Making Masculinity Visible to Sexual Violence…

Cowburn, M. (2010). Invisible men: Social reactions to male sexual coercion – bringing men and masculinities into community safety and public policy Critical Social Policy, 30 (2), 225-244 DOI: 10.1177/0261018309358308

Most of us are prepared to accept that men perpetrate most sexual violence (the lunatics in the men’s rights movement, notwithstanding). However, as Cowburn (2010) illustrates, the majority of prison treatment programs for sex offenders neither take account of the issues of gender and masculinity nor their potential positive role in the rehabilitation process (p.229). By omitting these essential considerations, these programs stymie any possible, worthwhile ‘behavioural and attitudinal change’ (2010, p.230). Cowburn (2010) argues, and I would concur, that we need to understand how and why men behave ‘as men’ (p.230) when it comes to sexual violence. ‘We’ here, I would think, should as much refer to sexual offenders as it does to everyone else in the community.

Male violence, including male sexual violence, retains a disturbingly high level of acceptability within the community. That most sexual offences are perpetrated by ‘men who kn[e]w their victims’ (2010, p.230) means that we are seldom talking about ‘stranger danger’ out there but rather, our boyfriends, partners, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, teachers, priests, coaches, and so forth (2010, pp.233-234). Men we know, men we respect, men who we might love and care for. To at once revere and be repulsed by someone who you might have been close to, perhaps for your entire life, cannot fail to generate extraordinary emotional tensions. Moreover, it begs the question, how could any man sexually abuse anyone to whom he would claim to be close?

Cowburn (2010) refers to several mechanisms by which we, as a community, obviate addressing the reality of male sexual violence. One of those mechanisms is ‘denial’ (2010, pp.233-234). Because the reality is so shocking, and the extent of the problem so great, we alternatively focus on a discrete, stereotypical subset: the ‘evil, sick’ (2010, p.234) sexual predator who in no way corrupts the sanctity of family, church, school, etc. Indeed, that stereotypical male perpetrator bolsters our misplaced faith in the safety that we might expect from the aforementioned institutions. Sexual violence, thus, remains a hugely hidden problem, with reporting rates exponentially lower than what is really happening behind closed doors (2010, pp.230-231).

We will not affect a much-needed decline in sexual violence so long as we refuse to acknowledge the actual characteristics of the problem (2010, p.237). That must include, according to Cowburn (2010), critical reflection upon the strong links between dominant forms of masculinity and male violence against women (p.240). Too many men continue to hold if not also practice the most despicable, misogynistic behaviours and attitudes, for example, that ‘sexual aggression is normal’, that ‘sexual relationships involve game playing’, that ‘men should dominate women’ and that ‘women are responsible for rape’ (2010, p.231). These behaviours and attitudes are so ingrained in our collective mindset that we can sometimes forget that they are not biologically given…

  1. May 9, 2010 at 1:21 pm | #1

    Is it fair to completely dismiss that some acts of sexual violence are “biologically given”?

    Perhaps I’m not reading your blog post right, I don’t understand where the denial is coming from. Why is there a need to obviate that violence is generated by men? Why is it so shocking? Why is it so shocking for a priest to molest a boy? Why is it shocking for a neighbor to rape the girl next door? Why is it shocking at all? Is it because it’s better to live in a world of trust? Is that even realistic?

    I cannot access the Cowburn article and cannot make any pointed references. In this article (China/India: Demand For Male Children Creates Gender Imbalance 2006), higher percentage of male population has a higher potential for violence.

    Who is in denial???

    • May 9, 2010 at 5:36 pm | #2

      Cowburn (2010) refers to Stanley Cohen (2000) to make his point re the ‘denial of atrocities and suffering’ (p.233) that are just simply too monstrous to countenance. So we, as a community, do not ‘fully absorb’ or ‘openly acknowledge’ the ‘extent of the population of men who potentially pose a sexual threat’ (2010, p.234), and that constitutes our collective denial. As for your question re biology and violence, are perpetrators thus born or made, the evidence is much stronger for the latter proposition. There is nothing about being a man, per se, that predisposes us to any form of violence, sexual or otherwise.

  2. May 11, 2010 at 12:44 pm | #3

    Thank you for the response! I agree that being a “man” does not automatically equate to any form of violence. However, I’m curious to know to which culture does the “collective denial” pertain to.

    • May 11, 2010 at 9:16 pm | #4

      Cowburn (2010) mostly refers to the UK, but also to other places, for example, the US and even Australia, when it comes to community attitudes about male sexual violence.

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