The issues of male rape and sexual abuse get plenty of sensationalistic air time on “Law & Order: SVU,” but not so much substantive awareness in our day-to-day lives. While it is true that reported sexual abuse of girls and women is far more prevalent than male abuse, I also assume acknowledging or discussing male sexual abuse brings up uncomfortable feelings amongst guys about masculinity and what it means to be a “strong man.” There’s even vicious stereotypes that dog gay guys — who are routinely denigrated as being “not manly enough” — that they must have been sexually abused as kids. In a way, that’s kind of all you need to know about what some (perhaps many) people think of male sexual abuse survivors.
So it makes sense then, from a messaging standpoint, that to reach male victims of sexual abuse, the UK group Survivors UK would address “masculinity” head-on. Their new campaign, which launches this week in time for a rugby tournament in London, features a rugby ball (speared by a nail, I think?) and the slogan: “Real men get raped: and talking about it takes real strength.”
My first reaction was to think, Oh great, a PSA addressing male sexual abuse. That’s so important! But my second, and equally-as-strong reaction, was to think, Wait a minute, why do we have to call it “real men”? Isn’t that just feeding into the same stereotype that there IS such a thing as “real men”? (And lastly, Why does anyone play rugby? It seems so dangerous.)
This same issue of reinforcing “real men” stereotypes came up awhile ago when Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore — pre-split, obvs — were trying to raise awareness about the sexual exploitation of girls for their Demi & Ashton Foundation. The couple posed with signs reading, “Real men don’t buy girls” and enlisted a bunch of their celeb friends to film humorous spots about things “real men” do, like pour milk directly into the cereal box. The trying-too-hard-to-be-funny PSAs were criticized everywhere from Salon.com to Jezebel, which called them “inept.”
Clearly it’s a tricky line to toe: trying to address men about problems in their sexual history (or make them aware of the problems in the sexual history of their friends or loved ones) without putting them off guard. I guess they’re put off guard easily? Because there seems to be a consensus that when trying to talk about sexual abuse — whether it’s your own or against little girls — you have to do this one thing, which is affirm they really are real men. I personally don’t understand why this is so. In fact, if I were a man, I think that I would be insulted by what society was saying it thought about me. (See, feminism is for dudes, too!)
In fairness, any messaging related to healthy sexual behavior will not make everyone happy. A recent example was in December, when the Pennsylvania liquor control board released a PSA about date rape. It showed a woman’s legs on the floor with her panties around her ankles and the words “2:19 a.m. She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no.” This PSA, which was later taken down, was accused of blaming the victim because it seemingly focused on the woman being too drunk to voice her refusal. I wasn’t as bothered by this PSA as much as other women were; regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the message kinda sorta got lost in arguing about the message. So, as much as I don’t think “real men” should be a phrase used by anyone — advertisers, victims’ support staff, whoever — maybe it’s a lesser of two evils type of thing?
What do readers think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter at @JessicaWakeman.