Please bear with me. I’m having a very large brainstorm and I’m not sure yet if all the loose ends actually tie together. I’m going to try to make sense of all this as I write, because my head and my heart are bursting and I need to get this all written down.
I read two articles last week that made me want to cry for a variety of reasons. One was on Salon and titled “Pamela Anderson and the Abused Sex Symbol Myth,” and the other was on Vocativ, called “The Hard Truth About Girl-on-Guy Rape.” They are both infuriating and sad, and they both pumped me full of rage.
The Pamela Anderson article ostensibly comes from a good place–it talks about the prevalence, or non-prevalence, of sexual abuse and assault in the histories of people who go on to make their livings on sex, either through sex work or (in Anderson’s case) sex-symbol work. In case you haven’t heard, Pamela Anderson announced at the launch of her animal welfare charity (which, by the way, none of the articles I’ve seen on this topic have linked to or even named–BTW, it’s The Pamela Anderson Foundation) that her deep connection with animals was strengthened by a history sexual abuse that included molestation and gang rape. She felt that she could only trust animals, and she dedicated herself to helping them for the rest of her life. Her admissions were shocking, and it’s no wonder the news media jumped all over it: they proved that Pam Anderson has always been living up to the stereotype that women who publicly seek attention for their sexuality must have been sexually abused. The Salon article goes on to try to pin down the reality behind this stereotype by citing numbers from various studies linking women in the sex industry to histories of sexual abuse, but it doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why any of this matters. The author writes, “it fits a story we tell ourselves about women who make a living off their sexuality — whether they do sex work or, in Anderson’s case, sex-symbol work. We explain away their taboo choice of profession with one weighted phrase: childhood sexual abuse,” but doesn’t go on to say whether this “explaining away” is legitimate or not. That bugs the hell out of me. Why on earth should somebody’s history of sexual abuse be a way to “explain” anything away? Why on earth should their adult decisions and career paths be tied inevitably to their traumatic pasts any more than anybody else’s? Why, on this green earth, should their voices and their charity work be shrugged off because of something that happened to them?
The Girl-on-Guy Rape article itself doesn’t anger me–aside from the egregiously stupid title, that is. What upsets me is the fact that this article, which cites numbers for men who have been “made to penetrate” women without their consent that shocked, appalled, and enraged me, was published in October of last year and updated in February of this year… And I just heard about it last week. Because people don’t talk about this issue. This article should have been shared, reblogged, tweeted, and talked about, but instead it was shrugged off, just like Pamela Anderson’s charity work, and the woman herself. Just like the traumas of the men this article talks about are shrugged off. Because men who have been violated in this way (being made to penetrate someone without wanting to does not qualify as “rape” according to the federal definition) feel that because they are male, they “should” have wanted it, or should feel good about women wanting them, or should “man up” about it and “get over it.” But there are thousands, millions of men out there who have been raped and who are suffering from the impact of that trauma, and not saying anything about it. They’re effectively being shushed.
The Vocativ article states that, “In a largely overlooked study focusing exclusively on college males, 51.2 percent of participants reported experiencing a least one incident of sexual victimization, including unwanted sexual contact (21.7 percent), sexual coercion (12.4 percent) and rape (17.1 percent). Of course, most men assume they’ll be ostracized for reporting such emasculating violations, so the real numbers are likely at lot higher.” That. That, right there.
Here’s the thing that links these articles, in my mind. We are not listening to people who need to be listened to.
Pamela Anderson, an international sex symbol for most of her life, is being “explained away” by her sexually traumatic past. This aberration of what femininity is “supposed” to behave like has finally summoned the massive courage it takes to announce her history to the world, and instead of collectively applauding her and offering her a big hug, railing against the systems that make it so easy for such abuse to be perpetrated and continue, we are shrugging, palms up, and saying, “Well that explains it.” As if “it”–Pamela Anderson’s life–needs to be explained. As if a woman’s history of sexual trauma must translate into any “misdeed” in her future or her present. As if the decisions she made after being sexually assaulted somehow don’t count because of her past. As if the fact that she went on Baywatch and had a successful career as an actress and model, and then made a sex tape, are somehow less valid because she is a rape survivor. I can’t grasp the idea that if it comes to light that a prostitute, a porn star, a sex symbol, or any woman whose looks constitute part of her success whatsoever comes out as a rape survivor, why this suddenly negates her adult decisions to pursue the life she decided to pursue. As if experiencing rape somehow makes people broken. Forever. And that they should probably never have sex or put on high heels again, because that would be just what we’d expect of them. As if they are tarnished by something they were not responsible for.
What, are we supposed to put all survivors of sexual assault into a home for traumatized people so that they can’t make decisions for themselves that the rest of us don’t approve of? Are their decisions somehow less valid than the ones the rest of the world makes? And, for that matter, let’s be real: the rest of the world has also been sexually traumatized. Look around you. There are way, way more survivors of abuse and assault amongst us than even the terrifying statistics would have us believe. Out of my circle of ten close female friends, seven of us have been assaulted. I’m one of them. So then does that mean that you should roll your eyes at this blog post and shrug it off with a, “Well of course she does that. She was raped“? Look: a lot of people you see every day have undergone sexual trauma. But because most of them do not do sex work or profit from their looks or their sexuality, we don’t spend time and energy trying to explain them away.
And being “explained away” is exactly what men who experience what I’ll feel free to call rape are trying to avoid by staying silent about their experiences. As much as I, and other feminists, talk about the rape of women as the epidemic it is, and about the multifarious ways in which the existing system of socialization, gender norms, law enforcement, criminal justice, and so forth keep female victims from speaking out… The fact that this is not a one-sided coin (or actually even a coin because it has many more sides than just two) is so important to this conversation. It’s not just that women are being hurt, or that those women go on to become sex symbols–it’s that people of all kinds are being hurt, every day, all around us, and we don’t want to listen.
There are plenty of voices being silenced for fear of social reprisal here, and men are not exempt from the ramifications. Our culture actively denies that male victims of rape by female aggressors even have a voice. That they even exist. And meanwhile it denies those who do speak up a chance to speak for themselves, because we would rather explain them away.
Look. It’s important to realize that men are not the sole purveyors of cruelty, sadism, and predation. It’s important that, as feminists, we don’t try to pin the “badness” of the world onto individual men, or anybody else. Rape is a feminist issue, but not because rape only happens to women, perpetrated by men. Rape is a feminist issue because it involves the use of sex as a tool of power and oppression. It sees the body as a thing to be used. And what I believe in, in feminism and in everything, is the idea that people of all kinds deserve the right to power over their lives and bodies and decisions. Informed consent is the backbone of personal autonomy. It is where we show our humanity. To take that away from someone on the premise that “they must want it” because of the type of body they live in, or the social constructs built up around the gender they identify with, is taking away their choice. It is violence, pure and simple. It is wrong.
Until we can learn to see each other as human beings–male, female, or anything else–feminism has not fulfilled its potential. The struggle is not about taking back power from men and wielding it over them, it is about sharing it amongst us all on the understanding that there is more commonality between us than there is separating us. It is about opening up a discussion around the places where violence, shame, and repression occur. This is important. This needs to be blown wide open. This needs to stop.
And the first step on the path toward ending it is listening. Stopping it already with the judgment, with the “explaining away,” with the talking over, with the eye rolling, with the assumptions that we know what’s best for people or how people should behave. Whether it’s nodding and saying, “Well, no wonder Pamela Anderson is such a ____; she was raped!” and thus refusing to take seriously the idea that she might have lived her life the same way if she hadn’t been raped… or contributing in any way to the culture that tells men who have been assaulted to “man up” and shut up about the fact that they were victims… It’s not ok.
Let them talk. Let them be human beings. Let them make their decisions, tell their stories, pursue their dreams. Do whatever is in your power to make those dreams more attainable. Speak out against the assumptions made about victims just as much as you speak out against violence. Speak loudly, and firmly, and when you are finished speaking… listen.