Turning the Tables: Can us men really understand sexual violence against women?
In the early 1980s, as a student in New Zealand with no income, I could not afford inter-city travel and so spent a lot of time hitch-hiking between my home-town of Tauranga and my university town Hamilton. Once I was picked up by a fairly muscular guy who quickly turned the conversation towards fitness and men’s bodies. At first I thought he was just a sports fanatic. But as his compliments about my legs (I was a runner) and body moved to more sexual overtones, I began to get nervous.
Then he turned off the main road and drove down a lonely side road unfrequented by other traffic. He told me that there was a beautiful place he wanted to show me down this road. He asked if I had ever had sex with a man, and how wonderful it was. Now I was getting very nervous. I was a slim 16-year old and he was a muscular 25-28 year-old who could probably over-power me. I was starting to sweat. I feel powerless and violated – and he hadn’t even touched me yet.
My mind was racing. Had I brought this on by hitch-hiking in shorts and being too friendly to him in the beginning – by talking enthusiastically about sports and fitness before I realized the conversation was about more than that?
The thought of him raping me brought shivers down my spine. Even though he was planning to have sex with me in a secluded area, my imagination was that the whole world would see and would know and would mock me for my weakness or my complicity in bringing this on. Perhaps I could kick him in the balls to curtail his desire. But that might make him wild. He might then beat me up or even kill me and leave me exposed, violated and so undignified in death? Is that the way I would want to be remembered – as a young guy too stupid or weak to prevent the ultimate humiliation?
I took a deep breath, tried to hide my nervousness and to speak in the calmest voice possible. I made up a lie. I told him that yes I had tried sex with a guy and maybe it’s OK for some guys – but not for me… that it made me vomit – all over the poor guy. And that I was starting to feel sick now, so could he stop the car and let me out. I would not want to be sick over him or his lovely car.
I was lucky. Maybe he was turned off by my lie. Maybe he would not have raped me anyway. Maybe he was hoping for sex and hoping I would be attracted to him – but that as soon as I made it clear that I was not interested, this was enough for him to stop his advances. In any case, he apologized quietly, said that he would drop me off back at the main road – which he did – and then went on his way.
As I walked along the main road gathering my composure I reflected over the incident. At first I thought – ‘So this is how women feel when they are sexually abused’. But thinking about it further, I realized that my experience was not the same. Certainly I had felt powerless. Certainly I had felt violated – even before being touched. Certainly I had blamed myself for ‘leading him on’. Certainly I had felt humiliated. But I had not been raped. I had managed to dissuade him. Most importantly, was that this felt like it was a once-off experience for me. I did not expect that every time I accepted a ride with another man, or was alone with another man, that I would have to fear the same thing happening. Unless I was planning on frequenting gay bars, I did not expect continual unwanted sexual advances from men. (In fact, I have been to gay bars since with some of my gay friends, and even there have never felt harassed by gay guys even if a few of them may have flirted a bit).
For many women, however, unwanted sexual advances from men occur all the time. Sexual violation for many women is not just a fear – but a reality. The oppressive air I felt momentarily in the car with this guy was quickly dissipated. For women it can be a constant cloud that hangs over them most of the time. And the psychological impact of sexual violence – especially of rape – scars much more than harassment.
When my daughter was very young (between the ages of 4-6) she was sexually violated a number of times by some older boys. It impacted her deeply – but she could not recognize this violation or begin to deal with it for many years. I did not know about it. Her mother did not know about it. For 25 years she blamed herself. For 25 years she suppressed much of herself because of her perceived shame about the past. After years of struggling with the effects of sexual abuse, she has emerged from behind the curtain of sexual violence. She has healed and been able to take back control of her life. But it impacted her greatly for many years, and maybe it still does.
I feel shame for not knowing. I feel inadequate for not being able to protect her from the act and for not being able to help her recover. I know that her experience – that the experience of such an act of sexual violation – impacts so much deeper than my skirmish while hitch-hiking.
Most sexual violation is against women and children. And it is so much more rampant than most of us men realize or appreciate. In New Zealand, recent research has indicated that nearly 40% of women experience sexual violence at some point in their life. The World Health Organisation has reported that the rate of sexual violence against women globally is even higher – with up to 70% of women in some developing countries reporting sexual violence – mostly from men they know including family relations and current or former partners. Globally, 20% of women and 10% of men report experiencing sexual abuse as children. Forced marriages are also rampant in developing countries. And every year over 5000 women are killed because they had sexual relations outside marriage. Even if the sex was unwanted by them, the women get blamed and punished.
For women and children the violence is not just about sex. It is also about power. It may be the power of a male boss over a female employee – forcing or manipulating her into sex in order to protect her job or secure a promotion. Or the economic power of a husband over his wife which makes it difficult, or even impossible, for some women to leave abusive marriages. Or it’s the oppressive power of social norms which often excuse men’s advances over women when they cross the line from natural and legitimate flirting to unwanted pressure, manipulation and abuse.
The pervasive cloud and incessant occurrences of harassment and sexual violation experienced by women are difficult for men to appreciate. Just as it is difficult for white people like me to understand the racism that is experienced nearly every day by non-whites in their day-to-day interactions. The 1995 movie the White Man’s Burden starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte did an excellent job of helping white people understand this by reversing the social standing and power of whites and blacks. Perhaps we need a similar movie reversing male and female roles to help men understand better the impact of such power imbalance between men and women.
It is important to understand that sexual violence is not a natural part of being a man. ‘Real men’ do not need to, or desire to, force themselves on women. ‘Real men’ know that relationships are rewarding in direct proportion to the degree of mutual interest, respect, support and – dare I say it – love. Thus, preventing violence against women is not just a case of women’s rights. This is not just a feminist issue. It is an issue of being human and of celebrating and enhancing the better parts of humanity, including our natural tendency towards compassion, respect, fairness and equality. By rejecting sexual violence, we celebrate instead the beauty and positive power of respectful loving sexual relationships. Such relationships have the power to change ourselves – and to change the world.
Alyn has written this personal article with the full knowledge and consent of his daughter who provided the accompanying image.