The response to the no-confidence speeches reveals a deeper truth about attitudes towards sexual violence

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Of all the speeches given at the Union no-confidence debate last week, a particular one stuck in my head more than any other. A male student stood up and publicly talked about having been sexually assaulted, and in doing so, he opened up a discussion that isn’t heard as much as it should be: the question of male rape. This is something we don’t hear enough about for a number of reasons and that not talking about only worsens. The reasons we don’t hear about this, don’t talk about it, are because of a number of notions that underlie the way our society works.

In the first instance, many people seem to struggle with the idea that a man can be raped. This comes from a number of angles: at its most innocuous (but that does little to lessen the damage), it is ignorance, a belief that men are somehow impervious to sexual violence and that such victimhood only falls on women; worse than that is wilful ignorance, the denial that this is a widespread problem either to ameliorate one’s guilt for not taking action against it or to try and keep the focus of rape rhetoric placed on women. The worst I have come across, however, takes principles that underlie feminism and social justice movements – privilege, power structures, hierarchy of action – and frames them as something disgusting: this line of argument says that since men form a privileged group in society, violence inflicted on them isn’t as bad as that inflicted on women. It chooses to categorise people in broad strokes in order to mask the real pain at hand here and push forward a political agenda. Instead, we should look at this on a personal, individual level: sexual violence is sexual violence, regardless of who the perpetrator is and who the victim is.

The second reason we don’t hear about the problem of male rape is that, quite frankly, men are scared to report when it has happened to them. The idea that one has been violated, made to submit, defies what culture ingrains in us as the core of masculinity. This goes double if the rapist was female – “made to penetrate” cases are a serious problem, regardless of how lightly the idea is played about with in the media. This leaves men feeling unable to come forward: even if their claim isn’t instantly dismissed as “something which just doesn’t happen”, the response they’ll likely meet with is either mockery or questioning the validity of their experience. This means that – even more so than with rape statistics overall – sexual assaults where a man was the victim go significantly under-reported.

There are certainly problems with the way the justice system deals with sexual assault cases across the board, and there are certainly always individuals who make comments they really shouldn’t have done on the topic. However, by and large, we as a society do take it seriously when a woman reports a rape. As shown above, this is not true for men. If a “rape culture” can be said to exist – where sexual violations are met with mockery, played for laughs by the mainstream media, or flat-out denied to have happened – then men form a very particular group of its victims.

So how does all this tie in with the maelstrom surrounding the Union? Well, when a male student stood up in the Union and made his speech, how did people react? The people who want to bring the President down didn’t seem to care that this student had been assaulted; they didn’t seem to care that he spoke from experience about the sensitive subject of rape; they didn’t  seem to care that he had put his reputation, maybe even his safety, on the line to come out and give a voice to the victims of sexual assault – and all because he was speaking for the other side. Instead, they played up his “verbal aggression” and the fact that he kept speaking when people in the audience became upset, as though he was only saying these things to hurt other people’s feelings. And I think they ignore the fact that on an issue as emotive and personal as this, you’d better be ready to hear about this kind of thing. No mincing of words, no hiding behind euphemism or distancing – just real, personal truth about how sexual violence affects us.

That night, the student at the Union didn’t allow his experiences make him myopic or have him frothing at the mouth the moment someone is accused of rape; he refused to let himself be another mouthpiece for Sullivan’s opponents, who don’t care if you’ve been the victim of sexual violence if it doesn’t help their case. It’s hypocrisy, plain and simple.

This Thursday, there is scheduled to be a “peaceful vigil” outside the Union, protesting the decision to cancel the vote of no-confidence. The people who are organising it are the ones who’ve wanted Sullivan gone all along. What I want you to do is to take a good, long think about the kind of people running that vigil; about what they stand for, and who they’re willing to sacrifice to advance their own careers. And if at the end of that you decide to go along and protest the Union, I have no quarrel with you. All I ask is that you think about the issues at hand before jumping onto a partisan bandwagon.

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