An assault on ‘real’ men and women

A London poster campaign about male rape is part of a trend to encourage us all to be victims in need of support.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos

Topics Politics

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If you have travelled on the London Underground recently, you have may have seen what could be the most misjudged advertising campaign of the past 20 years. A rugby ball sits on a desolate pitch with a nail through it. Above the tip of the ball are the words ‘REAL MEN GET RAPED’; at the bottom, the poster reads ‘talking about it takes real strength’.

The campaign was launched by a charity called Survivors UK, which offers counselling services to male victims of rape and sexual assault. A representative explained that the campaign was timed to coincide with the Six Nations rugby tournament to target ‘alpha male’ misconceptions about victims of male rape.

What were they thinking? The campaign slogan sounds like something shouted during an initiation into an American frat house before the commencement of an unsavoury ‘ritual’. I imagine that Survivors UK thought that by begging more men to see themselves as rape victims that they could bolster the low number of recorded instances of male rape.

The group appears to have taken leave of its advertising acumen in a desperate attempt to justify the continued existence of its army of counsellors, which seem a little surplus to requirement given that reported incidents of male rape numbered around 1,000 per year in the UK between 2003 and 2010. This is hardly an epidemic, especially as these numbers will include allegations that are later dropped or shown to be false.

Of course, the facts don’t really bother these promoters of the male-rape victim. Their focus is their own imagined epidemic of male rape, which they believe is only unreported because men are so slavishly devoted to being ‘real men’. Professor Kim Ethrington of Bristol University praised the campaign’s targeting of traditional masculinity: ‘Males are taught from a very early age that they should be “strong” and “in charge”. To be successfully masculine is to be sexually potent, competitive with other males in sexual matters and dominant with sexual interactions.’

This echoes an idea from the Stern Report into rape reporting in 2011, which found that men are less likely to report rape because there is a common idea that ‘men should be able to fend off an attacker’. Apparently, men are so obsessed with being macho that even getting raped is not enough for us to open up about our feelings.

Bizarrely, most of the criticism of the campaign ignored this assault on male dignity and simply focused on its use of the term ‘real men’. ‘Why do we have to call it “real men”? Isn’t that just feeding into the same stereotype that there IS such a thing as “real men”?’, said feminist blogger Jessica Wakeman. This idea was echoed all over the blogosphere. The problem with the campaign was not, it seems, that men were being encouraged to view themselves as victims, but that the use of the term ‘real men’ would subconsciously make men even more like emotionally incapable apes.

In the real world, we are more likely to deride traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity than to allow them to govern our lives. That’s why our modern ideas of what makes a ‘real man’ or ‘real woman’ are completely incoherent. If you think that modern men are under any social pressure whatsoever to be strong individuals then think back to last year, when the large furniture chain store Ikea opened up ‘Manlands’ in some of its Australian stores. These were effectively nurseries for grown men, complete with televisions showing sports and free hot dogs, where men could escape while their partners went and did the shopping. Or think of ‘manly’ lad mags like GQ, Loaded and Maxim. These are more likely to contain articles about hair products and skinny jeans than they are about what society expects of ‘real men’.

It is very difficult to see where Survivors UK thinks the overwhelming social pressure on men to clam up, even about serious assault, is actually coming from. The idea that men would be prevented from reporting rape because of social pressures to be masculine ignores the fact that society has lost any sense of what being a ‘real man’ means.

At a time when traditional ideas of what men and women should be like are so ineffectual, arguments against ‘gender identity’ are better understood as arguments against the more colloquial, informal understanding of ‘real man’. I am thinking of phrases like ‘take it like a man’ or ‘manning up’. These phrases, applied today to both men and women, are used to describe being robust, taking responsibility for your actions and being in charge of one’s own destiny. This sentiment towards self-reliance and personal strength is the real target for groups like Survivors UK, who seek to homogenise ‘real men’ and ‘real women’ in the hope that that they will think of themselves as inherently vulnerable, powerless victims.

Rather than buying into Survivors UK’s obscene message that more men should see themselves as victims of sexual violence, we should all – men and women – be fighting to keep the law away from our sex lives as much as possible. Rape is an awful crime. But over the years, driven by feminists and rape campaigners who want to talk up the problem, it has become confused with the kind of drunken fumbling and regrettable sexual encounters that we all go through. Moreover, when we have bad experiences, it is assumed that we need expert help to deal with that problem, rather than being able to rely on our own personal strength and the help of family and friends.

Of course, victims of rape – and given the utter blurring of what that means, I am forced to use the phrase ‘real rape’ – should be given the space to discuss their experiences if they want to. But to anyone who thinks they may have been raped because they did not explicitly state consent at every moment of a sexual encounter, or who feel as though they were taken advantage of when a bit tiddly, I have some advice that you won’t get from Survivors UK: take greater responsibility for your sexual adventures and misadventures. In other words, man up.

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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Topics Politics


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