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The Impact of Gender Stereotypes on Male Victims of Sexual Abuse

18 September 2018
Sarah-Maude Carrier, étudiante au baccalauréat en psychologie
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Translated by Manon Defrasne

Last year was really turbulent on the media front. Indeed, the number of reports of sexual abuse rose around the world during fall 2017, especially in Canada. According to CBC, between October 15 and November 20, 2017, Twitter Canada archived around 3.1 million tweets from all around the world with the famous hashtag “#metoo”; 105,000 of these were from Canada (CBC, 2017). Quebec’s Sexual Assault Centers (CALACS) report that they received nearly six times as many requests for help ten days after the beginning of the movement, between October 16 and 26, 2017 (RQCALACS, 2017). As a result of this wave, social media was flooded with commentary. I even read a significant number of comments from the public (quite bluntly) stating that a man cannot be sexually abused. At first, I reassured myself thinking they were only isolated cases, but further research taught me that I was wrong and that prejudice concerning male victims of sexual abuse is an unfortunately prevalent belief in today’s society.

In Quebec, approximately 675,000 men have been sexually assaulted in their lives (Martineau-Pelletier, 2017). That being said, Alexandre Tremblay-Roy, the director of SHASE, an institution based in Sherbrooke that helps men who were sexually assaulted during childhood, asserts in an interview that the number of sexually assaulted men is actually significantly higher than that. In fact, the pervasive taboo surrounding sexually assaulted men reduces the number of cases reported (Martineau-Pelletier, 2017). This idea is supported by psychologist Howard Fradkin, who also believes that the stigma related to male victims of sexual assault conceals the full extent of the problem (Doiron, 2015).

In order to highlight the impact of gender stereotypes on male victims of sexual abuse as truthfully as possible, this text will first highlight the definitions used and the prevalence of these sexual abuses. Thereafter, we will review and explain stereotypes concerning male identity. Next, we will discuss the consequences of these stereotypes on victimization and the effect they have on male victims of abuse asking for help. Finally, we will elaborate on the means implemented by several resources to raise awareness and inform the public about the reality of sexually abused men.

Description and Prevalence of Sexual Assault Among Men

In 2008, Michel Dorais, a sociologist and teacher of social intervention at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Université Laval, in his book Don’t Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys, noted that one in six boys will be a victim of sexual assault before the age of 18, and that one in three men express having suffered unwanted sexual contact within his lifetime (Dorais, 2008). In 2014, the Quebec Ministry of Public Security mentioned in its report on sexual offences that 13.5% of victims of sexual assault in Quebec are men. The ministry also said that, despite a decrease in the number of sexual assaults recorded in 2013 and 2014, the number of male victims of sexual assault with a weapon is estimated to have increased by 20% compared to 2013. The issue remains of topical interest.

That being said, how can “sexual assault” be defined? There are several definitions of sexual assault. The most commonly used is the sociological definition provided by the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services (MSSS, 2016): sexual assault is “an act that is sexual in nature, with or without physical contact, committed by an individual without the consent of the victim or, in some cases, through emotional manipulation or blackmail, especially when children are involved. It is an act that subjects another person to the perpetrator’s desires through an abuse of power and/or the use of force or coercion, accompanied by implicit or explicit threats” (MSSS, 2016). It is a criminal act. “Sexual contact” (without consent), “incest,” “sexual offence,” “sexual abuse,” “prostitution,” “child pornography,” and “rape” are terms also used to talk about sexual assault. It is important to mention that a sexual assault can take several forms of sexual contact without consent, such as kisses, fondling, masturbation, oral or genital contact, penetration as well as exhibitionism, frotteurism, and voyeurism (MSSS, 2016).

Persistent Stereotypes Attached to Male Identity

Why are there far fewer reports among male than female victims of sexual assault? Many factors should be taken into account in order to explain this problem. The adherence and the pressure to adhere to male gender stereotypes are significant influencing factors.

Since the 1990s, empirical studies have highlighted the fact that men who are more likely to identify with traditional male roles deal, namely, with tension and conflict regarding gender roles, thus reinforcing the stereotype of the strong and rugged man who cannot be sexually abused (Blanchette et al., 2010).

However, it should be mentioned that some of these ideas and others from Dorais’ publication (2008), have been criticized, especially by Blais and Depuis-Déri (2008). Indeed, they both reproach the masculinist movement raised by these authors for hiding a form of antifeminism in their discourse, notably by trivializing violence against women and by asserting a kind of domination of women and feminists in a society composed of effeminate men (Blais and Depuis-Déri, 2008). The masculinist movement’s ideals will not be treated in this article for the sake of rigour and ethics.

It is necessary to understand what a gender stereotype is, that is a preconceived belief about gender, shared by a group of people and based on prejudices and common sense (Blanchette et al., 2010). These stereotypes ignore individual characteristics of and differences between individuals of the same gender. To fully understand this concept, it is necessary to elaborate on the notion of gender identity⁠—the feeling of belonging to the male or female gender (according to the traditional binary view of genders)⁠—which is a crucial component of personal identity (Blanchette et al., 2010). Gender identity is influenced by parents, social circles, cultural norms of a society, and media, among other things. These have a particularly important influence on gender identity, since they provide a lot of (mainly unrealistic) misinformation on physical, social, and emotional aspects of romantic encounters, romance, and sexuality (Blanchette et al., 2010; Bogers et al., 2010). Recent studies have shown that young boys find themselves caught between several models when they are to build their male identity. School, for example, teaches them to be calm, wise, and obedient, while life outside the classroom encourages other types of behaviours such as disrespect, physical strength, and rule-breaking (Fassa, 2017). Society conveys social norms that expect the male model to be invulnerable, active, and strong, which opposes the vulnerability experienced during sexual abuse (Welzer-Lang, 2002). A more recent and specific study supports this information but points out that men are mainly socialized in such a way that they refuse passivity and prefer action (Ewering et al., 2013). Researchers explain this difficulty for men to express themselves about their experience by a rejection of passivity, or a rejection of victimization, which does not align with their expectations of masculinity. Furthermore, for sexually abused person, the stereotype of the “active” man and the “master of his own actions” can lead to a feeling of active participation in the sexual assault, which in turn leads to feelings of guilt and shame (Ewering et al., 2013). Thus, he is made to feel responsible for his own abuse, which can lead to several personal consequences, including self-destructive behaviours and thoughts (Ewering et al., 2013).

On the same subject, in 1982, Williams and Best conducted remarkable research in 25 countries, which allowed them to identify the most common gender stereotypes. They found that the adjectives “brave,” “dominant,” “mean,” “strong,” and “aggressive” are often used to talk about men (Williams and Best, 1982). Considering that this source is more than 25 years old, the relevance and accuracy of this list could be questioned. However, several authors indicate that most of these stereotypes still exist and are fully present in our societies (Blanchette et al., 2010; Rivoal, 2017; Welzer-Lang, 2002). It is important not to forget that there are also positive aspects to traditional male roles, such as the promotion of family values, work, loyalty in commitments, etc. (Blanchette et al., 2010).

Impacting the Help Request

On top of the effects discussed above, gender stereotypes can also contribute to a decrease in the number of sexually abused victims who ask for help (Ewering et al., 2013; Tremblay et al., 2014).

A 2005 report on men’s health in Quebec discusses the link between low use of social services and male socialization and, specifically, the barriers that this socialization creates for men seeking help (Tremblay et al., 2014).

It is equally important to take the problem’s scope into account: a survey conducted among 2,084 Quebecois men over the age of 18 indicated that almost half (48.8%) of them would not ask for help when dealing with personal or emotional problems (Tremblay et al., 2015). However, these figures should not be taken at face value since several subgroups, such as sexual minorities, immigrants, indigenous peoples, and men dealing with depression or addiction, are underrepresented, for lack of complete public data (Tremblay et al., 2015).

According to the Quebec Survey on the Experience of Health Care 2010–2011, only 10.9% of men aged 25 to 49 reported having consulted a social services’ professional, against 18.5% of women (Cazale et al., 2013).

In the same vein, several researchers highlighted the link between gender stereotypes, the embarrassment that some men experience when they have to talk about their emotions, and the fact that fewer of them ask for help when it comes to sexual abuse (Ewering et al., 2013).

In fact, most boys who were socialized in a way that meets traditional male standards have learned, to some extent, to limit expressing their emotions. Sharing their worries, their need for help, or their vulnerability is often not well received (Ewering et al., 2013; Tremblay et al., 2015).

This seems to compromise the development of relational, social, and conceptual skills that are needed to identify and communicate their emotions (Cloutier et Drapeau, 2015). This difficulty for men to verbally express their emotions is described in one of Levant’s texts (1997) as “alexithymia” (Luminet et al., 2013). However, the discomfort men might feel when expressing emotions is quite relative, since some of them do not have any problem communicating their state of mind (Cloutier and Drapeau, 2015). The difficulty of expressing emotions seems to make men less confident in sharing their experience with someone else. They are also less inclined to express their vulnerability to a trusted partner (e.g. a best friend) and prefer resolving personal problems alone, according to a study conducted by Houle in 2005. Support groups can thus be very confronting, since it is usually hard for sexually abused men to accept that they were victims of someone else’s misdeeds. Therefore, it can be upsetting for them to openly reveal themselves to the group. Finally, the way support groups work in general can also be an obstacle, since listening to others’ stories, being with men and women, and being asked to connect with their own emotions can lead the participants to revisit their own experience of sexual abuse (Ewering et al., 2013).

Methods to Eliminate Taboo

Gender stereotypes have an impact on popular beliefs regarding victimization of sexually assaulted men. In Quebec, where one in every ten men will be a victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18 (Tourigny et al., 2008), the problem is still relevant. However, adhering to a rigid male gender identity and dealing with pressures that encourage the traditional male gender role affect reports of sexual abuse (Ewering et al., 2013; Tremblay et al., 2014). This impacts the help requested in many ways, mainly because boys tend to inhibit their emotions (Ewering et al., 2013; Tremblay et al., 2015).

On another note, some organizations have particularly been looking into male sexual abuse cases. Emphase, an organization created in 2014, put a video online to raise awareness for this cause. In the video, three men who were sexually abused talk about their stories, then three members of their close social circle react to their testimonies. Another organization, the VASAM (Victimes d’agressions sexuelles au masculin or Male Victims of Sexual Assault), created by male victims of sexual assault together with community organizations and professionals from the business sector, has kept working to raise awareness since its creation in 2014. Recently, in its 2016–2017 report, the CAVAC (Crime Victims Assistance Centre) reviewed its new support group for men who were sexually abused during childhood (CAVAC, 2016–2017). Since past participants have said that they enjoyed the experience, contributors also hope that they will be able to encourage men to use services available to them. All organizations pursue shared objectives: to encourage men to report sexual assault; to help abused men express themselves about what they experienced, and to eliminate the taboo concerning the request for help.

However, despite recent awareness programs aiming to make asking for help more accessible to male victims, the issue still remains pertinent. Male gender stereotypes do not seem to be disappearing, they even influence some therapies. Occupational environments are in fact more likely to investigate usual symptoms for a mental health issue according to a traditional gender model (Morin et al., 2007). Considering that sexual abuse usually leads to psychological distress (Ewering et al., 2013), a Situation Response Center that does not take into account that sexually abused men adhere to gender stereotypes—e.g. they scarcely talk about their feelings or downplay the situation—could underestimate the severity of their depression. It would thus be relevant to conduct more specific research, taking the impact of male gender stereotypes on mental health diagnosis in therapies into account. Furthermore, the data gathered in this research could help better target intervention.

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Reference
men, sexual assault, denunciations, stigma, masculine, sexual abuse, stereotypes, masculine identity, victimization, alexithymia, taboo, Sarah-Maude Carrier

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