Last week, a Buzzfeed post that showcased the experiences of male survivors of sexual assault went viral. “We previously highlighted quotes from 27 female survivors. Since sexual assault plagues all genders, here are quotes from male survivors,” it begins.
The post, which excerpts from activist Grace Brown’s Project Unbreakable, shows 26 photos, each of a man holding a white placard with the words of his attacker. Equal parts heartbreaking and thought-provoking, Brown’s project has been praised for increasing awareness around issues of sexual assault and giving survivors a platform to discuss an often very private and disturbing experience.
While issues of consent, rape, and sexual violence are thankfully gaining greater visibility within mainstream media, the focus on male survivors and male experiences of sexual assault remain to be widely addressed and acknowledged. One in six American males experience sexual abuse before turning 18. Because of dominant cultural views about masculinity, male survivors often feel that they should have been able to defend themselves, and straight men worry at being perceived as "gay" for being forced to have sex with a man.
Many male survivors say that as these stories emerge through art, social justice initiatives, and sexual awareness efforts, others will find it easier to speak out and get help.
Nathan Usher, a Chicago-based visual artist and art historian, told me that he finds Brown’s project to be deeply humanizing, putting a face to a systemic issue. The dominant discourse around sexual assault, Usher argues, is often split into a rigid male/female binary. “This is made all the more difficult due to our cultural inheritance of stereotypes and/or archetypes that more or less exclusively associate masculinity with power, control, and domination, while seeing femininity as being explicitly associated with weakness and vulnerability. I think that these associations enable the assumption to be made that all perpetrators of sexual assault are therefore male and all survivors female, which is clearly NOT the reality of the situation. These are very potent social constructs that have been around for centuries, which makes them all the more difficult to dismantle.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the BuzzFeed post is the way it challenges the view that male sexual desire is somehow insatiable. Usher notes: “There is a very marked cultural connection made between homosexuality and a sexual life that is seen as excessive, aberrant, and rampant that more or less comes out looking like GAY = SEX SEX SEX. It has been very hard for me at many points in my life to try to explain to others — friends and family, as well as men I meet — that just because I have a penis and a sex drive doesn’t mean I feel the absolute imperative to use them constantly!”
Samuel Congdon, San Francisco native and queer performer/playwright is a survivor himself. “The inclusion of male survivors in this conversation broadens our understanding of who is affected, both directly and indirectly, by rape culture," he told me."By defining non-consensual sexual interaction as something that can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, we also begin to have a deeper understanding of the ways sexism permeates our culture. Sexism and misogyny have fostered a society in which sexual violence is so common, and its perpetrators so rarely held accountable, that it is no longer accurate to describe sexual assault as something that men do to women.”
Both Congdon and Usher agree: the first step in honoring male experiences of sexual assault and breaking our cultural silence is to keep the conversation open. “Speaking out is really not so simple at all. For survivors, I think that it is an incredibly emotional and difficult decision that individuals need to make on their own — sometimes reliving those experiences by telling your story can be incredibly traumatizing. Those who feel comfortable doing so, like the individuals who have chosen to participate in Grace Brown's project, are among the strongest and bravest people in the world,” Usher said.
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