When discussing the dynamics of gender-based violence, it is imperative to understand the difference between sex and gender. Though in a hetero-normative culture, they are often used interchangeably used, they are not the same in that “Sex refers to the biological differences between males and females. Gender refers to the continuum of complex psychosocial self-perceptions, attitudes, and expectations people have about members of both sexes.” according to the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, and these different gender- stereotypes concerning each sex can act to perpetuate violence against both men and women in society.
For men, societal assumptions about how they should and or should not act may hinder them in reporting cases of their own sexual abuse. In Understanding the Sexual Betrayal of Boys and Men : The Trauma of Sexual Abuse, Gartner explains that there are three themes that should be recognized “in order to understand how male victims of sexual abuse and assault differ from their female counterparts. These are: mascu-line gender socialization; feelings and worries about homosexuality; and fears of becoming predators themselves.” In American society, men are socialized to be the provider, stronger, leaders and according to Dr. David Lisak, the idea that men are able to be vulnerable is a “cultural blindspot”. This means that often men do not come forward about sexual abuse out of fear of being seen as less manly. There is a worry that they will be seen as weak, and therefore rather than speak on what has happened to them, many turn to substance abuse like alcohol or drugs in order to suppress the feelings related to their distressing experience. According to Lisak, this leads to nearly 80% of men in substance abuse programs having histories of trauma, most relating to sexual abuse and because healthcare providers don’t readily see that it could be trauma based due to societal assumptions regarding gender, the root cause goes undetected and untreated. Men who are sexually abused are also reluctant to come forward because of homophobia ingrained into society and/or the fear that they may be viewed as homosexual. Gartner explains that:
“Boys growing up with a predominantly straight identification often feel their sexual identity is undermined at an age when it is just forming. Such a boy may wonder why he was chosen by a man as a sexual victim; whether the abuser knew something about his sexual iden-tity he himself didn’t know; or whether he was “really” gay because he “allowed” abuse to occur. Boys growing up with a predominantly gay identification, on the other hand, may feel hurried into recognition of their sexual preferences. Or, they may associate gay sex with secrecy, exploita-tion, and betrayal.”
This creates a large gap in the number of cases which go unreported between men and women. This gap is then further perpetuated by the fear that men who have been abused will go on to become abusive themselves. This hinders men from reporting out of fear that they will be viewed as predators and/or predators in the making. It is often believed within society to be inevitable that the abused become the abuser and this, especially among male survivors, leads them to believe that by disclosing what has happened to them, “others will perceive them as potential abusers and be afraid to allow them near children.” (Gartner, 2017).
Women however, especially ones of color, face a completely different set of obstacles in dealing with gender-based violence. Specifically at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black women face their own three culturally-specific themes or barriers which hinder sexual assaults from being formally reported. Those include: “stereotypical beliefs regarding African American women (eg, the “Strong Black Woman” persona, which emphasizes self sufficiency and resilience); distrust and avoidance of legal, medical, and social service systems (due to prior negative interactions); and a cultural mandate to protect African American male offenders.” (Lindquist 2017).
In American society, gender normatives are upheld by academic, political and spiritual institutions. Because all of these are typically sex-segregated institutions, this allows gender based violence to prevail because it deems acts like wife beating as a product and obligation of manhood. In “God Is a Keeper”: A Phenomenological Investigation of Christian African American Women’s Experiences With Religious Coping, Mckinney explains that “The Black church provides a protected space for Black men to enjoy the patriarchal privileges of maleness, which are denied to them in a White patriarchal society. Moreover, the church affirms the Black male in the midst of a society that consistently denigrates him. Simultaneously, it provides a muted privilege for Black women. (p. 105)”, and the same can be said of Historically Black Colleges and Universities which is why it becomes difficult to report acts of sexual violence. The “patriarchal privilege of maleness” also impacts gender based violence in the United States Military. This is made apparent in the statement that “a woman who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.” (Hattery,Smith).
While the narrative has shifted regarding laws concerning abuse, societal views surrounding Black women’s experiences with it have stayed stagnant within a code of silence. Black women, since slavery have not been allowed the space to heal from these traumas. In Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry describes that the three main stereotypes placed on Black women are the Jezebel, Mammy, and Sapphire-all three of which contribute to Black women’s experience in not only politics but society. The Jezebel promotes Black women as promiscuous and therefore wanting and deserving of any sexual advances toward them. This makes it so that sexual abuse against Black women is not taken seriously and Black women are often thought to be lying about the incidents. The next stereotype of mammy implies that black women [were] only fit to be domestic workers; thus, “the stereotype became a rationalization for economic discrimination.” (ferris.edu). The domestic work aspect contributes to domestic violence against Black women because if they can not perform their “wifely duties”, they are deserving of the violence administered upon them. The final is the Sapphire or angry Black woman which contributes to the abuse of Black women in that African American women are always seen as the aggressor and therefore anything that happens is by fault of our own. This keeps Black women from speaking out as well as from being listened to when it is discussed. Broussard also talks about these in Black Women ‘s Post-Slavery Silence Syndrome: A Twenty-First Century Remnant of Slavery, Jim Crow, and Systemic Racism–Who Will Tell Her Stories?, when it is explained that Black women’s silence dates back to slavery when white masters would use Black bodies as a means of control, sexual pleasure, and forced reproduction and that Black women have stayed silent in order to not place an additional burden on Black men. She states that “The pain is not only the physical pain of rape and abuse, but a larger wound inflicted by the societal structure and legal system which dictated the value Black women had in society.” and that “the constant psychological battering of Black women that occurred as a result of them bearing witness to their men being killed for minor offenses [has] result[ed] in a culture of silence and protection of Black men.” The Association of American Medical Colleges goes on to say that “Half of white medical trainees believe such myths as black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people.” meaning that when African Americans go into seek treatment, including for sexual abuse, they are not taken as seriously as their white counterparts. This along with fear of medical treatments due to past wrongdoings like the Tuskegee syphilis study, keep Black Americans from seeking help from medical care providers, even after experiencing the trauma of abuse.
In order to dismantle these systems which allow for gender based violence to prevail and to assist men in becoming advocates for eradicating it, I think there are several different approaches that may be taken. As far as academic institutions, I think it is negligent that staff be mandated reporters without giving them the proper training in order that they are better equipt to handle sensitive subjects like rape, and therefore would recommend that courses dealing with rape culture and victim advocacy are implemented much like Diversity training courses are now required in an abundance of workplaces. I believe that this could improve institutions which currently struggle to challenge rape culture for a multitude of reasons. In my personal experience, older citizens as well men in positions of authority tend to blame women for what happens to them, and more often than not attribute clothing to respectability which directly reflects the upholding of gender norms within society. Bringing in mandatory courses for elected officials, businesses, and university staff could help to shift the dynamic of violence within the United States. By holding those in power, specifically the men with jurisdiction accountable, it sets a precedent within society that cases of sexual and other abuse, and instances of gender-based violence will be taken seriously. I also believe that universities should increase the curriculum regarding rape culture and really be forced to examine their roles in hypersexualizing and degrading Black women. Much like the courses for staff and elected officials, by holding organizations on campuses, which pride themselves on service to the community, accountable it makes it so that women in the community feel that they are a part of the group being serviced.
Gartner, R. B. (2017). Understanding the Sexual Betrayal of Boys and Men : The Trauma of Sexual Abuse. Routledge.
Lindquist, C. H., Crosby, C. M., Barrick, K., Krebs, C. P., & Settles-Reaves, B. (2016). Disclosure of sexual assault experiences among undergraduate women at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Journal of American College Health, 64(6), 469–480. doi: 10.1080/07448481.2016.1181635
Sabin, J. A. (2020, January 6). How we fail black patients in pain. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/how-we-fail-black-patients-pain
Tseng, J. (2008, July 1). Sex, Gender, and Why the Differences Matter. Retrieved from https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/sex-gender-and-why-differences-matter/2008-0
Dealing with Male Violence Video