On Fear Of Men Being Vulnerable: A Commenter Discusses “What If It Had Been a Girl in the Shower?”

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as a comment. We welcome thoughtful responses by our community to existing content. Please email lisa@goodmenproject.com.

I’ve been thinking about Tom Matlack’s piece, “What If It Had Been a Girl In the Shower?” and wondering what it is, exactly, that caused the grown man who witnessed this hideous, horrible act of cruelty and exploitation to walk away? Was it reverence for his coach? Was it fear of retribution? Or was it, as Tom suggested, a complication of our society’s fear, or even just misunderstanding of, homosexuality?

I think what I’m most interested in here is the idea that the same-sex nature of abuser and victim somehow caused a sense of shame within the witnessed that ran deep enough for him to run away and keep it a secret. Perhaps that shame came from a larger and more profound shame about any sort of same-sex activity, perhaps it came from a disbelief that this piece of sh** assailant would have an interest in ANYONE male, let alone a child.


What I wonder about is the fear upon the realization of the vulnerability of male to be victimized. I wonder if this is why men (in general) often have a hard time accepting that men can be raped by women. Or why they often wonder whether male victims of male sexual perps were somehow “gay” and therefore “wanted” it.

What would the average straight male in our society be forced to feel if he realized that men are, in fact, vulnerable? They may know it intellectually (“sure it COULD happen, but it seems pretty unlikely”), but not truly realize the reality of sexual abuse upon males. You guys (men, in general) have been the ones in control of sexuality for thousands of years, as a group. Even though abuse of men and boys has always been true, and has ALWAYS been wrong, sexual politics and sexual power have been controlled by men as a group as long as history has been recorded, in most societies.

What if that security were suddenly undermined right in your face? What if you’d been taught to protect girls, to never hit a lady, to respect your elders, and you walked in to have everything you believed crumble from underneath you? This witness should have punched him, should have done ANYTHING physically possible to get that piece of sh** away from that child and all children. His lack of effective prevention of further crimes should be criminal in and of itself.

However, upon examining how sexual politics may have affected his psychology at that moment, we can maybe further understand why it may have been different were it a girl. He had probably heard his Dad say, “protect your sister” or “never let a guy hurt a girl” or “never hit a girl”. He may have known, intrinsically, that this girl needed protecting, and there may not have been that undercurrent of confusing psychology that prevented him from murdering that piece of sh** (can you tell I find it hard to even utter that disgusting person’s name?).


I teach my two boys not to protect girls, but to protect anyone who is being done wrong. I teach them to always defend one another and to stand by one another. Never once have I said, “You don’t hit girls.” I say, “You don’t hit people, unless you need to protect your body from being hurt.”

This is what I’ve been mulling over since I read Tom’s fantastic piece. Agree or disagree, it presents important lessons for those of us who are parents.

photo by chegs/flickr

About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and editor with a special focus in issues facing raising boys and gender in the media. Her work has appeared on Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane, MariaShriver.com, TIME.com, and more. She and her husband are outdoor sports enthusiasts raising very active sons. She is currently co-editing a book of essays for boys and young men with author and advocate Jeff Perera. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.


  1. I personally think that this issue goes beyond sexual abuse. There is an undercurrent in our society that says it’s okay for males to be hurt or injured, but there’s something horrific if a female gets hurt or injured. We can see it sports and the army in varying degrees. For example, one subject I like to discuss with people is the idea that women be accepted into professional team sports, like hockey (I have multiple reasons for this, but that’s another comment). First, I’m told there’s no way that a woman could keep up, but then I throw at them that lots of mediocre male hockey players get to make a decent living, even when they’re not Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. So, then they move on to the physicality of the sport and how a woman would get hurt. And then I can’t help but think of all the men in all the sports out there getting brutally injured for the sake of their sport. Not only is it okay, but it’s a celebrated part of the spectacle. This has never made any sense to me at all, because I’m really not sure what message is being conveyed.

    • Marcus Williams says:

      I apologize for the tangent about to ensue. I agree it’s odd how injury or pain in men is tolerated or even celebrated in men, but is considered horrific for women, but I’m itching to reply to a different part of that comment:

      First, I’m told there’s no way that a woman could keep up, but then I throw at them that lots of mediocre male hockey players get to make a decent living, even when they’re not Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby.

      The glitch in that argument is that at the pro level, you’re talking about outliers on the normal distribution of skill and physicality. I concede that there’s a lot of overlap in the normal distribution of athletic skill, so women can play as well or better than men in many sports, but at top extreme of that distribution, women do not have the strength, speed, and power to compete at the same level. The best can still compete at a higher level than most men, but I still believe a “mediocre” professional male athlete is playing at a higher level than the top female athletes in the same sport.

      I could be wrong, but I think that if women can compete at the *same* level, with no special rules or accommodations, that professional sports can and will stretch to expand to let men and women compete together. Several years ago, the Tampa Bay Lighting of the NHL signed a woman goallie, Manon Rhéaume, who came to training camp and played one period in a pre-season exhibition game. Among women, she was a stand-out goalie – far from mediocre. Among the men of the NHL, she was less than mediocre. Perhaps it was mostly a publicity stunt, but I like to think that if she had turned out to play at a truly NHL-calibre level, she could have broken through the gender barrier. I’m sure she was better than most male players at many levels, but in the pros, that gender difference at the top end of the strength, power, and speed distribution is what keeps women from making a decent *professional* living among the men. If you look at a sport that requires less brute physical athleticism, like bowling or racing cars, a few women actually have competed professionally with men, but we have yet to see our first Jane Gretzky or Cyd Crosby (or Michaela Jordan or Thomasina Brady). If the best women are able to compete with the best men, I would love to see that, but I don’t think it’s mere chauvinism that’s keeping more pro sports from being co-ed.

      Recreationally, I don’t see much reason why most sports couldn’t be co-ed, and in fact, many are. I’ve played several years of “beer league” ice hockey, and have played with and against several women over the years, even though it’s still mostly men. Some of them aren’t very good, and some have been among the best players out there, which I could say about about pretty much any random guy you might pick, too.

  2. superstarjackie says:

    Abuse by any sex is wrong love and respect across the sexes is the only way forward.
    we need education on this subject from school onwards

  3. Joanna – I do find this preoccupation with gender, assault, reaction and people attempting to make it different for different genders very worrying.

    I have had to deal directly with both male and female victims of sexual assault as a first responder, and there really is no gender difference. I have also been involved with witnesses and again there is no gender difference. It does not matter the gender of the victim or the gender or assailant or the gender of the witness. It’s what has happened and how it makes the person think and feel about themselves that is the only common factor.

    People are hesitant as they even attempt to gauge how the first responder is reacting to what is being uncovered and reported. I have heard it so many times how people believe they will not be believed, because they can hardly believe it themselves.

    One factor that does come up time and time again is people simply not being able to believe their own eyes and their own experiences. Coaching, training and eduction in all forms can only go so far in preparing people for dealing with inexplicable and unbelievable situations.

    I have been in the position of directly witnessing abuse involving disabled children and adults and the elderly. It was both genders against both genders. Even with extensive training and knowledge I still could not believe what I was seeing. It still took a supreme effort to react the correct way in the moment. It’s what I call the brush it off moment. You either brush it off or grab hold and hold on hard. I even remember a person standing right next to me saying “Did I just see that?”. Their exact words. I asked them to tell me what they saw. They could not find the words to describe what they had just seen. Words are supposed to make sense. How do you use words when you are fighting to make sense of something you can’t belive has just happened.

    I also know how hard it is to get others to believe what you have just witnessed. That is why mandatory reporting procedures have been introduced. To stop the disbelief and brush off moments. They are known to be an issue and that is why it has been made Mandatory.

    I also know what it is like to be filled with rage afterwards – and that can take hours, days, weeks and months to come up to the surface. Some have seen media coverage of a victims mother speaking out. Many hear her anger. She is not just angry at what has happened she also has anger because she is still fighting to make sense of it all. That anger is also common when cases are being reported and long before any failures have been uncovered. The two sets of anger should not be confused.

    I have also been the person who witnesses turn to when they report. Again the disbelief these people bring with them is incredible. They try to rationalize and make sense, but they just don’t share the same point of reference as the abusers. There are very clear procedures laid out for working with people, so that responses are right and disbelief is minimized. You have to even be very careful in the questions you ask so that you don’t unwittingly get the person to take two unaccounted for pieces of information and put them together as a constructed/false memory and not a true memory.

    It’s quite shocking dealing with someone who is reporting the sexual abuse of an elderly person in a care situation, and just as shocking dealing with the victim. Then deal with a shocked family. You get every emotion from denial to rage, and it can change in seconds. Shock and confusion underpin all the rest.

    One question that often comes up is “Why Me?” and with it people will express regret, fear and even shame. It is not because of what happened to them or what they witnessed, they are desperately attempting to make sense of the experience. All too often they just want to make sure they have not been responsible for the irresponsible act of another person.

    I have even heard the question was my clothing too provocative? I heard that one from a male rape victim asking is he had invited being rapped because he was dressed in a skin tight vest? He was straight. I had to ask him does wearing a particular type of clothing mean others are allowed to rape you? He said no – but he was still wondering why him, what made him special, the one singled out? He even asked if his deodorant could have been a factor – it is advertised as overpowering reason and getting a highly charged response – even angels fall. He asked in all seriousness and then laughed about it – but it was a real question and part of his attempt to make sense of it all.

    It was not about his sexuality, just him fighting to make sense of what is basically an irrational experience – an experience beyond reason. He was looking for any reason that made sense. Some would say his thinking was irrational, but that is often the reaction that comes up and gets in the way of believing the victims.

    I have never understood why some believe that a victim or witness should be able to coldly and rationally report all that has happened with supposed perfect recall, whilst most people can have a heated argument at home and can’t even remember what it was about and why it started.

    It’s been seen at trial time and time again how defense council will attack the supposedly irrational lqack of clarity shown by the victim to discredit them. Thankfully, work with judicial training has reduced such abuse of process and use of courts to re-victimize. But you will still get the one’s who try it.

    Emotions get mixed up – people attempt to be logical and yet don’t have all the parts to see the full picture. That all too often comes later after investigation and even court, and even never. Both victims and witnesses are plagued by their inability to make sense of what has happened.

    When we face challenges that involve danger our brains have a survival trick. Anything we see or hear that is useful to survival we use – the rest just gets discarded. People running from a fire in a burning building can remember getting out – but most of the time can never recall the route they took. They may recall a door or sign, the things that were useful and that is all.

    This often leaves victims and witnesses with fragmentary memories and that itself is disturbing. You try to piece all the pieces together, and yet you still can’t get a clear picture in your own head. So you often end up not believing your own eyes, and also dealing with a memory that does not allow you to deal with it all clearly. Some have talked about Cracked Lenses – but this is Looking Through A Glass Darkly – it’s unclear, distorted and incomplete.

    I understand why so many people are attempting to make sense of all the events and all people’s reactions, but the picture is not complete and possibly never will be. Bringing up gender stereotypes, sexuality stereotypes and mixing it all up together only does one thing.

    It actually gives the general public a small insight into the confusion that victims and witnesses feel when they encounter the inexplicable and unbelievable. So many are fighting just like victims and witnesses to piece it all together and make sense of so much that is irrational.

    Gender and sexuality are not the issues – being human is!

  4. Thanks for writing this. My son was abused in our hometown school system, by a male swimming instructor through the local aquatic center and the mindset you wrote about is EXACTLY why we dealt with a nightmarish situation and full scale denial by the school system in question.

    • AJ, I am incredibly and profoundly sorry that your family went through that. What hell. I hope he is recovering okay and obviously you’re an engaged parent who is capable of providing him the emotional support necessary to help him rebound as best as possible.

      I’m really glad that my comment meant something to you and hopefully it proves helpful to understanding the shameful undercurrent to recognizing the possibility of abuse in all forms. I don’t know what’s the right answer, my thoughts are merely theories and questions.

      Healing energy coming your family’s way (So hippy skippy of me, I know!).


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