We must recognise male sexual assault as legitimate

Sinéad Barry considers that our conception of sexual assault has excluded male victims

The rise of the #MeToo campaign succeeded in shedding light on dozens of rape and sexual assault cases that had been left to linger in the shadows for too long – because of it, many women were at last given the recognition they deserved for the ordeals they endured. The recent report the New York Times (NYT) published on Asia Argento, however, forces us to consider the possibility that our acknowledgement of sexual assault has not been as inclusive as it needs to be.

The article in question revealed that actor, director, and one of the foremost activists of the #MeToo campaign, Asia Argento, had paid off fellow actor Jimmy Bennett to keep quiet about his alleged sexual assault that she committed. Argento was one of the first to accuse Harvey Weinstein of rape, a man known himself for paying off women to keep quiet about alleged assaults.

Bennett met Argento when he was seven, playing her son in “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things”, in which she starred and directed. The NYT reported that the two remained close afterwards and formed a mother and son-like relationship, often calling each other “child” and “mother” on social media. Bennett claims that in 2013 the accused sexually assaulted him in a hotel room in California. He was 17 at the time, Argento 37. In California, the age of consent is 18. Argento has since adamantly denied that any sexual relations happened between the pair, however pictures taken on the alleged date of sexual assault depicting the pair lying in bed with “unclothed torsos”, and the payment of a $380,000 settlement to Bennett have led many to question Argento’s denial.

“There is no standard fit for a rapist, in the same way as there is no standard instance of rape.”

This incident demonstrates an overwhelming cultural hypocrisy with regard to sexual assault. It is high time we accept that there is no standard fit for a rapist, in the same way as there is no standard instance of rape. This is not to dismiss that women do get sexually assaulted – they do, more frequently than men – but instead to expand our conception to include other forms of abuse.

Thanks to the media and other cultural gatekeepers, the general image society has developed of sexual assault is of an immense, sinister-looking man overpowering a petite woman on her walk home. For most cases, this is simply not accurate. Physical fear often does come into play, however more frequently than not perpetrators do not overpower their victims. The reiterated solution that men should be able to fight off their victims is utterly mythical. It is akin to asking a female victim why she didn’t scream or attempt to fight when she was likely immobilised by fear. Furthermore, if a man did attempt to physically overpower his female assaulter, he would more than likely be interpreted by society as the attacker himself.

A general stigma around males coming forward with their cases make statistics around sexual assault foggy. Online, every crisis centre seems to have a different statistic. 1in6.org reports that one in every six men experiences sexual assault in their lives. Survivors UK lists that 70,000 men experience sexual assault in the UK every year. Closer to home, the Rape Crisis Centre reported that, in 2016, 25% of all calls to the centre came from males. What doesn’t seem obvious from research is how many of these cases actually get reported. The fear that the side of the attacker will be taken is, for many victims, a sad reality.

This March, when I attended the rally in protest of the verdict of the Belfast rape trial, I was struck by several things. The rally was in one sense incredibly positive, the number of people who arrived to support the victim was overwhelming. On a more negative note, however, it was apparent that many speakers at the event, with just a few words, managed to exclude so many people from the issue.

“While sexual assault nearly always revolves around issues of power and privilege, it is not always about male privilege over female.”

The entire Belfast trial was saturated by issues of power and privilege, and the verdict was no exception. In this case it came down to privilege acquired through status, wealth, and indeed gender. What is important to note, however, is that while sexual assault nearly always revolves around issues of power and privilege, it is not always about male privilege over female. Feelings of power or powerlessness can come from matters such as age difference, status, the dynamic of a social situation, or any number of other issues.

What seemed to be reiterated across speeches at the rally was that rape was a gendered crime. The Director of Rape Crisis Dublin repeatedly emphasised this in her speech. Perhaps this was because gender played a huge part in the verdict of this trial, and was not reflective of her own beliefs. Nonetheless, hearing these words from the Director of Rape Crisis Dublin must have been offputting for men thinking about coming forward with their cases. An anonymous attendee of the protest and victim of sexual assault said that the event for him “felt like standing in the rain with thousands of people applauding the fact that what happened to you could never happen.”

We need to come to terms with the fact that females can be perpetrators of sexual assault and men can be victims. Doing so will not in any way undermine the fact that women are sexually assaulted by men. Many people seem to be afraid that recognising this is in some way anti-feminist. That in some way, by legitimising one, we are forgetting the other. This is a mistake that needs to be rectified.

Feminism, at its core, is the political belief that women should have the same rights as men. It is not the intention to promote women over men, but to promote equality. This must include treating sexual assault with the same amount of delicacy and compassion in both in our judicial system and our everyday parlance. Needless to say, women are every bit as capable of corruption as men. Not admitting to this is a step backwards for women’s rights – it infantilises women by not taking their actions seriously.

The primary reason behind this hypocrisy seems to be that society has difficulty envisioning males as victims. The image of the ideal masculine figure has been instilled in our brains for so long that it is not difficult to see how this happens. But it is time that we recognise that this ideal is utterly and totally flawed. Propagating it only leads to problems for both women and men.

The resulting problem for women is that when men cannot be imagined as victims, it is women that are automatically rendered so. Looking back at a history of male domination over female, the adverse consequences of this for women are obvious. When females are perpetually imagined as the helpless victim, it becomes much more difficult for them to be seen in the authority of any aspect of society. This in turn can lead to problems for women attempting to advance professionally, gain political power, or even assert their bodily autonomy. The dire results of the “damsel in distress” epidemic permeating our outlook on sexual assault leaks into many other aspects of women’s lives, with detrimental consequences.

With regard to men, complicated issues surrounding strength and shame lead to many young men feeling as if they shouldn’t allow themselves to be a victim and consequently don’t talk about difficulties they might be experiencing. For many, this can precipitate severe depression and other mental illnesses, which can in turn lead to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Suicide rates in males aged 25-34 account for a disproportionate number of deaths in this country. The Central Statistics Office recorded that last year an average of 2.5 men committed suicide in Ireland every day. Our country is infamous for sweeping sexual misconduct into the shadows and for silencing stories of abuse. Weaponised shame has crippled generations of Irish men and is long from being a problem of the past. The lack of awareness around male sexual assault is undeniably increasing this systemic societal issue.

Recognising that, through no fault of their own, men can and do fall prey to sexual assault is a crucial step we need to take in order to progress as a society. The myth that it is only men that rape women is not only senseless but a downright insult to male rape victims. Facing sexual assault is an abhorrent ordeal that nobody should have to experience. When it does happen, we need to treat all victims with the same amount of faith, sensitivity, and compassion. The results of doing so would benefit all. But even if they would not, recognising this issue, and the victims of it, would still be a paramount concern. These men deserve to have their experiences legitimised.

Sinéad Barry

Sinéad Barry is a current Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. She is a Junior Sophister English Literature and Philosophy student, and a former staff writer.