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Predator or Prey: The Analysis of Gender and Race on the Perception of Black Men as Sexual Assault Victims

Author
Jordyn Livingston

 

Mentor
Dr. Florencia Cornet

 

Abstract

Men sexual assault victims have gained more attention in recent years. Despite the growing sociological literature on violence against men, previous research provides little acknowledgment of Black men sexual assault victims. In this manuscript, I analyze emerging literature in the socio-medical sciences to explore how gender and race affects the perceptions of Black men as sexual assault victims. Specifically, I utilize intersectionality as a theoretical framework to synthesize literature on blackness and masculinity in sexual assault victims to conclude that there is an intersectional point that disadvantages Black males, portraying them as sexual predators. In so doing, I provide research implications that aim to further amplify Black men sexual assault victims. 

 

INTRODUCTION

Sexual violence against Black men and boys has remained a routine, and historically denied, aspect of anti-Black racism… Despite the violence that defines their lives under racism, their stories and these public displays of racism’s sexual components remain an unapproachable area of study under our current disciplinary arrangement of knowledge - specifically, the gender category itself. (Curry, 2018, p. 143)

Black Male Studies professor, Dr. Tommy Curry, in his book The man-not: race, class, genre, and the dilemmas of black manhood (2018), utilizes research from a variety of social science disciplines to challenge how society traditionally conceptualizes the sexualization, lives, and deaths of Black men. Particularly, Curry initiates discourse regarding Black men as victims of sexual oppression in which he highlights sexual violence against Black men as tools utilized by white supremacists (see page 143 for examples). He concludes that to accurately understand the experiences of Black men, scholars cannot effectively analyze their population utilizing traditional gender ideology. He explains that traditionally ideologies about gender roles are developed from anti-Black racist traditions that Black men cannot prescribe to, instead he recommends Black men should be studied through its own discipline that he titles, genre.

It should be noted that although Curry’s true intention is to highlight sexual violence as a form of white supremacy, he indirectly accentuates to the reality that black men and boys are not only victims of sexual violence brought upon by white supremacy but are being harmed by other populations. He further emphasizes that society, academic literature, and feminist movements have denied Black men access to research and resources to explore their victimhood. In this review, which serves as an exploration into Curry’s emerging literature, I will explore the intersectional nuances of Black male cisgender sexual assault victims in the United States.1 Specifically, I aim to examine existing literature to draw conclusions on how race and gender intersect, resulting in negative perceptions and health of Black male sexual assault victims.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is a pressing issue in the United States. As defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any nonconsensual sexual act,” meaning that the victim did not or could not give consent to the sexual act (including nonconsensual touching, sexual violence, sexual abuse, and rape) that was ensued by the predator (Sexual Assault, 2019). In the United States, a sexual assault occurs every 92 seconds (RAINN, 2018). Previous research reports that about 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetime, however this number is underestimated due to underreporting. Additionally, this research states that, about 63% of all sexual assaults in the United States are not reported to the police and men are less likely to report their sexual assault compared to women (RAINN, 2018). In addition to societal stigma, which greatly affects one’s willingness to report, various demographic and social factors, including gender and race, can also affect a victim’s willingness to report (Davies, 2002). Therefore, examining the gender and racial nuances of sexual assault victimization can provide valuable insight on the experiences of Black make sexual assault victims.

1 As I recognize the vast differences between the sexual assault experiences of cisgender sex assault victims versus transgender sexual assault victims, for the purpose of this study the term and male are referring to cisgender men.

 

METHODS

I conduct a literature review of sociology, health, and gender studies scholarship to gain an understanding of the existing research on black men sexual assault victims. Through utilizing scholarly research databases including JSTOR, ProQuest, PubMed, and SAGE Journals, I reviewed peer-reviewed articles and books on sexual violence in the United States, masculinity, African American studies, and Black men sexual assault victims. Literature that was included in the study discussed sexual assault in the United States, men as sexual assault victims, African Americans as sexual assault victims, and/or the sexualization of African Americans. The literature primarily highlights 1) the current trends of sexual assault in the United States, 2) the socialization and connections between masculinity and sexual violence, and 3) the historical implications of anti-Black racism on the autonomy and stereotypes associated with the Black body. Further, the literature provides data on the comparative reporting between men and women, comparative reporting between victims of color and whites, and how the presented perceptions of race and gender influence their reporting. In addition, the literature details the development of masculinity in the United States as well as the role of anti-Black racism in developing the stereotypes associated with Black men. Following the literature review, I perform a critical analysis to understand the combined effects of race and gender perceptions on Black male sexual assault victims.

To guide my analysis of Black men as sexual assault victims, I will utilize intersectionality theoretical framework. The theory of intersectionality, first coined by Black Feminist scholar Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, was initially used to describe how racial and gender oppression compounds to disadvantage Black women in a way that historically feminist and anti-Black racist discourse failed to explain (Crenshaw, 1991). Intersectionality allows for an unorthodox method to explore how race and gender interact to explain the differences in the experiences, social practices, and outcomes of marginalized groups in relation to social power structures (Davis, 2008). Therefore, this framework can be applied to this research in a similar approach as it was initially used to study Black women. Feminist studies, sexual assault awareness movements, violence against women movements, and other feminist social movements are increasingly diverging attention from male sexual assault victims (Davies, 2002). Further, anti-Black racism scholarship frequently overlooks sexual violence enforced on Black men and boys (Curry, 2018). Thus, this creates a unique intersection point for Black male sexual assault victims. Due to the impact of this unique intersection point, the conditions that Black men face cannot be accurately represented or discussed by individually analyzing race or individually analyzing gender. Scholars must analyze how these multiple identities affect the people who ascribe to them both.

 

LITERATURE REVIEW

Male Sexual Assault and Stereotypes about Masculinity
In the article, “Male Sexual Victimization Examining Men’s Experiences of Rape and Sexual Assault” (2010), Karen G. Weiss describes how masculinity contradicts the narratives of a sexual assault victim. Weiss mentions how “male sexuality requires men to be sexually potent, dominant, and in control” (p. 277). She further describes how men are expected to pursue sex, should not take “no” for an answer, and men who do not want sex are violating the codes of masculinity. Joan Cook, Christopher Anderson, Vanessa Simiola, and Amy Ellis in their article, “Top Ten Questions Male Sexual Abuse Survivors Want to Know from Health Care Research” (2018), would further agree with Weiss in that the expectations of masculinity contradicts the traditional narrative of a sexual assault victim, as they write men’s socialization influences men to act and be perceived as “powerful, invulnerable, should never cry or experience sadness, and that a boy/man should always welcome sexual activity” (p. 868).

Weiss (2010) continues to highlight the strong connection between sexual assault and masculinity as she explains that masculinity is used to conceptualize sexual assault and rape. Many theoretical concepts such as hyper masculinity, aggression in men, and gender roles are used to describe sexual assault. She discusses that in order to not make the connection one must be able to recognize their implicit biases. This connection between men as victimizers of women sexual assault victims can be seen as these scholars report that there are large gaps in literature regarding men as sexual assault victims. In both studies, “Male Sexual Victimization Examining Men’s Experiences of Rape and Sexual Assault” and “Top Ten Questions Male Sexual Abuse Survivors Want to Know from Health Care Research”, the authors mention how the majority of studies and intervention focus on women victims. Additionally, Weiss discusses that historically rape laws discuss these crimes as acts against women, denying men who have been raped access to victimhood.

Michelle Davies, in her article “Male Sexual Assault Victims: A Selective Review of the Literature and Implications for Support Services” (2002), would further agree with these two studies as she describes that men are disregarded from the literature and estimate that men studies, help, and support in sexual assault are about 20 years behind the research, help, and support offered for women. Davies (2002) illustrates the role feminists play in isolating male victims, as these movements display sexual assault and other actions as only women’s issues, while also discussing the use of rape myths in men to diminish their sexual assault experience. She describes rape myths as false thoughts and beliefs about the rape, rapist, and victims. Rape myths discourage victims from reporting. One of the most common rape myths used against men is the notion that hegemonic masculinity contradicts the sexual assault victimhood experience, therefore some people believe that “men cannot be raped” or they believe that “sexual assault is not as severe for a man as it is for a woman” (p. 204). Davies expands on this topic by discussing how men often internalize these rape myths, which alters their own perception as men and sexual assault victims.

From what studies are available about male sexual assault victims' experiences it can be concluded that men and women’s sexual assault experiences differ. Cook, Anderson, Simiola, and Ellis (2018) discuss how men disclose differently compared to women. Some examples include that men are more likely to disclose more severe sexual abuses, men acknowledge and label abuse differently compared to women, and that heterosexual men often will not report because they do not want to be viewed as gay, bisexual, or queer. Weiss’ (2010) study which interviewed victims and analyzed their responses found that men were sexually victimized by other men at a rate of 54% and by women at 46%. They found that most of these assaults were done by their coworkers while the men were over the age of 25. They found that only 15% of these men reported their incident, most likely due to men not recognizing that this was a reportable crime and that accepting the assault means that men would have to deal with the shame that they did not fulfill their masculine duties.

Lara Stemple and Ilane H. Meyer, in their study “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions” (2014), found that many federal studies report similar prevalence rates of sexual assault in men compared to women. This study reiterates similar conclusions made by Davies (2002) and Weiss (2010) that male victimization receives little attention due to beliefs that men must not deny sex and that rape myths alter the narrative that men cannot be victims. Stemple and Meyer highlights other social narratives used against men to minimize their victimization including common jokes about rapes that occur in prison, implying that gay men asked to get assaulted, and that it is a man’s responsibility to protect himself during an assault (2020). Additionally, this study highlights the exclusion but importanceof including reporting data from incarcerated people. Compiling data from the National Inmate Survey 2011-12 and the National Survey of Youth in Custody 2012, Stemple and Meyer found there are distinct variations from the portrayal of male sexual abuse in jail compared to household crime data (2020).

Stereotypes of Black Men
Researchers have disagreed overtime about what constitutes race. Although the specific answers of that argument have not been discovered what is known is that race is not biological and is used as a social construct (Andreasen, 2000). Like gender, there are certain expectations, roles, stereotypes, and limitations for the people who ascribe to that race. Historically, Black men have been labeled stereotypes of animalistic, sexual predators, inhumane, and violent (Weigman, 1993; Pass et. al, 2004; Collins, 2005). Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, in her book “Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism” (2005), details how stereotypes of Black men are rooted in slavery. African American enslaved men were forced to perform hard manual labor and were viewed to be violent, so white people categorized Black men as “big, strong, and stupid” (p. 56). Collins further describes the creation of the “buck” stereotype which implied that Black men were wild, beast-like animals, who were intellectually inferior that need to be tamed through slavery (2005).

Michael Pass, Ellen Benoit, and Eloise Dunlap, in their book chapter “’I just be myself: Contradicting Hyper Masculine and Hyper Sexual Stereotypes among Low-Income Black Men in New York City” (2014), examines Black masculinity in contemporary society by analyzing how white stereotypes of Black men label them as physically strong, misogynistic, violent, and super predators. They further detail how Black masculinity is seen as an “underdeveloped” form of traditional masculinity, resulting in images of Black men as hyper-aggressive and hyper-sexual. Quaylan Allen and Henry Metcalf, agrees with Pass, Benoit, and Dunlap as they write in their book chapter, “Up to No Good: The Intersections of Race, Gender, and Fear of Black Men in US Society” (2019), that the identity of the Black man has been developed in opposition of white men. They further state that Black men are stereotyped as physically superior, hypersexual, sexually aggressive, and because of this white woman need to be protected from them.

Valerie N. Adams-Bass, Howard C. Stevenson, Diana Slaughter Kotzin, in the study “Measuring the Meaning of Black Media Stereotypes and Their Relationship to the Racial Identity, Black History Knowledge, and Racial Socialization of African American Youth Popular” (2014), argue that popular culture and other outside sources often use the aforementioned stereotypes to depict Black men. Examples of these stereotypes include Black men predominately portrayed as thugs, athletes, and criminals in mass media. Their study further showed that this negative media exposure resulted in Black people internalizing this negative stereotype. Additionally, over exposure of Black men in the media as violent, criminals, and hypersexual creates a negative association bias resulting in the perception of Black men as criminals (Allen & Metcalf, 2019).

Racial Oppression of the Black Body

Abby L. Ferber, in her article “The Construction of Black Masculinity White Supremacy Now and Then” (2007), accounts how Black bodies have been commodified for years but also used to invoke fear. Slavery allowed for Black people to be materialized and sexually exploited in a multitude of ways as enslaved people were viewed as property, not humans (Ferber, 2007; Smithers, 2012; Finkelman, 2012; Hunt, 2020; Collins, 2004). Thomas Foster (2011), in his book chapter “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery” writes that sexual abuse of enslaved males is a known topic, however the written record is limited. He states that this record is limited for a variety of reasons, including the lack of historical records due to the inability of men to produce offspring and the increased stigma due to homophobia. In Gregory D. Smither’s book, Slave Breeding Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History (2012), Smither examines the sexual abuse enforced on enslaved people. He states that one way this sexual abuse was conducted was slave-breeding or forcing male and female enslaved people to have sex in order to reproduce more slaves. Additionally, slave owners used sexual assault as a punishment, owners would force enslaved people to have non-reproductive sex with each other, and would require enslaved people to wear little to no clothing (Foster, 2011).

Racial oppression of the Black body continued after the institution of slavery was abolished and the Black body was exploited by other American institutions (Prather et al., 2018). This could be seen with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study run by the US Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 that allowed unethical medical experimentation on Black men. (Levine et al., 2012). Cecil J. Hunt II, in his law review, “Feeding the Machine: The Commodification of Black Bodies from Slavery to Mass Incarceration” (2020), describes how Black bodies are currently being oppressed during the mass incarceration era through the private prison industry. Hunt describes that this business, which is a new form of “convict leasing,” is a “historically recurring and racialized nightmare of profiting from the commodification of black bodies” (p. 350).

African American Victims of Sexual Assault Barriers to Disclose

Shaquita Tillman, Thema Bryant-Davis, Kimberly Smith, and Alison Marks, in their article “Shattering Silence: Exploring Barriers to Disclosure for African American Sexual Assault Survivors (2010), highlight that African Americans are less likely to seek help due to previous oppressive experiences, societal trauma, and African American communities using social boundaries to keep problems within the community. The study also found that African Americans are less likely to receive support from White staff members due to fears that they will be overlooked. Mark Weist and co-authors would further agree with Tilman, Bryant-Davis, Smith, and Marks as they report in their study, “African American and White Women’s Experience of Sexual Assault and Services for Sexual Assault” (2014), that Black victims are less likely to receive support from sexual assault centers compared to their white counterparts. Further investigations funded by the Department of Justice also found that African Americans face more cultural and racial barriers reporting the assault and receiving medical services post-assault (Weist et. al, 2014). Sara Wooten (2007), argues race-neutral discussion of sexual assault ultimately harms victims of color more as the race-neutral discussions do not address the historical implications of the sexualizing of Black bodies.

 

DISCUSSION

Utilizing intersectionality framework, I analyze existing literature on masculinity, race, and sexual assault to examine the effects of race and gender on the perceptions of Black men sexual assault victims. Intersectionality allows me to draw from experiences of racial and gender oppression in men and African Americans to develop conclusions on the specific conditions of Black men sexual assault victims, who are marginalized by both their race and gender. Specifically, to analyze the effects of race and gender on the social perception of Black men I must look at the effects of race through the intersection point of Black masculinity.

Gender and Masculinity
The literature review found that although limited, there has been research conducted that examines the experiences of male sexual assault victims. Notably, the literature holds a common theme that there is a dichotomy between the narratives of hegemonic masculinity and the narratives of sexual assault victims. As men are socialized to be invulnerable, powerful, and to be actively pursuing sex we are simultaneously producing stereotypes of masculinity to present itself as emotionless, inhumane, dominant, aggressive, and hypersexual. This contradicts the narrative of a standard sexual assault victim, ultimately making it harder for society to believe that men can be victims. Further, the literature showed that men have internalized this belief (Davies, 2002).

The socialization and stereotypes associated with masculinity are increasingly harmful to male victims as masculinity has been used to conceptualize sexual assault. Similar terms used to describe sexual assault and more specifically, sexual assault offenders are the same terms used to described men and masculinity. Some examples are hypersexual, aggressive, and dominant. (Weiss, 2010). This discourse creates a direct connection between the two concepts, developing implicit biases and making it so that one must create a conscious effort to separate the two. As one may disagree on the harm this discourse causes on a micro level, this conceptualization is a macro issue as this conceptualization has been used to define crimes that only allow men to be offenders and not legally allow men to be victims. Specifically, until changing the definition in 2012 the Federal Bureau of Investigation defined forcible rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” (An Updated Definition of Rape, 2012). This definition only allows women to be perceived as victims and men as predators, although rape is not a gendered crime.

Race and Blackness 

The literature review found that there were large gaps in the literature regarding African American sexual assault. Predominately the literature analyzed either African American women or African American men who have sex with men. Further, the limited literature that existed focused on barriers that African American faced to disclose their assault. The literature agreed that due to racial issues in the United States African Americans are less likely to receive support and care following their assault (Tilman, Smith & Kimberly, 2010; Weist et al., 2014).

To provide a comprehensive understanding of sexual assault of African American men in the United States it was pertinent that the literature review analyzes the historical implications of slavery and anti-Black racism in the United States. The literature review found that slavery in the United States resulted in two contemporary issues for Black male sexual assault victims: 1) negative stereotypes associated with Black men and 2) the oppression of the Black body. Black men are stereotyped as inhumane, animalistic, violent, criminals, sexual predators, physically dominant, and hypersexual (Allen & Metcalf, 2019; Collins, 2004; Pass, Benoit, & Dunlap, 2014). Moreover, Black men are viewed to perform a subordinate form of traditional masculinity (Pass, Benoit, & Dunlap, 2014). Additionally, mass media has been a primary force in reinforcing this stereotype through the overexposure of Black men as violent, hypersexual, and criminals (Allen & Metcalf, 2019). The literature revealed the United States has a lengthy history of exploiting the Black body beginning with slavery and continuing now with mass incarceration (Hunt, 2020; Ferber, 2007; Smithers, 2012; Finkelman, 2012; Collins, 2004). This commodification has denied Black men autonomy over their body and allowed for Black men to be abused sexually, abused medically, and currently being abused within the prison system (Hunt, 2020; Levine et al., 2012; Foster, 2011).

Intersection of Gender and Race for Black Male Sexual Assault Victims
As Black men ascribe to both African American and male categories, their stereotypes and social perceptions are formed from traits associated with both Blackness and masculinity. Traditional masculinity characterizes men as strong, actively pursuing sex, and dominant. Black masculinity is viewed as an inferior form of traditional masculinity, so these problematic stereotypes are exaggerated to further label Black men as animalistic, hypersexual, and violent. These stereotypes not only contradict the traditional narrative of a sexual assault victim but perfectly aligns with the narrative of a sexual predator, thus encouraging society to perceive Black men as perpetrators instead of victims. Critical Race Theory exposes how the relation between the social perception of Black men, sexual assault, and the law as studies dating back from 1980 reveals that Black men are more likely to receive harsher and longer sentences for the raping of White women  compared to other races (Lafree, 1980). This anti-Black racist phenomenon reveals a direct correlation to the stereotypes and ideology produced and created from slavery, used during lynchings, that white women must be protected from the animalist, violent, aggressive, sexual predators that are the Black man and more so that Black men should be excessively punished for these crimes. It is transparent that the stereotypes assigned to Black men during slavery are still relevant as modern media portrays Black men as thugs, criminals, and sexually aggressive. This stereotyping and increased sentencing of Black men for these crimes, further push the sexual predator stereotype assigned to Black men.

Black men are not only denied being perceived as victims and had been denied ownership of their bodies dating back to slavery, but Black men also lack access to resources and support following their assault. An emerging line of literature reports that sexual assault increases a victim’s chances for mental, physical, and sexual health issues (Cook, Anderson, Simiola, & Ellis, 2018; Draughon, 2012). Sexual assault victims are at risk for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, depression and anxiety, and suicidal behavior. Furthermore, due to the sexual nature, victims are at an increased chance of contracting Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In order to properly help victims, society must believe that they are victims. If Black men victims are not being perceived and treated as the sexual assault victims that they are then they are being denied access to treatment for health issues they could have developed during the assault. Additionally, racial biases and misconceptions regarding sexual assault harm Black men victims even more. A study looking at psychotherapists found that 25% of psychotherapists believed that there was no difference between male and female survivors (Cook, Anderson, Simiola, & Ellis, 2018). Despite their beliefs, research studying stigma, experiences, reporting, access to resources shows that there are many differences. Research has also shown that there are racial biases that negatively affect the quality of care given to people of color by health care professionals (Betancourt,Green, Carrillo, & Ananeh-Firempong, 2003). If psychotherapists cannot recognize these differences and there are racial biases in health care, how will they effectively treat Black men victims? 

 

CONCLUSION

The purpose of this research was to understand the intersectional nuances of Black male sexual assault victims and to discover gaps in the literature on Black men sexual assault victims. It is concluded that due to negative associations of race and gender Black men are not socially perceived as victims; therefore, they are not allowed access to the same safe space to express their victimhood, they are not the focus population when doing research in sexual assault, and they do not have the same access to resources to address their trauma as other groups. As sociologists we are tasked with exploring power dynamics in society and exploring macro level influences on micro interactions sociologists could provide insight on the inequitable treatment of Black male sexual assault victims. Specifically, sociologists can look to provide data on the prevalence of sexual assault in Black men. Further they can look to answer these following questions. How do Black men that have been assaulted experience and understand their assault? How does the process of socialization into the Black masculinity alter the understanding of sexual assault? In what ways does the African American family institution foster sexual assault in boys/men? In what ways does religious institutions foster sexual assault in boys/men? How do other races/ethnicities of men experience sexual assault victimhood?

 

About the Author
Jordyn Livingston Jordyn Livingston

Jordyn Livingston is a senior Public Health major with a double minor in Anthropology and Women's & Gender Studies from Columbia, SC. As a Ronald McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement program scholar, Jordyn chose to pursue research on the effects of sexual violence on the lives of black men, specifically analyzing black men as sexual assault victims and its effects on their health following an intersting discussion in her Black Femenist Theory course. Through completing this research, Jordyn has developed scholarly writing skills, built strong connections with faculty, and received training that will help advance her future career as a researcher. Additionally, Jordyn has also presented this research at the 2019 SAEOPP 
McNair/SSS Research Conference. Following graduation, Jordyn hopes to attend a Master of Public Health program and then pursue her doctorate degree. Jordyn wants to acknowledge her research mentor, Dr. Florencia Comet, McNair Scholars program director, Dr. Sharon White, and TRiO Director, Althea Counts. She would also like to thank the TRiO Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program and her 2019 McNair cohort. 

 

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