Everyone needs care. However, who is allowed to ask for it?
Throughout mainstream sexual violence discourse, gendered assumptions of sexual aggression and sexual passivity paint men consistently as perpetrators and women as victims. Women are the ‘exploited’ — forever the caregivers, and forever the sexualized victims — and men are the ‘exploiters’ who are ‘unassaultable’ and able to reap the physical, emotional, and sexual rewards of women’s labour for all of eternity. This gender essentialist narrative implicitly “freezes women into powerless positions of rapability,” according to Lund University professor Lena Gunnarsson. It is true that sexual violence negatively impacts women at much higher rates than men, and so long as hetero-patriarchal power dynamics continue to be structurally produced within society, this is likely to continue. However, it does not help women free themselves from a victim narrative, and leaves little leeway for the fact that that men — whether they are cisgender, transgender, heterosexual, or queer — are also made victims of sexual violence and trauma. It blocks any and all opportunities for people regardless of gender to gain discursive power and receive care in the context of sexual violence, and it reinforces hetero-patriarchy.
Professor Jill Stauffer from Haverford College, Pennsylvania, conceptualizes the idea of “ethical loneliness,” a condition in which those who have been dehumanized by political structures and individual human beings face silence and neglect from the outside world in response to their testimonies. Ethical loneliness can be applied to the testimonies of male survivors of sexual violence based on their systemic silencing due to hetero-patriarchal conceptualizations of sexual violence. Sexual violence is gendered in such a way that it has become a ‘women’s issue,’ and anyone else seeking care, community, and justice for their trauma is excluded from the conversation.
Within a caring relationship or community, self-expression is vital — it is difficult to receive care if one does not communicate their needs — but to what extent can men express themselves if there is no one to listen? Add narratives of toxic masculinity to the matter — arguably the most common being that a “real man” cannot be assaulted — and suddenly it would seem that the abuse has not ended. A man transitions from an abusive relationship with a partner, a friend, or family member into systemic abuse and negligence from hetero-patriarchal political structures. These narratives do not exclusively affect heterosexual, cisgender men, it affects all men and male-aligned people.
How can we use an ethic of justice and care to disrupt interpersonal sexual violence as well as overarching abusive narratives? How can we see to it that men and male-aligned survivors are able to receive care within their communities? Ultimately, sexual violence is a grave injustice that reveals hetero-patriarchal power structures and dynamics. While the cisgender, heterosexual white man may be a discursive representation of these power structures, this image is unsympathetic and uncaring when it is he who is at the receiving end of the violence. Lena Gunnarsson notes that sexual aggression in women could be perceived as feminist and empowering, since it subverts the aforementioned victim narrative so often forced on women, but these gendered dichotomies — regardless of any notions of ‘compliance’ or ‘subversion’ — are wholly unhelpful for developing a survivor-focused ethics of care. Care ethics, as a theory, reveal the power dynamics that keep care hidden from ‘public’ view, however if we are interested in practicing and extending care, there needs to be more than acknowledgement: there needs to be radical change, cut off from hetero-patriarchal roles and expectations.
Heteronormativity is institutionalized through social structures, and it is important to analyze power relations and potential solutions within heterosexual relationships as well as outside of them. There still needs to be justice within the home with regards to division of labour, and women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence. Men do hold a position of privilege in society on the basis of gender representation and oppression, and this can and should be acknowledged in an ethics of care. However, the act of sexual violence against men, as it is socioculturally constructed, inherently subverts gendered norms, roles, and expectations. Because of the shame, vulnerability, and even feminization of reporting violence and receiving care, many men find that the recovery process takes the form of “seek[ing] to repair and reestablish their masculinity” through demonstrations of masculinity such as physical toughness and hypersexuality, according to professor Karen G. Weiss from West Virginia University. The silence, neglect, and dehumanization men face as a result of experiencing sexual violence stems directly from gender essentialist hetero-patriarchy, and it is unacceptable.
If we aim to care for each other and stand alongside each other, the “care gap” as made most evident by the very conceptualization of “ethical loneliness” needs to be closed. At the end of the day, however, all survivors deserve care. All survivors deserve justice. In an instance of harm, there is a moral obligation to care for the individual who has been harmed, and any shadow of a doubt due to underlying beliefs of hegemonic masculinity should be disregarded if one truly cares for the survivor and their recovery.
Nobody heals in isolation. Humans are relational and interdependent, not individual autonomous beings. Even “real men,” so to speak, deserve and depend on care in order to live and thrive. If it can be understood that sexual violence is pervasive across many different communities and that it can impair an individual for the rest of their life, then perhaps it is possible to extend a caring hand to the man who has been violated, shamed, and silenced. We can use care to mend the grief of individuals and dismantle gender essentialist hetero-patriarchy, so long as we are willing to listen.