Gender: Putting gender on the agenda
Gender, men, and masculinity
Before beginning to read the following sections, the reader might ask themselves some basic questions about gender, and masculinity in particular. In reading through and responding to the different questions, you might ask yourself how you ‘know’ a particular piece of information, fact, or idea.
This can be helpful in that it is generally easier to evaluate the validity of idea if one knows how one came to hold it. Does it come from experience, and if so, what kind — personal or professional experience? Does it come from reading, from study, from the media, or from a combination of sources?
Some questions to consider
- What is the current masculinity template in our society? How vigorously do we hold this template as a model for ideal male behaviour and life patterns?
- How does this template vary by class, race, background, level of education, etc? How does it relate to dominant masculinity?
- Are there any universals of masculinity which are expected of all men, everywhere?
- What challenges and difficulties might this masculinity template, and expectations to ‘be a man,’ create for males who have been sexually abused in childhood?
- How might the masculinity template influence how men who have been sexually abused respond to and make sense of what happened?
- What steps might a man take to establish and maintain an image of himself as a masculine male following a sexual assault? How might these steps impact on the manner in which he responds and seeks support?
- How might practitioners and services consider adapting their approach to better respond to males sexually abused in childhood or sexually assaulted as adults? What aspects of their practice approach and interventions might be similar to working with females, and which might be different?
Men and masculinity
“The hardest thing to get over was being a victim. I am a man, a strong men. Men don’t get abused.” 38 year old man from South Australia.
“I recognise culturally for women to talk about sexual abuse was a risk of them appearing to others as damaged goods and so on; but for men I think it was different because it gets mixed up with gender identity and not so much for the women the self-image of a man being sexually physically able to look after yourself and the necessity of doing that and so on and so forth… I know you’ve got males who have been sexually assaulted and, because of stigmas of society, are still unwilling to get counselling and help for it.”
Every man has their own experiences and beliefs about what it means to be a man (as do women). Gender is a significant part of personal identity, along with a range of other things that ‘make up’ our sense of who we are: Cultural background, physical ability/disability, sexual preferences, religion, family, where we live...
These cultural expectations of what it means to be and live as a man are so much a part of growing up, and of our lived experience, that we come to accept them as a kind of natural reality. We don’t take time to stop and review how they influence and shape our lives, thoughts and feelings, and our responses to different situations.
For men who have been sexually abused in childhood, it is particularly important to take the time to discuss, and carefully examine with them, the cultural expectations about ‘being a man’ they have been introduced to, and how these have influenced their lives. In such conversations, men who have been sexually abused often speak of how gender expectations informed many of their decisions around dealing with it, such as:
- To not speak about the sexual abuse.
- If they do speak of it, what to tell, what not to tell, and whom to tell.
They also speak of how gender expectations contribute to the struggles they have experienced living up to dominant constructs of masculinity, and how these difficulties contribute to a sense of complete ‘personal failure.’
In order to work productively with men who have been sexually abused, it is important that any practitioner has taken time to carefully consider and understand how gender expectations operate. Taking time to carefully examine and pick apart the influence of dominant ideas of masculinity with a man can be both useful and liberating for men.
Gender is something, like the experience of sexual abuse, which has significantly shaped and influenced the man’s life, and which may up until now be unexamined. Through careful review, a set of taken-for-granted assumptions, beliefs, and judgements about gender, and about himself, that a man has lived with for decades can be externalised, reconsidered, and addressed.
In addition, this process of careful review can act as a useful introduction to a process and template for reviewing the experience of sexual abuse and its impacts.
Self reflection activity
As we grow up in our communities, both men and women are introduced to a set of expectations and ideas as to what ‘makes a man’ and how a man ‘should’ be and behave in the world. Whether we buy into particular expectations and ideas, they shape our world, how we and others act and behave, how we make sense of ourselves and others, the ways in which we express ourselves in different contexts, and how we feel about that. Many men may not have had an opportunity to pause and consider how ideas as to what ‘makes a man’ and how a man should be and behave in the world has been and is shaping of their lives.
Pause for a moment to consider and reflect on what you learnt growing up about what makes up a man.
Complete the activity on this page.
Below is a typical list of masculine norms that men have identified as being associated with ‘acting like’ and ‘being’ a man:
- Strong and powerful, physically and mentally.
- Masculinity as instinctual/biological – Not trying, it’s just natural.
- Self-reliant, able to look after yourself.
- In control, assertive.
- Rational, logical.
- Emotional control (not showing emotions other than anger).
- Risk takers.
- Hard working. Work primary identity.
- Protector – Provider.
- Pursuit of status.
- Able to cope with anything that is thrown at him.
- The doers and instigators of sexual acts (always interested and ready for sex).
- Not vulnerable.
- Not a victim.
- How was the previous exercise?
- What comes to mind in looking at that these suggested masculine norms?
- Consider the influence this ‘masculine code’ has on men’s day to day lives.
- How did you learn these masculine ideals?
- How does this code impact on the way you act, look, and are? On what you can and can’t do? On what you can and can’t say?
- How do these ideas influence friendships and intimate relationships?
- What would it be like if you lived by this code 24/7?
- If these are the conditions of being a man, what happens if a man doesn’t fit the code?
- How do men feel when they compare themselves to these ideals of manhood?
It is particularly important to consider:
- What particular challenges might these masculine ideals create for men sexually abused in childhood?
In presenting this information, there is no suggestions that these ways of being men are bad or not useful. Neither are we saying these traits, qualities, attributes, and expectations are inherently male or masculine; rather, it is more that they have become associated and identified as such.
We are not wishing to take away from men knowledge, skills, and resources that men find useful and valuable. However it is useful to pause and take time to consider how these gender expectations impact and shape the lives, options and responses of men who have been sexually abused.
“Many of the experiences of re-traumatization which adult survivors encounter with services are the result of misrecognition of their experience or needs, and both denial of the relevance of gender and exaggeration (through reliance on stereotypes).”
— Hooper & Warwick, 2006, p.473.
A challenge practitioners face in seeking to support men who have been sexually abused in childhood is to develop a working knowledge of how gender and child sexual abuse intersect, and how they shape people’s lives, in a way that neither overstates nor ignores the influence of gender or child sexual abuse.
Outlined in this section are some of the gender based challenges and tensions confronted by men who have been sexually abused, and by practitioners working with them. An additional challenge practitioners face (and that we face here) is to find a way to outline and navigate this complex terrain in a useful, productive manner – without adding to men’s sense of hopelessness and personal failure. This involves developing an understanding of the double trouble that restrictive ideas of masculinity can produce, the different ways men respond and negotiate gender, the points of tension and support, and how they might be navigated.
In presenting information on how gender can shape men’s lives and their responses to sexual violence, we are cautious not to exaggerate the influence of gender. We know many practitioners say they provide a human response, and look to treat all ’victim/survivors’ the same. However it is a reality that in our communities we live gendered lives, and gender influences how sexual violence is experienced and how people act and respond to us.
“The hardest thing to get over was being a victim. I am a man. A strong man. Men don’t get abused.”
“It is very difficult to admit that it happened, to do this is to somehow almost not be a man.” Manager, Age 38, sexually assaulted from age 12-13
Expectations related to how a man ‘should’ be can lead to men who have been sexually abused in childhood experiencing ‘double trouble.’ Men and boys who have been sexually abused report struggling, as a man, with 1) being victimised, and 2) the experience of not being able to cope afterwards.
First, identifying and naming sexual victimisation as a man confronts a man’s primary social identity — that of being identified as a man. The dominant masculine script suggests that men should not be victims. The idea that men should be strong and powerful and able to defend themselves, even against overwhelming odds, can have boys and men being down on themselves for ‘not fighting back’ or ‘getting the hell out of there.’
It may not be immediately obvious why men should experience conflicts between their notions of being a man and the experience of a sexual assault. But for many males, inherent in their concept of being a man is being able to defend and look after yourself, and to be self-sufficient and in control of all aspects of their lives. Men ask themselves questions such as, “If I was not able to prevent a sexual assault, regardless of my age, does this mean that I have failed as a man, am I not really a man?”
In our culture men experience pressure to not appear vulnerable, to not be ’a victim’. Being a victim and being a man are seen as incompatible. Men who have been sexually abused report being aware of and confronting suggestions:
- “He should have known better.”
- “He should have been able to stop it.”
- “He’s not really a man, he gave in, he must have wanted it.”
- “He must be gay and is just too afraid to admit it.” (See Sexuality section).
- “You should feel lucky if you have sex with a woman. (A woman can’t rape a man).”
As a result, it is common for men who have been sexually abused to evaluate and judge themselves negatively for ‘being tricked’ or for ‘not measuring up,’ when they would benefit most from understanding and encouragement. Even if a man is not judging himself, his knowledge of masculine scripts and how society operates means he will have concerns that others will judge him and treat him differently.
One strategy adopted by practitioners, to help resolve the dissonance between the dominant script of masculinity and being sexually abused, is to point out that to the man that he was only a child back then, he wasn’t as big and strong, and didn’t have the knowledge or resources he has now. Whilst a useful strategy for working with individual men, this does however leave in place the idea that ’adult men’ cannot be raped, that a ’real man’ would be able to prevent assault or would die trying. The suggestion that death is preferable for a man than to be raped highlights how wrapped up masculine identity is in being powerful, in control, invulnerable (his very existence is itself at stake).
Second, the idea that men should be able to manage anything that is thrown at them and just ‘keep soldiering on’ can have men feeling pressure if they are struggling, believing that as a man, “I should be able to sort this out, to just put it behind me and get on with it.” Common responses to abuse, feeling overwhelmed, struggling with strong emotions and troubling memories, can have men unfairly questioning and judging themselves as failing to cope as a man. As one man notes, the suggestion is that:
“Men are tough, Men are macho. Men don’t need help. All we have to do is ‘Get over it – be a man!’ You know, men don’t cry, men don’t eat quiche either! [laughs] It’s sad, very sad.”
— Teram, et al, (2006).
“Towards malecentric communication:
Sensitizing health professionals to the realities of male childhood sexual abuse survivors.”
Issues in Mental Health Nursing. 27, 499-517. 2006.
Mathew and Ainsley Johnstone: Living With A Black Dog: How to take care of someone with depression while looking after yourself. Pan Macmillan Australia: Sydney 2008
This cartoon from Living With a Black Dog highlights the double trouble of gender: If something happens, or a man is struggling, he is meant to ‘be a man’ and to pull himself together and get on. It is a particularly striking example of the impact of gendered expectations on men’s lives in action. The fact it makes sense to us is a graphic reminder of how we possess a shared cultural understanding of what it means to be a man (active, someone who confronts and tackles difficulties head on). If you change the gender and statement to ‘be a woman’, the scene and statement just don’t make sense in the same way, if at all. Just as the expression ‘woman up’ does not make sense, or have the same expectations as telling a man to ‘man up’.
It is useful to note that the expression ‘man up’ is quite a recent development. Whereas previously, a man might have been told to ‘pull yourself together, man’, now gender and the need to ‘man up’ is foregrounded, not the behaviour. It is presumed and accepted knowledge that everyone knows the collection of behaviours associated with being a man. Prior to anyone reminding or telling a man to ‘man up’, men have internalised the code and are fully aware of the pressure to be seen to measure up and to produce an acceptable masculine performance.
As a result of this double trouble, men report confronting:
- A sense of failure as a man, sense of being inadequate, stigmatised and inferior.
- Pressure to prove their manhood.
- Self blame, humiliation, guilt, shame (spoilt shameful gender identity).
- Confusion over their gender and sexual identity.
Working out a relationship to dominant masculinity
Men who have been sexually abused are only too aware of gender expectations and will over time have established their own understanding and response. Understandably, this can be varied and vary over time — some reject the whole or aspects of the dominant code, whilst others seek to embrace and embody it.
Some men who have been sexually assaulted question their place in the gender/sex divide, preferring to emphasise ‘being human’ or a ‘person’ rather than foregrounding gender/sex.
- “[H]aving non-specific gender is positive,” David commented. “I think it is quite progressive to think of yourself as not male or female…”
- John stated, “I was a non-entity. I had no gender. I never thought of myself as a male. I never thought of myself as a sissy boy. I never thought of myself as gay. Even to this day, I don’t see myself as being a male.”
- Preferring not to fit societal stereotypes, James said that, “what I think society sees as a male is different from what I am. I do what I can to not to be masculine in a red neck sort of way.”
— Gill & Tutty, (2007). Sexual Identity Issues for Male Survivor’s of Childhood Sexual Abuse.
Whilst some men might reject much of stereotypical masculinity, another group of men who have been sexually abused report working hard to prove their masculinity:
- “by having multiple female sexual partners or engaging in dangerous ‘macho’ behaviours.” (Men and Sexual Trauma: National Center for PTSD, 2015).
- For example: “The only time I feel a real man is when I am having sex with a woman” (38 year old tradesman).
Some work hard to present and embody a hyper masculine persona, investing heavily in becoming the big, strong, hard man, willing to do anything to achieve. For some men who have been sexually abused, this can result in a form of body dysmorphia.
A difficulty for men who invest heavily in masculinity is that there is evidence to suggest that the more men who have been sexually abused identify with stereotypical masculinity, the poorer their mental health and greater the level of suicidality (Easton & O’Leary, 2013). These increased negative outcomes are not surprising, given the evidence in men’s health literature of men’s significantly poorer mental and physical health than women (see Men’s health section in this module).
Understanding the points of tension
What is inescapable for men who have been sexually abused is that, in our culture, their lives are shaped by gender. They will be confronted by and be required to find a way to navigate and negotiate established gender expectations. For some men, it is their inability to harmonise their experience of child sexual abuse with the broad Western cultural discourses on the nature of gender that brings them to counselling (Wilken, 2008:87). Wilken, reflecting on his Canadian experience running groups with sexually abused men, highlights the importance of understanding gender, stating that “how men view masculinity will either hinder or enhance their journey” (Wilken, 2008, p. 87). David Lisak has emphasised the importance of not just understanding the influence of gender, but actively supporting men to examine the influence of traditional gender roles:
“The experience of vulnerability and helplessness that makes up part of the core of the abuse experience violates the fundamental tenets of masculinity as it has been culturally elaborated. Therefore, psychotherapy with male survivors should include an active critique of traditional gender socialization.”
— Lisak, 1996.
Given the significant impact gender norms can have, it is paramount that practitioners possess not just a working knowledge of the points of tension gender can produce in the lives of men sexually abused in childhood, but have developed a constructive language to discuss this with men. This involves doing so in a way that acknowledges how gender shapes individual lives and responses without over emphasising the influence of gender. For an excellent description of the pressures of dominant masculinity and how men who have been sexually abused have responded and navigated through gender expectations see:
Kia-Keating, Grossman, Sorsoli & Epstein (2005), Containing and Resisting Masculinity: Narratives of renegotiation among resilient male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Download article [ 108 kb]
Self reflection activity
We invite you to take a few minutes to watch the “The Mask You Live In” trailer linked on the next page.
On watching this video:
Complete the activity on this page.
Ways of being human
For those working with men to address gender constraint, a useful conversation starter can be to acknowledge that, in our culture, some behaviours and ways of being human in the world have become gendered as something as exclusive or representative of one gender or the other. Whereas we know that both men and women have the capacity to express themselves in a variety of ways, and that there is significant diversity amongst men and women. Many years ago, Sandra Bem (1985 & 1992) proposed that gender schemas, that is, the ideas we hold about gender and the links we make between gender and other concepts, should be as minimal as possible. She suggested that it is healthier to de-couple thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and ways of being that have become linked to gender. To support men to de-couple as many of these as possible from established gender schema, makes it easier for men to access, talk about, and make change — for example, encouraging men to understand that feeling sad and mourning the loss of an innocence in childhood is something all people feel, male and female.
This human approach can be easier for men to understand and access than directly challenging gender stereotypes. Going against norms and stereotypes can sometimes imply to males that the only way to recover from sexual abuse/assault, which has made them feel as less than men, is to adopt further behaviour and attitudes they don’t associate with males.
A focus on reclaiming and expanding knowledge, skills, and ways of expressing ourselves as humans, as men and women, is different from the ‘real men’ approach, which seeks to make and associate particular ways of being with being a ‘real man.’ The gendering ways of being human, in this way, can connect and resonate with some individuals, but at the same time can leave other individuals feeling disconnected and excluded. The focus of the human approach is then on reclaiming and expanding men’s repertoire of ways of being, and expressing themselves as humans in all our diversity, rather than locking them into accepting ‘feminine’ qualities, or rejecting qualities that have become identified as representing traditional masculinity. This is to recognise that in growing up and living life, people (within and across genders) connect with, learn, and express different qualities, attributes, skills and knowledge, have different preferences (left handed/right handed/ambidextrous), are more familiar and feel more comfortable with some ways of being over others – that people operate on a continuum.
In seeking to further refine and improve trauma-informed interventions with men, there are opportunities to draw upon WHO research which has identified ‘gender transformative’ approaches as more effective than ‘gender neutral’ or ‘gender sensitive’ approaches in supporting change in men’s health and wellbeing, sexual and reproductive health, ending violence against women and other men, and promoting health seeking behaviours (WHO, 2007). Gender transformative approaches directly address power relations, review how cultural practices influence gender scripts and shape men’s and women’s lives, and how these can be enabling and constraining in different contexts at different times. What these approaches offer is an understanding of how gender is produced and reproduced, whilst encouraging involvement in transformative change of gender and power relations at individual and societal levels.
Working with men who have been sexually abused does not require someone to reject or buy into gender or producing transformative change at a societal level. It is about recognising that, in our culture, it is a primary operating system by which we make sense of ourselves and our experiences. Working with men requires us to understand how gender operates and how this will shape their lives, relationships and responses in productive and unproductive ways.
Building on the strengths
Before considering any additional challenges that masculine norms can create, it is useful to acknowledge, and seek to build upon, valuable knowledge, skills, and strengths. The experience of growing up as a boy and becoming a man in our culture introduces us to valuable skills and knowledge for participating in and contributing to work, family, and community life. Some of the ‘masculine’ attributes that can produce difficulties for men who have experienced sexual abuse can also be valuable resources and strengths to draw upon. The challenge is to expand men’s repertoire of options, make use of the knowledge and skills men have picked up, without these becoming the only way to operate.
In a crisis or emergency, and in some kinds of work, the ability to ‘stay calm,’ ‘keep a level head’ or ‘hold it together’ is highly valued and sought after. These skills are not only useful in some occupations, such as working in medical and emergency services or high pressure workplace and business operations, but are valuable life skills that help us to parent and assist members of our community every day. In addition men report appreciating:
- An ability to manage and contain feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, or distress as an essential life skills, particularly in situations where expressing these feelings might lead to further difficulties, judgement, or ridicule (men can sometimes be quite critical and harsh on each other).
- An ability to deal with anxiety and panic attacks without medication, by focusing on ‘taking control and calming themselves’, ‘drawing on problem solving skills’ and ‘thinking rationally’ increase a man’s confidence, and help him to manage distress in social situations.
It appears that by drawing upon and referencing what are considered valuable attributes for men to possess, men become better able to confront and address challenges. For example, some men who have been sexually abused in childhood have identified that, even though they have struggled with being identified as a victim, they have come forward and provided evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse out of a wish to ‘protect’ others, to ensure children from going through what they have experienced.
Isolation – Self reliance – Connectedness
For men who have been sexually abused, “qualities of reserve and independence idealized by masculine norms, suggest that they experience aloneness as a natural aspect of the male experiences and, furthermore that this experience is necessary for demonstrating the masculine ideal of self reliance.”
— Kia Keating, et al, 2005:177.
In some instances, qualities and attributes that can be valuable and useful, such as a commitment to individual responsibility and self reliance, can also become an Achilles’ Heel. The potential difficulty with men’s emphasis on self reliance is that, when overdone, it can lead to men isolating themselves. It can lead to men closing down and keeping quiet, becoming reluctant to talk about what is going on for them, and believing that they have to deal with and solve problems alone.
Unfortunately, some men believe it is a sign of weakness to acknowledge and ask for help with personal problems, difficult thoughts, or feelings, whereas evidence suggests one of the most helpful things a man can do to help is to build relationships with supportive people and seek assistance. It is useful to consider how, in other areas of their life, men will routinely seek support. For example, if you have a problem with your car you can’t fix, you ask around and take it to a mechanic or friend who knows about cars.
In seeking to address this tendency to isolate, it is useful to note that evidence suggests that men are more likely to seek assistance where there is an opportunity for them to reciprocate, where they can also ‘give something back’. Also, to frame mutual support in men’s language of ‘being a good mate’, ‘being honest and calling it how it is’, ‘not bullshitting your mate’.
“Many of the tasks associated with seeking help from a health professional, such as relying on others, admitting a need for help, or recognizing and labeling an emotional problem, conflict with the messages men receive about the importance of self-reliance, physical toughness, and emotional control”
— Addis, 2003, p.7.
Sensitivity to gendered expectations, and how men’s responses and expressions have been shaped, does not mean not talking about tough or uncomfortable territory. It is about approaching difficult or unfamiliar terrain using accessible language. For example, knowing that many men are more comfortable with a cognitive oriented discussion than one focused on emotional expression, a useful starting place might be a cognitive discussion of men’s understanding of emotions and ways of handling them (Wisch, et al, 1995 in Addis & Mahalik, 2003, p.9).
Control – Choice
Another area to be sensitive to, as a man, is that pressure to be in control does not reduce choice and options. Everybody wants to have some sense of control over their own life. Control in this sense is not a bad thing. This is extremely relevant for men who have been subjected to sexual abuse, because sexual abuse is about having control and choice taken away. This could include taking away of a sense of control over your body and how it reacted to the abuse, or how you react to memories and emotions associated with the abuse now.
Unfortunately, men can have expectations, and feel pressure, to always be ‘in control’. This is where problems can arise. Due to fear of being out of control, men can sometimes go to extreme lengths to control every aspect of their emotions, lives, and environment. Trying to control all emotions can be counter-productive, in that it can set up a battle with emotions where we are more likely to feel overwhelmed and out of control.
Some men won’t come forward and seek support out of concern that, if they start talking, they will ‘lose control’ and just fall apart. Men talk about not wanting open the ‘can of worms’, out of concern they won’t be able to put the lid back on (whereas a more useful analogy is to understand efforts to keep the lid on as creating a pressure cooker effect, and that with support it is possible to slowly release the pressure and take the lid off).
It is understandable that if someone’s sense of trust has been broken, and they have been hurt, they can sometimes get into excessive control as a way to try and make sure they don’t experience hurt again. This is when problems can arise in relationships, because the need ‘as a man’ to be ‘in control’ can lead some men to put undue pressure on themselves and on the lives of loved ones. Given that healthy relationships are built on a foundation of respect and choice, it is important that men who have been sexually abused receive support in developing a sense of self confidence and healthy self control.
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