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Gender Norms Affect Perceptions of Male and Female Rape Victims

The Atlantic ran a great article yesterday addressing some issues regarding rape that are, at times, overlooked.

When we discuss rape, someone will often remind us of the prevalence with which men are raped. Yet, when was the last time you read a news story or heard a report about a man being raped where the word "rape" was actually used? Our discussions around rape tend to center around women, for a number of reasons. We are familiar with systemic misogyny, we hear constantly about sexual harassment and assault directed at women. The scandals surrounding the armed forces lately have all centered on the terrible assaults women suffer at the hands of their peers.


And, as Abigail Rine argues in "No Rape Victim, Male or Female, Deserves to be Blamed," this may be largely due not only to the influence of misogyny but also to "perceived violations of traditional gender roles."

According to the article, "research on sexual violence indicates that, overall, male victims of rape elicit comparable or even more blame for their attacks than female victims." Victim blaming is vile no matter who it happens to, but thanks to a large focus on female rape and protests like SlutWalks aimed at fighting back, the discussion about victim blaming of female rape victims at least occupies a larger space in public consciousness.

However, in cases of male rape, it seems that the lines get a bit hazier. If these stories earn media coverage, verbs like "hazing" rather than "rape" or "sexual assault" may be used, "downplaying the attack as an extreme display of teenaged masculinity rather than a crime of sexual violence."

Why the hesitation to categorize male rape as rape?

"These rape myths spring from deeply entrenched gender norms about permissible and idealized behavior for men and women, and rape victims of both sexes are blamed when they openly transgress the social expectations of their gender. A woman who goes out alone at night, for example, is prone to blame, as is a woman who is slut-shamed for having had prior sexual partners. A man who fails to physically overcome his attacker is likewise seen as contributing to his own victimization; he must have secretly wanted it. The young male victim in the Norwood case was particularly targeted for speaking out about his assault, which transgressed the expectation that a boy should just "man up," remaining stoic and invulnerable in the face of violence."


In such cases, staunchly inflexible gender roles hurt everyone:

"The majority of studies indicate that men are more prone to blaming victims of sexual assault than women, which superficially appears to support the "woman-hating" explanation—except for the fact that they ultimately blame male victims more. In fact, the groups most susceptible to blame for being raped are gay men raped by men and straight men raped by women. This is consistent with the gender role expectation hypothesis, as victims in those scenarios fall prey to the pervasive ideal of the hyper-sexed, insatiable male who invites and enjoys any sexual encounter."


In other words, if our society rewards those who fully represent gender ideals, then those who transgress those roles even as victims are more likely to be blamed. Rine argues that in many cases, "men blame at higher rates not because they are more susceptible to misogyny or misandry, but because they are more likely to endorse traditional views of masculinity and femininity. This holds true for victim-blaming that stems from "hostile sexism," which refers to the denigration of a rape victim who violates gender expectations. Both men and women, however, are equally inclined toward "benevolent sexism," or reserving one's sympathy for those who fulfill gender ideals."

The bottom line is that holding people to a strict, gender-prescribed code of conduct can create some major societal pitfalls, like victim-blaming, that negatively affect everyone. No one should be blamed for being victimized, no matter their gender — which makes it worthwhile to honestly examine our perceptions of "acceptable behavior" for men and women.

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