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Their stories indicate the celebrated actor has spent decades preying on boys and men, using his power and influence to manipulate and sexually harass or assault his victims. Spacey has denied these allegations.
In the wake of the viral #MeToo hashtag, which women used to share their personal experiences with sexual violence, the revelations about Spacey’s predatory behavior have helped expose the unique stigma that frequently prevents men from making their accounts public.
The actor and former NFL player Terry Crews shed light on these dynamics when he recently tweeted about how a powerful Hollywood executive publicly groped him, and he felt powerless to say something. Harry Dreyfuss, an actor and the son of Richard Dreyfuss, wrote an essayfor BuzzFeed about how difficult it was for him to confront being groped by Spacey.
“I did a lot of mental gymnastics to normalize my experience,” Dreyfuss wrote. “What I see now is that when it comes to sexual abuse, there is no such thing as a ‘minor’ assault. And if telling this story will help others speak up, then it is worth it.”
Indeed, at least one in six men have been sexually abused, according to 1in6, a nonprofit organization that helps men who’ve had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.
David Lisak, president of the board of directors for 1in6 and a psychologist who’s long studied the long-term effects of childhood abuse in adult men, says harmful stereotypes about masculinity, along with common myths and misperceptions about sexual violence, make it difficult for men to report harassment and assault.
“Anything having to do with sexual assault or sexual violence is permeated by stigma,” Lisak says. “But the nature of that stigma does change from person to person, culture to culture, and also across gender. For men, the very nature of masculinity conflicts so starkly with experience of being sexually violated.”
Specifically, boys learn early on that men must be strong, not vulnerable, and that sexual abuse means they’ve been made helpless in some way. How men resolve that inner conflict can shape the course of how they cope with what happened, Lisak says.
In his experience, the majority of men who’ve been abused struggle for a long time. They might experience overwhelming self-doubt and feel they don’t “measure up” to society’s idea of what it means to be a “real man.” And some men find the conflict between victimization and stereotypical masculinity “absolutely intolerable,” so they pretend the abuse never happened.
“What you see in men like that is oftentimes they become shells of masculinity…” he says. “There’s a rejection of any kind of vulnerability.”
Beyond the social pressure to appear conventionally masculine, men are also silenced by myths about sexual violence.
They may worry that people will conflate abuse and assault perpetrated by another man with their sexual orientation.
“What we need to constantly assert and reassert, is that this, at its core, has nothing to do with sexuality or sexual orientation,” Lisak says. “It happens in every community; anybody is vulnerable to being subjected to an abuse of power like that.”
Another false perception is that harassment and abuse happen only to young boys. Lisak says that people now generally understand boys do experience sexual abuse because of national scandals involving school teachers, Boy Scout leaders, priests, and politicians. And yet, “when it comes to men, a lot of people have the sense if you’re a real guy, this wouldn’t happen to you,” Lisak says.
The cultural stereotypes around gender, including portrayals of men as versions of a physically dominant and invincible Jason Bourne, make it difficult for people to understand that men can also be rendered vulnerable by intoxication, intimidation, and threats.
Lisak says that personal testimonies about harassment and abuse have tremendous power to “erode” the stigma that keeps men from talking about their experiences. To help men come forward, 1in6 created an initiative called the Bristlecone Project, which features portraits and biographies of male survivors.
“We want … individual men choosing to come forward, [to] talk about what happened to them, and erode that stigma and make it easier for men to talk to somebody,” says Lisak. “Not bury themselves or be buried by the stigma or the shame.”
He believes the public can also play an important role in dismantling that stigma by analyzing their assumptions about sexual abuse and viewing male survivors beyond the lens of gender.
“The cultural messages that shape the stigma we’ve been talking about, those things live in everybody, we all absorb them,” says Lisak. “Erode them by being confronted by the humanity of another human being. Look into their eyes. He’s a human being, he experienced something awful. It can happen to anybody.”
If you have experienced sexual assault, you can contact the nonprofit organization 1in6, which maintains a helpline for male survivors. You can also call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access 24-7 help online by visiting hotline.rainn.org.