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It is a concept widely discussed in the news and is unsurprisingly, increasingly controversial. Some seek to discredit the term while others try to outright deny the existence of the phenomenon. In the current context, the victims identified are usually women, while the main culprits are mostly men and more broadly, society.
Pointing fingers at men is a simple solution for anyone who wants to popularize the notion of rape culture to the extreme. Nonetheless, this is an intellectual shortcut. Directly targeting a group is tantamount to prejudice and this hinders serious reflection on such a subject.
Yet, this controversial and divisive shortcut is overused by the media. As for feminist groups, they are quickly and wrongly labelled “anti-men” and are doomed to defend the legitimacy of their movement whenever they dare to discuss rape culture. It must be said that talking about male gender stereotypes gives much less leeway to some media preachers who prefer to hurry to crush and demolish, with great demagoguery, any forms of feminist talk.
So, Are Men Responsible for Rape Culture?
An immersion into academic writings makes it possible to exclude this simplistic accusation and rather to extract the origins of this frequently used shortcut. This article, therefore, aims to broaden the reflection on the impact of gender stereotypes, mainly male, but also female, in the construction and maintenance of rape culture.
How Do Gender Stereotypes Participate in the Construction of This Culture?
Women are, according to gender stereotypes, considered to be the guardians of sexual relations (also referred to as “gatekeepers”), whereas men possess “sexual power” and are in a position where they must conquer their partner (Clark III, 1989; Philaretou & Allen, 2001; Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 1991). In other words, a man’s role is to find a woman who accepts sex, while a woman’s role is to accept or refuse such interactions. It is therefore the woman’s responsibility to “make her lack of desire understood”. Men, on the other hand, are seen as eternally desiring: they will say “yes” no matter what.
In both cases, studies show that conformity to traditional gender roles and the associated stereotypes are predictors of the trivialization of sexual assault by the acceptance of myths about it (Truman et al., 1996; Black & McCloskey, 2013; Danube et al., 2014).
This trivialization of sexual assault is a principal component of the concept of rape culture.
Male stereotypes which want men to be “more sexual” than women and for them to be the “initiators of sex” (Clark III, 1989; Kiefer & Sanche, 2007) are also a significant part of rape culture present in our Western societies. It is through these stereotypes, strongly associated with an essentialist view of gender, that society tends to forgive men for being “unable to control themselves.” The man’s role is therefore to “try” and ideally “succeed” at having sex. Therefore, it is not in their nature to resist, rather it is in their nature to attempt to increase sexual interactions (Danube et al., 2014).
In this model, women thus become solely responsible for their victimization.
She has “failed” in her role as a guardian, whereas the man has “succeeded” in his conquest. This responsibility of women, arising from the encounter of male and female stereotypes, is a known aspect of rape culture and this article will not dwell on it more extensively.
However, there is a flip side to this male stereotype that directly affects men’s consent. Without wishing to suggest that we have sufficiently discussed the consequences of rape culture on women, it is useful to take a look at those that affect men.
If Masculine Men Are Always on the Hunt for Sex, What Does Consent Mean to Them?
Prejudice does not want it to be the role of men to resist the sexual advances of their partner (Philaretou & Allen, 2001; Maas et al., 2015). Men “always want” sex and the only barriers to this desire are external to them (for example, men in an exclusive relationship). Thus, women, by insisting, can make men succumb to desires that are considered natural. When a man refuses, he takes on the role of “guardian” of sexuality, a role traditionally associated with women, and therefore contradicts the traditional model of masculinity.
According to several studies, it is more important for men than for women to meet the norms associated with their gender (Ashmore et al., 1995; Funk & Werhun, 2011; Ben-David & Schneider, 2005). One of the main reasons is that the absence of masculinity is associated with femininity and that femininity is viewed more negatively in men (Funk & Werhun, 2011). It is in fact, generally more accepted for women to present masculine characteristics than for men to present feminine characteristics. By seeking conformity, men, therefore risk being part of this model of masculinity where “ [...] it’s manly to have many partners” (Maas et al., p. 629).
In This Context, Are Men Able to Say No?
Can they, under the pressure of masculine stereotypes, understand that they are the victims of assault? Is the famous “without a yes, it’s a no” taken into account in a context where society considers that for men it is always yes? Taking into account the pressure of male stereotypes, it could even be suggested that “yes” does not necessarily mean “yes”...
Few studies focus on the subject and hopefully, researchers will look into this issue in the future. It is difficult to estimate the number of sexual assaults committed against men. It is even more difficult when these assaults are committed by women. Moreover, men tend to be “more” accepting of strategies employed by women to force sexual contact (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 1991). A German study, involving a sample of 248 women, found that one in ten women would have used a strategy considered aggressive to obtain unwanted sexual contact with a man (Krahé et al., 2003). However, sexual assault against men appears to be marginal. In Quebec, according to the Institut National de Statisiques (2011), adult men account for only 3% of victims of sexual assault. Unfortunately, this data tells us little about the real consequences of rape culture and men’s understanding of their notion of consent. It would be interesting to assess whether the identification of an assault is different if one is a man or a woman and thus to be able to verify whether assaults against men, just like those against women, are alarmingly under-reported.
In addition to the masculine stereotype associated with an insatiable libido (Clark III, 1989; Kiefer & Sanche, 2007), masculinity means, in its traditional definition, the need to dominate femininity (Philaretou & Allen, 2001; Vandello et al., 2008). Therefore, the mere fact of being a “victim” of a woman is inconsistent with the idea of a strong, virile, and therefore masculine man. Moreover, for the man, sexual relations are regarded as a victory and not as a defeat. To view them otherwise is incompatible with the traditional model of masculinity. In this context, it is not surprising that during non-consensual sexual contact, the chances of reporting become much lower.
Moreover, these stereotypes are not only conveyed by men. Women are also responsible and affected. Apart from their conformity to feminine gender stereotypes, which helps to maintain rape culture that affects them, their acceptance of the traditional model of masculinity can also have a significant influence.
Do Women Take Men’s Consent for Granted?
How Do They Perceive Men That Refuse a Sexual advance?
According to my research, these are the questions to which there seem to be few answers in scientific studies. It is quite possible that women, too, are also perpetrators of certain gender stereotypes that fuel rape culture or that they participate in some sexual assaults without even realizing it. Without removing the reality of the glaring problem of violence against women, we must ensure that society is consistent to work to eliminate rape culture.
Society is making us more and more aware of the concept of consent, but men are mainly taught to verify that of their partner and not to express their own.
Thus, this article hypothesizes that those responsible for rape culture are not men, but rather the concept of traditional masculinity, embedded in society and carried by both men and women.
Women are the main victims of rape culture, but men can also be victims.
Besides the utopian, but oh-so-interesting notion of eliminating the construct of genders to break free from all harmful stereotypes, how is it possible to fight against rape culture?
Several men in my entourage, mainly cisgender, question their role in rape culture and prefer, in the absence of a solution, to leave the fight to women. The role of men, in a world that is still strongly gendered, is nevertheless essential in this struggle. This role, admittedly complex, is to redefine masculinity to eliminate its sexist and violent overtones.
By providing other men an alternative model of masculinity that integrates the concept of consent, for themselves and women, men participate in the lasting fight against this violence.
In this area, women have their role to play. By judging men based on their conformity to the socially accepted model of masculinity, they participate in reinforcing the stereotypes responsible for rape culture. It should in no way be said that this makes them responsible for the assaults they suffer, nor that in any way this excuses men from their expressions of violence. However, they must be aware of the stereotypes that they integrate and perpetuate in their relationships to be able to eventually eliminate them.