When all LGBTQ+ people including men are at elevated risks of sexual violence, how can we speak about this without erasing men’s violence against women? Sam Hope shares some intersectional insight on the issue
Facebook and Twitter are alive with a #MeToo hashtag, an attempt for people to show just how prevalent gendered sexual violence and harassment is, in the wake of stories about Harvey Weinstein and Ben Affleck.
“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
My trans and trans-friendly connections started to throw up alternatives to this original copy&paste meme: “women and non binary people” was one alternative, “women and femmes” another, as people struggled to include the complexity of how gendered violence impacts our diverse world. What was less surprising, perhaps, was how many of my trans friends could say #MeToo: Statistically, trans people, whether men, women or non-binary, are at greater risk of sexual violence as children than cis women, and this extra vulnerability continues into adult lives. Lesbians and gay men also experience more sexual violence than their straight counterparts, and bi people even more than lesbian and gay men.
There’s a reason this is not often talked about. For years, we have been told, without foundation, that somehow abuse turned us queer. The truth is a mirror image of this – queer/trans kids tend to be more easily isolated and have more strained relationships with caregivers. This creates conditions where they are more easily preyed upon. Social exclusion continues to mark out LGBTQ+ people as targets into adult life, and fear of being outed can also give abusers a hold, particularly for people from certain families or communities that hold hostile attitudes to LGBTQ+ people. In a world that was not sexist, cissexist and heteronormative, they would be as accepted and socially included as everyone else, and they would not carry this additional vulnerability.
We see similar themes of elevated levels of abuse within other vulnerable groups – autistic people, disabled people, people who grew up in care, to name but a few.
Statistically, trans people, whether men, women or non-binary, are at greater risk of sexual violence
The reason so many non-binary and male queer and trans people needed to speak up alongside women when this hashtag hit is that their stories are so often silenced by the narrow focus on the important, but single-issue narrative of male violence against women. And not feeling able to report is sadly one factor in increasing vulnerability.
Unfortunately, this coincided with a bunch of anti-feminist cishet men who had not actually been abused kicking off about how sexist this whole focus on women’s experience was and #whataaboutthemen? In that infuriating way that certain men only ever talk about men’s experiences of sexual violence to shut up women talking about their experiences, but never in order to do the work of bringing help to male victims.
This led to the response from women that anyone speaking about sexual violence toward anyone that wasn’t a woman and from anyone that wasn’t a man was derailing because the point is women’s experiences of sexual violence are disproportionate. Compared to cishet men, this is absolutely true, and by the sheer weight of numbers of being just over half the planet’s population, it’s also true.
Transphobic feminists sometimes say that trans people are such a vanishingly small group of people their narratives are statistically insignificant. Crisis centres and refuges geared to supporting women victims of male violence often use similar excuses not to reach out to the LGBTA + community. The violence enacted on the heterosexual majority of women by the heterosexual majority of men eclipses the fact that within our small community the per capita experiences of sexual violence are truly terrifying.
certain men only ever talk about men’s experiences of sexual violence to shut up women talking about their experiences
The structures of oppression that underpin misogyny also inform the violence enacted on anyone who steps outside binary gender norms. Although the causes of abuse are by no means simplistic but are a multi determined web of learned behaviour, social enabling, distorted ideas and thinking, and often individual pathology, there can be no question that one of the factors that enables abuse to happen is power. Whether in the small world of an individual household, as in the case of killer Beccy Reid or across an entire industry, as with Weinstein, holding power paves the way to abuse happening.
There are so many ways to become vulnerable in society, and to find that another person has power over you. Abusers, whether consciously or unconsciously, pick their targets carefully, and will often be merciless towards those who have been previously victimised. Former victims when re-victimised are more likely to freeze up due to past trauma, more likely to be attacked, blamed or disbelieved if they dare to report a separate case of abuse, and are more likely to blame or doubt themselves. This is one of the reasons the #MeToo phenomenon is potentially toxic – it allows abusers to identify vulnerability.
Many people, particularly trans men, but also lesbians, came forward about female perpetrators during the #MeToo trend. Because there are other power dynamics than male/female; women can be abusers too. As this excellent article from Scientific American discusses, we can and should speak about female perpetration from a feminist perspective. Women are people, susceptible to all the same influences as anyone else. The myth that their state as perpetual prey to men’s predation is absolute and unchangeable is anything but a feminist idea.
The structures of oppression that underpin misogyny also inform the violence enacted on anyone who steps outside binary gender norms
Power is complex, and can shift and twist and throw up genuine surprises, although of course the Weinstein saga is anything but surprising; it is an ugly cliché. There is nothing innate about abuse, although it is certainly culturally ingrained that men abuse women, that it is in their nature. Equally the myth is that women are innately vulnerable to men, must segregate themselves “for their own good” and be denied access to men’s spaces and sources of power. In many ways, an oversimplified feminist appreciation of men’s violence can play into patriarchy’s goal to keep men and women segregated, and women afraid. But that does not mean women don’t have a reason to fear.
But other power inequalities are at work in the world, and it is also true that a person may be harassed or assaulted because of race; black bodies are often objectified and sexualised, including by white women. People can be vulnerable and lack power in myriad ways, some individual, but many structural. Never forgetting we were all once children, all once vulnerable, and if we were abused, we will carry some of that that vulnerability with us into life. There is a structural inequality attached to being a survivor.
It is the nature of a viral discussion to take people to many different places – some useful, some less so. This particular meme has meant victims being triggered and unearthing past history. It has meant them making themselves vulnerable and doing emotional work that may or may not have had positive outcomes. It has meant yet more opportunities for anti-feminist men on the internet to mansplain and put down people speaking up about structural inequality.
People can be vulnerable and lack power in myriad ways, some individual, but many structural
But for LGBT+ people abused by women or those who are men, the discomfort of seeing this meme and asking “am I permitted to say my truth, and if not now, then when?” has perhaps been one of the less understood struggles in a sexist, binary world that holds to a single narrative about men and women. Perhaps it is okay and even important that these voices are heard too, as long as they complement and develop the feminist narrative rather than undermining it.
Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)