Sex education leaves memories that last. Everybody has a story on the eclectic curriculum they were offered, the epiphanies they had. I can’t recall my eighth grade math teacher’s name, but I remember the venereal disease slideshow, a classmate who claimed that a woman’s breasts “stiffen” when she’s aroused, and the time we had a sexual assault hotline operator show up to explain what rape is. She impressed upon us the sheer atrocity of these crimes, as well as the long-term damage endured by victims.
Well into this lecture, she informed us that men can be victims, too, and started giving examples. She then arrived at an anecdote that changed her whole demeanor. It was about a man whose girlfriend handcuffed him to their bed and started inserting foreign objects into his rectum — painfully and against his protests. As the woman listed the items used, including a pencil, she was taken by a giggling fit. “I’m sorry,” she gasped, “It’s not funny, I shouldn’t laugh.” But she did, and so did the class. I cannot forget the queasy jolt this laughter gave me. It was clear that although we had to be grimly mature in discussing the terrifying abuse and violence women face, a man suffering that way could be viewed as a weird exception, if not an outright absurdity. He’s a punchline.
There are many reasons why victims of harassment or physical abuse don’t always come forward right away, depending on factors too numerous to mention. Women will of course be pilloried and threatened by corrupt institutions and misogynist trolls for daring to accuse a man, but these antagonists start from the assumption that she’s making it up or actually to blame. With a man, you can acknowledge the incident as reported — we have no problem trusting a man’s version of reality — while still brushing it off as a joke.
This is happening right now to the actor Brendan Fraser, who in February went public with an allegation that Philip Berk, a one-time president of the powerful Hollywood Foreign Press Association, groped his buttocks and poked his perineum (in Fraser’s telling, his “taint”), even wiggling a finger around in the sensitive area. This was in 2003, in a crowded area of the Beverly Hills Hotel, in public view. The violation had Fraser “overcome with panic and fear,” though Berk gladly related the episode in his memoir, leaving out the finger part and characterizing the ass-grab as a playful pinch.
The HFPA promised to investigate Fraser’s claims; three months later, they showed him their proposed follow-up statement. It read, in part: “Although it was concluded that Mr. Berk inappropriately touched Mr. Fraser, the evidence supports that it was intended to be taken as a joke and not as a sexual advance.” Again: It happened, everyone agrees it happened, but, well, it doesn’t count, because a man touching another man inappropriately can only be a gay come-on or good-humored bonding behavior.
Since the HFPA ruled out the former, it had to be the latter. This homophobic binary conveniently omits the potential for psychological intimidation or control — the pure “alpha” move, as it were. Yet we know this power imbalance is the dark center of countless #MeToo stories, even when the victims are men. The actor Anthony Rapp recalled, when just 14 years old and younger-looking than that, how a 26-year-old Kevin Spacey “picked me up like a groom picks up the bride over the threshold” and pressed him down on a bed, arms tightening around his body until he was able to squirm away. Spacey’s now-infamous response attempted to paint a scene of unfortunate drunken buffoonery, then pivoted to “reveal” his sexual orientation in order to deflect from the disturbing particulars of Rapp’s account. He became an instant #MeToo casualty, but we never quite reckoned with his choice to target and trap a kid. In India, where child rape has reached epidemic proportions, it is this exact unwillingness to confront a taboo same-sex dynamic which deepens the crisis: While rapists of girls under 12 years old can receive the death penalty, there’s no equivalent law concerning assault on boys.
Fraser has rejected the HFPA ruling and declined to sign the would-be “joint” statement, saying, “I don’t get the joke.” He was not allowed to read the report of the the investigation or obtain information as to how they reached the conclusion they did. Berk confirmed that to date he remains a voting member of the association and has not been disciplined by the leadership in any way. This is all familiar enough: Thrown into the spotlight by a #MeToo article, the organization that always turned a blind eye to these problems craves a return to the status quo. It therefore pretends to police itself, quietly, and with rather opaque methods, delivering a verdict that ensures nothing will change. Addressing Fraser’s dissatisfaction with their favored spin, the HFPA nonetheless fed the media a denial of wrongdoing, citing their “need to abide by the investigation’s finding that the exchange [with Berk] was not an intended sexual advance.” Still they insist the relative gayness of the groping is the sole metric for determining harm; still they ignore the countless nonsexual implications, professional or personal, of such an encounter. Their job was never to assess whether Berk wanted to sleep with Fraser, and still the statement rests on assurances of Berk’s geniality. Missing this time, however, was the critical word that drew Fraser’s attention in the original draft: “joke.”
That word carried an awful weight. It said that while women are to be permitted, in a small degree, their righteous anger at predatory men of influence, victimized men have a duty to reframe the same trauma as homosocial horseplay. To not add fuel to the fire when it’s already burning hot. To get over it, because men are tough, resilient, unemotional. That “joke” bore the stain of YouTube dudeworld, in which any transgression is theoretically undone with the desperate, magical phrase, “It’s just a prank, bro!” It alludes to a history of movies and TV shows that take the tragedy of prison rape as an opportunity for lighthearted innuendo, to the casual sadism of college hazing ceremonies and teen boys who make a sport of half-malicious, half-affectionate “nut taps.” It told Fraser to overrule his visceral understanding of what was no doubt an attempt to dominate and demean him — the hunky leading man as a hunk of meat, owned in full by Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes brokers — and tell the world it was funny.
This is how we victim-blame men: not for drinking too much or wearing the wrong clothes or seeking salacious fame, but for not playing along when another guy crosses a line. The villains here invoke the same fraternity of silence that gaslights and suppresses female victims. Terry Crews, an actor with a #MeToo story much like Fraser’s, shared an email from the music producer Russell Simmons, who advised him to give his abuser “a pass,” as if the assault had happened to someone else, unknown to either man, and then, in a way, nonexistent. To do so would have reinforced the toxic assumption that men are invulnerable to these attacks — that to be a victim is, essentially, to be a woman.
This is the ineluctable terminus of the archaic gender essentialism that says: If you’re not strong enough to swallow your suffering, you’re not a man. The courage Crews and Fraser have shown is their willingness to drill through that, and the danger they present to the establishment is the revelation that rape culture hurts everyone, not just women. Being who they are, saying what they say, they dissolve the argument that #MeToo is no more than a hysterical “witch hunt” or propaganda cooked up by radical feminists. They don’t fit the reactionary narrative.
If we’re shocked that tall, well-muscled, manly stars are instantly diminished and humiliated by predators in high places and stay silent for years, that’s a measure of how we overrate their bodies and undervalue their inner lives, all in the name of destructive gender norms. If we regard these encounters as implausible, since they don’t result in an explosion of stereotypically masculine rage (Why didn’t he just punch the guy in the face?), then the guilty parties will easily discount them as unreal.
But the accused doesn’t set the meaning of their offense, and it’s detestable to use the specter of homosexuality to influence our reading, whether Spacey trots out his identity for sympathy or Berk tells the HFPA that he grabbed Fraser’s butt without a stirring of arousal. At a crossroads for sexual politics where belief is invaluable, doubt is the most dangerous weapon, and the male code dividing “gay” from “no homo” is a smokescreen that creates it. Don’t let these excuses for the inexcusable distract from the #MeToo men’s united message: No one is immune to abuse, nor to the shame and hopelessness that come with it, and no one can be expected to bury that for anyone.