The Myth of Sexual Violence as Only a Crime Against Women

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post Sex and the Founding Fathers author Thomas Foster’s recent article about sexual violence that appeared October 24 in The A-Line.

By Thomas A. Foster

In our national discussions about sexual assault and sexism that swirled around the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, we veered toward the historical view of sexual assault as a gendered crime. Men played a variety of roles in this national drama—as perpetrators of sexual violence, as raging patriarchs who have been angered by the audacity of women to accuse men of sexual violations, and as pro-feminist allies—but they did not figure prominently as survivors of sexual assault or harassment.

Indeed, if men figured as victims at all in our national discussions, it was primarily as targets of lying women, as victims of a “vast conspiracy,” as Brett Kavanaugh phrased it in his opening statement before the Senate Judicial Committee. Or, as President Trump put it: “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”

As an historian of sexuality in early America, I cannot hear such assertions without being reminded that the notion that every man should be concerned about the power of women’s false accusations of sexual violence is a very old one. It has always relied on misogyny and an inversion of the realities of our courts and culture—a paranoid, sexist fantasy that places powerful men in positions of vulnerability and vulnerable women in positions of supposed authority.

The book Look e’re you Leap; or, A History of Lewd Women (Boston, 1762), for example, warned men by deploying tales of rejected women who used false accusations of rape and seduction to have their revenge. Newspapers in eighteenth-century America routinely included similar fictional tales and just as many stories of trials and false accusations of rape to extort money. One problem with this fearmongering, as Tyler Kingkade points out, is that men are actually more likely to be victims of sexual assault than of false rape accusations brought by women.

Senator Feinstein prefaced her hearing remarks with the statistic that 1 in 6 men have been victims of sexual assault. Even with significant underreporting, 1 in 5 sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from men. Other figures confirm sexual violence against men as a significant problem. The Department of Defense reported that of nearly 20,000 reports of sexual violence in 2014, for example, roughly half were from men. Sometimes recognizing the existence of an issue does not mean that we take it seriously. Just as with comments that dismissed Kavanaugh’s alleged assault, sexual violence against incarcerated men is an open secret. All too often, it is treated as a source of humor.

Part of the reason that men have not been largely recognized as victims of sexual violence is that our nation has yet to move beyond the gendered definition of sexual assault established by previous generations. In colonial America, rape was explicitly a gendered crime and it remained defined as a crime against women for centuries. It was often also seen as a crime against the victim’s male guardian, a violation of one man’s patriarchal authority of a female dependent. It was only in the 1970s that states began revising sexual assault laws to include male victims. Only in 2012 did the FBI move away from its definition of rape as a crime against a “female,” a definition that had been in use since 1930 when it began tracking such crimes. The FBI definition, however, still focuses on “penetration” and excludes men who are forced or coerced to penetrate. When a CDC study in 2012 included men who were forced or coerced to penetrate in its study of intimate partner violence, it found that men and women reported relatively equal rates of non-consensual sex. The media reporting on the study, however, reverted to the soundbite that women were “disproportionately affected by sexual violence.”

The women’s liberation movement was effective at helping us recognize that power is at the center of sexual assault, instead of lust, as had been the previous interpretation. Feminism provides the tools for understanding sexual violence against men, even if popular culture has still largely defined sexual assault as a crime against women. Including men in a broader discourse about sexual violence, one that still takes into account gender, forces us to think more about root causes of sexual exploitation, rather than letting expressions of it define the problem in today’s society. One danger of defining sexual violence as a gendered crime is that vast portions of the country will reduce some of what is discussed to boorish behavior rather than expressions of abuse.

A young man who commits the kind of sexual assault that Brett Kavanaugh was accused of, is not only a man who does not respect women; he is a person who abuses power and authority for personal satisfaction and gain. The Kavanaugh hearing has shown us many things about ourselves, including that we have progressed very little in our understanding of root causes of sexual assault, and, I fear, therefore, even less in our ability to prevent it.

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Celebrating Banned Book Week

This week in North Philly Notes, for Banned Book Week, we blog about Prison Masculinities, edited by Don Sabo, Terry A. Kupers, and Willie London. A passage on prisoner rape prompted the entire state of Texas’ prison system to ban the book!

 

 From the Texas Civil Rights Project 2011 Human Rights Report:

Prison Masculinities, edited by Dr. Terry Kupers, M.D., Don Sabo, and Willie London, is banned because passages on pages 128-131 discuss prisoner rape. A prisoner describes how he was “humiliated telling anyone about” being sexually assaulted, and how he underwent “torture scenes” at the hands of fellow prisoners. TDCJ officials have testified they would even censor government documents that discuss prison rape. 

The book’s editor, Dr. Kupers, an expert in prison mental health care, included the passage as an “illustrat[ion of] the kind of prisoner orientation and education that is mandated by federal law – i.e. the Prison Rape Elimination Act signed into law by President [George W.] Bush in 2003.” According to Dr. Kupers, “the material in Prison Masculinities is designed to facilitate peaceful, smooth operations of the prisons and contribute to the rehabilitation of prisoners.”

About the book:

Prison Masculinities explores the frightening ways our prisons mirror the worst aspects of society-wide gender relations. It is part of the growing research on men and masculinities. The collection is unusual in that it combines contributions from activists, academics, and prisoners.

The opening section, which features an essay by Angela Davis, focuses on the historical roots of the prison system, cultural practices surrounding gender and punishment, and the current expansion of corrections into the “prison-industrial complex.”

prison masculinitiesThe next section examines the dominant or subservient roles that men play in prison and the connections between this hierarchy and male violence. Another section looks at the spectrum of intimate relationships behind bars, from rape to friendship, and another at physical and mental health.

The last section is about efforts to reform prisons and prison masculinities, including support groups for men. It features an essay about prospects for post-release success in the community written by a man who, after doing time in Soledad and San Quentin, went on to get a doctorate in counseling.

The contributions from prisoners include an essay on enforced celibacy by Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as fiction and poetry on prison health policy, violence, and intimacy. The creative contributions were selected from the more than 200 submissions received from prisoners.

About the Editors:

Don Sabo, Professor of Social Sciences at D’Youville College in Buffalo, is author or editor of five books, most recently, with David Gordon, Men’s Health and Illness: Gender, Power, and the Body and, with Michael Messner, Sex, Violence, and Power in Sports: Rethinking Masculinity. Sabo has appeared on The Today Show, Oprah, and Donahue.

Terry A. Kupers, M.D., a psychiatrist, teaches at the Wright Institute in Berkeley. He is the author of four books, editor of a fifth. His latest books are Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It and Revisioning Men’s Lives: Gender, Intimacy, and Power. Kupers has served as an expert witness in more than a dozen cases on conditions of confinement and mental health services.

Willie London, a published poet, is General Editor of the prison publication Elite Expressions. He is currently an inmate at Eastern Corrections. For nine years he was a prisoner at Attica.

Examining institutional responses to campus sexual violence

This week in North Philly Notes, the co-editors of Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses address the state of rape accusations on college campuses under the current administration, and why we need to redouble our efforts to eliminate sexual violence.

As the editors of Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses, we thought we were prepared for what a new White House and Federal administration would mean for institutional responses to sexual violence against college students. The progress over the last several years has been palpable, especially given the confluence of student and survivor activism, policy enactments, expanding assessment and etiology research, as well as institutions of higher education’s significant efforts to improve their responses to victims and innovative prevention efforts. Given indicators that the new administration would not maintain the course of the previous one, in the months after the election we discussed with each other what the possible impact could be. Perhaps reduced funding for the Department of Education, a contraction of the number of investigations by the Office for Civil Rights, and/or a redefinition of the current interpretation of Title IX. All of these situations would remove the burden and promise of institutional Title IX responses to campus violence. These concerns led us to wonder in the Preface of our book, that if Title IX was redefined via a new “Dear Colleague” letter, what could be the future of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Clery Act, and the Campus SaVE Act—repeal, strip funding, or fail to enforce? If any of these changes occurred, we posited, the corresponding effects on institutions of higher education, and more importantly their students, would be substantial.

Addressing Violence on College Campuses_smWe are now on the brink of the changes we feared, when the progress anti-violence scholars, activists and legislators have made might begin to crumble under the weight of the new, shifting narrative created by the Department of Education. As the stage is set for sweeping policy dismantling, there emerges a narrative of women as falsely accusing men, rape as “drunken sex,” and the reporting of sexual violence as women changing their minds about “our last sleeping together was not quite right.” This rhetoric, along with the narrative that presumes that only women are raped, is disheartening as it negates all of the work survivors, activists, and academics have done to address violence against all genders. We are dismayed—nay, angered—that those responsible for enforcing regulations on violence on college campuses, such as Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, would assert, publicly, a victim-blaming discourse. She not only discounts victims’ voices but also endorses an understanding of offenders as victims too, making survivors and the schools that try to hold the offenders accountable the “real” perpetrators. Bringing “claims” of rape or adjudicating such claims is to discriminate, the logic goes.

This shift in defining who our government must protect in cases of sexual assault is possible because rape itself—at least according to Ms. Jackson—is no longer the rape that activists defined and legislators later codified in sexual assault legislation, but rather the mere imaginings of a college woman recovering from drunken sex. Though Ms. Jackson later apologized for what she termed a “flippant” remark, the problem is that this remark reifies the victim-blaming culture within which survivors already must try to seek justice. Now, though, they must do so under official federal endorsement of a narrative in which women have regrettable sex and then men are falsely accused. The data, as presented in Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses, does not support this narrative. But of course there has long been rape deniers and widespread endorsement of rape myths (including the oft-repeated belief that rape victims lie) in our society. We did not imagine, however, that our government officials appointed to address sexual violence would publicly endorse such beliefs in this day and age.

We therefore join the call of the 50 organizations who recently demanded that Ms. Jackson reject her own comments publicly and consistently, as Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz wrote about in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on July 20, 2017. And, in the face of Ms. Jackson’s comments, we need college administrators to continue to push their campuses to “do the right thing.” They must do everything that have been striving to do to prevent, respond to, and adjudicate violence, which may involve rejecting a call from the administration for reduced enforcement in the future. We also call upon college students to accelerate their incredible efforts to change the social climate on college campuses and directly confront and reject victim-blaming narratives.

Our concern for what will happen under this current administration—as researchers and women—is growing.  But we also believe in the power of many to eliminate violence against women. Historically, legislation about violence against women has followed from the tireless efforts of activists. We encourage students, faculty, and officials of institutions of higher education to be those activists that refuse to see harm done to college students on college campuses.

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