By Brittany L. Stalsburg
The men in my life have always perfectly reflected the masculine ideal of “quiet suffering.” My two grandfathers (one who has passed and one who is alive) both endured a series of debilitating health conditions, from heart surgery to diabetes to the gradual loss of muscle strength that confined them to canes, walkers, and eventually for one, a wheel chair. Both World War II veterans, raised and socialized in a generation that prized stoicism, strength, and personal responsibility, it is not surprising that both of my grandfathers have quietly endured their physical pain and limitations without asking for even a modicum of assistance, let alone sympathy. In fact, my paternal grandfather’s obituary states that “he was a quiet man, both in life and in death,” which underscores that the ability to deny pain is often equated to virtue.
The idea that men should be brave and refuse help from anyone is not limited to veterans of war or even just men from my grandparents’ generation. Pervasive in U.S. society but especially in the U.S. military is this norm of quiet suffering that demands men endure their pain alone and take care of their problems themselves without asking for help. By societal definitions, this is what a “real” man is. I see this masculinity expectation even in my 21-year old brother who grew up in a generation far more accepting of emotions and expression in men, but who nevertheless refuses to go to the doctor until my mother literally drags him there, despite the fact that he has a heart condition that needs to be constantly monitored. I’ve had more than one boyfriend who clearly needed therapy but who wouldn’t even consider the idea, even though their mental health issues contributed to the demise of their relationships. And my father is no exception to this rule—after having knee surgery he went back to work the next day and did physical labor that made his condition even worse. He now wears a knee brace every day in lieu of going through the surgery again and recovering properly.
The societal prescription that men shouldn’t cry, complain, or ask for help is exacerbated in military settings which combine hegemonic norms of masculinity with other requirements such as personal responsibility, loyalty to one’s commander and unit, and avoiding stirring up “trouble” or otherwise undermining unit cohesion with personal grievances. To be sure, military culture and the coinciding expectations are intimately bound up with norms of masculinity, and in many ways cannot be separated. The military institution, then, might be thought of as an exemplar reproducer of the strictest forms of masculine norms and expectations, a bastion of masculine ideals that are perpetuated in the civilian world as well, but with more fluidity and freedom compared to the military.
The masculine norm that dictates men should not ask for help, but rather should quietly suffer through their problems and take care of things themselves is an insidious one, and is likely detrimental to men’s physical and mental health. In fact, a recent study found that men with a stronger sense of masculinity were about 50% less likely to seek preventative health care compared to their less masculine counterparts. This hesitancy of men to ask for help also extends to sexual assault, especially in military settings. Contrary to popular belief, rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment of men in the military is rampant, and although women’s risk of being sexually violated exceeds that of men’s, men comprise 39% of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) patients at the VA. Some studies have found that men tend to suffer more than women from military sexual assault and also receive less support for their trauma. Servicemen are also less likely to report sexual violations compared to servicewomen, and a recent Department of Defense (DOD) survey indicated that almost half of male sexual assault victims indicated they did not report the incident because it was “not important enough” and because they “did not want anyone to know.” Similar conclusions have also been reached in surveys and focus groups of the military academies. As I reported in Military Academies: Rape, Sexual Assault, and Sexual Harassment, both male and female cadets and midshipmen emphasized that military values like personal responsibility combined with the emphasis on male traits like toughness and strength especially preclude men from reporting sexual violence. As one male cadet aptly put it:
We go to the Military Academy, there’s a masculinity stigma. I don’t want to
call it stigma, there is a masculinity expectation, you are going to be a leader of
men and women, but having that would be an automatic “What? Like what
happened to you? Why wouldn’t you have taken action?” We’ve gone through
combative, you’ve had boxing classes for crying out loud. You couldn’t prevent
something like that from happening?
The male cadet’s quote is laced with myriad reasons why men do not report or seek help after being sexually assaulted—norms of masculinity combined with rape myths like the idea that sexual assault cannot happen to men especially because men are strong enough to stop it–pervade the military institution and also service providers like the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Men who come forward and admit to their victimization risk much for their bravery—they may be mocked, ridiculed, blamed, degraded, and worst of all—considered less than a “real” man. Like women, men who report sexual violence are subject to severe career risks, and perhaps even more so than women since men are so bound by the dictates of masculinity and personal responsibility. Finally, men who report sexual violence risk being labeled as homosexual. Despite increased tolerance levels for LGBT servicemen and women as well as the recent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, homophobia is still alive and well in the military.
In light of these alarming statistics about sexual assault among men in the military, SWAN has initiated efforts to comprehensively study this issue and come up with policy recommendations specifically for men that might address low reporting rates as well as discrimination in MST benefits. Still, I can’t help but worry that policy changes will not be enough given the strong and enduring gender prescription for men to be quiet sufferers, both in the civilian and military worlds. It is heartbreaking to see the men in my life endure their pain silently and alone while simultaneously being praised by society for their heroic stoicism. Rather than heralding men who suffer without complaint, we must encourage men to express their pain and ask for help when they need it with the same sincerity and compassion we extend to women.
Rape, Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Military, the Quick Facts – Service Women’s Action Network