To hell and back

by Michael Kirkland

I recently chanced across a TV documentary about the rape of men recently.

My gut churned. The coffee tasted funny so I put it down. I couldn't watch any more. I paced around the room, sneaking the odd glance through fuzzy eyes. I had to listen but I don't know why. I know the horror of being touched, of cowering on the edge of the bed with an erection I couldn't control. I know the terror of relentless bullying, of being told to enjoy it or else.

It all came flooding back. My balls hurt from being squashed. I saw sweaty swaying breasts and tasted shampooed hair in my mouth, and smelt her stickiness between my legs. I remembered how nothing would stop her - whenever she said I needed to make love to prove my manhood. I couldn't hide, nowhere was safe. I couldn't run away, there was nowhere to go. I was so ashamed. I remember it all.

After watching the documentary I had a white hot fury too. That night I wrote a letter asking 'What about men being raped by women?' The programme producer rang when she received my letter. What an unusually nice thing to do, I thought.

"Got your letter Michael. We, er, er know about it." So why not even mention it? "Not enough time." But half an hour!? "Single subject to cover." That men can be raped? "Yeah, we wanted to explore the issues." That they're ashamed and scared of the consequences? "Yes." And that's why they don't come forward? "Precisely. We have to seek them out." And men feel all those other things that violated women feel? "Yes, equally." Yet you distinguished men as the only perpetrators. Why? "Um, er…" Touchy subject? "Well, the um, situation here is, um, er, complicated. Our funding for another series is precarious." OK, I do understand. I really appreciate your calling and good luck with your funding. Bye.

I think I understand my motives for telling this story now. Talking about how it feels to be in a situation that is opposite to the conventional rhetoric and legal convention may assure a few men that they are not alone. And perhaps some charitable women may recognise similarities with their own experience and gain insight into many men's anger with reckless female sexism. But though these things are altruistically satisfying, they are not enough. Nor is my aim to promote an equality of victimhood for men because I despise such manipulative techniques - I am thinking of the fine line between playing the victim for gain and expressing legitimate anger. So why? My real passion is the injustice of stereotypes.

It is serious stuff, this unchallengeable decree that anything really, really bad is only ever done by men and mostly to women. The resultant pattern of public gender blaming must impact many people's private lives, not just mine.

If we looked, I reckon we'd find cruel inter-personal behaviour equally in both sexes, probably only coloured by sex-specific expression. I suggest that sexual abuse, intimidation, violence and bullying, economic and parental exploitation are not uniquely male behaviours. We culturally deny many of these offensive things in women to everyone's detriment. We deny them because we don't look. And we can't look because even to consider it, is an outrageous proposition except in very esoteric (and brave) circles.

For instance, it is generally accepted that heterosexual rape occurs when:

A man intimidates or threatens a woman

and he ignores her feelings or physical pain

while he uses her body for sexual gratification.

Fine! But consider an inclusive or perhaps a reverse definition of rape:

A woman intimidates or threatens a man

and she ignores his feelings or physical pain

while she uses his body for sexual gratification

Gender reversal seems inaccurate, impossible, crazy stuff. Fifteen years ago I would have agreed. Five years ago I would not.

While in the middle of it, I had no means to make sense of the various contradictions that confronted me, a truly maddening experience. Her violation of my body had no name other than my "impotence". Her consistent degradation of me was not abuse but her "liberation". Her hostility was not verbal and physical violence but a "legitimate response" to my "male power". And to be fair, there was no culturally acceptable way for her to develop insight into her controlling behaviour. She, like many women , was simultaneously victim and perpetrator of their "innocent women" stereotype.

Of course it's true that we both played a part in the human interplay; nothing human is ever entirely one-sided. But, explanations apart, this was not just lack of consideration as I had experienced in other relationships. This was a remorseless and frightening menace.

It was 1982. We were both single parents and both wanted to fall in love. It was exciting, full of romantic hope. How did it go bad? It's hard even now to understand how easily it happened. At first, a few little things were her targets. It put new order into our cosy chaos and it seemed good. Then more things. In time she ruled the household with a Thatcher-like fist. And it became a pristine hell.

Her much older children went their way and sadly preferred to lose contact; mine were too young by far. One day in one of her rages, she left, taking all the stuff she brought and bought, clothes, make-up, shoes, designer clothes, records, gadgets that plug in, things with wheels.

Two years later she re-appeared and looked stunning as usual. I was foolishly flattered. My pants bulged uncontrollably.

It was again a slow onset to crescendo, but this last time it became a fucking nightmare. As before, the little niggles became violent tantrums, the little slap became contemptuous bullying, the playful tease became ridicule. When I said "I don't like it" she took it as an insult from a cheeky child. I came to be utterly tormented believing I was inadequate, wrong, guilty, crazy. I know I let her do it. Bloody weird it was. She demanded I fuck her to prove virility, love, worthiness and I complied as before.

Then one day I said "NO". It was an inconceivable impudence, so she ignored it and did her mattress mastery over and over. When I couldn't do it any more, she just used the bits she needed. My automatic erection was her vindication. Pushing her off would have meant even more derision, so I lay beneath her wondering about my sanity and wriggled to end my pain as quickly as possible.

Outside the bedroom, she'd tell me I was mad, threaten me with knives, throw things, push me around, taunt me to fight back, but only when there was no-one watching. To the outside world, she stayed nice.

I thought of my options. Lock her out? The cops would come and take me away. They would never believe that someone so pretty was capable of domestic violence. Leave? The thought of turning up with my children at a refuge was absurd. My friends did not know my secret, so they were no help. I could not abandon my kids - I would rather have died, and thought of it. Fight back? Somehow I couldn't see myself doing it. I don't know if it was cowardice, chivalry or intellect saying "lay a finger on her even once and all hell will break loose". Murder her but make it look accidental? Its appeal did grow, unbelievably. I could not run the risk of her vindictive nature. She had a feminist network; her professional work was close to academia; she seemed determined to punish. I was trapped in a hell of my own making - I had accepted her back.

In desperation I looked up the Yellow Pages.

The voice answering the phone at the rape crisis centre said, "Only women are abused." The person at the Department of Health put me on hold while he asked around, before saying that there was no policy for men, and that I should talk to a doctor. I found one. She listened to my stammering for a few minutes and then while scribbling made excuses for her gender. I agreed I was depressed and impotent and never went back. You bet I was depressed. I took pills from another doctor and hid the prescriptions.

I never even thought of going to the police for help. In those days? In these days? Fat lot of good that would have done.

Eventually she left quietly, taking my furniture, money, light fittings even. Luckily she had no interest in the children. At the time I didn't care about my possessions - I was an empty shell, like our house. I was in survival mode, like a wounded dog. The kids suffered my emotional devastation, I'm ashamed to say. She left us alone - sort of. I was never stalked but she continued her terror by remote control, through the courts

The Family Court arbitrator had been well trained - he knew the gender order. He commented, "So far, I am quite unable to get agreement between you two. Let me put it to you this way. I am not permitted to ask and strictly speaking, it's none of this court's business but…" His eyes narrowed, "… she is as determined as a recovering abuse victim. For these years of her life helping you in your house, her claim is reasonable." I again thought of my options. None - I had done some research. I gave up and signed. The judge asked her if she was satisfied. The case would join the statistics and would appear to researchers as a settlement by agreement. It's called equalisation of the power imbalance. Recovery after it was over has been an interesting exploration. While on my own, my priority was to care lovingly for my growing children. I became intellectually obsessed with the notion of gender equality. I did it by rigidly applying gender reversal to other people's writings and sayings. My own beliefs were not immune and it was like uncorking a bottle on my past. I suddenly found new language tools to describe my recent and life-long human sensations. Simultaneously a wide range of cultural myths became examples of unexamined gender condescension and blaming. Rape happened to be just one of these.

Today I feel like a refugee from a bloody sexist war. It's all still too real. I even had another rotten dream about being raped the night before the programme - almost a premonition.

Yes, I hurt. I expect that's obvious. And no, it's not paranoia. And this will not go away because I watch, read, listen. Exploitation and violence and abuse, like most evil things, are now officially men's fault. It's not even called domestic violence any more; it's "Violence Against Women". Even Men Against Sexual Assault agree.

In case you're wondering, we did recover - the kids are extraordinary adults now. And finally at fifty-five I don't wonder about my sanity any more. I'm just crazy about them and real gender equality.

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