Who Has It Worse?

Originally posted on December 9, 2011

Imagine that a person fondles a little girl. This person befriends her, earns her trust, and abuses it by sticking their hand up her shorts. We would find that disgusting and horrific. We would want that person locked away. We would want the girl to get all the help she needs.

Now imagine that person rapes a little boy. This person tricks the boys into believing they are a social worker, gets the boy to let them into his home, and rapes him at knifepoint. Would we find that disgusting and horrific? Would we want that person locked away? Would we want the boy to get all the help needs?

We would claim we do, but would we really just compare who has it worse?

When Lisa Hickey responded to my article about women’s sexual violence against boys, she wrote:

What saddens me is why it has to be about the numbers and why it has to be about gender. Sexual violence is violence, with sex used as a weapon. If it happens to boys or men, and those men are traumatized, that’s a problem. If it happens to boys or men and they can’t talk about it, that’s a problem. If it happens to boys and men and no one believes them, that’s a problem. Period. The one thing I will NOT to is stop allowing a conversation about this topic.

I answered:

Lisa, the reason these discussions come down to numbers and gender is because, to put it bluntly, some feminists do not want to talk about male victims. I would love for it to be something else, but it is not. It is simply that a particular group of feminists frame sexual violence as something men do to women, and anything that suggests that worldview is wrong simply cannot in their eyes be true. Worse, they take any high rate of violence against males as an attack on female victims, as if abusing males means fewer females are abused.

This often plays out as “who has it worse.” We see it in feminist spaces online and offline, in support services, and even in some research. What matters to the people who play this game is not the frequency of abuse but pushing and protecting a political agenda. Yes, there are real people involved, real men and boys who they treat like garbage, but that does not matter to those people because acknowledging male victims undermines their political agenda. The best way to stop anyone bring up male victims is by silencing them, and an easy way to do that is by playing the “who has it worse” game.

It is rather simple: take two similar events that happened to two different groups of people and pick one that you think is worse. Do not worry about objectivity because the point is not to be fair, but to shut the other side up. Let us try.

Who has it worse:

  • A geeky boy who gets bullied or a gay boy who gets bullied?
  • The uncool girl no one talks to or the popular girl everyone hits on?
  • The black man who cannot find work or the white woman who cannot get a promotion?
  • The rape victim whose rapist walks free or the falsely accused who spends years in prison?
  • The man who gets hung up on when he calls a rape center or the woman the police believe lied about rape?

Several years ago I spoke with a man who said that he felt bad for how he reacted to “a little fondling” compared to the “courage” I showed given my experiences. That was the first time anyone compared their abuse to mine, and it shocked me because I never thought of things that way. I always thought about the impact the acts had on people, not the acts themselves. No one knows how people will cope with pain, and it is silly and arrogant to think there is some metric we can use to measure the “right” response.

I told the man that it did not matter what looked worse because all abuse is wrong. However, I do not think he believed me. It seemed that for him being fondled just did not compare to being raped, even though he clearly suffered from the same fear of people hurting him that I did.

Yet this man hinted at a broader point. When people say “Who has it worse” they really mean  “Who has it better.” More specifically, they mean that who has it “better” should not talk about their problems because their problems do not matter compared to some other group’s problems. For example, when Hugo Schwyzer dropped his “9 of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003” line what he really meant was “Men and boys don’t get raped and it’s not that big of a deal if a few do, so stop talking about it.” That is an evil, callous thing to say to an abuse victim, which is why it was phrased as “women have it worse.”

The odd thing about the “who has it worse” argument is that it is so subjective. If we only based our decision on the acts themselves then anally raping a boy is worse than fondling a girl. Yet that is not how sexual violence works. It is not just the physical violation, but also the emotional violation. In that regard, neither act is worse than the other because both acts can severely traumatize a person.

Now I would never suggest that boys and men are as harmed by rape as women and girls. No, I will unapologeticly state that we are just as harmed by rape as women, and I do not care how many feminists that angers. No one is arguing that feminists should agree. They are more than welcome to pretend, like Schwyzer, that male victims are like unicorns, elves, and Santa Claus.

However, I am suggesting that we look at what is actually being compared and ask what that gets us. How does it benefit us to play the numbers game when everyone admits that one group rarely ever reports their abuse? Who does it help to “remind” male victims every time they talk about their experiences that there are only five of them in the whole world and all the “real” rape victims are female? Does it really make anyone’s argument stronger by implying that men and boys’ pain matters less because of their sex?

The short-term result is that it changes the topic back to female victims. The long-term result is that prevents any honest discussion because people are more worried about protecting their political views than dealing with sexual violence against males seriously. Perhaps the worst result is that it teaches male victims to be careful who they talk to about their experiences. In other words, it silences them and it does so in worst way by pretending to want to listen to them only to shut them down when they speak.

Perhaps rather than asking “who has it worse” we should ask “why does it matter.” If the concern is really for all victims, then it should not matter if millions men and boys are victims of rape or just one is. That it does matter shows why this kind of abuse continues.

20 thoughts on “Who Has It Worse?

  1. Personally I think it has something to do with the mentality that when someone is talking about their bad experiences there’s this seeming need to get that person to say, “Maybe I don’t have it so bad after all.”

    Ever hear the saying that goes something like, “I complained that I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”

    No disrespect the the man with no feet but how exactly does that do anything for the man with no shoes? Sure its important for the shoes less man to recognize that he is not the only one with a hard luck story but really in the end what good does it do to tell the shoe less man about the man with no feet?

    And I think that’s what happened, at least when talking about male victims. A need to “put them in their place” by reminding them that they aren’t the only ones with a hard luck story. Totally ignoring the fact that their story is told even less than those of female victims.

  2. The thing that gets me, is that when this comes up, there’s usually people who talk about how hard it is for a female victim to come forward, or to be believed, how hard it is to get her attacker to even be arrested, let alone go to trial, let alone serve any time et cetra et cetra… as if it’s any easier for male victims. It’s not. At all.

    Also, it always seems that people don’t “want this to become about numbers” or play Oppression Olympics when the subject of male victims comes up.

  3. I’m reminded of a friend who runs a domestic violence shelter. They have to deal with gender politics all the time. As they say:

    “If You Don’t Want To Do Something, One Excuse Is As Good As Another – And One Good Excuse Can Last A Life Time.”

    It’s not possible to have dialogue or present rational ideas to some – they have an excuse and it’s for life.

    People with excuses will call anyone who challenges the excuse a bigot, fool – you name it, they will defend the excuse by any means. It’s only when that excuse becomes socially unacceptable and damages the personal image that they will start to change with great resentment. Then they claim they never held wrong views or used excuses.

    As my friend also says – “It’s Easy To Be A Fool, But Hard To Be Right”.

  4. My personal belief is that much of the problem is the lack of ‘compassion’.

    “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering”

    Most times our ability for compassion comes from a place of strength. I think when you are able to move past your victimization you are able to see how some people do have it worse, as in, they are lacking in the ability to cope. The problem is elevated when you are always shown to be a victim. It is very difficult to have genuine compassion for another human if you never have the strength to move past this position. If you look at the players in these scenarios this is very much the case.

  5. Titfortat, that is a really good observation.

    I would add that our society makes it really difficult to find that strength and heal. Because of our fundamental social nature, it requires social validation and we still basically blame victims and don’t want the hear it. You can’t heal. You can find validation from other victims, that you are a victim. That’s not healing.

  6. There’s a great Monty Python sketch called The Four Yorkshiremen where the characters constantly try to one-up each other about how bad they had it during their upbringing but that referred only to poverty. The parallel rings true regarding sexual abuse of any kind and whilst comparison is sometimes inescapable when you start out healing as you are essentially comparing notes when you read a memoir or a case study, that falls away with time. I think with all the abuse related information out there leading up to Thanksgiving related to college sports, whether the detractors like it or not, things are changing slowly.

    I disagree with Allan, at some point you have to say **** society and do what’s necessary to get yourself well, and ditch anyone standing in the way of that.

  7. @Allan

    I dont think that society blames us for the actual violence perpetrated but what it does do is make you aware that you “Should have” been able to protect yourself. Is it any wonder why the abused so often become the abuser??

  8. For the record, I am the Lisa Hickey that Jacob refers to in his post.

    The reason I hate when it is about the numbers is for the reasons Jacob says – it almost always evolves into a “who has it worse game”. And there are two potential consequences that happen after that – smaller groups who have been harmed won’t get the resources they need to help make things better (anything from therapy to change to prevention resources) and – something I too have personal experience with – the abuse itself becomes difficult to talk. Either the victim is not believed, or or so few people talk about it that no one knows how to even have the conversation or – as Jacob and Titfortat says – the “Oh well, yours wasn’t so bad” gets in the way of true compassion.

    I was abused as a child, and, I have to tell you, it never even occurred to me to talk about it. It wasn’t that I was scared of not being believed, or that I consciously made the choice not to talk about it. It was that I couldn’t even open up my mouth and have words come out. How can you even begin to get help if you don’t believe you can tell a single person about what happened? And gradually, I stopped talking about anything. There were years when I couldn’t hold a conversation.

    And that’s the reason I think public conversations like this are so important, and that’s the reason that I would prefer the numbers didn’t matter.

    Because if conversations like this start, and they get in front of anyone who was abused – not someone like me now, but the person I was as a pre-teen, or teenager, or in my twenties, before the downward spiral – then maybe that would help. Maybe I would know that it was ok to talk about it with someone – anyone.

    I don’t really care what kind of abuse it is – abuse is abuse is abuse. A male victim is no more or less important than a female victim. Ever.

  9. There’s a really good article here: “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy: Stopping Sexual Abuse in Sports and Every Institution ”
    and the quote that comes to mind is :

    “Each day, the coverage continues to hone in increasingly on the responsibility of individuals — whether it be the alleged rapists, victims, or the most immediate bystanders. The seven-year-old son of a friend of mine, when talked to about child sexual abuse, said, “Well, I guess I have to not let anyone do that to me.””

    Already he sees he’s one his own. If it does happen, it’s a very short step from there to “It’s my fault–I let it happen.”

  10. RIght on, Lisa.

    Which is why, in my article I submitted to your magazine, I made sure to emphasise that I didn’t care about who had it worse.

    And as an example, whenever the commentary went into statistics, I stayed out of the conversation. Just to practice what I preach.

    Really, it’s all about empathy, validation, support, and safety. That’s what male survivors of all stripes are looking for first and foremost.

  11. “If it does happen, it’s a very short step from there to “It’s my fault–I let it happen.””

    That is so true – which is why there needs to be a long term plan of action to turn that risk around. One of the main problems is the hyperbole around events, perps and parents. The model of educating children around stranger danger and inappropriate touching needs to be looked at again – but not abandoned.

  12. There is a new ‘National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey’ out: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf

    For some reason “Being forced to penetrate someone” is not classified as rape. Which would make what I experienced and what James Landrith (I suspect many here have read his story) not rape. I assume many here would classify that as rape.

    But if you look at the tables on page 18 and 19 in that report and do move the “Being forced to penetrate someone” category into the rape category one ends up with a results for the last 12 months which will surprise many (it didn’t surprise me):
    Percentage having been raped last 12 months:
    Women: 1.1% (estimated 2,700,000)
    Men: 1.1% (estimated 2.670.000)

    I guess this would certainly make the who has it worse discussion moot.

    Do note that the lifetime numbers differ quite a bit There may be several resons for that and as far as I can tell the report doesn’t look into why.

  13. I’m wondering why there were repeated delays in publishing the CDC report?

    Was it to prevent abuse of the findings in front of congress – or was there another reason or even other reasons?

    The Report does have it’s faults as to methodology and underlying assumptions which does cause some bias.

    I have written a scratch critique in a response over on GMP – http://goodmenproject.com/good-feed-blog/new-cdc-study-on-sexual-assault/comment-page-1/#comment-76587

    If anyone wants the Full Critique – I may be some time – each time I check the number of assumptions made and how they have been reported the questions just mount up!

    One Particular Bug Bear is the use of the Term “Unsafe” – it is not even defined in the study as having a meaning, and yet crops up! How can you ask a person if they have felt unsafe and assume that all 16,507 respondents (9,086 women and 7,421 men) know what you mean and agree with you. The study does define such words as severe ( even that is suspect) – and yet other language which can be highly subjective is not. Language used in the study is defined and yet not correlated against the respondents perceptions. That is the same as putting words in a person mouth!

    The weighting of sample to give a national figure is also suspect. The demographic data shows a marked age bias around middle age and seniors – so weighting perpetuates and amplifies that age Bias. It also indicates that their experience over 1)the last twelve months and 2) life time is taken as valid for other age groups. That is the same as saying all activity to address the issues we are investigation have failed for over 30 plus years.

    The sex break down of respondents is listed as male or female. Call me pedantic but there are people who identify as being neither. The report does state that there has to be improved services for many groups, including people who identify as neither male nor female, and the term used is “transgendered people” – yet the report itself does not even include them in the reported demographics – does not mention any reason for failure to capture any member of the group in the sample – and just skirts over the issue by not commenting.

    It would be useful if they also explained how they are using the term “transgendered” as the definition some use fails to recognize others who are recognized. One point would be asking if life time experience of sexual violence in all forms corresponds to your present or past gender identification.

    Parallel studies have identified a higher risk for the group to suffer violence involving CSE – and also as adults who are not in commercial sexual activity.

    It’s something that many of the figures are admitted to have potential errors of +/-30% and even higher – but that is not made clear all the time – leaving some people to accept figures as FACTS when they are in fact only a guide.

  14. Tamen, I think you confused men’s lifetime estimates with their 12 month estimate. According to the study, the number of men raped in 2010 was so low the researchers did not include them. However, the rate of “other sexual violence” was basically the same between men and women. About 6.6 million women and 6 million men were victims of “other sexual violence”.

    As you noted, the survey does not look into why the rates for male rape are so low compared to female rape. I think that is a gross oversight by the researchers because other studies have shown much higher rates than what was reported in this study.

  15. “Now I would never suggest that boys and men are as harmed by rape as women and girls. No, I will unapologeticly state that we are just as harmed by rape as women…”

    I’m not so sure about this. Isn’t it possible that men are harmed more by rape than women and girls, especially if their abuser is male? Rape seems to change a man profoundly. What was once an innocent and unashamed natural masculinity in men can change to an affected, ashamed and contrived masculinity. Society would mistake this as effeminacy, which has far-reaching effects on a man. It can easily have lifelong consequences in a society that mocks and ridicules men for a lack of masculinity (“man up” etc.). Women are no doubt affected profoundly by sexual abuse, and tragically may be shunned for it, but they are not mocked and shunned for being less feminine.

    In his heartbreaking article about male rape, Will Storr describes the effect of rape on male victims. While there are many similarities between the suffering of male and female victims, it’s clear that the consequences to men are different in more one significant way. To put it bluntly (but not insensitively), rape can render a man sexually impotent around women. Not only that, if we accept that sexual dominance is a typically male trait that is typically attractive to women, it can eliminate his chances of becoming a father. Given the natural challenges for even a fully potent man to impregnate a woman, the difficulty facing an even partially impotent or effeminate man adds a dimension to the male victim’s suffering that isn’t present in female victims.

    I don’t pretend to know all the ways in which a female rape victim suffers, some of which may put her off sex for life, but I can think of no female conjugate to the sort of male impotence and its consequences Will Storr writes about in his article. I may be missing something, so I’d appreciate other people’s thoughts on this.

  16. I see I never answered Toysoldiers reply. The NISVS 2010 report has been discussed quite a lot after this comment originally was posted, but I’ll reply anyway as I think Toysoldier at that time misunderstood my original comment:

    No, I didn’t confuse the lifetime and the last 12 months estimate numbers. What I did do was to classify “being made to penetrate someone else” as rape. And for the last 12 months 1.1% of women reported being raped (or an attempted rape) while 1.1% of men reported being made to penetrate someone else (or an attempt).

  17. Isn’t it possible that men are harmed more by rape than women and girls, especially if their abuser is male?

    How would you quantify that? I do understand your point about how society treats male survivors in terms of their masculinity, but that is an external thing. The personal affect of rape is individual, so how could anyone say that one group’s rape is worse than another’s? What are we comparing and how can we be certain the comparison is objective?

    To put it bluntly (but not insensitively), rape can render a man sexually impotent around women. Not only that, if we accept that sexual dominance is a typically male trait that is typically attractive to women, it can eliminate his chances of becoming a father.

    That is not entirely true. Some men may be hesitant around women. Others may have no problems at all. Each person reacts to their abuse in different ways, so no one can say for certain how each man or boys will respond. Also, some women are attracted to dominant men. However, some women are also attracted to vulnerable men, which sometimes can end in exploitative relationships.

  18. Please do not take this as me trying to turn the conversation back to women again, even though I am a woman. I am female survivor of a female abuser (thankfully my abuse never turned sexual). From the time I was twelve up to about the time I was sixteen, I was the victim of a female physical abuser, although I was by no means her only victim. In fact, I was one of three females (out of around twelve people total) who she targeted for her evil.

    When everything came to light, everyone responded with things like “Oh my God, you poor thing! Are you alright? How badly did she hurt you? Maybe we should put you in the therapy!” Nobody said anything similar to the boys who she’d hurt, most of whom she’d hurt much worse than me. The worse I got from her was some cuts and bruises- she never broke a bone like she did with some of the others, she never sexually assaulted me. While I don’t want to say it wasn’t that bad, as it was very psychologically traumatizing, it could have been much, much worse. But still, me and the other female victims got a lot more support than the male victim did, even though ours was less destructive physically than theirs was. But no one wanted to help them.

    I’ not trying to say that either male abuse or female abuse is worse, but I was appalled (and still am) at the lack of support for men and boys who go through this. I have nephews, and this sort of thing terrifies me, and disgusts me to think that if something were to happen to them they might not get the recompense that they deserve.

    Thanks for listening, and I’m sorry I ranted on and on. I’m glad I found your blog, you give voice to things I’ve been thinking for some time now.


  19. Pingback: A Worthy Debate | Toy Soldiers

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