Cressida Heyes Phd

28.11.14 Erin L: Thoughts on gender and sexual violence

Guest post by student Erin L.

It was via my Facebook newsfeed that I found out that one man had come forward, accusing Jian Ghomeshi of sexual assault. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Jim Hounslow, one of Ghomeshi’s former classmates at York University, claims that the two were waiting for an elevator one evening in the earlier 1990s when, without warning, Ghomeshi grabbed Hounslow’s genitals. Hounslow recalls twisting Ghomeshi’s arm behind his back and shoving him against the elevator doors.

The friend who had posted the article condemned Ghomeshi. But—he and another male commenter both agreed—they were not quite as concerned about Hounslow’s story as they were about the growing number of women who had come forward. Maybe this is how the media felt as well: since his disclosure on November 5th, Hounslow has received remarkably little media mention or public outcry. While #ibelievelucy (referring to Lucy Decoutere) and Reva Seth’s story were—and still are—widely shared on social media, Hounslow’s allegations lacked the same following.

Because Hounslow’s story surfaced once the preliminary media buzz had begun to subside, one explanation is that the public was simply no longer as interested in the latest addition to the ever-extending list of allegations against Ghomeshi. But the fact that my friends who posted the article couldn’t really articulate what was less disturbing about Ghomeshi’s alleged male assault made me suspicious there might be something else going on.

Offering a glimpse into public perceptions of male sexual assault and even ‘masculinity,’ the comment sections on Hounslow’s story were particularly revealing. There seemed to be a noticeably different public reaction to Hounslow’s disclosure. There was not, for example, anyone praising Hounslow for the courage to come forward, a response I had noticed to some of the female survivors’ stories[1]. Some comments questioned his credibility (e.g. “The story from Jim Hounslow doesn’t ring true… it just doesn’t fit the pattern”), while others were skeptical of his motives (e.g. suggesting he was looking for a few minutes of fame, or that he must want to get back at Ghomeshi as a former rival).

I began thinking of R.W. Connell’s theory of ‘hegemonic masculinity.’ Connell suggests that male-dominated societies involve an idealized form of masculinity, which is defined in relation to women and other (‘lesser’) masculinities. If masculinities are constantly being communicated, manipulated and reinforced in the public sphere, how is this reflected in comment sections—arguably, a new virtual public space? What do these discussions say about understandings of gender and sexual assault, and about hegemonic masculinity?

Responding to Hounslow’s allegations, one comment reads: “[a] certain type of guy would look up to jerks like Ghomeshi – usually guys who are insecure or who lack confidence in themselves. A self-respecting man would steer clear of somebody like Ghomeshi” (emphasis added). This is typical victim blaming rhetoric, implying that it was due to a flaw in Hounslow’s character that he fell prey to this kind of predatory behavior. The result is that it reaffirms one type of masculinity (i.e. confident, self-respecting) over another (i.e. insecure). Another comment suggests that Ghomeshi ‘turned’ to assaulting women after his encounter with Hounslow (recall: Hounslow reacted by physically shoving Ghomeshi) because he figured they would be easier targets than men: “[o]ne wonders whether that evening in the 90’s was when JG concluded that it would be safer to pick on women.” By suggesting that women are natural victims of assault, hegemonic masculinity again prevails, reaffirming the strong man/weak woman binary and simultaneously silencing the voices (and discrediting the ‘masculinities’) of male survivors of sexual violence.

A final response to the Hounslow story? Several commenters concluded that Ghomeshi must be assaulting people because he is a closeted, repressed, and self-loathing homosexual. This too makes sense. For, as Connell indicates, heterosexuality is central to hegemonic masculinity. Suggesting that Ghomeshi is a sexual predator because of his aberrant sexuality conceals the fact that sexual assault is an extremely pervasive societal issue, and that heterosexual men are definitely part of the problem.

Treating male and female sexual assault differently is not uncommon, however, and is an idea reinforced in popular culture. In the video for Maroon 5’s new song “Animals,” lead singer Adam Levine is a creepy butcher, obsessively pursuing his former female partner. Rightfully so, the video was immediately condemned for glorifying stalking and predatory behavior. But how do the politics change when the gender roles are reversed?

A Bitch Radio podcast responds by drawing attention to the problematic gender politics in Sugarland’s 2010 music video “Stuck Like Glue”. Singer Jennifer Nettles waits outside a former love interest’s house, proceeds to kidnap him, tie him up, and then pour alcohol down his throat. The podcast’s guests explain how, through the upbeat nature of the song, the video emphasizes the apparent ‘absurdity’ of males being targets of sexual violence, reducing the significance of women stalking men to mere comic relief.

It was quite striking, though, how many parallels there were between the videos. Both artists literally follow their ‘love interest’, while the latter does not seem interested or comfortable with the prospect. Both Nettles and Levine obsess over photographs of the people that they are stalking. And both situations appear to be former relationships gone wrong. But while “Animals” received almost immediate backlash, I was unable to find criticism of “Stuck Like Glue” apart from the above podcast.

The reality is that all of these discourses matter. Male sexual assault is often dismissed as unimportant and is severely underreported—in fact, male survivors of assault are less likely to report than the already abysmally low reporting rates on female assault.

Reducing the stigma and challenging the culture of sexual violence will not be an easy process.

The ideal of hegemonic masculinity—heterosexual, physically strong, and emotionally detached—trivializes male sexual assault. It works to silence survivors’ voices by suggesting that it is not a serious matter (because men are not ‘victims’), and that sexual assault is individual rather than societal. It also reinscribes relations of power between men and women, where women are ‘natural victims’ of assault because they are seen as the weaker sex.

We need to treat all survivors with respect regardless of gender, and start challenging the stereotypes about masculinities and femininities buried in our daily conversations about sexual violence. Becoming aware of the powerful and cunning logic of hegemonic masculinity is a good place to start.

Connell, R. W. 1987. “Sexual Character.” In Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 167-190.

[1] I am not suggesting here that the women who accused Ghomeshi of assaulting them received unanimously positive feedback—they received their fair share of questioning and criticism. But I was still struck by the utter absence of any kind of positive community forming behind Hounslow and how this was overwhelmingly treated as a ‘minor incident’.