When we frame any sort of sexual abuse as a “sexual relationship” or call a male survivor of sexual abuse lucky, we harm survivors of any gender.
Another story rolled through my newsfeed this week about a female teacher who allegedly committed statutory rape against a male student. I’m sick of these stories. I’m sick of adults abusing children, and I’m sick of the way the media portrays male survivors of abuse as willing accomplices or “lucky boys” when the perpetrator is a female.
Why do we do this? Why aren’t we willing to protect our boys and stand up for them? Why don’t we think they deserve the right to bodily autonomy and consent?
My own personal opinion is that we are so attached to our gender binary when it comes to sex that we are willing to harm pretty much everybody to maintain it. This myth promotes the idea that men are sex-hungry beasts and women are the guardians of virtue, and harms people of any gender, pushing us deeper into shame and secrecy.
I reached out to Peter Pollard and Steve LePore of 1in6, an organization with a mission to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives. I wanted to know the history of the messages that say boys who are victims “wanted it.”
We’re all raised in a culture that says boys are always supposed to initiate and enjoy a sexual experience and males are never supposed to see themselves or be seen as victims.
We all go to great lengths to avoid feeling vulnerable. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we scramble to find a reassuring explanation to convince ourselves that we, or someone we love couldn’t possibly be forced to unwillingly engage in something as intimate as a sexual act. The easiest default is to “blame the victim,” to say “he wanted it,” “he must have chosen that.”
It’s even more confusing if it’s a boy who is in the less powerful role. Even the boy has a stake in believing he “wanted it” rather than being seen by himself or others as a “victim.”
Since first taking note of the way the media covers these stories, calling them “sexual relationships” and “hot for teacher” scenarios, I’ve wondered how language that frames abuse as a mutual relationship can affect male survivors, and why the media insists on framing these stories as inherently consensual when they are not. Steve LePore explained:
“A lot of the confusion about sexual abuse is the result of focusing on the “sexual” aspect rather than the “abusive” use of power over someone who is in some way dependent. The most damaging impact of sexual abuse has more to do with a child experiencing a lack of control, a sense of betrayal, and loss of trust toward someone who was expected to be in a protective role.
And it’s not just the child in question who may be affected by the way the media or people in his life discuss it. Other survivors may feel the language used by the media and people discussing the case diminishes their own experiences and feelings. Steve elaborated on that point, too:
The description of it being a “relationship” can feel like a mockery of those feelings for any boy or man who has been abused. Especially in a student/teacher situation – because of the built-in power imbalance that that role gives a teacher over the life of a student – no child can ever be in a position to consent to a “sexual relationship” with a teacher.”
Chris Anderson, who advocates for and works with men who’ve survived sexual violence or abuse through MaleSurivor.org explains how damaging the “lucky bastard” mentality of believing that all boys want sex can be:
“The conversation around sexual violence routinely minimizes the experience of boys and men who are victimized. Comedians like Bill Maher joke repeatedly about how a boy or man who is raped by a woman is “lucky.”
This creates an environment where males don’t recognize rape and abuse for what it is, shames men who have been victimized, and stigmatizes the few boys and men who do have the courage to come forward.”
Kristen Sukura, Executive Director of the Sexual Violence Center in Minneapolis, which supports survivors and works to help end sexual violence, and also offers a 24-hour support hotline for survivors of any gender or sexual orientation, agrees that it’s dangerous to make light of the experiences of male victims.
When we treat certain acts of sexual violence as less serious than others – or something worth joking about – we are reinforcing the often-crippling shame suffered by victims of sexual violence who are not female-identified. Because what we are telling each other – and young people – is that a ‘victim’ looks a certain way, and acts a certain way, and anyone not fitting into that mold couldn’t possibly be a victim. And, therefore, what happened to them could not possibly be considered sexual violence.
To Sukura’s point, when we start naming who can and cannot be a victim, we are also sending a message to female survivors re-enforcing the incredibly dangerous notion that there are some victims who matter and others who don’t, or some rapes that count and some that don’t. With the prevalence of victim-blaming against women and girls as well as men and boys, the last thing we need for anybody of any gender or orientation is more shame.
So, what can be done by those of us in the media, and people in general, to help support survivors? First, we have to stop using terms that imply consent of the victim when we discuss sexual violence or statutory rape. We need to stop ourselves, and evaluate how we speak about any survivor, and challenge our ideas of what it means to be a boy or man. As Dr. Andrew Irwin-Smiler wrote, the myth of the “roving inseminator” must die. Men and boys deserve to give consent and to have it respected.
To fellow editors and writers: Take the time to look over your headlines and content relating to the abuse of boys to be sure you’re not encouraging dangerous stereotypes and victim-blaming mentality. Statutory rape isn’t a “sexual relationship,” it’s rape.
Peter Pollard further explains that the emphasis should be less on the sexual aspects of the story, and more on the violation of trust and power that occurred.
Talk about the impact on the other students, what lessons the teacher has conveyed to the rest of the students and how that impacts their dependent relationships with other teachers. What are parents’ expectations of safety when they send their child to school? Explore the responsibility of other teachers, administrators and staff to speak up if they have concerns about a teacher behaving inappropriately with a student.
It’s our responsibility to support survivors of sexual trauma and abuse, and one way we can do that is by watching the language we use. We need to make our world a safe place for victims and survivors to come forward and receive the help and healing that is available to them.
For support and resources or to learn more about the advocates and experts quoted above, see below:
The Sexual Violence Center of Minneapolis 612-871-5111
Photo: Flickr/Nina Matthews Photography