Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sexual Assault and Gendered Stereotypes

Lately, I’ve been coming across articles that address cases of gendered violence where the victims are men. The most recent piece I’ve read is “When Women Sexually Assault Men,” by Livia Gershon. The thing that strikes me most about the article is its emphasis that we often dismiss the idea that a man has been sexually assaulted because of the stereotypes that we subscribe to. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the same holds true for our dismissal of the idea that a woman has been sexually assaulted:
THE NOTION THAT SEXUAL assault of a man by a woman is impossible, and even laughable, rests on the same gendered assumptions that are also used to downplay assaults on women by men. Even after decades of feminist activism, many discussions of sexual violence still center on telling women to stay sober and be cautious around men. The ideas behind that advice—the image of men’s sexual desires as constant and all-consuming and of women as the gatekeepers to sex—also makes it impossible for many people to imagine men as victims. If men are always seeking sex, and frequently shot down by disinterested women, then they should be grateful—or at least not traumatized—by any kind of sexual attention from a woman. Taking sexual coercion against men seriously gives us even more reason to fight against those stereotypes.

These stereotypes have an impact on male victims of sexual assault and on their likeliness to report their experiences:
Men who experience sexual assault or other violence by intimate partners are less likely than women to report the incidents to the police. They frequently think no one will believe a woman sexually assaulted them, are embarrassed at not being able to fend off an attack by a woman, or harbor fears of being perceived as “gay” or not masculine for not wanting to have sex, Struckman-Johnson suggests.

For me, this particular article is valuable because it touches on something I’ve been thinking about: the idea that men and women are radically different, enshrined in the title of a popular book, “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” I haven’t read the book, but I have noticed how quick people are to grab on to the idea that men and women are so dramatically different that we have to learn each other’s “languages” and ways of thinking in order to better understand each other.

Of course there are differences between men and women, based on biology and on the ways we have been socialized (and it follows that there are further variations based on culture, class, and other factors). But I think that, in our eagerness to emphasize these differences, we’ve been too quick to sweep our similarities under the carpet. By denying our similarities, we make it more difficult to recognize that other people have the capacity to feel disempowerment, pain, and shame, as we do. So we allow ourselves to diminish their experiences of discrimination and trauma, claiming that they can’t be as bad for “those people” as they are for us.

I’m also starting to think that the tendency to emphasize our stereotyped differences is a way to avoid seeing ourselves and others as individuals. If we can put everything down to the rationale that “men are this way” or “women are that way,”, then we don’t have to recognize that people are individuals who subscribe to philosophies/belief systems and have personalities and the right to choose what kinds of situations to get into. Ultimately, this makes it easy to avoid examining our own behavior and motivations and taking responsibility for them.

Quoted in the article by Livia Gershon, Struckman-Johnson puts it well. She points out that stereotypes about women’s and men’s sexuality make it possible for female perpetrators to rationalize their sexual aggression and minimize the traumatic experiences of their victims:

 “Because of the idea that men are sexually oriented and wanting it all the time, it kind of lets them off the hook,” she says. “They get to assume they’ve got a ready and willing partner here who would just love to have sex with them. That is not the case, that’s denying individuality, it’s denying personality, it’s denying people’s rights to choose their sexual situations.”