Don’t Drop the Soap: Why We Need to Talk About Male Rape in Pop Culture
A small side note to draw your attention to my novel on rape culture, recovery, survival, and more, which you can get right here!
(trigger warning for discussion of rape, sexual assualt)
I was watching the second season of Preacher when it came out – God only knows why I hadn’t quit by then, but I was sticking it out in the hopes that anything about it improved even remotely. And then, to my great surprise, we got to the plot that revolves around the rape of one of the main male characters, Herr Starr. Starr is a villainous character within the story, and in the comics, his rape is played for laughs – a misunderstanding that leads to him having sex against his will. This made me pretty uncomfortable at the time I was reading it, but the show had already switched up so much about the decades-old comics already – for all they had changed, I was certain they wouldn’t leave in this extended joke that revolved entirely around a man getting raped. We’re past that kind of shit now, right?
You know, I wish I could say that I was surprised to see yet another show play male rape off as a joke, but at this point, how could I be? I’ve watched enough television over the years to know that men getting sexually assaulted and raped is almost universally palmed off as humorous – when beloved family sitcom Third Rock from the Sun can squeeze in a “don’t drop the soap!” gag to rapturous laughter, I think it’s fair to say that this is just the way that pop culture has decided to handle these issues.
I could sit here and list out examples for you – Nip/Tuck has one of its main duo raped by a serial killer, and he “gets over” it by having a threesome and declaring “I’m back, baby!” (and the less said about all the times that a Ryan Murphy show has had a man raped to death by a spike, the better). The Mindy Project features a scene where a blackout-drunk man is raped by his ex-wife, and later quits his job over the incident. Long Shot, a movie out earlier this year, sees it’s male lead having an explicit video of himself leaked against his will, to the amusement of the rest of the cast. Even Buffy, as I wrote a couple of days ago, an ostensibly forward-thinking show, featured a couple of rape plots against men that were handled as little more than conduits for the emotions of other people. That’s just off the top of my head – you can probably think of at least a half-dozen more without even trying. And that’s not even counting all the hysterical prison rape gags that litter anything you’ve ever watched.
Look, I’m no prude about rape jokes – I wrote a fucking book called Rape Jokes, for goodness sake – but, as the conversation about rape and sexual assault becomes more nuanced in the aftermath of the Me Too movement, it just stuns me that these changes have apparently all but breezed by the treatment of men in similar circumstances. Yes, rape has been a vastly overused and problematic tool of violence against women in the media, and God knows I want to see that change. But at least we seem to accept, for the most part, that it is something serious. When it comes to men, it’s still generally brushed off as little more than a joke – ha, look at how this man apparently had his masculinity compromised by someone invading his personal space in a violating way! Men are strong and powerful and aren’t weak enough to let themselves get sexually assaulted, so these stories in the media can be written off as a joke, right?
But the reality of it is that this consistent devaluing of the male experience when it comes to rape has real-world implications. When Terry Crews spoke of his sexual assault as part of the movement, he was met with a vitriol that seemed specific to his masculinity, specific to his manhood and how it related to what he had been through, with jokes that seemed drawn from the same well that the ones we see all over television are. Jimmy Bennet, who accused Asia Argento of rape, stated that “a stigma to being in the situation as a male in our society” left him reluctant to come forward about his experience. Underreporting in men who have been sexual assaulted and raped is tied to the stigma around being a man who has been assaulted, a stigma that is upheld when we consistently tie the experience with being weak, pathetic, easily laughed-off. We tell these stories about rape over and over again, we pass down the idea that being a man and being the victim of a sexual assault is a joke, and it eventually becomes true enough to permeate the way that victims of these assaults are treated – and, worse, the way they treat themselves.
I would like to take a second here to point to Outlander, which included a rape storyline that I covered in detail in a previous article, which handled it better than pretty much any other show I’ve seen on TV, and to remark that it stands out so much because I literally cannot think of a mainstream series or movie that has taken male rape and sexual assault with even the remotest seriousness before. This is the way I want to see these storylines being handled – an intersectional exploration on masculinity, assault, trauma, and what it means to move forward after being raped. It’s not a joke. It’s incredibly uncomfortable viewing, by all measures – but it’s important. It reframes male victims of sexual assault with compassion, care, and seriousness, as opposed to the ass-end of bullshit jokes that only serve to further stigmatize men who go through stuff like this. And frankly, after approximately ten million “don’t drop the soap” gags? It’s the least we can do to get started.
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(header image via Youtube)
Well said. This is something that has bothered me for awhile and I hope to see a cultural shift in the way male rape is depicted.
My girlfriend is watching Outlander at the moment. I watched the first two episodes to get most of the necessary context, then jumped ahead to season two so we could watch it together. I inferred that something big had gone down between Jaime and Jack Randall but didn’t realise it was rape (I assumed Jack had subjected him to non-sexual torture). That’s very interesting that the show went there! Now that I understand the situation a bit better I agree that the show has handled the aftermath of male rape well.
The episode that deals with the rape is gruelling but the entire arc is so well-done. Credit to Sam Heughan because he kills that performance.
I can think of one movie which treated it seriously – “The Shawshank Redemption”
Other than that, though, you’re right, it seems more often to be used as a way of calling the victim’s masculinity into question, or at least making a joke about such.