By Sabrina Schnückel
The #MeToomovement has created a public platform for discussing the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. While numerous celebrities have come forward to unveil sex offenders within the film industry, many non-famous women have also followed their example and told the stories of how men took advantage of them. The current movement has enabled people to talk about their traumatic experiences that under different circumstances might have never reached the public at large. Through this exchange, victims of sexual assault could not only support one another but were also given the chance to warn about red flags in a relationship. The #MeToomovement has undoubtedly helped spread awareness about the frequency of rape. Still, the overall discourse appears to be limited to female victims only. Even the male inversion of the hashtag, #HimToo, is not primarily concerned with the sexual abuse of men. Instead, most of its entries discuss the repercussions a man will have to face once a woman has accused him of sexual harassment. In 2017, actor Terry Crews was one of the first men to publicly address the genuine issues surrounding male sexual assault. While most celebrities praised him for his bravery, others told Crews that a sturdy man like him should have easily been able to defend himself. Unfortunately, the issue is not limited to male celebrities of age alone. When a 27-year-old model posted inappropriate comments about child actor Finn Wolfhard, many commentators online reacted by telling him that he should feel honored by her remarks. The concept of men being the targetof sexual assault thus remains a heavily stigmatized subject. In his autobiographical treatise Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety(2012), American writer Daniel Smith addresses the issue of male rape by recounting the story of how he lost his virginity to an older woman for whom he harbored no sexual interest. Even though he himself rejects the idea of having been raped (cp. Smith 2012: 62), he still discusses the traumatic effects of nonconsensual sexual encounters on the human psyche. Since he refers to the incident as the primary cause for his anxiety (cp. Smith: 14, 26, 41), I argue that he in fact hasbeen raped but refuses to recognize it as such because of the stigma surrounding the crime. I have compared several studies concerned with the issue to discuss the connection between symptoms of anxiety and having been raped. I will use Daniel Smith’s case in order to answer the question as to why men like him would avoid correctly labeling the crime.
Daniel’s reluctance to report the crime seems to stem from the question of whether his unpleasant first sexual encounter could even be considered a classical rape situation. In a survey conducted by Cindy and David Struckman-Johnson, rape is defined as referring to “the use of physical force, use of weapons, threat of harm, blackmail, unfair use of authority, or use of drugs/alcohol to obtain sex” (Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson 1992: 91). Since the female offender, Esther, did notuse any physical force or weapons during the assault, Daniel is led to believe that he had not been raped. The second half of the definition, however, demonstrates that abusive behavior is not limited to violence alone and can in fact assume many different forms. Esther can thus be pronounced guilty of both taking advantage of her authority as well as relying on alcoholic beverages and drugs during the incident.
Since Daniel had been only sixteen when the undesired sexual encounter happened, whereas Esther was already in her twenties, she can be described as an adult preying on a minor (cp. Smith: 38ff.). Due to her cunning behavior, she was able to gain his trust even though Daniel was wary of her from the beginning (cp. Smith: 42). She repeatedly tells him that he is much more mature than the other boys his age and as a result he could not help but feeling flattered (cp. Smith: 48). In order to blur the lines between their differences in age, Esther thus managed to create a false sense of equality between the two. During their time at the bookstore, she would often “waylay” (ibid.) him and entrust him with very personal information about her private sex life. Despite his uneasiness about the topic, she would then force him to keep completely quiet about it (cp. Smith: 50). Esther would also be the one to suggest going to the party where Daniel and his friends would be “by far the youngest people” (Smith: 56) around. There, after consuming quite a huge amount of alcohol and marijuana, Esther would continue harassing him with overly sexual comments such as “I can come just by someone licking my neck” (Smith: 57). Daniel remarks that he had felt petrified in her presence and at that point in time believed that he never could have prevented the script that “had already been written” (Smith: 59) from unfolding. Esther had quite positively raped him.
Like many male rape victims, Daniel displays symptoms that are among the criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, one of the most persistent reactions following rape appears to be “general diffuse anxiety” (Rothbaum. et. al.: 456). Daniel, who jokingly calls himself “anxiety personified” (Smith: 7), correctly identifies Esther as the one who “set [his] anxiety off” (Smith: 14). Even decades after she took his virginity against his will, he still often complains that he was not certain whether or not he had a free will anymore (cp. Smith: 71). On top of this, he is frequently plagued by the feeling of having an “icicle” (Smith: 41) lodged inside his chest. He also describes his predicament as if “someone had injected a poison into [his] blood” (Smith: 62). Interestingly, these complaints are more reminiscent of stereotypically female reactions to having been raped. In an attempt to free himself from the lingering guilt inside of him, he takes after Lady Macbeth and furiously tries to “scrub [himself] raw with a fingernail brush and antibacterial soap” (Smith: 61). Daniel eventually realizes, that these feelings of anxiety cannot be disposed of, as they have become an integral part of his life. Like many rape victims, Daniel is also easily triggered by women that bear resemblance to Esther. When his mother introduces him to a therapist called Sandra, the similarities unsettle him (cf. Smith: 77). As it is common in men who have been sexually assaulted, Daniel also displays long-term problems with relationships in general (cp. Struckman-Johnson: 87). He admits that he has developed a form of “sex phobia” (Smith: 162) and thus spends years of his life without ever engaging in a serious relationship with a woman. When he first starts dating Joanna years after the incident, the relationship quickly crumbles because Daniel says that he feels “too nervous to love anyone” (Smith: 181). Yet, despite all evidence suggesting the opposite, he is reluctant to accept his fate as a male rape victim.
Daniel’s judgement could have been influenced by the common myth that being molested by a woman should never upset a man as much as the possibility of being raped by another man. As it was the case with child actor Finn Wolfhard, people tend to uphold the idea that a woman’s interest in a man should never be considered a problem. In general, men are even less likely than women to press charges against their assaulters (cp. Pino and Meier 1999: 986). This misconception is connected to the belief that heterosexual men would never not want to have sex with women (cp. Struckman-Johnson: 97). This stereotype primes boys to believe that there is always something to be gained from the experience and that the act itself can never pose any genuine harm to them. Daniel even addresses the social pressure he perceives himself to be under when he says that what he had been offered by Esther “was every boy’s dream” (Smith: 12). Despite his discomfort with the entire situation, he agreed to perform sex with Esther and the female stranger that Esther brought along. Still, he cannot deny that the episode was far from being a marvelous experience. Right from the beginning, he is “struggling to keep [his] erection” (ibid.) and even compares it to a “phantom limb” (ibid.). In order to fulfil his mission of manhood, Daniel feels compelled to completely dissociate himself from the situation. As he cannot enjoy the act by himself, he decides to “dedicate” (ibid.) the vagina in front of him to all the “groin-sore boys of the eleventh grade” (ibid.) instead. Ideals of toxic masculinity have led Daniel to believe that men should appreciate sexual encounters with women at any time, regardless of the circumstances. Toxic masculinity had Daniel most likely also believe that a man simply “cannot be raped by a woman due to the average male advantage in size and strength” (Struckman-Johnson: 88). This reasoning reminds of the criticism Terry Crews had to face, albeit he had been molested by another man and not by a woman. Both examples show that the quintessence of the problem revolves around traditional gender role expectations according to which a man should be able to assert himself over anyone under any given circumstances. Since Daniel did not defend himself although he, as a man, should have possessed the power to do so, he jeopardized his masculinity. His predicament is complicated by the fact that he never had the chance to resort to violence, as Esther herself never threatened to physically harm him. By refusing to accept that he had been raped by her, however, he can retain the illusion of a stable masculine identity. This way, he can still uphold the illusion that he had been the one “initiating and controlling” (Struckman-Johnson: 86) the sexual activity, although it was exactly the other way around. Daniel goes even farther and creates a false sense of agency by claiming that he himself, if anyone, had “committed rape against [himself]” (Smith: 66). Since he is unable to admit that he had not been in control of the situation and had therefore not fulfilled his role as a man, Daniel starts to imagine himself as the aggressor. By blaming himselfinstead of the actual perpetrator, Esther, he attempts to erase some of the guilt that comes with being raped. In conclusion, Daniel Smith was indeed raped as a teenager. His efforts to reject the idea express even more clearly his sense of helplessness at being overpowered. He displays the typical symptoms of a male rape victim, such as anxiety, guilt sex avoidance, difficulty with maintaining relationships in general and a fractured masculine identity. Since male rape is considered a relatively rare phenomenon that is seldomly talked about in public, he probably felt compelled to downplay the importance Esther had played in his life. People need to be aware that rape can take on different forms and that men should not be ashamed to admit that they might be uncomfortable with certain sexual activities at times. When silence is maintained, even more people might believe that male rape could never even happen. Thus, I am thankful for men like Terry Crews who publicly address the existence of male sexual assault and thereby spread the message that men should not feel pressured to keep quiet about having been abused. Although Daniel Smith was mainly concerned with informing people about anxiety, he also managed to issue a warning against the dangers of abusive relationships. I hope that more people will follow their lead in order to raise awareness about sexual abuse.
Struckman-Johnson, Cindy and Struckman-Johnson, David (1992): “Acceptance of Male Rape Myths Among College Men and Women”. In: Sex Roles, Vol. 27, 3/4, p. 85-100.
Rothbaum, Barbara Olasov et. al. (1992): “A Prospective Examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Rape Victims”. In: Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 455-475.
Pino, Nathan W. and Meier, Robert F. (1999): „Gender Differences in Rape Reporting“. In: Sex Roles, Vol. 40, 11/12, p. 979-990.
Smith, Daniel (2012): Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. Simon and Schuster, New York.