As I am getting ready to attend the first A Voice For Men International Conference on Mens Issues here in Detroit, I thought I’d post this article I wrote about Elliot Rodger, the mens rights movement, and a statistical study of male victimization. The people who commissioned it thought that it tried to do too many things at once and declined to publish it; nobody else that I’ve shown it to has had any interest in it either.
I hate that so much of the discourse around sexual violence is as politicized as it is. A lot of the theorizing that goes on, especially but not exclusively on the male side of the equation, is something of a red herring. An awful lot of it is displaced, or not so displaced, rage and resentment. Not that anger isn’t appropriate sometimes, but it is rarely conducive of clear thinking.
Although mens rights people like to portray me as their “ideological enemy,” I’ve yet to publish anything that engages with their movement’s “principles” (whatever those may be–perhaps I’ll find out more today). I’ve attacked their misogyny where I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen a lot of it.
Elliot Rodger, Rape Culture, and A Different Perspective On Male Victimhood
Thanks to Elliot Rodger, misogyny, rape culture, and male entitlement have been getting broad play in the news. The Manosphere – the blogs, message boards, and websites where male combatants in the so-called war between men and women post their thoughts about gender, sex, and Feminism and sell their assorted wares—has come in for some unwelcome attention as well.
The media consensus is that Rodger’s violence and his misogyny were two sides of the same coin.
“Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality,” Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “but it does have a gender.”
But is it always male? “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions” is an important new study, co-written by Lara Stemple, a professor at UCLA Law School and Ilan Meyer, a senior scholar at UCLA Law’s Williams Institute, that offers a different perspective on the gender of rape, sexual abuse, and violence.
But first, Elliot Rodger. That Rodger was a misogynist, there can be no doubt. Like the cliché, Rodger turned to guns to compensate for his sense of impotence. After he bought his first pistol, he recalled in his memoir, he “felt a new sense of power.”
Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past.
Rodger appears to have been a textbook example of a new category of male spree killer that the sociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel identified in a 2010 study as those who commit “suicide by mass murder.” Their hallmark, Kalish and Kimmel wrote, is their aggrieved sense of entitlement.
Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man. Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.
But if Rodger was aggrieved, entitled, sexist, virulently racist, explosively violent, and male, he wasn’t a rapist. Some Mens Rights Activists, adherents of a masculinist ideology that purports to expose and fight society’s inbuilt “misandry” (the term they use to signify the obverse of misogyny) see him and his victims (most of them male), as “a sacrifice at the altar of gynocentrism.”
Which isn’t to say that they’ve exactly embraced him. “Elliot Rodger was not a product of the PUA [Pick Up Artist] community and he was not influenced by the MHRM [Men’s Human Rights Movement],” one wrote.
But if only women had only been more sensitive to Rodger’s feelings, he continued, in an unselfconsciously misogynist vein that is disturbingly reminiscent of Rodger’s own writings, if only he had been taught “about the possible dangers of getting involved with women” (divorce, false paternity, depression), he wouldn’t have idealized them as he did. Instead, he would have known that “sex isn’t that much better than masturbation, but just different.”
Naturally, MRAs have taken umbrage at the #YesAllWomen Twitter meme that Rodger’s acts inspired. Far from living in a rape culture, they retort, we are living in a false rape culture, in which men are haunted by the fear that their consensual sexual partners (or even total strangers) will arbitrarily accuse them of a crime that they are powerless to defend themselves against.
In the words of one MRA, “men are just as likely to be falsely accused of rape as women are to be actually raped.” They believe this despite statistics that show that fewer than 10 percent of rapes are reported, that only 37 percent of reported rapes are prosecuted, and that just 18 percent of those prosecutions result in convictions.
Of course MRAs acknowledge that some women do get raped, but an awful lot of them, they say, were asking for it. As Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men, the Manosphere’s most trafficked website, put it, “women who act provocatively; who taunt men sexually, toying with their libidos for personal power and gain, etc., have the same type of responsibility for what happens to them as, say, someone who parks their car in a bad neighborhood with the keys in the ignition.”
“A lot of women,” Elam continued, his signature gallantry on full display, “get pummeled and pumped because they are stupid (and often arrogant) enough to walk through life with the equivalent of a I’M A STUPID, CONNIVING BITCH – PLEASE RAPE ME neon sign glowing above their empty little narcissistic heads.”
Like many other MRAs, Elam misleadingly cites Eugene J. Kanin’s 1994 article “False Rape Allegations” as a “longitudinal study” that proves that between 40 and 50 percent of rape allegations are fraudulent, even though Kanin himself cautioned that the “generalizability” of his findings was limited and should not be extrapolated or applied to other populations (he had looked at 45 allegations that had been determined to be false by the police department of a single Midwestern city over a nine year period).
Most studies estimate that between two and eight percent of rape allegations are false. That’s not a trivial number—especially if you are one of the 4,000 to 10,000 men who are falsely accused in the US each year (267 to 666 of whom may be wrongly convicted)—but it is nowhere near as overwhelming as the anecdotal reports that MRAs endlessly recycle imply.
Still, as aggrieved and menacing as so many MRAs may be, as prone to hyperbole and spittle-spewing fustian when they get up on their soapboxes, it’s important to remember that some of their causes—the treatment of some fathers in some family courts; the abuses, sexual and otherwise, of boys and men in penal and military institutions; the declining levels of academic participation and performance of American males—are deserving of serious attention.
The peer-reviewed report I wrote about at the beginning of this article, for example, appears at first blush to confirm some of the MRA’s claims.
Male victims of sexual assault and rape have historically been under-counted and under-served. As recently as 2012, the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, through which the FBI gathered its statistics, defined a rapist as a person of the opposite sex, disappearing at a stroke the countless perpetrators and victims of same sex rape, many of them male. Rapes that occurred in prisons were swept under the rug. Male and female inmates both experience sexual abuse behind bars, but because men are vastly disproportionately incarcerated, the incidents of male victimization reach into the hundreds of thousands each year.
And female on male violence is no figment of the MRA imagination. Reputable studies show that women are as likely to perpetrate intimate violence as be its victims (though vastly more women are seriously injured by their male partners than vice versa). Still other studies suggest that as many or more mothers abuse their children as fathers do.
But to argue that feminism alone should bear the onus for these and other crimes, and not racism, classism, and homophobia (not to mention such non-gendered sins as wrath, envy, lust, and ignorance, and of course mental illness), is as risible as the notion that testosterone is the root of all evil.
Philosophically speaking, the problem with the MRA analysis isn’t its broad understanding of “male human rights”—it’s the totalizing anti-feminist frame that it imposes on the world. It’s the raw woman-hatred that undergirds so much of its rhetoric.
David Benatar, the head of the philosophy department at the University of Capetown in South Africa, is a much more temperate (and consequently much-less read) writer than Elam and his ilk. In his book The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys, he distinguishes between “egalitarian feminism,” which is “fundamentally concerned with the equality of the sexes” and “partisan feminism,” which is “basically concerned only with the promotion of women’s and girls’ interests….the feminist equivalent of those men’s rights advocates who are interested only in advancing the interests and protecting the rights of males.”
Very much the philosopher, he cautions against ad hominem arguments. “Accusing males of being angry men and antifeminists is both regrettable and unfair for the very same reasons that leveling accusations of ‘man-hater’ at all (female) feminists is regrettable and unfair,” he writes.
This is true. But to call an angry male an angry male or a misogynist a misogynist is also to speak the truth. It’s hard to read one of Paul Elam’s broadsides (“I find you, as a feminist, to be a loathsome, vile piece of human garbage. I find you so pernicious and repugnant that the idea of fucking your shit up gives me an erection”) without wondering if his hatred for feminist ideas doesn’t extend to the whole female gender.
All men aren’t violent; nor are all men—or even all men involved with “mens rights”—misogynists. Eliott Rodger wasn’t created by the Manosphere. But for as unstable and potentially dangerous a character as he was, finding a community that shared his “twisted” (his own word) views of the world can’t but have helped to exacerbate his worst instincts.
MRAs and other denizens of the Manosphere have not, to put it mildly, been their own best advocates.
Which brings me, at long last, to “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America.” Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the report re-examines five national surveys that the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted between 2010 and 2012, and concludes that men and boys have been on the receiving end of much more sexual violence than has previously been acknowledged.
When the definition of rape is expanded to include acts of unwanted sex such as being “made to penetrate,” the numbers of male and female victims reported in one major survey turn out to be nearly equivalent.
“The traditional sexual victimization paradigm,” the report observes, “can obscure sexual abuse perpetrated by women as well as same-sex victimization….one multi-year analysis….found that 46% of male victims reported a female perpetrator. Of [incarcerated] juveniles reporting staff sexual misconduct, 89% were boys reporting abuse by female staff.“ Female inmates, on the other hand, were more likely to be abused by other (presumably female) inmates—another surprising and counterintuitive finding.
When Hanna Rosin covered the study at Slate, many commenters in the Manosphere were startled that the author of The End of Men would have written as sympathetically as she did about a study that appeared to negate the feminist paradigm of malignant patriarchy. Some speculated that she was trying to co-opt the subject of male victimhood so that feminists could take control of the discourse.
But for the most part it’s the MRA analysis and not the feminist one that’s adversarial and zero-sum, that sees every gain for women as a loss for men and vice versa. Malignant patriarchy doesn’t preclude male victimhood—it can even contribute to it, as the report explicitly states.
Treating male sexual victimization as a rare occurrence can impose regressive expectations about masculinity on men and boys…the belief that men are unlikely victims promotes a counterproductive construct of what it means to ‘be a man’…..Expectations about male invincibility are constraining for men and boys; they may also harm women and girls by perpetuating regressive gender norms.
An exclusive focus on female victims similarly reinforces “regressive notions of women’s vulnerability….perpetuat[ing] norms that see women as disempowered.”
Far from anti-feminist, the re-definition of sexual victimization that the report turns on is informed by “feminist principles that emphasize equity, inclusion, and intersectional approaches; the importance of understanding power relations; and the imperative to question gender assumptions.”
I asked the report’s co-author Lara Stemple whether rape and sexual violence can be decoupled from gender. When it comes to counting and reporting its occurrences, she answered, heterosexist and gendered biases can and should be eliminated. If a person experiences violence, law enforcement agencies should take appropriate actions and services should be provided. Rape crisis centers should be well-funded and open to anyone; their staffs should be trained and equipped to offer services to all who need them.
“But you can’t pretend gender doesn’t exist by any stretch,” she emphasized. “Understanding what happens to abused men requires an understanding of gender hierarchies. Male survivors of prison rape are reduced to ‘bitches’—they are forced to assume stereotypically submissive female roles, to do their abusers’ laundry, and so on. Feminist analysis is germane to their condition.” In the words of the report, “masculinized dominance and feminized subordination can take place regardless of the biological sex or sexual orientation of the actors.”
“This is also the case when men are victimized by women,” she continued. “Many men are invested in an ideal of stereotypical masculinity; being hurt by a woman feels emasculating. Feminist analysis and the women’s movement have helped us understand that rape isn’t just about physical power, it’s psychological too.”
Taking a page from the MRAs, I asked her whether it was possible that large numbers of male victims fantasized or were outright lying about their experiences.
“People in general have little incentive to lie in anonymous surveys,” she answered, “but if there is a risk along those lines for men, my guess is they would under-disclose rather than over-disclose. Male survivors are often ashamed, embarrassed, and confused about the abuse, particularly if they experienced a physiological sexual response during the incident, which is not uncommon. Many men take decades to disclose abuse.”
If physical force isn’t a criteria for sexual violence, I asked her, then how does one distinguish between bad behavior and a crime? She admitted that is an ongoing challenge. But she emphasized that just as the feminist movement successfully argued that physical force must not be a requirement for a successful rape charge involving a female victim, the same understanding should be extended to male victims.
For the most part, she added, the at-risk populations for sexual victimization among men tend to be members of marginalized groups. “Prison and jail inmates are disproportionately young, black, Hispanic, low-income, and mentally ill. Self-identified non-heterosexual inmates are 11 times more likely to be victimized than heterosexual prisoners.” The homeless and long-term residents of nursing homes are vulnerable as well.
“Our study should in no way lend support to those who wish to deny the widespread sexual victimization of women,” she emphasized. “The surveys we reviewed consistently find that women still experience sexual victimization far too frequently. The fact that men and boys also experience more widespread sexual victimization than was previously recognized does not and must not negate women’s suffering. After all, compassion is not a finite resource.”
“Sexual violence isn’t exclusively a woman’s issue or a men’s issue,” she concluded. “It’s a human rights issue, with enormous gender implications. We need to have a much better discourse about it.”