With the rage of victims of sexual assault who have been silenced for too long erupting, the current cultural landscape sometimes feels like an epic battle of the sexes: Like women are fed up with the abuses of men, and not going to take it anymore; like they’re climbing the walls of the patriarchy, ready to tear it down brick by brick. It’s exhilarating, it’s inspiring, it’s healing. But it’s also not that simple.
As contrarian trolls on the Internet will jump at any opportunity to point out, not all men are sexual predators — but that doesn’t mean that men as a group don’t have a lot to answer for and reflect on. The more important hole in the men vs. women view of the current reckoning is the fact that not all victims are women.
Last month, actor Jimmy Bennett accused Asia Argento — Italian actress and early figurehead of the #MeToo movement — of sexually assaulting him in a California hotel room five years ago, when he was 17 and she was 37. (She has denied the allegations.) On Sunday, he gave his first televised interview since coming forward, appearing on the Italian show Non è l’Arena, (“Outside the Arena”), where host Massimo Giletti implied that a woman can’t rape a man, and that physical arousal indicates consent.
Giletti asked whether the intercourse was “complete,” or whether Bennett ejaculated, implying that his body’s physiological response meant he couldn’t have been coerced. Bennett didn’t understand what was being asked at first, but after receiving clarification through the headset where he was receiving translations of Giletti’s questions, said “yes.” The idea that if a male victim has an erection or ejaculates during a sexual assault then it must not have really been assault is a common misconception, though studies have shown that, “Erections and ejaculations are only partially under voluntary control and are known to occur during times of extreme duress in the absence of sexual pleasure.”
Giletti also said, “A woman’s violence against a man or a boy is technically difficult to understand.” This is also a common response, like when teenage boys are raped by their female teachers and their trauma is discounted by men joking about how they would’ve given anything to sleep with their hot teachers in high school. As if the socially-mandated male libido negates the insidious nature of abuse where there’s an imbalance of power and a predator who knows how to use shame and confusion to coerce a victim.
Referring to a photo of Bennett in bed with Argento, Giletti said, “I’m sorry, but you don’t seem upset, you don’t seem in this picture to be traumatized,” to audience applause.
Unfortunately, Giletti’s treatment of Bennett is nothing new. These same arguments have long served to silence male victims of sexual assault, and despite being proven completely false over and over again, they persist.
There were hundreds of thousands of people who used the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag to share their reasons for keeping quiet about sexual assault, in response to President Trump maligning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for waiting three decades to come forward with her allegations against supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Of those thousands, most were women. But sprinkled throughout were men, some disclosing for the first time, explaining that they didn’t report their own assaults because they were ashamed that they couldn’t protect themselves, that they didn’t think anyone would believe them or take them seriously, and that they didn’t think they could.
These same fears were expressed by women on the hashtag, too. But for men, there’s added layers of shame for male victims in a world that expects them to never vulnerable and to always want sex, making it unbelievable that they’d ever find themselves in a situation where they’re not consenting participants in a sexual encounter.
If the current cultural reckoning is going to have lasting change and truly dismantle the systems of power and shame that perpetuate abuse, male victims must be included in the fight. Unlearning the cultural ideas of masculinity that tell men it’s ok to rape because sex is theirs for the taking also means unlearning the ideas that say it’s not masculine to be victimized — so the battle isn’t really between men and women, but between everyone who’s tired of being victimized and the system that encourages and protects abusers.