When I write about feminist bias against male survivors, many feminists object. They claim that no feminists they know are like that. Some of the bolder ones will claim no feminists harbor such biases at all.
However, when one talks to male survivors and their advocates, one hears a different story. It is common to hear about rape centers hanging up on male survivors, referring them to abuser treatment programs, or accusing them of being rapists. One will hear of rape centers lacking any services for male survivors, from pamphlets to counseling. One may hear of extreme cases of open misandry.
The back and forth between advocates and feminist can go on forever because no one has really looked into how the services actually treat abused males. Until now. Glen Poole wrote about a study that covers this issue:
The CEO of Mankind UK has produced a fascinating report on male victims of rape and sexual abuse.
Martyn Sullivan, won funding from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to travel to Australia, the US and Canada to explore how other countries are dealing with male victims of rape and childhood sexual abuse.
One of the key themes to emerge from his report – which you can read by clicking here is the challenges of supporting male victims within the context of a predominantly feminist sector.
The study, An Exploration of Service Delivery to Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, found that feminist-run and gender neutral services experienced problems with treating male survivors.
Sullivan visited two feminist-run rape centers, Centres Against Sexual Assault and Service Assisting Male Survivors of Sexual Assault. His findings match the complaints I mentioned on this blog numerous times: the perception of male survivors as abusers, failing to acknowledge female abusers, ignoring men’s specific needs, and treating male survivors as lesser or not “real” victims of rape.
From the study:
In all three meetings, discussions on the male victim invariably led to discussion on male perpetrators and there were concerns about male clients being at a higher risk of being aggressive, violent and/or disclosing sexually abusive behaviours than female clients. This seems to be influenced by two factors. Firstly, with regard to male clients becoming aggressive or violent, I have to admit that reflecting on this after the meetings I felt a bit insulted. I understood where the concern came from and that it was influenced by societal beliefs about men’s potential for aggression. However this is a stereotypical view and not based in fact. The service is for male victims of violence and it raised concerns for me how such beliefs consciously or unconsciously may adversely affect the engagement and understanding of these clients seeking support for their own victimisation.
Sullivan noted that the “Vampire Syndrome” stereotype was born out of research on male sex offenders who reported experiencing childhood abuse. Many people, particularly feminists, then assumed that any abused male is at increased risk for becoming an abuser. Ironically, this narrative also prevents male survivors from coming forward out of fear that they are dangerous or will be labeled a sex offender.
(Coincidentally, many female sex offenders also report experiencing childhood abuse, yet to my knowledge no one suggests that there is a link between women’s violence and the abuse they experienced, nor do any feminist-run organizations entertain the notion that the women they treat may have, are, or will abuse others.)
Sullivan noted that feminist groups find that acknowledging female offenders conflicts with their core belief that only men commit sexual violence. This is something else I often mention. When people bring this issue to feminists, feminists will often balk at the idea, and yet:
This can affect a man who has been sexually abused by a female as he may feel that a feminist based organisation may not believe his story or want to hear about his experience. This can be reflected in agency literature, websites and advertising that advocate a pro-feminist stance, which does not include the possibility of female abusers. Like feminism, profeminism does not have an absolute meaning, it is open to interpretation, and in it’s most negative interpretation may deter men from engaging. In the literature that was given to me at SAMSSA and on their website is a profeminist statement that reads:
SAMSSA acknowledges the gains and challenges of feminism and women’s movements that have made possible the communication, discussion and awareness of the sexual assault perpetrated against men and boys. SAMSSA is unequivocally pro-feminist, and seeks to remain accountable to, and respectful of, women, women’s services and feminism (feminist theories and practices)
This statement could be read as containing mixed messages as it firstly states that feminism has helped the male victim to come forward but also reinforces that if you do come forward you need to always be accountable and respectful of women. For the man that has been abused by a female this stance may set up a conflict about his ability to honour this statement in light of his experience and question whether it is a place that would be accepting of him.
Sullivan gave feminism some leeway, yet was still forced to admit feminism is not exactly “male friendly”:
Feminism is not a static theory or movement and is constantly producing a series of ‘waves’ that build upon previous conceptions and present new understandings about the unequal positions of power between women and men. My discomfort is that at its core, feminism is not ‘pro male’, or as the points above highlight, treats males differently which is usually in the form of negatively questioning or anxiety about male behaviours. This can result in a split or conflict of interest when delivering service to both males and females within a feminist informed agency that can negatively affect male clients.
This can be seen on a broader level within the feminist movement such as when feminists play the “who has it worse” game, paint sexual violence as something only men do to women, or argue that the way to stop sexual violence is to “teach men not to rape”. All those ideas make it difficult for male survivors to come forward in a feminist space.
Sullivan’s findings about gender neutral groups did not fair much better. He visited Family Services of Peel, an organization in Toronto, Canada. He focused on a steering group created to assess the needs of male survivor, and found that the female-centric attitude again became a problem:
Male survivors that contributed to the group spoke about when asking for help as a victim, they would be directed to men’s violence programs or not understood and have to be explicit about what had happened to them. Other issues about engagement revealed that in many agencies females would be asked about sexual abuse experiences but males were not so not given an opportunity to disclose. When males were asked, there was concern over how they were asked which led to thinking about re-wording such questions from, ‘Have you ever been sexually abused or raped?’ to more male friendly questions such as ‘Have you ever had any unwanted sexual experiences? This emphasized further how language around sexual violence was always focused towards women. Rape as a concept is largely understood as something that happens to women so men may not be able to identify with this way of describing their experience. The use of different language allows for this barrier to be addressed and enable men to disclose what has happened to them.
It got worse. Despite the group finding that there was a need for a change in how they treat male survivors, it took 18 months for anything to happen. Once FSP received funding, the organization cut the steering group, including all the male survivors, out of the project and ignored all their recommendations.
When Sullivan visited male-centric agencies, the only issues he found were whether men would seek help from agencies that referred to their experiences as “sexual violence” or “abuse” and that the limited services meant that fewer men could use those services.
He also noted how personal the creation of the services were:
What really struck me about my meetings with the men’s agencies was how they all shared a similar theme in how they came about. At the heart of each of the stories was an individual who was instrumental in starting the agency and took on sole responsibility for its success. This stands in stark contrast to the other stories I had heard, especially in the Women’s sector where there was more a sense of collectiveness and a togetherness that was borne out of having a shared history within the Women’s Movement. Of course there were other individuals involved and the success of the agency was very much based in this team however, with the men’s agencies there was a named individual who was recognised as being the founder and continued to be the driving force or leader.
That stands in excellent contrast to the common feminist complaint that men do not step up and help abused males.
Some of the key findings he made were the need for community partnerships, i.e. different groups that treat men with various issues referring men who disclose abuse to the right services, identifying different client demographics, actually advertising about the services, and assessing and meeting men’s needs.
Again, these are the basic things I have brought up numerous times on this blog and in other spaces only to have of feminists roll their eyes.
None of this is an attack on feminists or feminism, as I am sure some feminist will regard it. Certainly all feminist-run/leaning places do not end up this way. However, Sullivan traveled from Canada to Australia and found the same problems half a world apart. While I will accept all feminist-run/leaning groups do not cause these problems, it is clear these problems are hardly unique. The underlying issue in every case where male survivors were marginalized or poorly treated was feminist doctrine.
The way to solve this problem is by doing exactly what Sullivan suggests: removing the politics and focusing on the specific needs of male survivors. It is only by actually listening to male survivors and addressing their specific problems that we can help them. That really should be the goal here, not one-upping someone or playing politics. We should be committed to helping male survivors because it is the right thing to do. Perhaps if we help them more will come forward.