In an interview with Shia LaBouef in the latest issue ofDazedmagazine, the actor reveals that he was raped during the performance of his art installation #IAMSORRY. Not surprisingly, LaBouef's critics are queuing both online and in the media to express their disbelief, with Pierce Morgan leading the way. But how many of us actually believe him?
When I was an undergraduate, a boyfriend told me he lost his virginity at 15 to a pair of seventeen year-old twin sisters who raped him at a party. He didn't call it 'rape'. Instead, he said: I didn't want it to happen. It felt bad. My friends laughed. They said I'd lived every man's dream. I wasn't sure what to make of that information. Though I believed him, his confession didn't register with me as 'rape' till years later.
A number of female friends have confided in me similar experiences over the years. Sometimes their words were equally measured, especially when the perpetrator had been a close relative. The words 'rape' or 'sexual abuse' were not used, but when I listened to them, I had no doubts about what they were saying. So why did it take me so long to equate the experiences?
The more I think about it, the more similar cases I remember. There was, for instance, my male friend at uni who was in a long-distance relationship with a girl who rung a dozen times a day to check up on him. When he flew home over the holidays on an overnight flight, she bullied him into having sex as soon as he walked through the door, then bullied him even worse for being too tired to become aroused. Another friend's girlfriend signed him out of hospital on the same day he'd removed his appendix to take him home and have sex. Then there were the girls in my school who sneaked into the boys' toilets and made fun of boys' genitals. When I discussed these events with male friends, they weren't surprised; some relayed worse experiences of their own. And yet of all my male friends, only one openly recognized that he'd been sexually abused by women.
According to the Office of National Statistics, only 0.3% of men in the UK experience sexual violence each year, but judging by the experiences of men in my social cycle, that statistic sounds improbable. A 2012 literature review estimated that 19 - 31% of US male college students experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact. The problem is, gender norms are so fixed that we refuse to recognise male victims of sexual violence just as we refuse to identify female perpetrators. As a woman, I was taught from a very early age that men are always after sex, the same way I was taught that sex is not a primary drive for women. Ridiculous as both these statements sound, they're still inscribed on our social psyche.
A few years ago, I was undertaking domestic violence training. The trainer, a woman with years of experience in the field, delivered an in-depth analysis of the different types of domestic abuse and how these affect women. She took pains to explain how emotional abuse could be just as devastating and stressed over and over that the drive for male to female domestic violence is the perverse belief of 'ownership' of the victim. It wasn't until about 10 minutes before the course ended that she acknowledged that men too could be victims (in fact, 40% of DV victims are male). According to her, though, the male experience was different because men suffered more from hurt feelings due to 'loss of entitlement' than they did from the actual abuse. That statement, dismissive and biased as it was, carries some truth. The emotional experience of male victims is indeed different to that of female victims. Men are not entitled to victimhood, and especially not in the case of sexual abuse. Male sexuality is defined by dominance over the female. By becoming victims, men's entire gender identity is questioned. In the same way, female gender norms do not allow space for sexual predation. We cannot reconcile female to male sexual violence with the rigid gender norms we are brought up to believe.
Growing up, I was repeatedly told that 'good' men were an exception, in a family dominated by an angry father. As a child, I was never told that women were also capable of abuse; for example, no one explained that my grandmother had been an equal source of terror for my dad. Instead, I was brought up to believe that men are prone to violence, likely to be untrustworthy and dangerous. For my brother, growing up in this environment meant he was assigned an added burden of guilt by virtue of his gender.
Breaking down gender norms is long overdue; they are damaging and incompatible with human nature. There is currently a petition by EVAW and Everyday Sexism to make sex and relationship education (SRE) compulsory in the school curriculum. The petition is supported by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. If SRE is developed effectively, and delivered by suitably trained teaching staff, it can challenge the same norms that encourage predatory behaviour in men and excuse sexual abuse by women. I can't help wondering if a young footballer would still think having sex with a mate's drunk 'bird' was not rape, or if we'd still think Shia LaBouef's claims are part of a publicity stunt, if we all had SRE. More than anything though, I wonder if I'd have taken over a decade to figure out what I should've told my then boyfriend; 'I believe you, and I don't think it's funny.'