The Masculinity Test
Gender: M / F / Other
1) On average, how many men will be sexually abused in the United States before the age of 18?
A) One in ten.
B) One in sixteen.
C) One in four.
D) One in six.
Research has shown that one in six men will have been sexually abused before they turn eighteen. This is generally believed to be a low estimate, as it only accounts for the more traditional, physical forms of sexual abuse. This number does not include a large portion of homeless men in America who are not easily represented in studies on the subject, as they frequently slip through the cracks of social services agencies. This number also does not account for those of us who have kept our abuse a secret — those of us either too ashamed or too proud to ask for help.
The one-in-six statistic does not account for non-contact sexual abuse, or “covert” sexual abuse (an invasion of one’s personal space and autonomy that does not involve the genitals or, in some cases, physical touch at all). Covert sexual abuse is an act most commonly performed by a parent onto a child, but it can occur in any relationship in which an imbalance of power is present.
2) Research has shown that men are much less likely to report sexual abuse than women. Why?
A) Men are less likely to have their claims taken seriously by peers and mental health professionals; sexual abuse is something that typically happens to women.
B) Men are inherently sexual creatures. They are helpless to their libidos (the nucleus of the male psyche) and, therefore, enjoy any variation of sexual attention — it’s not really abuse.
C) Men are strong: they don’t need professional help processing abuse. They can handle shit on their own. Besides, sexual abuse is something that typically happens to women.
D) Men are strong: a man who declares himself a victim is a man who makes himself vulnerable; and there’s no expression more indicative of weakness than vulnerability. Except, of course, crying.
E) All of the above.
All are correct — to varying degrees. One prevailing notion in our society is that men simply do not fall prey to sexual abuse, that we are somehow immune to it. Undesired sexual contact, then (whether it is forced upon us or we are coerced into it), is seen by too many as a non-issue. Men are not allowed to be victims.
This is the cultural narrative of man.
Although, quantifiably speaking, one in six men are sexually abused (the number is one in four for women), there isn’t much of a tradition of discussing it. A man is expected to regard what few emotions he is allowed to feel from a cold distance, like a warrior looking out onto a bloody battlefield. He is expected to square his shoulders, lift his chin, and keep walking, carrying his burdens in silence. He will either overcome his demons or succumb to them, becoming another statistic in the data of self-destruction.
Another version of the masculinity narrative depicts our hero as sexually depraved, a lunatic of the flesh, whose erections never soften and whose desires begin and end carnal. How could this man be sexually abused when his sole ambition, his whole life, is sex?
Man must never show weakness. His is a hiding game. The weaker he is perceived to be, the less of a man he is. The more vulnerable he allows himself to be, the weaker he is perceived to be. This is the guarded circle he walks in, day in and day out, stopping only once in a great while, to cry when he is sure nobody is looking.
He cries when he is alone and only when he is alone. When he cries, it is a brief and ugly affair. The face contorts in ways that show a lack of practice. Tears fall in syrupy droplets into his hands. His hands hold the weight of his head. The tears stop, he stands. He fixes his face with a tissue, lifts his chin, and keeps moving. The circle seems to have been waiting for him. He puts his guard back up, nothing to see here.
I didn’t cry when it happened. I didn’t cry when he told me he would banish me from his house if I didn’t do it. I didn’t cry when he told me he would find a way to make his younger brother, my best friend, hate me if I didn’t do it.
I didn’t cry when he pulled his cock out. It looked like a Billy club; huge and brown and wieldy as he gripped it at the base. It was an ugly fucking thing, like a weapon or raw meat. But there it was, far too exposed only a couple feet away in his barely sunlit basement. I don’t know exactly what my thoughts were in that moment. They kept running away from me, a quiet panic beneath the surface. I think I laughed, assumed he was making a shitty joke. Haha, very funny I might have said. But his face was obstinate and flat, his eyes hungry and locked on mine. I hoped he couldn’t sense my fear.
3) Men who have been sexually abused are, compared to those who haven’t, at much greater risk of which of the following mental health issues:
A) Problems fostering intimate relationships, trust.
B) Suicidal propensities, attempts.
C) Symptoms of PTSD, depression.
D) All of the above.
Men who have been sexually abused are much more likely to experience certain mental health issues than those who haven’t. Since these experiences often occur during crucial, developmental years, sexually abused men are more likely to be distrustful of others as adults, which can result in a fear of intimacy. Trust in others is demolished. They have been taught early on that the world is unsafe. These men often keep themselves at a distance, eschew friendships and relationships. They subconsciously build walls of aloofness as a coping mechanism. Those who can’t make peace with life on the outside often become depressed and/or develop suicidal thoughts. They need to reach out, to be told that it’s okay, that someone else understands. But this seldom happens and so they seek other forms of escape.
Although his brother and I were much closer, Mike and I were always friends. Or so I thought. He was 15 and I was 10, so he was kinda the shit as far as I was concerned — in the kind of way younger kids automatically idolize older kids. Not once did he seem capable of doing this. He always rambled on about high school girls and body parts that I would have been too young to know what to do with. But that didn’t stop me from listening to him drool on about them, curious and eager and ready to kick this whole puberty business into gear already.
One little blow job, he said that day in the basement, that’s it — if you ever want to hang out here again, I mean. I didn’t cry when he convinced me. Screw it, I thought, I could even like it for all I knew. I didn’t cry when I caved. I didn’t cry when I dropped to my knees. I didn’t cry as I sat, face to face with the thing, unsure of how to even begin.
I hadn’t even had my first French kiss yet. My mind was a swirl of questions. Would this count as my first French kiss? Would my mouth even open that wide? And, most importantly, were you supposed to actually blow on it?
I didn’t cry when he told me to hurry the hell up before his parents came home. I didn’t cry as I moved my mouth toward it. I didn’t cry when my lips touched it, tasted how salty it was, like fast food, and rubbery as a dog toy.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that fellatio wasn’t for me and within a few seconds, the gravity of the situation took hold. I wanted out. I stood, turned, and promptly marched outside. I was a silent fuck you in response to his threats and screams as I left. I walked until his voice broke on summer-swept wind and faded far behind me.
I lived a couple blocks down the street. All I wanted was to go home, to brush my teeth and bury my head under pillows. The sun tossed down tree-spliced rays of June as I walked at the speed of my heart.
I don’t remember if I cried or not.
4) Pathological self-harm is cited as one of the common, long-term effects of sexual abuse. Why?
A) The victim is genetically predisposed to such behavior.
B) The victim has done something wrong and deserves to be punished.
C) The victim internalizes the abuse and, therefore, directs the harm inward. Thin slices into skin secretly aim to drain himself of himself.
D) The victim comes to accept abuse as the way of the world and finds inflicting harm onto himself to be the most applicable, accurate means of self-expression.
I was 13 years old the first time I experimented with self-harm. I cannot pinpoint exactly what led me to the knife drawer that day, what led me to grab the sharpest knife I could find and, with quiet and sober steps, carry the knife down to the basement and into my bedroom. Did I feel like a victim for what had happened to me two years prior? If so, that shit was gone — buried so deep it was like it never happened at all. Maybe that was the source. Maybe I needed to admit that I had been a victim, to come to terms with my weakness, my vulnerability. I wasn’t ready for that, though. I wasn’t strong enough. Besides, I’d been introduced to a new sort of abuse (verbal, emotional) by that time in the form of a stepfather. I had to deal with what was in front of me before I could look back and grow. I cried often and openly in those days.
It has been suggested that your genetic makeup can predispose you to depression, but my mother was adopted, and my biological father was a no-show, so my genetic language has never been translated. All I knew was what I felt, a deep and eager pain, and that feeling was the enemy. It had to be obliterated. I wanted the sweet nothing of numbness to step in and alleviate the pain like an opiate. When I smiled it was forced, an empty gesture so that nobody would question what was happening behind it. My suffering was a private place, one of the few aspects of my life I shared with no one. I didn’t know how to talk about my feelings then, how to put words to something so amorphous and abstract — trying to speak about them was like trying to swallow in reverse. So, I preferred to let my feelings run themselves tired. Eventually, though, I learned to speed up the process.
I carefully sat on my bed and caught my reflection in my hand-me-down vanity dresser. Messy brown hair, dark circles under eyes. I quickly looked away. I looked down at my wrists, looked at the knife in my right hand. Placing the cold of the steel blade against my arm, I pressed down gently, just enough to feel the tension of my skin against the weight of the blade. I was calculating the physics of it, bouncing the blade tip to base against the give of my arm. I was ready.
I set my eyes on the wall as I punctured epidermis and drew a single horizontal red line across my forearm. It stung at first and then I felt the cold. An electric jolt of adrenaline. Outside of time. I looked at the line I’d drawn and felt nothing: a blissful Zen of existence minus thought. In that moment, I was not in pain anymore; I was nothing. And I did not cry.
5) What does it mean to be a man?
A) Physical strength and agency.
B) To be responsible, to have a job, to win the bread.
C) Emotional strength and callousness; to stand tall over all adversities at all times, never showing weakness.
D) To be independent; to never need help and to push away those who seek to provide it.
5) Trick question
Masculinity cannot be defined or reduced. I know good men who fit one of these versions of manhood, some that fit multiple, and plenty who fit none at all. And the truth is, I don’t know if any of them have ever been sexually abused and I probably never will. That’s not how men are taught to interact. We aren’t supposed to share our scars with each other. Hell, many of us barely look each other in the eyes when we speak. The irony of the whole masculinity charade is that we’re often too weak to admit that we are capable of weakness. We forget that strength, true strength, is born out of confronting these weaknesses head on and coming to terms with them, learning from them, sharing them with one another. We don’t do this enough.
My grandfather was the greatest man I’ve ever known. He was the model on which I constructed my own sense of masculinity. Sure, he was responsible, he was independent, and he served his country, but he was also strong enough to be vulnerable, to show people he loved them, he cared.
When I was nine years old, I was awarded my black belt in Tae Kwon Do. There was a ceremony for all of us who had come this far in our studies and our families sat in hard, raised metal bleachers along the perimeter. In a large, fluorescently-lit gymnasium, Grandmaster Kim called me up and handed me a certificate before producing a folded, stiff black belt with my name embroidered along one side in raised, yellow letters. As the ritual goes, he tied the belt around my waist, tightening the final knot with careful force, then he took one rigid step back and we bowed to one another.
Grandmaster Kim handed me a microphone with one hand and then a single, long-stemmed rose with the other. I proceeded to give a little speech in which I thanked my entire family for their love and support and explained how I couldn’t have done it without them. I looked toward where my family was sitting and saw my mom, grandma, and grandpa all there in the front row, all with goofy smiles of pride on their faces.
Before the ceremony, we soon-to-be black belts were instructed to reserve the rose for someone who had been especially supportive — both in the usual terrain of life and in our development as martial artists. After my little speech was finished, I made my way toward the cluster of my family. I handed the rose to my grandfather and told him I loved him and that I hoped to one day become half the man he was.
His face contorted. He tried to hold it back, but he couldn’t. Tears raced down the sides of his face, falling onto my shoulders as we hugged. The gymnasium became one giant roar of applause. There was nothing ugly about it. In that moment, he was the bravest man I’d ever known — vulnerable, tender, strong enough to love out loud and to let that love take him over.
I haven’t stifled a single tear since.
Originally published in The Manhattanville Review.