Understandably people often ask us this, it’s a big question, and it deserves a thorough response. It boils down to the difference between structural power and individual power. But what does that mean, and what does power have to do with it?
Sexual violence always involves one or more person(s) wielding power over another person(s) in a way that violates their boundaries. That power may be structural (the type of power that members of entire social groups have if they have legal and/or institutional backing across society, resulting in their greater employment opportunity, housing conditions, and so on) – or it may be individual.
In media coverage of sexual abuse, the form of structural power talked about most widely is gender, but other forms of power can be relevant as well, including rank, wealth, age, race, ability, language, immigration status, health, and others. Some sadly common examples (followed by the most obvious type of power at play) are:
· A boss abusing their employee, of any genders (rank)
· A rich person abusing their non-wealthy partner (wealth)
· A mother abusing her son (age and rank)
· A carer abusing the person they’re meant to care for (ability)
· A cisgender person abusing a transgender person (gender)
Importantly, none of these forms of power makes sense in reverse on a structural scale, even if they may appear to in some individual cases. E.g. whereas carers have the power to prevent someone from accessing the care they need to survive, people who require care do not have an equivalent level of power over carers. Similarly, poor people as a whole do not have more structural power than wealthy people; and women collectively do not have more structural power than men.
Clearly, that doesn’t mean that a man can’t be abused by a woman, or that a wealthy person can’t be raped by a non-wealthy person. It just means that in these examples some other type of power is more significant than gender. For example, when mothers abuse their sons, age and rank are more significant forms of power than gender, structurally speaking, whereas when fathers abuse their daughters, gender may be another factor in addition to age and rank.
There is no single universal experience of all female survivors of violence by men – it may vary by race, class, sexual orientation, and a whole host of other things – but they do all share the potential for gender to have been a contributing factor to their oppression. Conversely, there is no single type of power that unites men’s experiences of sexual abuse. And so there’s no common ground between all male survivors to consider men an oppressed group per se, or to consider being male to be a risk factor for being abused. This means that campaigning for men’s rights would not be an effective way to address the very real sexual violence that does happen towards men for all the other reasons all genders can experience abuse.
However there is a huge need for greater visibility and understanding of the different types of power that can give rise to sexual abuse, and the fact that men, therefore, can be sexually abused, and to bust the harmful myths surrounding masculinity and femininity that portray men as intrinsically violent and women as intrinsically victims, which denies both groups their agency and full humanity. At SurvivorsUK we try to do this through our work in the media, our outreach, and our myth-busting.
Risks of ‘men’s rights’ campaigning
Here’s where it gets complicated. Although abuse of men and boys isn’t based on their gender – it’s due to other exploitations of power – there are still ways that gender can be highly significant to a man or boy’s experience of sexual abuse.
Firstly, it‘s possible for someone of an oppressed social group to weaponise their lower status in ways that become abusive. For example, if a woman who has perpetuated sexual abuse towards a man wants to deny the abuse, she may try to play up the false stereotype that “women can’t abuse men” to try to manipulate others into thinking she’s innocent.
That doesn’t mean all women have structural power over men; it means sexist stereotypes can be weaponised against survivors. Nor does it undo the society-wide structural power that men collectively have over women, as it’s not an option that is exclusively available to women: a male perpetrator could similarly claim that his (female) victim was making things up because she’s attention-seeking (and indeed many women are falsely portrayed as fabricating abuse along these lines).
In other words, the fact that there are cases in which perpetrators turn sexist stereotypes to their advantage does not mean that it’s necessarily because of gender that they perpetrated the abuse and that therefore every gender needs a gender-based rights lobby.
Second, the oppressed group of all types of structural power (race, gender, immigration status, and so on) are stereotyped in ways that make them appear less credible. Black people get portrayed as criminal and hypersexualised; women get portrayed as attention-seeking temptresses; immigrants get portrayed as scroungers, and so on. That’s going on every day, forming a constant background reel of pseudo-information to every life experience, and influencing every person’s thinking whether we like it not.
At the times when people are most vulnerable, afraid, and angry, they may be more vulnerable to believing those discriminatory narratives, especially if the person who made them vulnerable looks like the people who are negatively portrayed. For example, after a man is sexually abused by a woman, he may become more vulnerable to experiencing hateful thoughts towards all women than he was beforehand, even though all women aren’t to blame for the abuse.
Crucially this does not mean that a survivor will necessarily become oppressive, or that being abused causes a person to become abusive. It does mean that where someone wasn’t already in the habit of consciously overriding the toxic messaging we all receive from society – that women, Black people, and other oppressed groups are not to be trusted – then they may be yet more inclined to think that way after a traumatic experience they go through appears to confirm the prejudice.
It’s really easy to see how this happens, and when it does, a lot of sensitivity and care is needed to respond in a way that neither colludes with the prejudice or misdirected anger, nor leaves the survivor feeling his pain has been ignored or minimised. Getting that balance wrong could both reinforce his trauma – something we would never wish on any survivor – and increase the risk of escalation or radicalisation towards acting on his fear or hatred of women as a whole.
When a group campaigns for men’s rights, it’s easy for all this nuance to get lost in media soundbites. And when a vulnerable, frightened, and angry group of people feeling hostile towards a structurally oppressed group sees a campaign in their favour, they become emboldened in their crusade – this is how white supremacist groups gain traction. So there are real risks to framing the very real work needed – around myth-busting and improving the visibility of men’s experiences as survivors – as the work of men’s rights.
At SurvivorsUK we will always believe a survivor’s experience of having been raped or sexually abused by someone else, no matter what their gender or the gender of the person who abused them. And we will always believe, witness, and acknowledge their pain. If they share thoughts that are discriminatory towards another group, we will not collude with those thoughts, but we will try to understand where they are coming from, express our unconditional compassion for the underlying feelings (such as shame, anger, confusion, or something different), and try to support them to identify the power dynamics that shaped both the abuse and its impact, as well as how their feelings came to be directed towards a different apparent cause. We support, challenge, and build, with love, constancy, and authenticity.
We do this not only because we don’t want to participate in the oppression of others, but because our clients and all survivors deserve the most precise and honest recognition of the real, multifaceted, and often unseen forms of power (such as rank, wealth, age or others alongside gender) that have caused them so much pain in their lives. When the full range of real root causes are named and accounted for, healing can begin.