A few days ago, my 18-year old sister—Lakshmi Menon—posted this about a male friend on Facebook:
At the onset of this post, you might pass this off as yet another trivial rant. I suppose that would be just as I had passed off a male friend’s genuine horror at being molested as a trivial prank. I used to think of myself as someone who was sensitive to issues of sexual violence. Yet, the very me jokingly asked a friend to stop fooling around when he called me to tell me he had just been touched, moments ago,VERY inappropriately. I had thought it was a joke, like all the other ones cracked on henpecked and assaulted men in movies, on forwards and on memes. Only, it was not. I cannot imagine what I would feel had I been groped or assaulted, only for it to be seen as one of my passing jokes. I know my reaction would not have been such, had I been more aware of sexual violence against men, something that is far, far more common than you and I think. Thankfully, my friend’s experience was not severe, but what if it was so? Women are NOT the only victims of sexual assault. ANYONE can be. I hope what I’m sharing drives this point home.
She attached a story on male rapes along with it. Not many people—not many men—commented. Stories about women or girls being raped somehow don’t get the same silent treatment. The world (very rightly) protests and stands with women who have been victims of sexual violence. Strangely, no one knows much about men.
I sense male friends trying to live up to this expectation of men being all cool about gropings and rape. Women are allowed to be weak. Men aren’t. A few men I know told me they wouldn’t mind being groped by very attractive women. However, when I asked them about the issue of consent, they seemed to change tack. Perhaps men are conditioned to accept sexual advances, and many don’t complain out of fear of being seen as lesser men. Maybe that’s why the issue of consent never crosses their minds.
Writes Indian blogger Sonakshi Samtani in Youth ki Awaaz: “The Indian legislation refuses to acknowledge the fact that men can be victims of sexual violence. The Indian Penal Code is a glaring instance of this.” Samtani adds that laws that deal with sexual harassment, disrobing, stalking and voyeurism list men as perpetrators of these crimes and women as victims. Indian laws do not protect men from rapes as Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code—which deals with the definition of rape and legal provisions against it—does not mention male rapes. She points out that while female sexuality is seen to be “prized” with virginity a matter of honour for the family, male sexuality is “congruent to the stereotypical male aggression”.
“Men are groomed to act tough,” says 41-year old Anil Nair from Mumbai, endorsing Samtani’s view. He says that such instances are a challenge to deal with, but how we respond triggers yet another set of challenges. “Lack of consent hurts—regardless of whether the act is mental or physical,” Nair adds.
A 2014 story by Hanna Rosin in Slate says that the National Crime Victimization Survey in the United States revealed in 2013 that 38% of incidents involving rape and sexual violence were against men (in asking 40,000 households). “By portraying sexual violence against men as aberrant, we prevent justice and compound the shame,” writes Rosin, adding that the conversation about men doesn’t need to shut down the one about women.
It is very common for men to be groped in trains and buses in India, admits another friend from Mumbai. “You have to be very clear in how you convey your displeasure, he says. “There was this time when I was groped by a man in a train and I tried to move away, but the guy continued to reach out to me,” he says, adding that he had to thrash the hand away to make it clear that he didn’t like it.
Men like him are not part of any statistical analysis as India currently has no data regarding male sexual abuse.No one knows if men face such things on a daily basis as women do. Not many people ask men if they have been groped or threatened with sexual violence. No one knows if men feel afraid walking down a street filled with shadows. No one knows how they respond to unwanted touch.
We assume that the world is safer for men, and it probably is. However, shouldn’t we stop to think about the many boys and men who have been victims of sexual violence or abuse? Why must we assume that all is well with men? Why must we think that “most would enjoy being groped, especially by women”? Don’t men go through the same level of trauma as women do when they are touched without consent?
“I was trapped within what my rapist had done, and unable to reach out to anyone for help. I thought I’d be outed as gay and rejected,” writes Dean Estmond in a 2015 piece in The Independent. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) in America launched a survivor series last year that encouraged victiims of sexual violence to seek help. One of its survivor stories featured 34-year old Adam, who faced years of abuse and regretted not having spoken about it sooner. He says in the video that what stopped him—apart from the threats he got from his abuser—is the feeling that people would see him as a lesser man. “You are a man, you should be able to fend him off,” says Adam, pointing to the stigma attached in men reporting rapes.
Besides urging people to change the way they see sexual issues in young boys and men, more needs to be done in funding survival groups that could help rehabilitate male victims of abuse. That they are not the only ones who suffered sexual violence and that the guilt is not theirs to endure is something that helps the healing process immensely. It would matter greatly too were the media to be as focused on male victims as they are on women. It is important for men and women to stand together against sexual violence regardless of gender. Mutual support and concern might also lessen the gender divide in many countries, helping everyone understand that men and women need each other. The first step for any man then is to speak up. Like Lakshmi’s young friend did.