His was the face that launched a thousand memes. Last Monday, a self-described Navy mom posted a picture of a lovely young man in a sailor suit on Twitter. She told the world that her son respected women, but that he "won't go on solo dates due to the current climate of false sexual accusations." She finished her tweet with the hashtag "#HimToo."
Twitter and other social media sites responded to the provocation with earnest statistics (false rape accusations are very rare) and funny memes featuring a motley cast of characters, from Rick Astley to Guy Fieri. The story took an unexpected twist when the young man in the photo, Pieter Hanson, joined Twitter under the handle @Thatwasmymom and introduced himself as a "cat dad" and a supporter of #MeToo. He gained over 20,000 followers in 24 hours.
Behind the Internet hilarity and Hanson's evident charm, the demagogic use of the #HimToo hashtag by conservatives is a problem. By casting recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a victim of false accusations, many conservatives have been working trying to derail the "#MeToo" movement and its ability to call powerful men to account. But #HimToo didn't spring from conservative Twitter; it began as a hashtag intending to highlight the silences around and among male victims of sexual assault. Those silences persist. Moreover, even as some male victims of assault have come forward—and as more and more men reckon publicly with whether their own romantic history has contributed to rape culture—there's still a lot of work to be done highlighting overt and subtle sexual violence among men. #HimToo should be a call for introspection and action instead of just a smug joke against accusers.
As detailed by researcher Joanna Schroeder, we're just beginning to understand the prevalence of sexual assault suffered by American men. Schroeder notes that a 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that 18 percent of men experience sexual assault before age 18 (compared to 25 percent of women), but when the CDC added in new categories of abuse, such as being "forced to penetrate" someone, the percentage for men became about the same as for women. A 2014 meta-study of data on male victims of sexual assault by Lara Stemple and Ilan Meyer, both scholars at the University of California–Los Angeles School of Law, found that gendered assumptions—such as the idea that the penetrator is always male and always in control—can limit our understanding of the pervasiveness of sexual assault in American society. What's more, most surveys seeking data on sexual assault focuses on "households," according to Stemple and Meyer, thus erasing the experiences of incarcerated men.
Those broader definitions also raise the percentages of victimization for women, who, whether cisgendered or not, remain most at risk. But men of all sorts also can become victims. Too often, even "woke" men talk about fighting rape culture out of a need to protect the women in their lives. As these studies show, that singular focus on women victims is misguided. We're all in this together.
Being in this together puts two different kinds of obligations upon men to engage our own experiences. First, we need to continue assessing how we might have contributed to rape culture. That's happening in some circles, at least: The rapper Mysonne, for example, has spoken about broad male participation in traumatizing women while trying to "score." And I have reckoned with my own past: Certainly, as a younger man, I also tried to "score." I've also been remembering a conference reception, after I became a professor, at which I made an offhand comment to a graduate student at a different school about how her experiences in Italy as "a beautiful woman" would be very different than mine had been. Then I blanched and quickly apologized when I realized that I'd inappropriately introduced a colleague's physical appearance in a professional context. (She said she forgave me, but who knows?)
Compared to the vast horror of overt sexual assault, such incidents may seem trivial, but they contribute to the various forms of aggressions and "microaggressions" that perpetuate rape culture. Together, even small acts of dehumanization or marginalization have a compounding effect on one's self image or sense of safety.
The second obligation for men follows from the understanding that comes from the first—a lot more men have experienced low-level sexual harassment and abuse than we imagine. I've come to realize that I'm one of them.
Bullying was always part of my life as a child. I was picked on as a target, and, in turn, I picked on smaller kids as a reaction to being a target. I was a weird kid who talked too much and didn't look like a threat, although it turned out that my rage problems and lack of self-control led me to hurt a few people when things got heated. In middle school and early high school, matters escalated, and I remember constant harassment in some of those years. So much of it was sexual in nature, laden with homophobic slurs, comments on my body and especially my genitals, standing too close in locker rooms before and after gym class, the usual feints at molestation. I don't remember the name of the worst bully, but I can see his face and hear his voice as he entered a bathroom after me. I stood at a urinal, trying to pee, as he made comments, loomed, and acted as though he might grab me. I felt unmanned and vulnerable. He didn't touch me. And until I started writing about male victims of sexual assault and really thinking hard about the breadth of the pattern, I had never thought to incorporate this kind of bullying behavior, so common to the American child's experience, into my conception of rape culture. I suspect many boys have similar experiences as perpetrators, victims, or both. "Boys will be boys," I might once have said, recalling my misery and laughing it off. No longer.
#HimToo, like #MeToo, is an opportunity. I want to build a better world for both my daughter and my son. Part of that journey requires clear analysis of what went wrong for us and what we did wrong in the past. Neither process is easy. But as Faulkner wrote, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." Only with these reckonings can we break the silences around rape culture and abuse and hope to make that better world.