Sunday, October 30, 2011

Silent Male Survivors and the Stigma of Victimhood: Archive Sunday

This post originally appeared last October. To see the original comments, click here.

I certainly didn't expect to stumble upon this topic when I started researching trauma theory for my Women's Lit class. Like any other grad student, I started my research at EBSCO, typing in some pretty generic terms, such as trauma, to see where it would lead me. And one of the first studies that showed up was from Journal of Loss and Trauma, a study by Ramona Alaggia, titled " Disclosing the Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse: A Gender Analysis." Since one of my favorite ways to apply a feminist theoretical lens to literature is to look at it through the lens of the social sciences, I figured this study would be helpful.

But the study was also surprising - it raised some surprising issues about how gender can impact a survivor or victim as he or she decides whether or not to disclose the traumatic experience. While the study used a relatively small sample (30 adult survivors of childhood abuse, 19 of whom were female and 11 of whom were male) and shouldn't be generalized to describe the experience of all survivors of child sexual abuse, their findings merit further discussion, particularly what they found about which factors prevent male survivors from disclosing their experiences and which factors prevent female survivors from disclosing.

While there were a lot of consistent factors, such as how close the survivor was to the perpetrator and to other adults who may have been able to help, Alaggia found a few key differences. The three main factors that prevented men from disclosing were a fear of being viewed as weak and effeminate, a fear of being seen as homosexual (since many of the male victims were abused by men), and a fear of becoming (or being viewed as) an abuser.  For women, the main factors preventing them from disclosing were a fear of not being believed and/or being blamed, and a conflicted sense of who was responsible for the abuse. 

While each of these factors is a serious issue, worth full discussion in its own post, let's hone in on the male fear of being seen as weak or effeminate. Sometimes people tell me that I shouldn't be a feminist, because I should be concerned about the problems that face men, and not just the problems that face women. But I cannot express enough just how much men are hurt by the policies and beliefs that hurt women. Female infanticide? It deprives men of daughters, sisters, brides, and friends. Unequal wages? It hurts male dependents of female bread winners. Devaluing women? That stigmatizes every male who aspires to a vocation or personal trait that has been labelled feminine. 

So we can't devalue women and femininity without hurting men in the process. If being seen as a victim makes a person seem weak, then boy, do we ever have some sorting out to do. An abuser is the one who's weak. The person who survives abuse is typically left with some damaging scars, but he or she is scarred because of the Hell that is abuse, not because he or she is inherently weak. Nobody, no matter how strong, survives abuse without some deep scars.

One question I have after reading this study is whether victimhood is stigamatized by femininity, or femininity is stigmatized by victimhood. That is, between the two characteristics, which is the most stigmatized?
Chances are it's a combination of both factors, but I think it's pretty easy to start thinking more highly of the conquering or privileged group, simply because they appear to be strong, smart, and successful - why wouldn't they, when they've had the luxury of defining intelligence, strength, and success? And we even see this rhetoric echoed in pop culture

But the hammer-and-nail dichotomy Simon and Garfunkel provide in this song is a false one - as they may very well have intended when they wrote these lyrics. Not being on top doesn't mean you're on the bottom, and even if you are on the bottom of the social hierarchy, that fact in no way makes you less worthy than the people at the very top of the social hierarchy. 

So please, for the sake of men and women alike, don't think of victimhood and survivorhood as a "weak" or "feminine" thing.

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