Since the global #Metoo and other local movements, the voice and testimonies of survivors and victims of (sexual) violence are increasingly being heard and taken into account. Yet, who can be considered a victim, whose testimonies matter, and who can be conceptualised as perpetrator remains socially constructed and highly gendered.
First, women and individuals from minoritised groups are more likely to not only face abuse, (sexual) assault, or neglect than others but also have their testimonies discounted. For instance, up to 90% of women with a disability have been sexually assaulted, many of them by caretakers. However, their victim status is often disempowered because crimes against people with a disability are seen as less serious, their testimonies less accurate, and they are considered less competent as witnesses, which creates obstacles to the prosecution of offenders.
Second, vulnerability and victimhood are understood as indicating dependency, weakness, susceptibility to harm, violability, and have come to be linked with womanhood. Here, society constructed exalted versions of masculinity and femininity where a hero-like man rescues a fallen and innocent woman, victim of another man’s aggression. This nascent victimisation of women strips them of any agency, exacerbating already-happening violations. In this context, the current understanding of vulnerability is worrisome because it naturalises violence onto women’s bodies, constructing it as the inescapable result of women’s violability and men’s aggression. It ultimately fosters binary and heteronormative conceptions of gender identity, sexuality, desire, aggression, and victimhood.
In this way, whether as saviour or (impenetrable) aggressor, men’s masculine identity constructs itself against the concept of victimhood. The ideals of powerfulness and strength ascribed to masculinity sits in opposition with vulnerability where falling victim would mean failing at being a ‘real man,’ especially in the case of sexual violence given the usual penetrative and dominant role (heterosexual) men perform. The construction of sexual activity/arousal at the core of one’s manhood also leads many boys not to define early sexual activity as abusive because they have learnt that early sexual activity is desirable. This myth of ‘man’s insatiable sex drive’ not only prevents man survivors to recognise the assault but also makes some believe that they brought it on (asking for it), especially between men who have sex with men. On the flipside, even if 40% of perpetrators on young boys are women, women are rarely seen as perpatrators, which prevents survivors from recognising their experience as abuse.
These conceptualisations result in non-disclosure, under-reporting, lack of data, and a dismissal of men’s experiences of (sexual) abuse. For instance, sexual violence against men still too often represents an absent presence within international advocacy on the matter where rape or sexual abuse are often defined as torture for men and even if their experiences are named accordingly, their severity is discounted or disregarded. This in turn affects survivors’ epistemic confidence as well as their access to treatment, remedies, and justice. Processes that are sometimes intensified for black men or men of colour whose masculinities have been conceptualized even more strictly.
Black men have also been constructed in our collective understanding as perpetrator rather than victims, leading to detrimental consequences for black men survivors. On the other side, minoritised groups who have been conceptualised as more promiscuous, such as black women or LGBTQIA+Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Trans (T), Queer (Q), Intersex (I), Asexual (A), + denotes an umbrella term used by 'marginalized sexual and gender diverse people whose gender, gender expression, or sexual identity do not conform to cis-gender or hetero-dominant gender identity'. This acronym is intersectional by virtue of its nature as well as non-exhaustive and inclusive (as denoted by the +). Over the years, the + has been understood as encompassing Questioning (Q), Two-spirit (TS), or Pansexual (P). In other words, this term represents fluid (non-conforming) notions of gender identity and sexual orientation supposedly transgressing the binary constructs of our society (male v. female and heterosexual v. homosexual).close individuals, see society engaging in victim-blaming and their experiences discounted because they are understood as responsible for both the causes and the consequences of the assault. Yes, there seems to be such a thing as ‘the ideal’ victim for specific crimes where for instance, societal attention or news cover far more extensively crimes against young white women than women of colour. The deligitimisation and denial of Black victimhood, albeit contextually contingent, stem from various societal processes such as colour-blind ideologies, victim-blaming rhetoric, the misrepresentation and dehumanisation of Black victims, and assumptions of white innocence.
All in all, we need to go beyond the (gendered) binary narrative of victim v. perpetrator, lack of agency v. agency, etc. Rather than being constructed as a passive condition-foreclosing agency, the category of victim should be understood as politically emancipatory. Therefore, victimhood would represent one experience/identity among others at a given point in time and should not define an individual.