What Can Male Sexual Victimization Tell Us About Masculinity?
Starts With Me Journal
Vol. I No. 5 (November 2019)
Director, Research & Strategy
Download a pdf version of this article here.
Every November the male moustache is used to raise awareness of men’s health. For the most part, this awareness raising has focused on physical health, such as the prevention of prostate cancer, heart disease, diabetes, among other chronic conditions. What has tended to get lost in the shuffle is men’s mental health.
Poor mental health and mental illness do not discriminate based on gender. Men are equally susceptible as women, although they do experience poor mental health and mental illness in different ways. While women are more prone to anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, men are more prone to addiction. While women are far more likely to attempt suicide, men are more likely to do it successfully. In fact, 75% of all suicides involve men. Beyond the gender binary, some studies suggest that transgender individuals are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health and mental illness.
On the topic of men’s mental health, perhaps the most overlooked area of concern has to do with sexual victimization. When we talk about rape and other forms of sexual assault, the discussion mostly focuses on women. This is for good reason, as women are far more likely to experience sexual victimization of some kind compared to men. In Canada, an estimated 33% of women are victims of sexual violence compared to just under 17% of men. The trends are similar in the US, where 20% of women and 1.5% of men say they have been sexually victimized. When it comes to rape, 91% of victims are women.
And yet, even though sexual abuse of men is less common than it is for women, male sexual victimization is nevertheless an issue worthy of some attention. This is for two reasons. First, it draws our attention to common understandings of masculinity, which can be detrimental to men’s mental health. And second, it shows how more positive (and more species-appropriate) definitions of masculinity can be crucial to the recovery process.
Sexual Victimization and Common Understandings of Masculinity
Common understandings of masculinity suggest that being a man means being strong, powerful and ready for sex at all times. It can also suggest being stoic or “devoid of emotion.” According to Eldra Jackson, this view of masculinity can be summed up in a few phrases: “Big boys don’t cry. Suck it up. Shut up and rub some dirt on it. Stop crying before I give you something to cry about.”
The logic of this understanding of masculinity suggests that “real men” should not be the targets of sexual abuse. After all, they should be able to ward off the unwanted behaviour. It also suggests that real men should not struggle emotionally after experiencing an uncomfortable or dangerous sexual encounter. A real man would shrug it off.
The negative mental health effects of this view of masculinity are obvious. Men are expected to be someone and feel in a way that is not a true reflection of the challenges and complexities of life. Men are not allowed to be weak, emotional, to cry, to express worry or concern. These feelings must be supressed, kept inside, where they eat away at the subconscious. When they do pop up from time to time, they are seen as reminders of emotional and physical inadequacies, only to be suppressed further. Manifested in extreme forms, this kind of masculinity can become “toxic” for oneself and for others.
Redefining Masculinity and Recovery
The recovery process of those men who experience sexual abuse can be challenging. This is because the experience can negatively affect the quality of existing relationships as well as the prospects of meaningful relationships in the future. It is also because of social stigmas that can discourage affected individuals from speaking out about their experience, connecting with others who have been through similar experiences, and seeking the help they need.
The recovery process can be especially difficult because it also requires one to alter how one sees themselves. It requires an alternative understanding of masculinity that differs from common views. In his study of nineteen men who experienced sexual abuse, Kevin Ralston shows how the recovery process involves a redefining of what it means to be a man. He observed that “for the vast majority of the participants, their revised masculinity was more inclusive and equality focused.”New definitions of masculinity emphasized not power and stoicism, but rather being compassionate, standing up for others, defending those that cannot defend themselves, being authentic, and being the best you can be.
An Evolutionary-Informed Understanding of Masculinity: Insights from the Alpha Male Chimpanzee
All of this begs an important question: what does it mean to be a “real man?”
It is important to acknowledge that just because toxic masculinity can be so damaging for mental health does not necessarily mean it is not what men are “designed” to be like. After all, as evolutionary theory suggests, our genes do not care about our happiness, especially when it can get in the way of reproduction or survival. To the extent that toxic males are more attractive as mates, then it is possible that there may be some kind of evolutionary logic that supports this version of masculinity.
However, research done on the “alpha male” primate suggests that there may be little evolutionary basis for a toxic version of masculinity. In fact, this research suggests that the new definitions of masculinity that the victims of sexual abuse developed through their recovery process, as described above, are likely more accurate and species-appropriate.
In his study of chimpanzees, primatologist Frans de Waal shows that alpha males are not necessarily the biggest or strongest in the group, even if such attributes may make achieving alpha status more likely. Further, they are often not even bullies or all that domineering, even if they may be intimidating.
In fact, de Waal stresses how alpha males have a whole host of other qualities that are central to their high-status position. These include an ability to make others happy, to keep the right friends, and to secure female support. They are also generous and focus on providing for others. De Waal emphasizes that alpha males are peace-keepers, supporters of the underdog, and empathetic. As he puts it, alpha males are “consolers in chief.” These attributes of the alpha male serve important social functions and are designed to benefit the group, but they also serve the interests of the alpha as they help him maintain his leadership position.
Accordingly, toxic versions of masculinity may not only be destructive for all involved, but also inconsistent with more genuine masculine traits. As de Waal puts it, “you should not call a bully an alpha male. Someone who is big and strong and intimidates and insults everyone is not necessarily an alpha male.”
The sexual victimization of men is less common than it is for women, but it is still a topic that is important to discuss. Paying attention to it not only helps to reduce the stigma around the issue but it also draws attention to contemporary views of masculinity and how they can undermine emotional wellbeing. It also fosters greater discussion around what it means to be a “real man,” and to develop understandings of masculinity that are more healthy and consistent with our species. If more men sought to emulate the alpha-male chimpanzee, as de Waal describes him, we might all be a bit better off.
“Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics.” CAMH. Available at: https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics
“SACHA: Sexual Assault Centre.” Available at: http://sacha.ca/resources/statistics
Eldra Jackson, “How I Unlearned Dangerous Lessons About Masculinity,” TedWomen 2018. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/eldra_jackson_how_to_break_the_cycle_of_toxic_masculinity/transcript?language=en
Frans de Waal, “The Surprising Science of Alpha Males,” TEDMED 2017. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_the_surprising_science_of_alpha_males/transcript?language=en#t-479271