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Must not marginalize male sexual abuse victims

Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, March 4, 2009

This past week was sexual assault awareness week at Notre Dame. It was a much needed event. The surprisingly low amount of reported cases of sexual abuse at Notre Dame is not due to a lack of sexual abuse but rather a lack of reporting. Women and men are raped and sexually abused at Notre Dame – there is just a multiplicity of factors that deter abuse victims from speaking out.

I attended the awareness dinner “A Time to Heal” at Legends this past Friday night. It was truly a remarkable event. The dinner guests were addressed by a panel of five speakers: two female rape survivors, the president of Men Against Violence, Anthropologist professor Carolyn Nordstrom and Theology chair John Cavadini. The bravery and courage of the two young women who spoke about their experiences stunned the audience. They spoke poignantly and articulately, announcing that they would not be silent – announcing that sexual abuse is a real issue for the students of Notre Dame.

I applaud this much needed movement at Notre Dame. Even though this movement will result in more reported rapes and abuses, and therefore a smudged public image, the University must push this initiative forward. Thankfully, this is slowly being done. I would now like to add to the momentum of this movement by offering a constructive critique.

Male sexual abuse survivors are a nationally under-acknowledged demographic – Notre Dame’s sexual abuse awareness campaign is potentially falling victim to this same problem. While sexual abuse done towards women is statistically greater then that done towards men, it ought not to overshadow the reality of the tragedy of male sexual abuse. For instance, the Feb. 26 edition of “Scholastic” chose a regrettable wording that plays to this unfortunate trend of marginalization towards male sexual abuse survivors. “Scholastic” reads: “According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated one out of four college women will be victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault in one school year alone, whereas only one out of six men will be sexually assaulted in his entire lifetime.” There are several problems with this sentence.

Firstly, the sentence structure is comparatively exploring two different statistics. This is deceptive because these two different statistics cannot truly be measured to each other. The first statistic regarding women quantifies the likelihood of an “attempted or completed sexual assault” whereas the statistic for the males is only addressing completed sexual assaults and not attempted sexual assaults. If the sentence must be comparative at all, why couldn’t it compare the same thing?

Secondly, the wording of the sentence diminishes the importance of male sexual abuse as compared to female sexual abuse. The key word here is “only.” The sentence first gives the statistics for females, then uses the word “whereas” in order to make a comparison, then uses the word “only” to minimize the secondary statistic of male sexual abuse. Why did that word need to be in the sentence? The sentence would have read fine without it.

There is no “only” when speaking about sexual abuse. It does not matter how much the second statistic is less then the first, when speaking about an issue with the gravity of sexual abuse there is no “only.” One male who is sexually abused is a tragedy that must not be brushed aside.

The dinner, “A Time to Heal” was an important event that had many powerful moments. Unfortunately, it only gave a polite “nod of the head” towards male sexual abuse victims and focused almost exclusively on female sexual abuse. It would have been great if there could have been a representative speaker for males who had been sexually abused. If the statistics are correct, that room had plenty of male sexual abuse survivors sitting there as their painful experiences were largely being ignored and minimized. The talk from the president of Men Against Violence, telling his “lads” that this is a man’s problem, certainly did not help either. The issue of sexual abuse is not a “female issue” or a “male issue.” It is a person issue. Whether or not we know who they are, we all know people who have been sexually abused.

The Notre Dame sexual awareness movement is important, absolutely necessary, and making a good start. It must be attentive though not to marginalize the male minority group of sexual abuse survivors.

Michael Clemente



Mar. 2