Mum’s the Word: How Masculinity Silences the Male Victim

Newsweek’s Jesse Ellison gives us a glimpse into the effects of the militarist hyper-masculine institution in her April 3 article, “The Military’s Secret Shame”. In the piece, we’re introduced to four former servicemembers, who, after debilitating bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder and floundered suicide attempts, oblige to expose their silenced victimization.

Defined by an unmistakable machismo, the United States military has an oft-marred reputation when it comes to handling sexual assault: “It wasn’t until 1992 that the Defense Department even acknowledged such incidents [soldier-on-solider sexual assault] as an offense…” (Ellison, “The Military’s Secret Shame, Newsweek)

This hypermasculine military regime necessitates the appearance of the forcefully macho soldier. Women are the ostensible victims of the military’s unchecked adherence to rigid gender ideologies. Yet, in an environment that privileges silence, another group’s speaking up.

Former soldiers Jamey Michael Harding, Michael Matthews, Greg Jeloudov and Blake Stephens detail their agonizing accounts of rape and humiliation by military superiors and peers in Ellison’s April 3 article. While silence over sexual assault permeates the military on all latitudes, threats to a necessitated masculinity and, until December 2010, the risk of being discharged have made male servicemembers arguably more reluctant to come forward.

“The way I make sense of that is that women, for better or worse, live their lives with this idea that they might experience sexual assault at some point. There are public models of how to recover from rape. Men don’t have any expectation that this might happen to them. It’s very difficult to figure out how those experiences fit into your sense of self as a man,” Boston veteran affairs psychologist Amy Street said to Ellison.

Certain notions surrounding homosexuality accompany the constant reiteration of machismo within the military; and, consequently, men who evince weakness (e.g., from reporting sexual assault) may be equally labeled as gay. Conceptions of gay men as sexually perverse and promiscuous lead to the pretense of man-to-man sexual acts as often provoked and, while not necessarily consensual, never transgressive.

“Less than two weeks after arriving on base, he [Jeloudov] was gang-raped in the barracks by men who said they were showing him who was in charge of the United States. When he reported the attack to unit commanders, he says they told him, ‘It must have been your fault. You must have provoked them.’”

Major James C. Dayhoff’s 2010 essay “Homosexuality, Manliness and The United States Army” (PDF) highlights a perceived link between masculinity and combat efficacy and cohesion – helping soldiers cope and build a sense of camaraderie: “We are asking men in combat to do an essentially irrational thing — put themselves in a position where they are likely to get killed… One of the few ways to persuade men to do that is to appeal to their masculinity…” (Dayhoff, 2010, p. 10) This masculinity, purportedly essential to military success, motivates silence, especially among men who must evince a certain machismo.

The intricacies and pathologies of sexual assault are influenced little by gender ideologies and/or sexuality, yet sexual assault is discussed in the military under the binaries of gay and straight, strong and weak, masculine and feminine. Inasmuch, the constructed hypermasculine male servicemember possesses an essentialized machismo that necessarily preempts his susceptibility to sexual assault, linking man-on-man rape in the military to homosexuality.

Belkin notes that it’s not just the military that avoids the issue: even gay-rights organizations are wary of it. “We don’t like to talk about it because it makes rape look like a gay issue,” Belkin says. “The military doesn’t want to talk about it because, as embarrassing as male-female rape is [from their perspective], this is even worse. The very fact that there’s male-on-male rape in the military means that there are warriors who aren’t strong enough to fight back.”