When we think of sexual assault, we are hard-wired to think of women and their experiences. According to the UN Women, an estimated 736 million women—almost one in three—have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older) and this figure does not include sexual harassment.
When it comes to centring men’s experiences, however, some pitfalls exist to undermine our approach. First, we need to establish that sexual assault against men is more common than we think. Whether in childhood or as adults, at least 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse or assault. More often than not, men do not disclose that they have been assaulted and this puts these figures at a worrisome underestimate.
Given that we still live in a patriarchal world where men are told to be strong and unfeeling, male victimhood is something close to taboo. Acknowledging that you have been sexually assaulted as a man puts your masculinity up for interrogation and scrutiny. Men can’t be victims, according to society, and this message hasn’t only been internalised and upheld by men themselves but by other people. I recently rewatched Steven Speilberg’s Minority Report starring Tom Cruise and this film got me thinking a lot about men’s sexual assault and harassment. It’s a sci-fi film about catching future criminals before they commit their crimes. In one scene, Cruise’s butt is squeezed by a female surgery assistant and in another scene, he is kissed very unexpectedly by a woman.
Let’s bear in mind that these actions on Cruise do not service the plot in moving it forward; they appear to have happened because it felt ‘normal.’ With the way Cruise is/was marketed as a Hollywood sex symbol, why won’t anyone – women, especially – want to have a piece of him? Although anyone can be sexually assaulted, being good-looking or attractive isn’t an invitation for it to happen. Getting in the way of seeing men as victims of sexual assault are myths and problematic phrases, and also men seen through the prism of being custodians of sex.
For example, ”men are visual beings” has been a common statement whipped out to explain the dynamic men have with sex, one that affords them room to explore their sexuality without shame or judgment. The statement has also been used to somewhat justify the wrongful and harmful sexual-related actions they commit like rape. But sexual assault against men doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rape culture and sexual objectification in a way that affects men are more prevalent than we might like to think. A look at social media and one would see how rape culture is normalised. Many times, I have had to blink with disbelief at the things that are said when a man (attractive, I have to add) posts a picture of himself on Twitter. The comments often churn with unrestrained sexual desires or, to put it on internet/youth language, thirst. It is mostly never a plain compliment on how handsome they are, but one that weaponizes the logic of how men should be seen.
We shouldn’t, however, make the mistake of comparing how men and women are objectified or thinking what informs their objectification is the same. While men can get objectified, and also possible for this to produce interpersonal harm, women’s objectification is rooted in the larger system of oppression they face which makes it omnipresent. The harm caused pervades beyond interpersonal spaces, co-signed structurally or institutionally, in that women’s bodies aren’t seen as something they own or can be in control of.
More to the point women objectifying men is never about control or entitlement, as is commonly the case with men. All things considered, men’s sexual assault is still a valid conversation that must be had, even if it forces us to interrogate and unlearn the ideas that shut them out as victims.