New Research Summary: How do masculine norms contextualize men's experiences of sexual violence?
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We sat down with Dr. Morgan E. PettyJohn (The University of Texas Medical Branch) to talk about her new article published in our flagship journal, The Psychology of Men and Masculinities. PettyJohn and colleagues explored how socially constructed tenets of hegemonic masculinity contextualize men's experiences with sexual violence in adulthood. Their thematic synthesis demonstrates that societal beliefs about masculinity can pose a risk for men experiencing sexual violence as well as negatively impact their recovery. We encourage you all to check it out!
PettyJohn, M. E., Reid, T. A., Cary, K. M., Greer, K. M., Nason, J. A., Agundez, J. C., Graves, C., & McCauley, H. L. (2022). “I don’t know what the hell you’d call it”: A qualitative thematic synthesis of men’s experiences with sexual violence in adulthood as contextualized by hegemonic masculinity. Psychology of Men & Masculinities. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/men0000410
What were the research questions you were answering with this study?
We wanted to understand how adult men’s experiences of sexual violence are shaped by masculine gender socialization. Patriarchal societies raise men to believe that maintaining their social power requires distancing themselves from anything perceived as “feminine.” Sexual violence has long been used as a tool for oppressing women and queer folks who, indeed, experience disproportionate rates of this type of violence. However, this has led society to the false impression that sexual violence is simply a ”feminine” issue which does not impact “masculine” men. These beliefs manifest in common rape myths like “men can’t be raped,” “men shouldn’t be bothered by sexual assault,” or “only gay/effeminate men can be victimized.” Because of this gendered perspective on sexual violence, men’s experiences have largely been overlooked across domains of advocacy, academic research, clinical practice, and activism (think about how few stories you saw about men survivors in the #MeToo Movement, and how horribly men like Terry Crews were treated when they did come forward). The lack of acknowledgement for men survivors is concerning given that U.S. prevalence data indicate 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence in their lifetime, with more than half (56%) of first victimizations occurring in adulthood (18+).
What are some of the key findings of this study?
We identified many ways that masculine gender socialization uniquely impacts men’s experiences of sexual victimization, how they process their trauma, and their willingness/ability to seek help. We read many accounts from men, particularly from college students, describing situations where they engaged in unwanted sex because they were socialized to believe sex was a required part of affirming their gender identity as men. Sometimes this pressure came explicitly from peers egging them on, but more often this pressure originated internally, through men telling themselves messages like, “you need to have sex with her, otherwise what will other people think?” Our team labeled this phenomenon, “masculinity as a vehicle for sexual coercion.”
Many survivors struggled to find language to describe what happened to them because the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” are so gendered as “women’s issues.” This gendered dynamic is captured very clearly in this powerful quote:
“I don’t know what the hell you’d call it except just taking advantage of someone. I mean, I guess if … it all depends on how you look at it … what you name things, you know what I mean? Like if a guy did it to a girl they’d probably call it rape.” (Fagen & Anderson, 2012).
For some men, the cognitive dissonance of experiencing sexual violence (again, a “feminine experience”) was so overwhelming that they began to question their own gender and sexual identities. In some situations, this translated into survivors trying to “prove” themselves by over-performing stereotypical masculine behaviors like hyper-sexuality and exaggerated displays of misogyny, homophobia, and anger. These trends were more common among military samples and men who were victimized by other men.
What are some key implications of your findings for research or practice?
We found that masculine socialization contributed to both internal and external barriers to men survivors seeking help. Internal barriers stemmed from survivors’ own beliefs about what it means to “be a man,” things like “men should hide their emotions,” and “men should be able to take care of themselves.” Other internal barriers were fears about how others would respond to their disclosure, worrying that people would be unsupportive or question their masculinity/sexual identity. Among men who have sex with men, there were additional fears that seeking help would “out” them or lead to further harassment due to their sexual identity.
External barriers to help-seeking manifested from other people/society’s beliefs about masculinity. Unfortunately, upon disclosure, many survivors received horribly unsupportive responses from both formal help systems (e.g., police, doctors) and informal help systems (e.g., family, friends). These responses ranged from calling the survivor “disgusting,” to using humor to minimize what happened, to explicitly invalidating their experience by saying “men can’t be sexually assaulted.”
All our findings highlight the need, at a macro level, to continue deconstructing certain tenets of masculine gender socialization (e.g., men should be dominant, men shouldn’t express their emotions, men don’t need help) which harm all people, including men themselves. At a more micro level, practitioners need to understand that men experience and process sexual violence through a different lens than people of other genders, and our current practice models designed primarily for women will not adequately address the way masculinity impacts victimization and recovery processes.
Where do you see this line of research heading in the future (i.e., what's next)?
Much more work is needed to unpack the effects of intersectional oppression and differing sociocultural contexts on men’s sexual victimization experiences. In this study, we did some preliminary work looking at how experiences differed between survivors from different sample populations: college students, military, men who have sex with men, and the general population. We also examined experiences of men who were victimized by women vs. other men. We identified some unique patterns across these groups, some examples of which I mentioned briefly in the discussion of key findings. However, because we were doing secondary data analysis of qualitative publications, we were limited in the amount of
relevant demographic data we could extract and analyze for each participant (e.g., race/ethnicity). Future work needs to acknowledge that masculinity is performed differently across social contexts, and that men experience privilege and oppression from masculinity in varying ways based on their unique identities.
How did you become interested in this line of inquiry?
As a feminist, therapist, and violence researcher, I’m interested in identifying effective prevention and treatments for sexual violence, for people of all genders. As I mentioned earlier, the patriarchy uses sexual violence as a tool for subordinating the queer and feminine. Maintaining this power structure requires men’s experiences as victims be delegitimized and silenced. Because of this, recognizing men’s experiences with sexual violence is not only important for helping survivors find support, I believe it is also necessary for dismantling patriarchal power structures more broadly.
Morgan E. PettyJohn, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Researcher, Center for Violence Prevention
The University of Texas Medical Branch
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @morgan_ellese