What will it take to get ordinary, everyday people to accept that sexual assault is a terrible crime? It almost seems asinine to ask that, because most people, if asked, will agree with the contention that rape and other forms of sexual assault are always wrong and never acceptable. Unfortunately, however, those sentiments often don’t translate into real life action. Instead, over and over, we’re seeing that when someone is sexually assaulted—especially a teenager—communities react by supporting the assailants and castigating the victims.
It’s happened again in Colorado, and this time, the victim is a young man. Despite the gender difference, the pattern is the same as it was in Steubenville, Ohio, or Cleveland, Texas, or Elwood, Indiana, or Halifax, Nova Scotia: A young person is violently assaulted, often by multiple people, and afterward is subject to abuse and taunting while their assailants are lauded by community members as nice guys who don’t deserve this.
The Norwood, Colorado, case involves a 13-year-old who was being “hazed,” which is one of those euphemisms that exists to minimize and excuse bullying and even assault. The three assailants cornered the young man in a school bus, duct-taped his mouth and anally raped him with a pencil. (Once again, it’s worth remembering that rape is not the result of overwhelming, out-of-control sexual desire, but in fact is an outgrowth of this kind of bullying and domineering attitude.) Even though the victim’s father was the school principal, it was hard to get any kind of justice for the victim because so many supporters of the assailants had ties to the school board, and the town seems to have largely turned against the victim. The Denver Post reports:
After the principal reported the incident to police, townspeople forced him to resign. Students protested against the victim at school, put “Go to Hell” stickers on his locker and wore T-shirts that supported the perpetrators. The attackers later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, according to the Denver district attorney’s office.
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Apparently, there’s been a major uptick in the number of sexual assaults of young men under the guise of “hazing” around the country, which is unsurprising considering that even in its milder forms, the concept of “hazing” is nothing but validating some kids bullying others for no other reason than their lower social status or younger age. Since hazing was already treated with a wink and a nod in these communities, is it really a surprise that people defend it even as it gets uglier, more sexually violent, and more sadistic? The way that we define masculinity in our culture as cruel and domineering makes these sorts of things nearly inevitable:
High school boys are trying to prove their masculinity to each other by humiliating younger boys because that’s what they think manliness is all about, said William Pollack, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
And it’s not just with the rapes of young men that this is true. All rapists are primarily in this to demonstrate their power and dominance over another. Women and girls just get targeted more because their gender already marks them as socially “lesser,” and therefore acceptable objects for young men to “prove” their manliness. But clearly, younger or less powerful boys and men are in danger as well.
All of this is why communities rise up to support assailants and reject victims after a sexual assault. To reject rape is to reject the entire logic of masculine dominance underlying it. There’s a fear that if we stop defining manhood through domination and violence, then there won’t be another definition of manhood that takes its place—which in turn, dredges up all sorts of fears of emasculation.
This is unacceptable, and not just because it basically means that rape will continue to be widespread with very little consequence for doing it, though that really should be reason enough. It’s also because no one is served well by this limited, ugly definition of manhood that young men often feel they have to aspire to: Not women, not children, and certainly not the young men themselves, who often feel they have to close themselves off to feelings outside of aggression.
Right now, in order to protect this narrow definition of masculinity—and the aggressive young men who live up to it by sexually assaulting others—communities are turning on the victims, blaming them for speaking up about assault and not the rapists for the rapes. It’s as if people just believe that if they abuse the victim enough, they’ll take it back and no one will have to be reminded exactly how ugly it gets when this kind of will to domination gets out of control. That’s why the gender of the victim doesn’t change things very much. Regardless of whether they’re male or female, because they were hurt and humiliated, they’re expected to slink away guiltily, as if they were the ones who did something wrong. Those who refuse to do that become targets of further abuse.
The only thing that has the power to break this pattern is to name it for what it is—victim-blaming—and shame it every time it comes up. That’s what people have been doing more and more often. The reason the rape cases named above are known at all is that ordinary people around the country, often just anonymous internet activists, are raising a fuss and not simply letting this abuse and retaliation against victims stand. Bit by bit, we can change things, simply by offering another voice and another point of view about who is to blame for rape: rapists.