In the wake of our country’s recent sexual assault scandals, it is tempting to reduce violation to an archetype. The allegations from the various cases — harassment at Yale School of Medicine, gang rape at the University of Virginia, serial predation from Bill Cosby’s past — all share a sinister, but recognizable pattern. Men with authority and social capital prey upon younger, less powerful women. If the women seek justice or support, the institutional powers that be let them down. Each story is shocking. Not one is unfamiliar.
But we must remember that sexual misdeeds do not always unfold as variations of the same story. The antagonists are not always men, and the victims are not always women. Under public scrutiny, institutions can overreact when they adjudicate cases of sexual assault. Just because these cases don’t make national news doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Last weekend, Shia LaBeouf claimed a woman raped him during his performance art exhibition this February. Public reaction was at best anemic, at worst disdainful. Former CNN host Piers Morgan called LaBeouf’s confession “pathetic” and demeaning to “real rape victims.”
Morgan echoed a common and misguided notion — when a woman rapes a man it isn’t really rape. Couldn’t he have stopped her if he had wanted to? The question is fallacious. Straight men do not always want to have impromptu sex with strangers. Physical force is not the only kind of coercion.
According to a 2010 study from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly one in five women — compared to one in 71 men — have been raped at some point in their lives. But the fact still remains that millions of heterosexual men are survivors of sexual violence. It’s not politically correct sophism. It’s reality. More than 22 percent of heterosexual men have experienced non-rape sexual violence, and you’d never know. Between disbelief and public emasculation, there is no cultural space for straight men to come forward. That’s nearly 22 million stories we will never hear.
Queer sexual violence still only flits in and out of public discourse: allusions to “that scene from The Kite Runner” or appallingly common jokes about prison rape. Statistics demand a deeper and more mature discussion. According to the NISVS, 46 percent of bisexual women have been raped. A staggering 47 percent of bisexual men and 40 percent of gay men are also victims of sexual violence. In 2005, the FORGE Report found that 66 percent of transgender people interviewed had been sexually assaulted, and 23 percent “had been the victim or witness to five or more incidences.”
Yet the epidemic of violence playing out in queer bedrooms is consigned to the periphery of national discussions on both LGBTQ politics and sexual assault. Two reasons come to mind: Identity politics are complicated when queer people are both the victims and the perpetrators. Moreover, it’s hard to make Americans read an article about gay rape when most Americans don’t like thinking about gay sex at all.
Finally, though colleges are notorious for inadequately punishing perpetrators of sexual violence, recent public furor puts pressure on them to be severe, rather than discerning. Regardless of whether or not you agree with UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s decision to suspend all fraternities and sororities, we can agree the move was calculated. She seemed to act to protect the University’s public image, not its students. Her motivations were ambiguous, and this ambiguity is concerning.
On Tuesday, former President Jimmy Carter insinuated that Yale should expel more perpetrators of sexual assault. He is hardly the first to say it, and he won’t be the last. This kind of pressure worries me. People deserve to be more than just expelled for rape, but semi-discerning severity does not prove an institution’s dedication to mitigating sexual misconduct. We shouldn’t call on the University to expel more students, but to pursue adequate punishments, including, but not limited to, expulsion.
Conversations have their limits. Journalism requires a narrative and a readership. Still, we need to be having more varied conversations about sexual assault. The injured are many, and not always who we think they are. They lurk on the periphery of our consciousness and the outskirts of our conversations. In our collective anger and nebulous guilt, we fixate only on the atrocities we’ve read about. But there are other stories. They are more complicated than black and white, more colorful than red.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.