The language of abuse doesn’t really matter, Brian C. Rideout writes. Instead, we need to focus on helping and allowing the victims to heal.
Julie Gillis recently wrote a thought-provoking article entitled “Heresy, Rape Statistics, and Getting Away from the Poles” that got me thinking about my own experiences as a male survivor of sexual assault.
In particular she started looking at how we defined rape, and how a definition that involves penetration ignores the fact that some men are raped by being forced to penetrate. As several of the commenters put it thereafter, that an erection has been considered consent, even when it shouldn’t be. Ms. Gillis continued to ask about where the line is drawn, if penetration of the mouth by an object with violent sexual context, for example, might or might not be considered rape.
It is a question that underscores the problem with language and the laws built on it, and it is a vital point in the debate, but when we focus on it I think we miss something even more important altogether.
Please, let me tell you a story.
I suffer from chronic mastitis, a mildly painful swelling of the fatty tissue and musculature of the chest. In effect it gives me breasts. I hate even saying it like that because they aren’t really breasts, they are breast-like. I could write another article just on the language that floats around men with this problem.
I went through a bout of juvenile depression around the age of 11. I stopped exercising, started eating my pain away, and swelled to an enormous weight, but thanks to the perversity of genetics the fat went to my chest first. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was “better developed” than many of the girls in my class.
This, along with being quiet, brainy, and emotional made me the perfect target for bullying. For the most part, I learned to get a thicker skin. I figured how to deal with words. I learned how to handle violence for the most part, too. But then along came a boy named John …
John’s bullying started out the way everyone else did, probing rude questions in public scenarios, name calling, then punching, and slamming against lockers, but then his violence turned sexual. John would slam me against lockers and grope and twist my breasts. When I resisted, he would smash my head against the locker. It became his favourite game. In class he would rub his chest and flicker his tongue at me, or call me sexually dirty names before lunch to let me know he was planning, and every lunch hour he would attack me the same way.
When I started fighting back, he got two of his friends to help by holding me down while he did it. And he invited them to join in “the fun.. Like every bully with an audience, he needed to escalate. At first he started forcing his tongue into my mouth. Then a couple of times he hit me until I put my hands down his pants and touched him.
The violence hit its peak when John and his friends beat me, and held me against some lockers, forcibly kissed me, then put his hands down my pants and started playing with my penis while calling me his whore and a bitch while his friends groped me. Then they punched me in the gut and left me against the locker.
The worst part was looking up and seeing the teacher in charge of hall discipline meet my eyes then look away, ashamed. She’d been ignoring John’s “little jokes” for three months. To my knowledge, John was never confronted for his behaviour. He got involved in a sports team after that, and had better things to do with his lunches.
After that incident I lost my sense of worth as a human being. I tried in secret a few times to write a suicide note, but just didn’t have the nerve to finish it, or carry out the act.
For years afterward I held a deep, bitter homophobia that made it impossible for me to allow myself to be alone with other men. I kept all my friendships at arm’s length. I refused to get involved with sports or for that matter, any activity that would put me anywhere near a large number of guys.
I consider myself fortunate that I moved at the end of that year, and I was forced to start over again, including opening myself to new male friendships, including becoming friends with three gay boys. I didn’t release my homophobia entirely. I learned to like and respect gay men, but the idea of having another man touch me would cause me to panic.
I hurt the feelings of one of my gay friends very badly a few years later. He told me he was in love with me, and I had a panic attack. Our friendship slowly died out after that. He committed suicide a few years ago, and I never got he chance to apologize for how I treated him.
Fear of my own sexuality prevented me from learning how to self-pleasure until I was in University, and for years afterwards I felt guilty and dirty every time I had sex.
I don’t call the things John did to me for that three-month stretch of abuse “rape.” I have had friends who’ve been through far worse than I have. Having someone repeatedly French kiss me and force me to touch his penis is not nearly as bad as some of the stories I have heard.
I also don’t care about what happened to John, or whether he was punished or not for the things he did to me. To heal I had to let go of all the anger and pain and shame of it. Every time I get angry or sad or frustrated about what he did, I’m forced to relive it in my memories; there’s nothing to be gained by opening up old wounds. It saddens me to think that he might have done the same to other boys in the years that followed, and I hope that if he did, the authorities around at the time were more willing to do something than that teacher was.
Whether what he did to me qualifies as “rape” or “sexual assault” or even just “assault” doesn’t matter, because it was just three months of lunch hours.
What does matter to me is the years of pain, shame, nightmares, wounded friendships, lost love, suicidal thoughts, and lost opportunities to make meaningful contact with other men.
It bothers me that a teacher who was supposed to be looking out for me was so uncertain as to how to understand what was being done to me, that she let it go on in front of her for three months … and then was too ashamed to even look me in the eye afterward.
It bothers me that I was living in a time and place where, after what John did, I was made to feel so ashamed and so dirty, not to mention so confused about what happened that I didn’t feel like I could turn to anyone for help.
It bothers me that I had difficulty coming to a functional relationship with my own sexuality for nearly fifteen years because I had nowhere to turn to.
It bothers me that there was no support group I could join or hotline I could call as a male survivor of sexual violence. That I was so desperate for some way of letting all of that pain out that jumping out a window or cutting my wrists opened seemed like a valid choice.
When we talk about men as survivors of sexual violence, we still don’t talk about them as human beings. They are a statistical anomaly, or a political cover-up, or a problem in our discourse. We use glib language like that which commenter Archy on Ms. Gillis’ article quoted to sidestep the survivor’s humanity:
For the sake of the small but suffering number of male victims—and for the far greater number of women who are the victims of men—we need to shatter this pernicious myth about the male body.
In final analysis I care less about the politics of language, or the (mis-)representation of the issue in statistics, or even the laws aimed at punishing the perpetrators. What I care about is being given the opportunity to speak about what has happened, to heal, and to be treated with compassion.
And I care about us making sure that every survivor of sexual violence, whatever form it might have taken, be given that chance to shed their humiliation and anger, rather than carrying it around for years. If that means finding other language than “rape” to use, and accepting that it will take years for male survivors to get the legal and governmental recognition they deserve, so be it. Let’s just get down to healing and raising awareness before one more boy loses a friend, gives up on sports, or contemplates suicide.