I came to see myself both as a survivor of childhood sexual violence and as a man committed to feminism after reading the essays of Adrienne Rich in the early 1980s, a time when, as far as I knew, no one was talking about the sexual abuse of boys. Rich’s polemic against men’s sexual violence against women gave me for the first time a language I could use to name as violations what the men who’d sexually abused my teenage boy’s body had done to me. The seeds of whatever healing I have achieved, in other words, are firmly rooted in the feminist vision of gender justice. Nonetheless, taking those roots for granted, as I did for many years, inevitably papers over some difficult tensions. For while feminism may have given me a language with which to name my experience of sexual violence, and despite a growing awareness among contemporary feminists that men are sexually victimized in much greater numbers than previously imagined, I have found little room within feminist discourse for who I am as a survivor of that violence.
In “Sexual Violence Against Men and Women in War,” for example, published in The Nevada Law Review, Valorie K. Vojdik addresses herself both to the frequency and brutality with which boys and men, soldiers and civilians, are sexually victimized during wartime, highlighting how invisible that violence has historically been within feminist discourse. Her goal, however, is not to illuminate the experiences of those boys and men as victims and survivors. Rather, she wants to make “masculinized violence against men” visible in order to deepen feminists’ “understanding of…the construction of certain male bodies as masculine and dominant, in both war and in peace” (952, italics mine). Vojdik’s focus, in other words, is on telling us more about what we already know, or think we know, i.e., that perpetrators’ bodies are male and that the goal of the violence these male-bodied perpetrators commit is to construct themselves as “masculine and dominant.”
Granted that deepening our understanding of how male dominance is constructed is important. Nonetheless, Vojdik’s analysis actually obscures more than it reveals about the boys and men who are the victims of “masculinized violence.” Elsewhere in her essay, for example, she writes that, “The rape of men [in war] turns the male into a powerless victim, a symbolic woman who is sexually violated by the perpetrator through rape” (945). Given this framing, whether she intends it or not, Vojdik implicitly proposes that the best way to understand men’s experience of rape is not to reveal what that experience might be, but rather to use women’s experience as a model. To put it another way, Vojdik does what feminists have long criticized male scholars for doing in fields as distant from each other as English literature and medical research: proceeding from the assumption that their gendered perspective is the norm that applies everywhere to everyone.
Adrienne Rich, along with all the other feminist writers whose work helped start me on my path to healing, proceeded from the same kind of assumption. In the world of their writing, sexual violence was committed by men against women, full stop. Indeed, I don’t remember any of them addressing even the possibility of a male victim, let alone a female perpetrator. The only way I could find myself in the world of this feminist writing, therefore, was to co-opt women’s position within it, to view my own experience through the lens of what men’s sexual violence against women meant to women. To carve out, in other words, a space within feminism not so different from the one to which Vojdik argues male perpetrators send their male victims—one where I was, symbolically, a woman.
The difference, of course, is that the society I live in, because it sees the violations I survived as unmanning by definition, has generally wanted me to occupy that position (though things are beginning to change). Feminism, on the other hand, generally speaking, doesn’t care that the men who violated me did so in ways that directly parallel men’s sexual violence against women; I am, in feminist terms, still a man in a society that licenses men to commit such violence. To presume to occupy women’s position in feminism, therefore, even symbolically, and even for reasons as sympathetic as mine might be, is still, when understood through a feminist lens, to exercise that license. To unpack this conundrum, to ask what it means be both a man committed to feminism in a world that privileges men and the sexually violated boy who grew up to be that man, is to ask what a feminist politics of “male survivorship” might look like.
Depending on the measure you use, studies show that as many as 20% of men will—at the hands of both men and women—experience some form of sexual violence at some point in their lives. That we finally recognize these men as people who have been violated, rather than people who should learn to “suck it up” and move on; that we as a society have a growing awareness that this violation is a social and cultural (in addition to being an interpersonal) injustice; that we increasingly believe those who survive this violation deserve to heal, and that they deserve as well our compassion and our support as they do so–all of this is rooted in the work feminists are still doing to expose men’s violence against women as gendered violence and to establish ending that violence as one central goal of gender justice. (It’s much easier to see this connection if you imagine the perpetrator to be a man, regardless of the gender of his victim; it’s much harder, given the current state of affairs, to think through what it would mean to see as gendered violence what happens when a man is violated by a woman.) I am, in other words, not the only male survivor who has a stake in feminism, though I do think all too many feminists have largely and consistently, by omission if not commission, misrepresented what that stake might be.
Correcting that misrepresentation seems to me a necessary step in moving the feminist conversation about gender justice forward.