Content note: Contains discussion of sexual assault and long-term impacts of sexual assault. Also contains gender identity related content.
I identify as a transman. I have clearly identified my gender as male for about 13 years now, and I have lived exclusively as man for more than a decade. I am also a sexual assault survivor. However, I do not think of myself as, nor call myself, a male sexual assault survivor.
I was looking at one of those photo pages recently that include images of men who choose to share something of their stories of sexual assault. They are effective at building solidarity between survivors of all genders, putting faces and stories to sexual crimes committed against men, and helping some survivors feel less alone. Some of the men included identify as transgender men. But as I thought about including myself in those images I was deeply uncomfortable and I wanted to think about why.
I wondered at first if it was due to my hesitance about discussing my sexual assault history at all. After all, it is incredibly difficult to publicly discuss sexual assault in a personal way and I don’t do it often. I thought about that, but it didn’t feel right. I do talk about it when I feel like it really can make a difference. Then I realized that I didn’t feel like it was appropriate or correct for me to talk about my own history as that of a male sexual assault survivor. Despite being male and a sexual assault survivor, the two things are very different for me. They’re not parts of a connected past.
My history of being assaulted happened before I identified as male. One incident occurred before I even knew transgender people existed and the other two happened while I still identified as female, though I had started exploring the possibility I wasn’t. I am not a male sexual assault survivor because my assaults were unrelated to my male-ness.
In fact, had I been growing up as a boy I would almost certainly NOT have been a victim in the situations that I was. I was a target because I was a girl. This is why I cannot connect my adult male identity to my history as a survivor; I was victimized in a way that is common for adolescent girls, that is a particular threat to adolescent girls. Society gives so little power to young women that I was an easy target. The men who victimized me saw something they liked and took it, an experience I cannot untangle from the experience of having been a girl.
I do not mean to discount the experiences of male survivors here. There is no doubt that sexual assault is directed at men and boys as well. However, for me, and millions of others, being perceived as female is intrinsic to the experience of sexual assault. For me it is inseparable.
I have also recently become aware of some of the ways in which this experience shaped the way I look at the world around me. When I was still perceived as female (both before and after I identified as male) I experienced the same kinds of street harassment and instructions to be careful in the world that other young women do. I was warned, often and with firmness, to never walk outside alone at night, to carry my keys as a weapon, to yell “fire” instead of help if someone attacked me, etc. After having been blamed for my own assault (“Why did you get into the car?”) these warnings carried extra weight. It was my job to avoid being assaulted again. These warnings, and this fear of men, especially strangers, has stuck with me. I cannot rid myself of it.
When I was a young woman living on my own in a new city this fear was rational and warranted. Now, as a man in my 30’s (who is always perceived as male) I still experience jolts of fear when encountering lone men on public transit, when a creepy guy appears at a party, or when a car pulls up to the curb beside me. I was recently in a fast food restaurant when it suddenly filled with young boisterous guys making a lot of noise. I was immediately filled with adrenaline, despite the fact that the odds were incredibly low that they would cause a problem for me. In an earlier part of my life this reaction was smart. Today it is irrational, but deeply ingrained. I have learned to temper my fear and stand up to men who are behaving badly, but I do so in the face of fear that is the result of my own survival story.
I don’t exactly identify as a female sexual assault survivor either. I am a person with a female history that experienced sexual assault in that context and is still impacted in that context. But I am also a man, and I am aware that the world sees me differently now. Men see me differently now. I am not targeted, as a man, in the way that women are. This is why I am not a male sexual assault survivor.