Why the connection between sexual assault and masculinity affects all of us
“I’m trying to do something with success which is bigger than myself,” Kevin Spacey once said. While many may have assumed Spacey meant he would use his power for good, it’s now becoming clear that he actually did the opposite. This famous, powerful actor who has starred in classic American films and TV series is now being accused of sexual misconduct by several men.
The first allegation of such behavior came from actor Anthony Rapp, who claimed that Spacey made an unwanted sexual advance toward him when he was just 14 years old. Several other stories followed this revelation. Actor Robert Caravos claimed he had “a couple of nasty encounters” with Spacey that “were on the verge of being called harassment” while they worked together at the Old Vic theater in London. Filmmaker Tony Montana shared that he was “forcefully” groped by Spacey in an LA bar in 2003 and Harry Dreyfuss recalled being groped by Spacey in 2008 in the presence of his own father, Richard Dreyfuss.
Although Spacey issued an apology to Rapp, his attempt to do so only sparked more controversy, as Spacey concluded his apology by saying, “I choose now to live as a gay man." Many people found Spacey’s decision to finally come out after years of deliberate silence in the same statement that acknowledged an accusation of sexual misconduct made against him baffling and upsetting. Spacey’s attempt to sweep his alleged sickening actions under the rug by directing attention away from the serious accusation at hand — one notably often wielded against gay men — and then associate it with his gay identity confused and disgusted plenty of people. As comedian Sue Perkins put it, Spacey’s decision to make this connection “simultaneously undervalue[s] the horrific nature of the allegation and set[s] back the LGBT+ community. Well done.”
Spacey is facing serious professional consequences based on the accusations made against him. The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced it will no longer give him the 2017 International Emmy Founders Award, Netflix stated that it will “not be involved with any further production of House of Cards that includes Kevin Spacey,” and he will be removed from the forthcoming film Gore.
Perhaps the only relatively positive thing to come out of this situation, however, is the conversation it has sparked among men who have experienced sexual assault. The conversation about sexual assault almost always focuses on female survivors. Take, for example, the #MeToo campaign that took off after prominent women made accusations of assault against Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag is largely dominated by women, which makes sense because, statistically, women experience a higher rate of sexual assault than men: about 9 out of every 10 rape victims are female. Their perpetrators are also almost universally men. But this dynamic often disadvantages the men who are victims of sexual violence and harassment, and discourages them from coming forward and reporting these incidents. In fact, in the UK, 96 percent of sexual assaults against men go unreported.
Beyond statistical reality, the societal pressures of masculinity also restrict male survivors. Masculinity is frequently associated with emotionlessness, dominance, and the ability to fight and defend oneself. By sharing their stories, many men fear they’ll face (and certainly have experienced) criticism, will be looked down upon, and even become the butt of jokes. And then there is the confusing element of sexuality: Since the majority of sexual assault perpetrators are male, this can be confusing to their male targets in terms of their own sexuality. Rapp admitted he never told anyone about the incident for years. He never told his mother, he said, because he feared it would lead to a larger discussion about his sexual orientation, which he wasn’t ready for at 14. YouTuber Jonathan Joly, now a father of three, has talked about his struggle to open up to his own family about his experience with sexual assault when he was younger. “If we talk about this, it exists, and then I don't know if I want it to exist,” he said in a YouTube video titled “I am a Victim Of Sexual Assault.” Terry Crews also shared his personal experience with sexual assault on Twitter, writing that “Hopefully, me coming forward with my story will deter a predator and encourage someone who feels hopeless.”
Spacey might be just one predatory perpetrator, but the decision of his alleged victims still feels like a bigger victory to many. Survivors are witnessing one of a growing number of incidences where their voices are being heard, and their stories turn from secrets they’re ashamed of to fueling a movement to solve a much bigger issue. The fact that men are also joining this conversation about sexual assault highlights the reality that this phenomenon doesn’t just affect white, cis, heterosexual women, although those are the survivors the media has mostly focused on. Sexual assault can and does happen to anybody, no matter their gender, race, sexuality, or any other factor. The more survivors who share their stories, the more those people are supported and believed by the public, the closer we’ll come to actually making a change.
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