Written by Arthur Guillaume-Gentil
The worldwide #Metoo movement certainly represents “one of the most profound ‘moments’ in anti-sexual violence activism in recent histories” as it enabled survivors of sexual violence to speak about it as well as challenge patriarchal structures in place. Despite LGBTQI+ individuals facing comparable, if not higher, levels of sexual violence as cisgender heterosexual women, the queer community is currently lacking the crystallisation of a similar experience both denouncing sexual abuses and helping reconceptualise consent culture. Hence, there is far less presence of conversations on and negotiations of sexual consent within queer contexts as well as a lack of cultural intelligibility around queer sex. Particularly, this paper will focus primarily on sexual violence between men who have sex with men (hereinafter MSM) and the current absence of survivors’ voices in the public sphere. Sexual violence is understood within the context of this analysis as any non-consensual sexual activity between individuals, both private and public, ranging from unsolicited nudes on dating apps, groping in bars/nightclubs to sexual assault and rape. While acknowledging that this paper solely offers one of the possible explanations for this absence, it will hypothesise that heteronormative ideals on masculinity found within the queer community preclude this minoritised group from starting a broader discussion (publicly) denouncing sexual violence within the community. First, this paper will dive into a theoretical framework defining key concepts, such as sexuality, gender, heteronormativity and hegemonic masculinity. Afterwards, it will apply these notions to the present case to explain the current silence on queer sexual violence before concluding.
Theoretical Framework: Gender, Heteronormativity and Masculinities
Before delving into potential gendered assumptions and norms preventing MSM sexual violence survivors from having a voice, definitions of important concepts are required. Firstly, for this essay, gender shall be understood as the meaning society attributes to different femininities and masculinities in a particular context, which determines, disciplines and ultimately, produces the daily interactions, behaviours, and identities of individuals. According to Butler’s performativity theory of gender (1990), gender represents the outcome of social doings of some sort, which is construed through the constant reproduction/reiteration of specific behaviours, in line with one’s gender, which is regulated through discourses, effectively producing gendered identities. Hence, by consistently repeating/re-enacting specific constructions of masculinities and femininities, these are inscribed as a script onto one’s body, ultimately disciplining himself/herself/themselves to act in a certain way. This binary construct between men and women define certain characteristics as masculine such as courage, assertiveness or strength and others as feminine, such as sensitivity, sweetness, warmth or nurturance.
Sexuality represents the attractiveness for another individual, embracing all erotically significant and salient parts of social interactions and supposing ‘boundary-less’ fluidity. In many respects, sexual acts and modes of conduct are influenced by gendered constructions, which serve the purpose of reproducing a system of compulsory heterosexuality. This system elevates and normalises heterosexuality as the primary and the ‘right’ sexual orientation as well as privileges it over ‘abnormal’ sexual orientations such as homosexuality. Heteronormativity denotes this process of normalisation and privileging of heterosexuality as well as the construction of the heterosexual gender power relationship as a means of ordering sexual behaviour and other aspects of social lives, such as the public/private division of labour between men and women. It fashions a ‘natural’ and ‘unchangeable’ sexual and gendered mode of conduct in which the male counterpart is seen as powerful, strong, inviolable, active and dominant and the female as weak, vulnerable, passive, and submissive. This also shapes a gendered discourse and power relationship of men-as-penetrators and women-as-penetrated. Ultimately, this fashions a social climate and context in which men’s use of pressure to secure sexual benefits is normalised.
These heteronormative ideals can be exemplified by how men, both MSM and their heterosexual counterparts, are socialized into adhering and reproducing rigid masculine stereotypes and standards. Sitting at the top of the hierarchy of masculinity is hegemonic masculinity, which refers to a culturally and socially glorified expression of manhood, positioned as the primary masculinity within a given pattern of gendered relations. It assumes heteronormative power relationships of dominance and subordination between those identifying as males in which heterosexuals are understood as superior owing to the assumption that MSM do not conform to these standards and thus, lack masculinity. Patriarchy and other power structures within society rely on relationships of dominance and subordination between groups of men such that queer masculinities are conceptualised as inferior, less than or subordinate (Hindes & Fileborn, 2020). Consequently, many MSM tend to construct their gendered and sexual identities by over-compensating and endorsing hegemonic masculine ideals, effectively producing their subjective masculinities in light of heteronormative standards. This hyper-masculine embrace by many MSM goes hand in hand with a rejection of all that is feminine to compensate for the loss of masculinity due to their sexual orientation.
“Boys will be Boys” and the Underlying Heteronormative Assumptions Coming along with it
While we presumably all witnessed the power of testimonies and speech during #Metoo, it seems as if we did not want to acknowledge that our community, the gay community, faces similar challenges when it comes to consent and sexual violence. In a way, we keep, at times consciously and at others unconsciously, hiding behind the old saying of “boys will be boys”, which may be said to severely harm our community and its potential survivors in two different, albeit intertwined, ways. Heteronormative ideals on masculinity may be said to both legitimise abuse or at least undermine it, and blur survivors’ conception of victimhood. “Together, the effect of these discursive constructions of masculinity, homosexuality and sex is to render sexual coercion among gay men as virtually oxymoronic” (Hindes & Fileborn, 2020, p. 5).
By assuming boys and men as sexually insatiable beings, many sexual abuses, if happening between men, may not be recognised or conceptualised as such. In other words, this insatiable ‘male sex drive’ as required by hegemonic masculine standards assumes that men are always ready for or desiring of sex. In turn, this myth about ‘male sex drive’ culturally conditions MSM to either believe that they brought on the abuse or render challenging the acknowledgment of sexually abusive behaviour that happens to them. This is heightened within the gay community as it is often depicted as a sexually promiscuous and hyper-sexualised space in which the gay lifestyle came to an equal succession of casual sexual encounters. This also leads society at large to deny queer survivors the opportunity to call on abuse as they are seen as ‘asking for violence’ because of their risky/deviant lifestyle choices. Furthermore, online dating/hookup apps such as Grindr may be said to reinforce and exacerbate particular hyper-sexualised lettering of casual hook-ups, which may, at times, downplay or even normalise some sexually violent behaviours because after all people logged in to find a potential sexual partner. For instance, it seems as if receiving unsolicited nudes, being sexually objectified, or being diminished through sexual insults, can be encompassed within ‘normalised behaviours’, which most MSM accept while going on such apps. Additionally, in cases in which sexual violence happens physically between MSM, many survivors may experience sexual arousal, adrenaline or other physiological responses, which although they cannot control may lead them to question the reality of the abuse. All of this potentially leads many survivors not to be able to recognise sexual violence as such but rather as a ‘bad date/hookup’.
This difficulty to acknowledge one’s abuse as violence may also come from the other assumption stemming from “boys will be boys”, which presupposes men as impenetrable perpetrators, negating effectively the existence of male victimhood. The culturally embedded and accepted ideals on masculinity sit in polar opposite to notions of vulnerability and victimhood. Hence, the assumption is that men ‘cannot be raped’ and thus, cannot be understood as survivors of sexual violence but solely as perpetrators. This absence of male victimhood’s conceptualisation may also stem from the association of victims with fragility, dependency, powerlessness, and weakness, which society has primarily ascribed to the female gender. Additionally, the survivor may also be placed in a subordinate ‘feminine’ position because he/they did not fight back, as a ‘real strong man’ would have done so. Many MSM partly due to internalised homophobia or shame regarding one’s sexual orientation fear being ascribed with female characteristics or attributes. Therefore, in a community in which MSM are already trying to overcompensate their ‘lack’ of masculinity as to conform to societal heteronormative standards, the association with victimhood may act as another way in which they are stripped down of their masculine attributes, which may prevent them from speaking up. Recognising the abuse and sharing one’s story would result, if someone believes you, in a subordination of the survivor within the hierarchical gender order. Moreover, negating male victimhood also impacts male survivors’ legal struggles as they may not be believed or their testimonies may be more questioned by administrative officials simply because their masculine gender does not fit the offense they report A criminal justice system they already have a hard time trusting and recognising as supportive due to histories of queer oppression. Hence, the gendered and heteronormative assumptions engrained within the criminal justice system and the people working within it may also be said to amplify the societal silencing of male survivors (Ison, 2019).
In conclusion, this paper sought to show how underlying heteronormative standards on masculinities play a role in silencing MSM experiences and testimonies of sexual violence in the public sphere. While acknowledging other explanations, these gendered power structures and discourses create an atmosphere in which queer survivors and the community at large are both victims and authors of this silence. By playing along, reproducing and re-enacting these gendered constructions suppressing one’s voice in our daily interactions, we, the queer individuals are denying ourselves the chance to address these issues and to re-conceptualise notions of consent within our community. There is a dire need for a collective consciousness of these underlying issues within our community and society at large. The voices of MSM may also add nuance to the collective discourses and understandings of the pervasiveness and danger of male sexual violence, which women of #MeToo has already been put under public scrutiny. Overcoming heteronormative ideals on masculinity by sharing stories and testimonies about queer sexual assault on men may not only begin the process of healing for ourselves but also help to build a safer collective environment for each and every individual.
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