This weekend’s episode of Iyanla: Fix My Life dealt with a topic that often goes unmentioned in the black community: childhood rape and male survivors. The two-part conversation focused on five men who were victims of childhood sex abuse, and detailed the physical, mental and emotional struggles each victim had in discussing the trauma he’d experienced early in life. Throughout the episode, Iyanla navigated difficult conversations with each of the participants—specifically their sexuality and the responses of certain family members when they disclosed the violation that occurred.
As each participant began to disclose what had transpired in his life, the conversation began to shed light on an often unspoken part of rape culture: toxic masculinity and the way it affects black men.
Toxic masculinity is often referred to as the socially constructed attitudes that dictate the way heterosexual cisgender men should act, including being violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive. In the case of black men who are victims of sexual assault, toxic masculinity refers to the levels of shame that each victim has when speaking out about what happened to him. The toxic masculinity in these stories is the assumption that each of the young men, regardless of age, should have been tough enough to avoid being raped and should have been strong enough to resolve what happened to him.
The root of shame that each man addressed in telling his story revealed many of the issues that we find salient in topics related to rape culture—specifically the idea that accusers are constantly revictimized when they talk about their stories. For many of the men, when they opted to go to someone they trusted to speak openly about what had happened to them, their claims were met with denial. These men, like many victims of sexual violence, then began to believe that what happened to them was something that they had brought upon themselves because of their sexual identity or because they were not strong enough not to let it happen.
Since many of the participants identified as gay or have struggled with aspects of their sexual identity, Iyanla Vanzant addressed whether the men thought that they were gay because they were molested or molested because they were gay. This is when an interesting conversation unfolded around how each of the victims recalled the trauma of his experience and the struggle he had with elements of his sexual identity. While at no time did Iyanla allude to the idea that these men were gay because of trauma they had experienced, the topic was an acknowledgment of how perverse rape culture is and how often gay young men are targets because of how we view being gay in the black community.
It is no secret that the black community abhors homosexuality and often views young gay men as weak and shameful. A number of the participants in the show shared that, after sharing their truth with family members they loved and trusted, they were made to feel as if they’d brought the assault upon themselves. But this, in itself, is exactly how rape culture works and is a pivotal example of why we need to have more conversations about the how toxic masculinity is harming the black community.
We have to acknowledge that all young black men are victims of a system that we often perpetuate in our beliefs and our ways of thinking. We have to begin addressing the toxic elements of gender stereotypes that we put on young black men and how these elements often leave them voiceless. We must stop thinking that the acts that happen to our young black men are somehow their fault and start holding the adults—yes, the GROWN-ASS MEN who are committing these crimes—accountable.
We must stop believing that the act of rape is a primary virtue of male identity and that if we ignore the violent behavior, it will simply go away. This is exactly how rape culture continues to exist: the thought that it is pervasive and normal. But by trivializing it, you are, in fact, normalizing it.
As a community, we have to stop the cycle of normalization and tolerance of sexual assault that happens to our young men. We have to acknowledge that black men are at risk because of the pressures and gender stereotypes we force on them.
Simply put, by not acknowledging black young men as victims of sexual assault, we are subjecting them to years of being revictimized, of having mental- and emotional-health issues and, most, of being in pain.
While Iyanla may not be able to fully fix the lives of each of the men participating in this series, it must be acknowledged that we can’t begin the healing process if we never acknowledge the problem.