hold up, feminism- we forgot half the passengers

Trigger warning: this post deals with sexual assault against men and women and may be distressing for some readers. 

I am a feminist. Straight up. I’m comfortable with it and I hope that in the face of some influential leaders distancing themselves from the label (hello, Julie Bishop) that it won’t deter young women and men from picking off the congealed scab of feminist stereotypes to discover what the movement is really about.

Additionally, as ongoing readers of this blog would know, I have experienced sexual assault. The two issues go hand in hand. Violence against women and feminism. As Forrest Gump would say, “like peas and carrots”.

The prevalence of violence against women in Australia is overwhelming and unfortunately not declining. Thank goodness that at least the dialogue about the issue is gradually improving. Well, it is improving for violence and sexual assault perpetrated against women and children. Our society is still dismissive when men are the victims.

Maybe there is a reason for this. After all, men are the perpetrators of most sexual assaults. Women and children are usually the victims. However sometimes women are the perpetrators of sexual assault against children and even more uncommonly, against fully-grown men.

The comparatively low rate of these crimes in no way reduces the severity of their impacts. Yet our society does little to provide protection or support for the men who are in this situation. In fact I believe that most men would not even admit to having been sexually assaulted for fear that they would be laughed at or dismissed.

The first time I came across a man experiencing the symptoms of isolation, confusion and depression associated with sexual assault was on Facebook. There used to be a page for students at my university to “confess” their secrets. I was mindlessly scrolling through one afternoon when I noticed a comment from a man asking for help. He had only been studying at university for a few weeks and had attended a party the weekend before. He had passed out after too much to drink and awoken to a girl going down on him.

He explained that he didn’t “like” this girl and was very upset that she had touched him without his consent. He said he had been saving himself for the person he had a crush on. He said he felt guilty.

Yes, you read that right, he said he felt guilty.

He had posted anonymously so all I could do was reply explaining that he had been raped and it was in no way his fault. I suggested that he seek out the support of loved ones, a counsellor and if he wanted he could report the crime to the police. I am not sure what happened to that man, but I really hope he found the support he needed.

My second encounter with a man being raped was in a fictional television program two weeks ago. The program was Wonderland on Channel Ten. Similarly to what happened to the anonymous man on Facebook, the character Steve passed out from tiredness and intoxication and awoke to another character, Sasha, going down on him without his consent.

Steve’s behaviour for the rest of the episode was consistent with what a sexual assault victim may experience. He showered immediately and became withdrawn and sullen. I was interested to see what would happen in the following episode. Would Steve tell someone about what had happened to him? Would his friends and family rally around him? Would he report the crime to the police?

Apparently none of the above. I was saddened last week as I watched Steve confide in his father Cal, only to receive no useful guidance or support. Steve said he felt “guilty and dirty” for having “cheated on” his wife Dani. He also said that he wasn’t like most guys who would “think it’s a laugh”. When Steve suggested that he wanted to tell his wife what happened, Cal protested and told Steve to keep it a secret.

There was no mention of sexual assault. No support for the grief and hardship Steve must be experiencing. The crime was not reported. Steve was essentially advised to put his experience in the past and move on.

Last night’s episode reinforced Steve’s position. Sasha managed to convince Steve that he would damage his marriage and friendships if he told anyone what had happened…

Hang on.

This dialogue sounds familiar.

Oh wait, this is victim blaming. The belief system that anti-violence campaigners have been working tirelessly to remove from our discussions of rape against women.

This show that I normally enjoy has highlighted some disturbing stereotypes about men. The stereotype of men always being ready and willing to have sex. The idea that real men keep secrets from their wives about the “harmless” shenanigans they get up to during a big night out. The persistent belief that unwanted sexual contact has no emotional repercussions for a man.

These stereotypes are damaging to men. However it would be a mistake to think that these stereotypes aren’t equally damaging to women and feminism. How can our society truly embrace equity between men and women if we hold onto stereotypes about either?

If sexual assault isn’t a “man’s issue”, by default it becomes a “woman’s issue”. Is that a subliminal belief that we want to persist in our society?

Additionally, if men have to fulfil certain character traits to be considered a man, then what happens to their identity when women start doing the same jobs or behaving in the same ways as men?

We will never achieve equity between men and women by fighting only half the battle. And the storyline of Wonderland over the last three weeks has highlighted how far we still have to go to truly achieve it.

Like I said, I am a feminist. And I can see that half the seats on this bus are empty.