Conversations about sexual violence relegate men to two roles: Bystander or Perpetrator. It’s time to add the third role: Survivor.
By Peter Pollard, MPA and David Lisak, PhD
Most conversations about sexual violence relegate men to one of two roles:
- Bystander: with the potential either to ignore or to disrupt a witnessed sexual violation
- Perpetrator: the one who commits the violation
A new White House Task Force, formed to confront historically-inadequate responses to sexual assault on college campuses, could help educate the nation about a third role men often have:
- Survivor: the one who has experienced sexual trauma.
President Obama gave the Task Force a mandate to challenge and change cultural norms and ineffective practices that have often hampered prevention and intervention efforts. This mandate provides the Task Force with an unprecedented opportunity to enlighten the general public about the ways that sexual violence affects, not just women and girls, but also boys and men.
The effort comes at least in part in response to shocking findings that 1 in 5 women has experienced rape during her lifetime and that nearly half (44%,) experienced sexual victimization other than rape. For anyone not already convinced, those statistics, outlined in a recently-released report from the White House’s Council on Women and Girls, are surely reason enough to demand a concerted effort to understand and end sexual violence
But there’s more.
The same study that described those experiences of women (the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey (2010)) also detailed some important information about men’s lifetime experience of sexual assault – details that could dramatically change how men view their relationship to sexual violence.
While only a very small number of men questioned in the survey reported having been raped,
- more than 1 in 5 of the men (22.2%) reported having experienced sexual victimization other than rape at some point in their lives.
- Even more surprising, nearly identical proportions of both men and women (1 in 20) reported experiencing sexual victimization other than rape in the 12 months prior to taking the survey.
Acknowledging the frequency of men’s experiences of being sexually abused and assaulted doesn’t in any way diminish their stake in actively working to end sexual violence against women and girls, as some may fear. It actually strengthens the argument that sexual violence is a men’s issue – one that impacts the lives of our brothers, fathers and sons directly, as well as our sisters, mothers and daughters.
The White House report and other research stress that both women and men who experience sexual assault or rape are at a higher risk for a wide range of physical and mental health problems, which, especially if untreated, can follow them for life. These include depression, chronic pain, diabetes, anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Both men and women with those experiences are also more likely than non-victims to attempt or consider suicide.
No question, men’s attempts to cope with those consequences of unwanted sexual interactions (as well as physical and emotional trauma) are played out using the distorted masculine social norms we’ve inherited – rules that we men are taught from birth we must obey.
It’s surely time to update those rules.
Men need new tools to counter traditional norms that prohibit them from responding to trauma by acknowledging vulnerability instead of just seeking dominance; norms that have discouraged men from expressing a full range of positive and negative emotions instead of just anger and stoicism; norms that have rewarded men’s aggression over their impulse to be empathic – norms that often contribute to the violence we see in our families and communities.
President Obama’s message about confronting sexual violence takes on a broader, more inclusive meaning, when viewed with the added understanding that men’s lives, as well as women’s, are often shaped by unwanted sexual experiences.
“Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone (emphasis added) out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back,” the president said in an address describing the Task Force. “Because here in the United States of America, every man and woman, every girl and boy, has the right to be safe and protected and to pursue their own piece of the American dream.”
Peter Pollard, Communications and Professional Relations Director for 1in6, Inc.: His experience includes 15 years as a child-protection social worker; coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and as a Certified Batterers Intervention facilitator.
Dr. David Lisak, Board Chair of 1in6, Inc.: His research on the long-term effects of childhood abuse in adult men has been published widely. He consults regularly with law enforcement, universities, the U.S. military, and others about sexual assault prevention and policies.
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