get more specific than condemning all violence. That doesn’t really do anything to stop it.

    • Andrew Smiler says:

      I with both of you, Nathan & Webz.

      I think we need to acknowledge that men can be and often are victims, and that means talking about male victims publicly and with the kind of sensitivity we’d want if we’d been victimized.

      And I also think we need to talk about the double standards and gender disparities here. Neither of those approaches is inherently better or worse than the other, nor are they mutually exclusive.

  5. Excellent article.

  6. This article is excellent & the updated information is good to know as well. Although the information may be insightful there is always someone who decides to take a rabbit trail & veer off of the primary subject matter. All of the other topics get PLENTY of attention but THIS topic is deliberately ignored by society in general & needs to be addressed A LOT more often. Thank you for your post.

    Edmond Baker, Jr.
    Licensed Minister, Counselor & Certified Mediator for the State of Texas

  7. Estuardo says:

    I apologize if this was probably already mentioned, but I have also noticed another reason this never gets discussed is the fear many men have over the possible notion that if their image of a hero/ idol etc. were sexually abused, what does that say about them. How vulnerable are they to being a victim as well. The “whistling by the graveyard” of not conjuring up any bad juju by not talking about it gives comfort, but as we know is only an illusion. Talking does bring about the necessary healing, but non-victims want that talk to be done ‘over there’, so as not to disturb their image/belief of their tin god isn’t what it should be. Keeping this in a contained box won’t last much longer, as more and more men are coming to grips with this, and seeking help. Be ready for a big turn around soon!

  8. Estuardo says:

    And I forgot to say Thank you for writing this. As a survivor of Sexual Abuse from a Priest, this gives me comfort in knowing others are seeing this, and doing something about it. Point 6 hit hard with me, about the decreased empathy, for I am there now and gave me pause to re-evaluate my need to speak out more. Help is difficult to find, for few work in treating males who were abused. Please keep speaking out, and again Thank you for giving me new hope!

  9. Allena Gabosch says:

    Thank you! I too have been troubled by this. I love Bill Maher and was disgusted by his joke about the study. I have a good friend who is HIV positive now from rape. He never reported it because of shame and the expectation that men don’t get raped.

    thanks again!

  10. Good article. Part of me wants to argue against being “so sensitive” when it comes to comedy; but it IS such a sexist issue, one that underlies the idea that men are viewed as disposable by society and on their own to guarantee their own security. I like that you balanced out the argument with the Stooges.

    One topic I never see being brought up in this regard is the idea of violence, injury, and pain to men’s testicles. I think it would be a good topic for comparison and symbolism. It gets right to the symbolic center of the disregard of male pain and violence. Men laugh at other men who’ve been hit in the balls–it’s a veritable stable of America’s Funniest Home Videos–even though they gotta know how much it hurts. It’s a strange phenomenon, and what message does it give to women? That it’s really not that bad to be hit there? How many women grow up with a healthy respect for the delicate nature of testicles?: many of them seem to make very capricious threats toward them.

  11. Thank you. It feels good to not be forgotten.

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