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Conversation about Male Rape, Masculinities and Religion

Dr Aliraza Javaid is senior lecturer in Criminology and programme leader for Criminology at the University of East London. He recently published the book Male Rape, Masculinities, and Sexualities: Understanding, Policing, and Overcoming Male Sexual Victimisation (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2018). On behalf of the Shiloh Project, Adriaan van Klinken arranged an interview to discuss the book and the question of male rape. (Adriaan teaches and researches in religion and African studies at the University of Leeds. He is also Director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life.)

Congratulations, Ali, on the publication of your latest book, and many thanks for making yourself available for the interview. Could you summarise in a few sentences what the book is about?

Thank you so much for having me. The book is essentially a critical exploration of the relationship between gender, sexuality and male rape. In particular, it attempts to make sense of how state and voluntary agencies serve male rape victims and aims to identify any gendered male rape myths. Similar to female rape myths, these can potentially inform police practice and third sector practitioners’ response to male victims of rape. The book is about rape of men by other men, rather than focusing predominantly on male child sexual abuse, sexual violence committed by women, and other forms of sexual violence, though these are briefly touched upon to provide some context.

In the introduction to the book, you refer to a Master’s course about Sexual Violence you once took while at university, in which the topic of male rape was not touched upon at all. I’m afraid that also in the Shiloh Project so far, we have paid little attention to this issue (for one exception see here). Why do you think male rape and male sexual assault is often left out of discussions about rape and sexual violence?

I think this serves to maintain the status quo of heterosexuality and hegemonic formations of masculinity. To put it another way, the active invisibility of male sexual violence acts as a way of perpetuating gender norms and institutionalizing heterosexuality. Heterosexuality as ‘normal’ and ‘normative’ is so embedded in everyday discourse – including conversations about sexual violence – ingrained in institutions, such as the family, education systems, and religious establishments, that to discuss the unspoken or the tabooed is to invert gendered scripts and heteronormativity. The dichotomy between hetero/homo still remains strongly intact in social life, so by bringing male rape to the fore, female sexual violence and the construction of the ‘real’ rape norm becomes threatened or destabilised in terms of how we think about rape and sexual assault, both of which are expected to happen only to women and girls. However, when a man is sexually assaulted or raped, his masculinity is undermined, and male power and authority become contested. Male domination exists and gender inequality is clearly reproduced in all areas of life, but, when we discuss male sexual victimisation, we are discussing that men can also be victims; however, we are led to believe that men are expected to be invulnerable, unemotional, strong and powerful. This narrative overlooks that power is not distributed equally amongst men, that there are different masculinities that do no always equate to power and domination, and that men can be victims, too. When we speak about men in particular ways that challenge gender norms, such as the possibility of men being able to enact love and romance, which I discuss in my other book, Masculinities, Sexualities and Love (2018, Routledge), we almost become scapegoated as the ‘other’, the abnormal, the deviant, which often brings about backlash and produces barriers to career progression, questioning whether we can be accepted as a ‘real’ scholar. These issues, and more, I have encountered, which I detail in the book.

You argue that male rape is a critical social and legal issue, and is on the increase. Can you give us some background to the size and impact of the problem we are talking about, here in the UK?

In societies, we are made to believe that male rape does not exist or that it is not a ‘real’ issue. However, it is more common than we are led to believe. For example, in 2013, the Crime Survey for England and Wales roughly estimated that 75,000 men are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault a year, while 9000 men are victims of rape or attempted rape each year (Ministry of Justice 2014). Relatedly, each year, 72,000 men are estimated to becoming victims of sexual crime, whether reported or not (Ministry of Justice 2014). Much more recently, the Crime Survey for England and Wales in 2017 estimates that, while 3.1% of women (510,000) suffered sexual assault in the last year, 0.8% of men (138,000) aged 16–59 experienced it in the last year. This estimation is made regarding the year ending March 2017. The figures are striking and deeply concerning, since there is no major change from the previous year’s survey. We know that male rape is on the increase. This might be down to two things; first, some male victims are now reporting at higher levels, with a slow increase in confidence in the police; second, because of changes in police practice, such as developments of ISVAs (Independent Sexual Violence Advisers), SARCs (Sexual Assault Referral Centres), and specially trained officers, and so on, the victims are able to tell their stories and are encouraged to do so. Recently, male rape in the media, such as the recent Coronation Street storyline involving David Platt as the male rape victim, has also helped to increase reporting levels, as other stats have shown. We need to bear in mind, though, what lies beneath the figures are more incidents of rape and sexual assault against men, given that many victims continue to not come forward to report. There is a ‘dark’ figure of crime. These figures just represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Many incidents of male rape and male sexual assault continue to not get reported.

 

Of course, statistics only tell part of the story. Many cases of male rape and sexual assault remain unreported. What are the cultural, social and political factors that contribute to the culture of un-reporting?

There is a host of reasons. Men may have a much harder time acknowledging or recognising that what has happened to them was actually rape and that it can be reported, especially when sexual assault and rape are generally thought to only happen to females. The notion that sexual assault and rape occur only to females or that ‘real’ men cannot be raped can induce men’s risk of stigma, embarrassment, and shame; this may make male rape victims reluctant to report. Men hesitating to report may be feeling shame for not being able to sustain hegemonic masculinities, which I define as those masculinities that legitimate unequal gender relations between men and women, between masculinity and femininity, and amongst masculinities. Male rape situationally feminizes men, so this makes it difficult for them to momentarily embody power and dominance through the enactment of hegemonic masculinities. Men, unlike women, are expected to be strong, powerful, invulnerable, macho, unemotional, violent, and capable of protecting themselves. The omnipotent threat of homophobia can also prevent many men from reporting rape, especially for those men who are not out of the closet or heterosexual male rape victims fearing that they will be seen as gay, both of which somehow interlink with homophobia. Further, it is a common misconception that, if men ejaculate or have erections when being raped, they must have somehow ‘consented’. Getting an erection and ejaculating are involuntary physiological reactions to male rape, though, but this could prevent some victims from coming forward for fearing that they might be seen as having ‘enjoyed’ the rape, that they instigated it, or ‘wanted it’. They might, therefore, be blamed for their sexual victimisation.

An important focus of your book is concerned with the way in which state agencies, in particular the police, respond (or fail to respond) to the problem of male rape and deal with male rape victims? What are your key findings in this regard?

With the support of empirical police data, I have shown that the police do not regard themselves as a support provider, but rather as a criminal justice agency that are there to try to get a prosecution. While some officers attempt to adopt a multi-agency approach, working with voluntary agencies to support victims throughout the police investigation process, many officers do not take this approach so leaving male rape victims unsupported. The victims are often treated more as a statistic, a number, rather than as a victim. This is because of constructs of hegemonic masculinity in the police; a gender order is present in the police, reproducing—materially, discursively, metaphorically, and symbolically—hegemonic masculinities at the local and regional levels across police forces in England. For example, I argue that police training reproduces hegemonic masculinities through police discourse at the local level. Thus, police training can enable officers to choose hegemonic discursive positions to assist them in warding off anxiety and avoid feelings of powerlessness; this is so that the police can address the threat of male rape or the possibility of it. By producing a ‘silence discourse’ about male rape, emanating from the absence of formal police training on male sexual victimisation, the police can deny the existence of male rape while perpetuating the male rape myths that ‘men cannot be raped’ and that ‘female rape is “real” rape’, thus reproducing gender inequalities.

One of the arguments you make is that male rape myths are born out of gender and sexuality norms that are created in the midst of social structures, including religious institutions. For the readers of the Shiloh Project blog, who have a particular interest in religion vis-à-vis rape culture, could you elaborate on the role of religion in relation to male rape?

That’s correct. I argue in the book that hegemony is not only attained through sexual violence, or even through violence more generally, but also through non-violent means to create and reproduce privilege and unequal gender relations, such as through religion. In conservative religious establishments, hegemony is often attained through the gendered division of labour. For example, in the Muslim milieu I grew up in myself, women are often positioned as those who do the childcare work while men go out to bring in the money. This dichotomy can also be seen in the example of bodies; Muslim men’s bodies are constructed as those that penetrate, while Muslim women’s bodies are those that are penetrated. This religious construction of Muslim bodies gives no capacity to even think about the existence of ‘male sexual victimisation’ because Muslim men’s bodies are regarded as non-penetrable. The penetrated body is often associated with femininity and powerlessness, and so women within Islam will only likely to be considered as ‘real’ rape victims for rape has connotations of weakness and subordination; words that are antithetical to Muslim men’s bodies. Similar dynamics can be observed in other conservative religious circles. I think, therefore, we need to think about how bodies are constructed not only in religious establishments, such as Islam, but also in everyday public life.

How do you think your book, and in particular the raw and honest account of your own experience beautifully narrated in the preface, may help to break the silence and stigma surrounding male rape victims? What are the conditions for a #MeToo movement of victims of male rape to emerge?

I would like my book to open up a platform in which to have a conversation about the existence of male sexual violence. It happens in our everyday life, but, because of gender and sexuality norms, we are not supposed to speak about it; to do so would disrupt the gender order. I took a risk, being susceptible to on-going backlash and being constructed as ‘deviant’ or the ‘other’, which has affected me in my personal life as I detail in the book, but I had to speak the unspoken in order to challenge gender inequalities. I hope my words encourage other male victims to speak of their painful silences.

That said, the movement for women rape victims has been enormous on a grand scale, with many historic victims of rape coming forward to report and to speak out. I think that a MeToo movement for male victims of sexual violence is possible. It will take courage and bravery, though, to get a conversation started. We are slowly seeing some adult men who were victims of child sexual abuse coming forward, so this is a start. I don’t know which direction this will take in the future, but it will be a slow journey since to speak out against male sexual violence is, as I say, to dismantle the gender order; but many men do not want this because it threatens to take away men’s power and privilege. Although not all men can embody hegemonic masculinities at the same time, they are often complicit in its manifestation, meaning that they benefit from the cultural and symbolic power that men as a social group hold. However, we know that not all men hold equal amounts of power at the same time, and that there are multiple masculinities during a given context, so there is always contestation in the gender order, but not enough to completely eradicate gender and sexuality norms in societies. It’s the same for women; we can’t simply argue that women are completely expelled from power, since power works in complicated ways, meaning that some women can and do configure patterns of hegemonic masculinities at particular contexts, times, and places. To suggest that women as a social group are powerless is to determine and essentialize women in this way and to reinforce their subordination, without considering the complexity of power and that it is negotiated between male-male and male-female bodies. The battle for gender equality remains: I am certain that we will see changes in patterns of gender social practices, but whether this will be for better or worse remains to be seen.

 

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Adriaan van Klinken

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