Male Bonding and Gang Rape: The Socialization of Men in Rape Culture

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When we talk about patriarchy and rape culture, the conversation is generally about women and the effects on our minds, bodies and lives: our socialization in the classroom of rape culture and the ways in which our identities are deformed by it. The place of men in the discussion tends to be limited. In some circles it is understood that men are also certainly victims of rape culture, especially in discussions around the prison industrial complex. But what we don’t talk about is the way men relate to one another within the confines of rape culture and patriarchy.

In these two classrooms, men are taught what is valuable about men and women. In men, violence, strength, toughness, and hyper-masculinity are rewarded, admirable characteristics, as is evidenced everywhere from the portrayal of heroes in Hollywood to the value we place on some of the highest-paid men in the country: professional athletes. Be like them. Don’t cry. Don’t hug—that’s gay. Don’t trust bitches (women). Support your family. Bros before hoes. These are only some of the things men learn under this doctrine. Vulnerability is a woman’s trait. Sex is a sport with no emotional value. Don’t be “gay.” Don’t be “feminine.” The list goes on and on. Thus the corner of the box in which men are allowed to exist is painted smaller and smaller; their identities allowed less and less room.

Among all these teachings are men’s relationships with women, and, of course, their relationships with one another. Women—despite the system of constant passive aggressive competition and backbiting that is encouraged by patriarchy and which many women struggle to overcome even as adults—are allowed more spaces in which bonding can occur. The teaching that “girls are nice,” however damaging in other aspects, does encourage our togetherness: sisterhood is a word we use to define the emotional space we are able to share. Divine Secrets of the the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Waiting to Exhale, Bridesmaids: the films about our bonding experiences are gentle and tear-jerking and are generally centered in some way around men—that’s an entirely separate blog post. What about men? For men, movies about brotherhood are usually in the context of war/violence and/or sexual conquest. Think American Pie, The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, Lethal Weapon. Google “movies about male bonding,” “movies about male friendship.” Male friendship, it seems, is fostered in the context of exploitation of women and in the context of someone getting punched in the face or shot.

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Where is the gentle space for male friendship? (And especially for black male friendship: other than The Best Man, which is positive for men in many ways but fails in its representation and expectations of women, I saw very few films listed about relationships between black men.) “Gentleness,” “tenderness,” “intimacy,” “vulnerability.” These characteristics are kryptonite to the hyper-masculine persona patriarchy creates. If we ask where the safe space is for men to create tender, intimate, vulnerable friendships with one another, the answer is that it barely exists. “Gentle,” “vulnerable”: these are words reserved for women and (goes the logic) gay men. The limits created by patriarchal society are taught to men and are then reinforced by media of all kinds, but especially by Hollywood. If you are male, men learn, this is how you socialize: in the context of violence and in the context of sex, and never in the context of intimacy. Especially not with other men.

Under this law, there exists a deep chasm that separates men from one another. The chasm of male isolation and masculinity; trenches dug by untouchable, invulnerable laws of manhood. Studies on the connection between masculinity and loneliness tell me that men are often starved for contact with other men: not sexually, but physically and emotionally. Decades of fathers hugging daughters but not sons. Handshakes instead. Men, then, bond where they can and in spaces deemed acceptable by the patriarchy that programmed them. Strip clubs. Bachelor parties. Sports. It’s been said that some of the most powerful relationships between men are those between soldiers and athletes/teammates. Perhaps because those are two of the only arenas in which male intimacy is not only encouraged, but unchecked.

We must also think about sex in this context: the male experience and perception of sex within the confines of a culture that socializes for violence and invulnerability. I have written (or perhaps just tweeted?) previously on the effects of this teaching on the potential of sexual harmony between men and women—we’re teaching girls that their bodies are temples, and we’re teaching boys to be Raiders of the Lost Ark—but what about the male experience and perception of the act of rape? If men are socialized to bond in contexts of sex and violence, it seems rape culture has created, in gang rape, a space that men see as a space for brotherhood.

Many of us have learned that rape is not a sexual act, but an act of dominance. We have also learned that, in rape culture, women’s bodies are not owned by women; but exist as mere objects of male consumption. We are not surprised, then, by the idea of gang rape as a bonding activity: men dominating that which they have been taught is dominatable, alongside brothers who are otherwise unreachable except in these contexts of sex and violence, and—it must follow—sexual violence. Women’s bodies, here, are merely props in the context of a masked ball of male intimacy.

This is not to say that all men raised in a patriarchal rape culture will participate in gang rape. Of course not. But it does help explain the mentality of those that do. Those that do are treated with this societal astonishment, more so than individual rapists, as if we have never seen the likes of anything before or since. Steubenville, of course, comes to mind. Not exactly a “gang” of male individuals, but two boys participating—together, with witnesses—in the sexual assault of an unconscious girl. How could they do it, the nation asked, horrified. What is wrong with those boys? Not gang-y enough for you? What about the case in Texas where as many as ten men raped a thirteen year old girl, cheering and filming the attack? In Cambodia, groups of men admit that gang rape is for fun. Just as shocking was the efforts of men (and women) to protect these rapists: a mutation of the “boys will be boys” mentality, condemnation of the thirteen-year old victim as a “spider” luring the men “into her web.” In the case of Steubenville, rampant attempts to cover up the actions of the boys. Rape isn’t a crime, the people involved with the above examples would say, it’s just something that men do. Sometimes with other men.

Are we really surprised? Are we really surprised that when we socialize men and boys to value violence, invulnerability and hyper-masculinity in one another, that they actually gravitate toward contexts that encourage those behaviors? Are we really surprised that when we socialize men to bond in the context of sex (a la American Pie) and violence (every war movie ever) that they bond in contexts of sex and violence? I’m not just talking about rape. How can we wonder about the chasm between men and the isolation of the male experience without looking to the teachings of patriarchal rape culture as a source? Something is deeply wrong with what we’re teaching boys about women and consent when they can participate in/witness a gang rape and cheer for it as if for a basketball game.

But what that means is that something is also deeply wrong with what we’re teaching boys about how to be a boy and how to bond with other boys. Would we rather our boys bond over rape, or with gentleness, vulnerability, and tenderness? Would we rather our boys find friendship in the context of violence, or in the context of behavior that our damaging definitions of masculinity might condemn as feminine or—“worse”—gay? Violence and sex cannot be the only two paths across the chasm of male isolation. Let’s build other bridges.

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12 thoughts on “Male Bonding and Gang Rape: The Socialization of Men in Rape Culture

  1. This is brilliant, Olivia. Powerful argument and marvelous examples; if this complex were permeable to reason, this would be posted on the walls of every space in which men are socialized. What do you think are the chances?

  2. What an excellent piece you have written. Very true of course and you write it with compelling and pertinent examples to help every reader “get it”. Thank you for your excellent insights and for sharing them.

  3. Yes, all true.

    And it simply reflects lower evolutionary states, whether it is gang rape or regular relationships. Women are owned by men. That’s how it is. And the man who owns (has sex with) the most women is the winner. And the woman who can bag herself one of the winners, is also a winner. Nothing’s changed.

    And the fact that men are born into the world and receive this burden of violent labelling from the very beginning, is our biggest problem. I’m writing about this stuff too :)

  4. knowthetruth says:

    Well written post, thanks for sharing. I think we really have to consider a larger framework than simply the act of rape itself. This is the evidence of a failure in morals not simply masculinity gone wrong. When Hollywood, rap music and pornography continually enforces the idea that women are simply sex objects for a man’s conquest then what do we expect. We have a lack of fathers, a lack of moral absolutes, and a society that is obsessed with sex.

  5. Fred Canada says:

    Exceptional insight and writing from you, Olivia, to say the least: and such a strong and appropriate sort of sequel in retrospection to your essay on Chris Brown and the raping of black men.

    [By the way, I would like to add “American Beauty” to your list of films, and as a segue to this thought on films that continually cultivate violence and sex in Hollywood, keep in mind too that the publishers and producers are the first in line to make the call, and many are still refusing to display this “vulnerable” side of males (esp. black males) to the public. I probably shouldn’t ask this question, but how many black male writers, [straight] black male anchormen, or openly gay athletics (I truly wonder is there far more buzz in the Miami Dolphin’s locker room…than just a slur or two on race…?) do you see at the forefront of our culture’s marketing these days? Too few, indeed. Most men of such norms in other cultures aren’t opt out of such opportunity and visibility herein.

  6. Matthew Chiglinsky says:

    You’re confusing good male power with bad male power. Good men will not use their power to rape you. They will instead use it to protect you. It’s called chivalry. Personally, I would rather beat the hell out of a potential rapist than rape a woman. Then, I get to play the hero, and she doesn’t get raped: everyone wins.

    All sex is an act of dominance, though, because it requires the exposure of intimacy. You make yourself vulnerable. Rape is simply dominance by force. But good men know self-restraint. They use their power responsibly.

    Good men are strong but not rapists. Good women are gentle but not sluts. Our modern culture has become corrupt to both genders.

  7. […] Male Bonding and Gang Rape: The Socialization of Men in Rape Culture […]

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