Talking About Sexual Violence? Include Men
By Jon Farmer
May is sexual assault prevention month; an annual opportunity to start conversations about sexual violence in our communities. Too often, conversations about sexual violence focus exclusively on girls and women. To actually eradicate sexual violence, however, we need to include men in the conversation. As a community we need to acknowledge both that boys and men experience it and that men perpetrate the vast majority of all sexual violence.
To begin, it’s helpful to differentiate between sexual assault and sexual violence. Sexual assault is any unwanted or non-consensual contact of a sexual nature. Sexual violence encompasses a wider range of activities that are sexualized and harmful. For examples, this might include unwanted sexualized attention and harassment, the non consensual sharing of intimate or nude materials, or sexualized insults and threats.
One out of six Canadian men will experience sexual assault in his lifetime. For most male survivors, this abuse took place in childhood or adolescence. Sexual assault has long lasting impacts and there are many barriers to men accessing support to address it. Survivors of these assaults can feel shame and confusion. It can hinder their ability to trust, lead to harmful coping and substance abuse, and interfere with that person’s ability to have safe and comfortable relationships later in life.
For men who were raised to believe that ‘being a man’ requires them to be in control at all times, fight back no matter what, and not be gay, experiencing sexual assault can bring up questions of identity and a deep fear of judgement.
If we fail to acknowledge that boys and men experience sexual assault, then we risk not recognizing sexual assault as it happens and ignoring the needs of survivors. There is help for male survivors of sexual assault. In Grey and Bruce counties, male survivors can get assistance through Victim Services, the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Centre at GBHS, and through the Male Survivor Program at the Men’s Program. These supports are free and confidential.
Stigma, shame, and ignorance around men and sexual violence not only hurt male survivors, they interfere with sexual assault prevention. They prevent our communities from talking openly about the root causes of sexual assault, naming sexual violence for what it is, and challenging the beliefs that make it possible.
Sexual violence is so common in our society that many people don’t notice it. We are exposed to so many homophobic and misogynistic insults that judging someone based on his body, sexuality, or sexual prowess can feel normal. That judgement and the actions that communicate it can feel like a requirement because it’s ‘just what guys do’. Like any form of bullying, these types of actions have negative impacts on the individuals experiencing them. They are tools of power and control by the bully or abuser. These actions and the beliefs that produce them have the larger consequence of normalizing the degradation of women and LGBTQ+ folks and creating hierarchies enforced by disrespect and violence.
When boys learn to seek status with acts of sexual violence – whether they’re verbal or physical – they take those perspectives into their future relationships and communities with devastating results.
The vast majority of sexual assaults in Canada are perpetrated by men. According to a StatsCan report on self-reported sexual assault in 2014, men perpetrated 94% of all sexual assaults in Canada regardless of the gender or sexual identity of the victim.
This is the part of the article where people start to write “NOT ALL MEN” in the comments. So let me be clear: saying that the majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by men is not the same as saying the majority of men perpetrate sexual violence. That said, the statistics are clear and they beg the question of why men disproportionately perpetrate sexual violence.
The answer is not biology. Men are not preprogrammed to be sexually disrespectful or to perpetrate sexual assault. In fact most men do not perpetrate sexual assault, demonstrating that biology is not the obstacle to respecting other peoples’ boundaries. Men are not born with the urge to share nudes without consent, to send unsolicited pictures of our genitals, or to assault intoxicated people.
Men have learned to perpetrate sexual violence and we have been encouraged to do so by a culture that sexually objectifies women, degrades queer people, and normalizes an ideal of manliness built on power over others. Most men grow beyond these ideas with the help of role models, peers, and trial and error but that learning takes too long and allows for too much damage along the way.
Instead of hoping that individual boys and men will receive positive lessons, we should be actively teaching everyone how to be sexually respectful and have healthy relationships. Relationship and sexual health education can begin at any age and many countries intertwine the two topics. Teaching everyone the value of consent and respect, that bodies are not to be shamed, and that sexuality is not a reason for ridicule would go a long way to preventing sexual violence in the first place. It would also end the silence surrounding these issues by empowering people of every gender to recognize and prevent sexual violence and support survivors.
Creating a culture of respect and consent will take generations but it is possible. Many educators and advocates have been doing this work for decades but its success requires every one of us. This work also requires our kindness so that we stop shaming and blaming the people who have experienced sexual assault; it requires the courage to have an honest look at the ways our culture and belief systems create the conditions for so much harm; and it requires us as men. Men have an essential role to play in reducing sexual violence and making our communities safer for everyone.
Jon Farmer is the supervisor of the Men’s Program Grey Bruce.