By Richard Hoffman
Recently it was announced that a new planet had been discovered in our solar system. It was given the inelegant but sensible name Planet 9. Among its characteristics was its atypical orbit. A large part of the reason it had gone undetected was the inability of scientists to see the limitations of their assumptions about the forces at work holding the system together. I believe that, with all the best intentions, our mapping of the dynamics of sexual violence has ignored what our assumptions blinded us to, and with the same need now to reassess our understanding.
Which brings me to my real subject, R.M. Douglas’s book On Being Raped.
(Beacon Press, April, 2016.) This is not really a book review, however; let’s call it a recommendation because my endorsement is already on the book jacket: “With great courage and honesty, R. M. Douglas recounts and interrogates the most intimate and devastating violation a human being, man or woman, can suffer. His beautifully written inquiry faces down all the questions, one by one, and in doing so challenges the reader’s assumptions about gender, violence, masculinity, and recovery. On Being Raped is a profoundly moving memoir that will press you to think hard about your gendered response to sexual violence, especially when the person victimized suffers in a body the prevailing attitude deems somehow less worthy of sympathy, support, and justice. Douglas has gone into the darkness and brought us back a great gift.May we be wise enough to receive it.”
At the very heart of all of our thinking about men and women and power, about vulnerability and violence, lies the ugly fact of rape. It is by now widely understood that rape is a crime of power and control, a savagery just short of cannibalism. As such, it is not an expression of sexuality, but the most elemental instance of cruelty, with utter disregard for its victim. Its aim is degradation and humiliation.
No matter the gender of the persons involved. For some, that last sentence is the sticking point.
In their groundbreaking (and disruptive) 2014 article, “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions,” in The American Journal of Public Health, feminist researchers Lara Stemple and Ilan Meyer examine and debunk the “common wisdom” that men seldom experience sexual violence.
Pointing to the regressive and heterosexist assumptions about gender that have shaped much of the research, the exclusion of entire vulnerable populations such as men in prison, and restrictive and narrow definitions of rape and “gender-based violence,” they conclude that “a vast cohort” of male victims have been invisible to the research.
Stemple and Meyer write, “Sexual victimization can be a stigmatizing experience for both men and women. However, through decades of feminist-led struggle, fallacies described as “rape myths” have been largely discredited in American society, and an alternative narrative concerning female victimization has emerged. This narrative teaches that, contrary to timeworn tropes, the victimization of a woman is not her fault, that it is not caused by her prior sexual history or her choice of attire, and that for survivors of rape and other abuse, speaking out against victimization can be politically important and personally redemptive.
For men, a similar discourse has not been developed.” Then there is the definition of rape.
After explaining that in the country of his birth, his assault would rightly be termed rape, Douglas writes: “The statute in my current state of residence reserves that term for the forcible insertion of a penis into a vagina—a definition that allows me, other similarly situated men, and innumerable women whose attacks did not conform to that particular model, to experience the perverse charm of switching between the ranks of the raped and the unraped merely by stepping on board an aeroplane for a few hours.” One of the chief ways the cognitive structure of patriarchy preserves itself is through homophobia and other kinds of shaming and implied violence aimed at silencing victims. Disclosure is made more difficult, especially for young men, by the absence of an alternative version of masculinity that would counter the rapist’s implicit message of emasculation (a message reinforced by the view that only women can be victims of sexual violence.) Add to that the complete absence of any context for disclosure, along with the lack of any conversation among men about their own vulnerability to sexual violence, and it is a wonder that even here and there a man speaks up about his experience. Douglas concludes his book by saying, “A start has to be made somewhere. This is my attempt at one.” It turns out that the rape of men is not the exception that proves the rule, not an outlier. Not, after all, a speck on the lens, but a planet, one that has been there all along, one that requires rethinking many, many things we thought we knew for certain. “A start has to be made somewhere.” Indeed. And, as a start, one could read Douglas’s fine book, his report from Planet 9.
Richard Hoffman is author of six books: the memoirs Half the House and Love & Fury; the poetry collections Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, and Emblem; and the short story collection Interference & Other Stories. A past Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.