In writing a column titled “Sex & Society,” it makes sense that many of my pieces would deal with women’s issues. After all, rape, body image and gender stereotyping are all exclusively female challenges, right?
Wrong. Though these matters are most commonly associated with women, they affect men, too.
Some issues, like female-on-male rape and negative body image, are almost completely ignored when it comes to men.
Many people even believe that a woman can’t rape a man. This belief is often based on the assumption that physical arousal automatically equals consent or desire. However, it’s entirely possible for a man to have an erection — a physiological response — while being sexually assaulted, in the same way that some women get wet or even orgasm in the same situation. This assumption can cause a lot of shame for victims, as well as perpetuate ignorant ideas about the nature of rape.
Men who are raped by other men also face an incredible social stigma. While men who are sexually assaulted by women are often told that they should “feel lucky,” men who are violated by men must face a culture that treats male-on-male rape as a joke (“don’t drop the soap”). These men also have to deal with the myth that male rape victims and perpetrators must be homosexual, a presumption that ignores the fact that most rapists and their victims are heterosexual (according to the NYC Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project).
Negative body image, especially in relation to the media, is another discussion that seems entirely devoted to women. However, a recent study by the University of Toronto revealed that one in every six people diagnosed with anorexia is male. On the other side of the spectrum, many skinny guys feel social pressure to “bulk up.” In the same way that Barbie dolls leave their impression on young girls, so muscle-clad action figures and Herculean comic book heroes influence boys.
Kids’ toys can also reveal one of many societal gender imbalances that primarily affect men. While it is now widely acceptable for girls to play with toys traditionally targeted to boys, many parents are still hesitant to buy their little boy a pink plastic tea set.
Women are not the only ones who are confined to traditional gender roles. Men, especially straight men, are expected to be tall, strong, aggressive and powerful. They’re told that a real man is the breadwinner of the family. A real man pays for his date. A real man is sexually experienced. A real man doesn’t cry.
Straight men also face a unique struggle with their sexualities. On a recent episode of the “Savage LoveCast,” Dan Savage discussed the constant pressure straight men are under to “prove” their sexuality. When a man comes out as gay, people rarely question his authenticity; though he faces other struggles, his sexuality is not called into question (with the exception of those who deny the existence of homosexuality altogether). But if a straight man decides to try anal play, or crossdress, or even just watch Gossip Girl every once in awhile, his straightness falls under scrutiny.
While women must struggle with sexual objectification, men must also face societal challenges to their self-worth. Male disposability is so deeply ingrained in our culture that few even notice it. Men still need to sign up for the draft, and are often encouraged to choose more dangerous occupations. The sacrificial “women and children first” dynamic tells men that their lives are relatively worthless, just by virtue of their gender.
Feminists and MRAs (men’s rights advocates) are often at each other’s throats, engaged in a ridiculous battle over who “has it worse.” However, I don’t see how these two movements cannot be complementary. Just because each group focuses on the issues of a particular gender does not mean that they should automatically dismiss the issues of the other.
Despite male institutional power and privilege, men still face societal and cultural challenges, and these challenges should be acknowledged in modern gender discourse.
MARISA MASSARA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.