Opinion: Prioritising men’s mental health is the only way to protect people against sexual violence

Trigger Warning: r*pe, sexual violence and assault, domestic abuse, homophobia

I’ve been writing fairly passionately over the last couple of months about the experiences of women when it comes to gendered violence. As a woman myself, I admittedly find it somewhat cathartic to speak of these issues in a way which forces those around me to listen, and I hope that what I’ve had to say has been thought-provoking at the least. In my quest to demystify the various causes of sexual violence, I am understanding — in the midst of ‘Movember’ — how the emotions of the man in such scenarios is just as important. Women’s experiences only give us half of the picture, after all, and I’d like to posit that the difficulty men have in asking for help in support of their health can find its foundations in the same social schemas which perpetuate violence against women.  

What I’m suggesting isn’t unheard of, but I think is typically misunderstood and taken out of context. I’ve heard those who will heatedly argue against women’s anger towards and fear of men, citing the struggles of men with their mental health as a reason to be compassionate and less condemnatory; the sense I get, is that these people see women’s anger towards men as fundamentally unfair because men struggle too. While valid in some respects, I believe this to still be a flawed view, failing to take into account the intertwined nature of both the female and male experiences of living in a patriarchal system which expects men to be men, and women to deal with the repercussions of this. I think it would be fair to attribute the struggles of both men and women, in part, to a culture of toxic masculinity, which is much-cited in the current political moment and underpins both men’s habit of suffering in silence and the violence against women that I have been decrying. From this view, neither party should be ignored for the sake of helping the other: the only hope of helping either group is to help both. We must understand that men deal with a repression of emotions which must make their inner-lives unbearable, and that women have historically been positioned as the outlet for this repression — a repression which is psychologically recognised as having key contenders such as anger, frustration and resentment.

The Office for National Statistics shows that of all domestic abuse crimes, men are the victims of a reported 26% of those, and are two and a half times less likely to report it than their female counterparts. Violence, then, is an ungendered expression of destructive emotions; the modes of violence and responses to these incidents, however, are gendered in their entirety. Of the small percentage of male victims who do report being abused, 64% said they wouldn’t have called the helpline had it not been anonymous; a discomfort with being seen as a victim is thus clear to see, which differs to a mistrust of the legal system — which many women cite as being a reason to avoid reporting these assaults. Rape crimes, similarly, are committed against both men and women, though women are still disproportionately affected. The perpetrator for these crimes, however, is reported as being a man 98% of the time in victims aged from 16 to 59. The suggestion, then, is that men are potentially responsible for the majority of rape crimes in the UK committed against both women and men. These findings point to a gendering of explicitly sexual violence: a need for masculine dominance and control expressed through violating other human bodies, and a need for masculine dominance which also renders men unable to seek help when the crime has been committed against them.

Patrizia Riccardi writes of the responses to male-on-male rape and sexual assault within the US military, and found that: “Personal stories of male rape mirror female rape in terms of a sense of shame, humiliation, and self-blame”, a set of emotions which tended to revolve around a “lost sense of manliness”. Significantly, those who reported the incidents “all reported a preference for a female psychiatrist”, as there was a general consensus that “male psychiatrists may not be free of homophobic reaction”. This, I believe, is the crux of the matter. Abuse of men leads them down the same spiral of shame as women, but it is one which men perceive as threatening the core of their masculinity — an identity which their survival in the Western world can rely upon entirely.

While women’s responses are similarly devastating, they tend not to threaten the core of their social identity. Arguably, women are expected to be raped — being historically viewed as sexual objects and essentially weak — while men are not. Even the medical professionals being relied on for support cannot seem to shake their own learnt sense of disgust at this level of supposed emasculation, referring to homophobic beliefs in order to compartmentalise this apparent lapse in heteronormative masculine dominance in the victims. It is this exact judgement of men by men which can be seen as a huge factor in why men perpetrate sexually violent crimes in the first place. This is the judgement which simultaneously forces men to repress all negative emotions, which can inevitably culminate in violent and aggressive behaviours, and renders them unable to seek help.

The locker room banter I cited in my last article as perpetuating harmful attitudes to women is also understood in this context, it is a mode of creating harmful expectations of male behaviour. When men are unable to speak of women in a way which is not derogatory, they also feel unsafe to treat them in a way which is caring; highlighted in the recent idea of the ‘Simp’, a negatively connoted nickname for a man who, in essence, cares for his partner. Similarly — particularly, from my experience, in schools — the fear of being seen as a weak male expresses itself early on in the form of homophobic slurs, with boys being called ‘gay’ by their friends for demonstrating love towards their girlfriends. Tackling this language and these belief systems is at the core of this fight: until men are able to express and understand the full scale of their emotional lives without experiencing fear, shame or embarrassment, both women and men are likely going to continue to bear the brunt of these repressions.

These issues are, once more, at their core comprised of social attitudes, behaviours, and norms. I’ve often thought of male perpetrators of sexual assaults with some small level of empathy: the weight of uncontrollable anger, resentment, or self-hatred required to rape and then murder another person is no small burden to bear. While the nuances of such issues are intricate and far broader than I have time for here, I genuinely believe that one of the most effective ways we can collectively dissolve this male drive for sexual violence is by instilling empathy in the men around us. As women, we experience comparatively little stigma when it comes to expressing our emotional needs and experiences, and so — while likely imperfect — we are more practised at it. While we must continue to rally, to protest, to question our passive authorities, and call out abuses of patriarchally-endowed power; we can also actively begin to dissolve this repression in the men around us. We can be role models for better emotional communication. I do feel that if women can lead the way — encouraging friends to speak about their feelings and de-stigmatising men going to therapy with vocal support — then we will all be safer in time.

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