Constructing Hierarchies of Victimhood: Queer Male Survivors’ Evaluations of Sexual Assault Survivors

December 13, 2021

by Doug Meyer


The author employs a critical sexualities approach and draws on feminist theories of sexual assault to examine queer male survivors’ constructions of hierarchies of victimhood. Results, based on in-depth interviews conducted with 60 queer male survivors, reveal that participants most commonly responded to questions concerning hierarchies of victimhood by arguing that sexual assault is taken more seriously when it happens to women than to men. The second most common response involved participants constructing other queer male survivors as blameworthy, invoking a stereotype of a feminized queer man seeking consensual sex. In light of these findings, the author argues for greater attention toward building solidarity among survivors across the lines of gender and sexuality and for further feminist, sex critical interventions that challenge the pathologizing of male femininity and consensual sex.


sexual assaultrapesurvivorscritical sexuality studiesqueer men

Research examining sexual assault has frequently explored hierarchies of victimhood, or an ordering of who “counts” as a real or legitimate survivor of this violence (Henry, 2016Hlavka, 2017Ricciardelli et al., 2021). However, little remains known about how queer male survivors may construct these hierarchies (Garvey et al., 2017Graham, 2006Javaid, 2018). In this article, I use “queer” as shorthand for sexual minorities, which includes anyone who does not identify as heterosexual, and draw on qualitative, interview-based research conducted with 60 queer men in the United States who experienced sexual assault. This article focuses specifically on the two most common ways that participants constructed hierarchies of victimhood, examining the narratives of the 41 respondents who employed these most common discourses.


Scholarship on queer male survivors

In previous studies, when scholarship has explored hierarchies of victimhood and incorporated queer men into the analysis, this line of research has typically focused on men in general, not on queer men specifically (Abdullah-Khan, 2008Cohen, 2014Lowe and Rogers, 2017Weiss, 2010). Hlavka (2017: 498–499), for example, has noted a “hierarchy of sexual harm” among men that “privileges the violation of certain bodies over others,” explaining that “those victims who are not suspect and thus represent the ‘ideal victim’ are on the top tier.” On this “top tier,” Hlavka (2017: 499) uses the examples of very young male victims and those who are drugged, while also noting that “the bottom tier includes gay victims presumed suspect and questioned about consent because of their deviant sexuality. Like common rape myths about women, they are ‘asking for it.’” Although Hlavka’s analysis provides important insights, the relegation of “gay victims” to the “bottom tier” leaves unexplored how hierarchies may exist among queer men, which I examine in this article.

Scholarship focusing on hierarchies of queer male survivors has typically explored outsiders’ negative perceptions, held by groups ranging from service providers to the general U.S. public (Javaid, 2017Lowe and Rogers, 2017Messinger and Koon-Magnin, 2019Rumney, 2009). For instance, this line of research has shown that others frequently position queer men’s assaultive experiences as consensual, blaming them for the violence—as “leading on” the assailant—and drawing on stereotypical notions of gay and bisexual men as sexually “promiscuous” (Davies and Hudson, 2011Dunn, 2012Lowe and Rogers, 2017). Although research varies considerably in estimating the extent to which queer men experience sexual assault, Rothman and co-authors’ (2011) review of 75 studies revealed that for gay and bisexual men, these estimates ranged from 11.8% to 54.0%, with a median estimate of 30%. Comparing these figures with studies of the general U.S. population, these authors concluded that gay and bisexual men “may be at increased risk for sexual assault victimization” (Rothman et al., 2011: 55). Nevertheless, despite the beneficial understandings scholarship has provided on the frequency of this violence and the prevalence of negative perceptions of queer male survivors, an analysis of how queer men rather than outsiders may construct hierarchies of victimhood has yet to emerge (Garvey et al., 2017Graham, 2006Javaid, 2018).


Broader rape myths and stereotypes of sexual assault

In addition to exploring hierarchies among queer male survivors, this research focuses on participants’ comparisons with women survivors. Previous feminist analyses of hierarchies of victimhood have challenged stereotypical representations of sexual assault and critiqued narrow understandings of this violence (Hlavka, 2014Ricciardelli et al., 2021Small, 2019). Estrich (1987), for example, notably referred to notions of “real rape,” in which forms of sexual assault have been constructed as serious primarily when they are forceful stranger attacks and involve certain attributes, such as the assailant using a weapon or hitting the victim.

More recently, Pascoe and Hollander (2016: 74) have echoed Estrich’s framework, problematizing “the stereotype of the frightening stranger jumping out of a dark alley or from behind a car.” This stereotype has been critiqued for a wide range of reasons, as such portrayals often implicitly diminish the severity of other assaultive experiences—as not “really” rape or sexual assault—and reinforce racial inequality by positioning the assailant as a man of color (Armstrong et al., 2018Freedman, 2013Messner, 2016). These notions conceal the assaultive behavior of more privileged assailants, given that they are distanced from dominant understandings of who commits this violence (Curry, 2019Pascoe and Hollander, 2016). Such “stranger danger” representations have generally been imbued with not only racialized norms but also gendered ones, reproducing traditional gender ideology by constructing a white, implicitly heterosexual, woman as needing “protection” (Harris, 2019Henry, 2016Madriz, 1997).

These rape myths, then, contribute to race and gender inequalities and establish stranger-based assaults as the most serious, even though research has shown that most survivors know their assailant prior to the assault (Fanghanel, 2020Harris, 2019Messinger and Koon-Magnin, 2019). Consequently, such rape myths make it difficult for individuals whose assaultive experiences do not align with the stereotype, as outsiders may not recognize survivors with other, more common, experiences as “real” victims (Davies and Hudson, 2011Dunn, 2010Ricciardelli et al., 2021). Research indicates that survivors may “freeze” in the middle of an assault and may not verbalize any discourse for a variety of reasons, such as a fear they will be hurt even worse (Alcoff, 2018Muehlenhard et al., 2016). In addition, coercive forms of assault remain common, such as an assailant continually pressuring someone until a survivor relents (Fanghanel, 2020Harris, 2019Muehlenhard et al., 2016). The notion of a perfect or “ideal victim,” as some scholarship has characterized these stereotypical portrayals, affects how others respond to survivors and may lead others to blame those with experiences that do not match the stereotype (Christie, 1986Davies et al., 2012Ricciardelli et al., 2021). Thus, stereotypical representations are part of a larger social context in which many forms of sexual assault are minimized or positioned as inconsequential (Alcoff, 2018Harris, 2019Pascoe and Hollander, 2016).

Feminist work has pointed to how outsiders’ hierarchical constructions of survivors have frequently involved a pathologizing of sexual desire, with particularly high degrees of blame directed toward those who first pursued or engaged in consensual sex (Fahs et al., 2018Fanghanel, 2020Harris, 2019). To counter these hierarchical perceptions, feminist scholarship has characterized this emphasis on survivors’ sexual activity as a form of victim blaming (Davies et al., 2012Fanghanel, 2020Hlavka, 2014). In this article, I argue for a critical sexuality studies approach—a theoretical perspective concerned with understanding and critiquing how sex and power relations collide—to challenge hierarchies of victimhood that rely on a pathologizing of consensual sex (Fahs and McClelland, 2016Fahs et al., 2018). A sex critical approach has increasingly been employed in research on sexual violence, as this body of scholarship has refocused attention on the social conditions that lead assailants to violate someone else’s sexual and bodily autonomy (Barker, 2013Fahs et al., 2018). Although overlapping in some ways with a more mainstream “sex-positive” approach, a critical sexualities perspective nevertheless contends that not all expressions of sexuality are “positive” and avoids neoliberal notions of self-empowerment (Bauer, 2014Fahs, 2014Fischel, 2019).

Given the persistence of victim blaming and the continued acceptance of rape myths in the U.S., as shown in other research, it remains important to understand how individuals, including possibly even some survivors, may reinforce discourses that harm people who have been sexually assaulted (Harris, 2019Walfield, 2021). Centering the perspectives of survivors themselves also remains important in light of evidence that survivors’ voices are often marginalized in the U.S. (Alcoff, 2018). At the same time, in sexual assault scholarship, assumptions sometimes exist that centering survivors’ perspectives will inevitably improve current approaches toward this violence. For example, Linda Martín Alcoff (2018: 2), in Rape and Resistance, has stated, “I will argue, it is the voices of victims that need to remain at the center of the fight for cultural change.”

Although focusing on survivors’ perspectives and experiences holds a lot of value, potential shortcomings may also exist with this approach. Survivor-centered approaches, while important, remain limited if the responsibility for reducing sexual assault is placed entirely on survivors. Instead, individuals who have not been sexually assaulted also need to challenge rape myths and structures of inequality that contribute to this violence. Moreover, in the U.S., survivors subsist in a social context structured by ongoing social inequities, as well as a culture that advances some negative ideas about individuals who have been sexually assaulted (Harris, 2019Hlavka, 2014Walfield, 2021). It seems potentially dangerous to elevate survivors to an exalted plane, as if social hierarchies do not sometimes inform this group’s thinking and behavior as well. Conversely, departing from my previous work in which I have focused on the structural barriers facing queer male survivors, in this article I examine how queer men may reinforce inequalities facing women survivors and other queer male survivors (Meyer, 20202021). This approach has implications for scholarship focusing on the relationship between power relations and sexual assault, revealing that queer male survivors’ perceptions—not simply those of their assailants—should be understood in relation to a larger social context that includes victim blaming and that involves a minimizing of some survivors’ experiences.


Interviewing queer male survivors

The qualitative data presented in this article are drawn from 60 semi-structured, in-depth interviews conducted in Atlanta and New York City. These two cities were chosen for recruitment to attract a diverse group of respondents in terms of race and ethnicity. To recruit participants, flyers were placed at a variety of organizations, many of which serve LGBTQ people of color. The flyer read: “Do You Identify as a Gay, Bisexual, or Queer Man, and Have You Experienced Rape or Sexual Assault Since You’ve Been 18?” Participants contacted the researcher via phone or email; all interviews took place in person at a location of the interviewee’s choice, and respondents received fifty dollars for their participation. During the interview, participants were asked, “Do you think a hierarchy of victimhood, or a ranking of who ‘counts’ as a ‘real’ survivor of this violence, exists with regard to people who have experienced rape or sexual assault?” Those who answered “no” were asked a few follow-up questions, while those who answered “yes” were asked more detailed, open-ended questions about their perceptions of these hierarchies (see Appendix A for this interview protocol).

These initial questions were open enough to allow respondents to describe their perceptions, as I was hoping not to invoke a particular type of hierarchy or a specific comparison group but to allow participants to explain how they felt on their own terms. Most participants discussed women survivors during these initial questions; if they did not, they were then later asked a series of questions about their perceptions of this group. Although sexual assault scholarship has emphasized the importance of resisting a gender difference framework, in which women and men are positioned as mutually exclusive “opposites,” asking participants about women survivors proved to be a useful methodological strategy for exploring the discursive ways that queer men might reproduce gender inequality (Cohen, 2014Fanghanel, 2020). Of course, asking participants about their perceptions of hierarchies of victimhood is not without its limitations, given that it may have led respondents to focus on cultural tropes or stereotypical ideas rather than more pervasive forms of sexual assault. Still, I left the interview questions open to allow for the discovery of the various groups that participants first invoked.

All of the interviews took place from July 2016 through August 2017. The interviews lasted from approximately one to three hours; the median interview was 97 min. Fifteen of the interviews took place in Atlanta, while forty-five occurred in New York City. In accordance with the Institutional Review board of my university, I acquired written informed consent to ensure protection of participants’ identities.

Grounded theory methods were used to analyze transcripts of the interviews, with open, axial, and selective coding employed with the qualitative data analysis program ATLAS.ti (Corbin and Strauss, 2015Miles et al., 2019). Open coding was first employed to identify initial concepts, with line-by-line analysis of the transcripts (Charmaz, 2014Glaser and Strauss, 2017). Adhering to Corbin and Strauss’s (2015) suggestion for axial coding, whereby categories and relationships are made among the concepts generated from open coding, I then created broad axial codes. Through the process of selective coding, with analysis of the axial codes and the writing of theoretical memos, core categories emerged, as this examination revealed more specific trends in participants’ narratives (Charmaz, 2014Miles et al., 2019). Some of these categories resemble the data presented in this article, such as “denouncing other queer male survivors based on femininity” and “emphasizing their own femininity when arguing that women survivors receive more support.” After creating these core categories, I analyzed the transcripts again, selectively coding any data related to the categories, in addition to refining and validating the relationships that had been established with the constant comparative method utilized throughout the coding process (Corbin and Strauss, 2015Glaser and Strauss, 2017).

Broadly speaking, most participants answered in one of three ways to my initial question about whether they thought a hierarchy of victimhood exists among survivors: (1) they said “no” and did not construct hierarchies of victimhood; (2) they answered “yes” and compared women and men survivors, arguing that sexual assault against the former is taken more seriously; or (3) they said “yes” and positioned other queer male survivors as blameworthy. Four participants instead compared queer male survivors with heterosexual, cisgender men or argued that women survivors receive less support than queer men. Since those responses were atypical in the sample, I have chosen to focus on the two primary ways that participants constructed hierarchies of victimhood; that is, the second and third responses numbered above. These two responses conceivably could have overlapped among participants, but they did not in this sample. The 15 respondents who answered “no” to my initial question are not included in my analysis here, as I believed that their narratives resisting hierarchies of victimhood were worthy of their own in-depth exploration.

In the overall sample, over half of the 60 participants, 37, self-identified as Black or African American; 14 respondents identified as white, 9 as Latino or Latinx, 3 as Asian or South Asian, and 1 as Native American. These numerical totals exceeded 60, given that 4 participants self-identified as belonging to more than one of these categories. Such demographic information came from a questionnaire that respondents completed after the interview, thus reflecting their self-identification. In general, the race and ethnicity distribution of the sample resembles the share of respondents included in my analysis in this article; over half of the 41 participants, 25, identified as Black or African American, while 10 identified as white, 7 as Latino or Latinx, and 1 as South Asian. Thirty-two of the forty-one participants self-identified as gay, seven as bisexual, one as queer, and one as pansexual. Although the larger sample includes six respondents who identified as non-binary or transgender men, these participants did not respond in either of the two ways outlined in this article. Thus, all of the 41 respondents are cisgender. All but two of the participants were born in the United States, and respondents typically described multiple experiences of sexual assault, as a majority had faced adult anal rape, as well as childhood sexual abuse, at least once. To ensure confidentiality, I have used pseudonyms throughout this article.


“Women get more support”: comparisons with women survivors

The most common response to questions concerning hierarchies of victimhood involved participants arguing that sexual assault is taken more seriously when it happens to women than to men, as 31 respondents made this type of argument (see Table 1, for trends among participants). Although respondents came to this conclusion for a variety of reasons, they usually focused on the challenges confronting queer male survivors, or men more broadly, when making these arguments. In particular, 25 of the 31 participants emphasized homophobia, biphobia, or anti-queer prejudice potentially confronting queer male survivors, and 12 respondents focused on men receiving less support than women because men may be perceived as stronger and blamed for not physically fighting back (Table 1). These two responses were not mutually exclusive, as participants sometimes went back and forth between them. Further, due to the intersectional subjectivity of respondents, as queer and as men, their challenges related to gender and sexuality were not always feasible to separate.


Table 1. Groups of Participants (with most frequent subthemes).

Table 1. Groups of Participants (with most frequent subthemes).

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However, among these 31 participants, their arguments were typically constructed around gender difference initially, as they spoke about women receiving more support than men, yet they subsequently usually described struggling with stereotypes of queer male survivors as feminine or sexual. Indeed, 22 of these participants criticized the stigmatizing of male femininity or queer sexual desire. For instance, Juan, a 47-year-old Latino gay man whose former partner had raped him on two occasions, said the following:

I guess what really bothers me is that a lot of people see us all as silly little faggots who go around looking for dick anywhere we can find it. They see us as feminine, therefore we can’t defend ourselves, and looking for sex – therefore, we can’t be raped. And I am [feminine], but that doesn’t mean I’m just sitting around waiting to be raped….I want people to know that just because I’m not a woman who was grabbed in an alley that doesn’t mean I should be blamed for what happened to me. Women get more sympathy, so people are going to grant them respect, but feminine guys are hurt just as bad, if not worse. Women have it easier.

These participants often highlighted their gendered challenges, such as an association of femininity with weakness or vulnerability, and their anti-queer struggles, such as pathologizing notions of “promiscuity.” Juan reported an experience of rape to the police, and one of the officers responded by asking him, “Don’t you guys like rough sex anyway?” Juan interpreted “you guys” to mean gay men, as this question reframed the assault as consensual and drew on sexualizing stereotypes of gay men. These respondents generally struggled with a perception, sometimes substantiated by their experiences, that others would not view them as legitimate survivors. Instead, they feared, or had experiences with, being blamed for the violence.

Although these participants attempted to establish themselves as unworthy of this blame in a variety of ways, one of the more frequent ways they did so was through this comparison with traditional understandings of sexual assault against women. Indeed, Juan reflected this trend through his statement “just because I’m not a woman who was grabbed in an alley that doesn’t mean I should be blamed for what happened to me.” In part, then, these narratives arose from participants’ challenges and their desire to be viewed as legitimate survivors, worthy of respect. Broadly speaking, their narratives should be understood in relation to a larger heteronormative environment that positions some queer men as blameworthy for their assaultive experiences.

At the same time, these narratives typically reproduced, and likely arose from, a larger anti-feminist context in which individuals may minimize the challenges facing women survivors. These participants’ statements about women survivors were most frequently constructed around “support” or “sympathy,” as 26 respondents used at least one of these two words. Some of these participants focused on presumable support they thought women would experience from friends or family members, while others emphasized resources devoted to violence against women or argued that the police would take rape more seriously for women survivors. Kyle, a 54-year-old Black gay man, said, “Women will get more help and have people taking it super seriously….Like police or doctors.” These comparisons reproduced a gender difference framework, with an exaggeration of differences across gender lines (Cohen, 2014Henry, 2016). Research has shown that women who have been sexually assaulted frequently experience unsupportive responses in many institutional settings, including with law enforcement and medical personnel (Alcoff, 2018Fanghanel, 2020Harris, 2019).

Most of these respondents, 20 in total, said that survivors across gender lines experience the same or similar feelings, which then helped to underscore their perception of an unfairness that exists regarding support. Damon, a 26-year-old Black bisexual man, described his perception of this difference succinctly: “The feelings are the same, but it doesn’t get as much attention when it happens to a man—society doesn’t view it as a big deal. Women get more support.” Participants who described themselves as feminine most forcefully made these arguments that emphasized similar feelings across gender lines; almost half, 15, of these respondents described themselves as feminine. Ornell, for example, a 37-year-old Black gay man, stated:

Rape is rape no matter what. It hurts us all. But it is viewed differently. Women get more respect….I’ve always seen myself as a very feminine person, and femininity as very powerful. The feelings are the same for me as they are for women, but they get more sympathy [emphasis added, said angrily]. When people think of rape, they think of a woman being pulled into the bushes in the park, so that’s who they’re going to sympathize with. Men, people won’t care about, even if we’re feminine.

Participants such as Ornell drew attention to an assumed gendered similarity—femininity—between themselves and women survivors to accentuate a presumed inequity in treatment. From this perspective, many women and feminine men may be associated with similar characteristics and may experience comparable feelings from a sexual violation, yet these participants drew attention to such similarities not to construct possible alliances or to express solidarity but to position these survivors hierarchically in terms of how each group is treated.

The ongoing assumption in these narratives relied on a contrast with an implicitly heterosexual survivor, as queer women did not appear in any of these narratives. Three of these participants referred to women survivors as dating or having sex “with men” and explicitly contrasted themselves with a heterosexual woman. More broadly, these comparisons with an implicitly heterosexual woman helped to accentuate respondents’ anti-queer experiences, or fear over confronting such responses, given that such women presumably would not face the same discriminatory experiences rooted in anti-LGBTQ prejudice. Through a gender difference framework, femininity frequently becomes conflated with women, leading to the disappearance of feminine queer men’s concerns. In this sense, a gender difference framework contributed to some of the discourse that these participants used, while also being part of what they reacted against—an understanding that women’s femininity may be framed as worthy of protection.

Similar to Ornell, 17 of these participants brought up, without being asked about it, the stereotype of a stranger attacking a woman in a park or a dark alley. Respondents here typically experienced sexual assault in the context of either a relationship or a casual sexual encounter—often colloquially known as a “hookup”—and did not have experiences that resembled stereotypical representations of rape. Instead, they used these representations to position women as receiving a lot of support and to highlight the lack of support experienced by individuals such as themselves.

Only five of these respondents said that they personally knew a woman who had been sexually assaulted, at least to their knowledge. Four of the five participants who knew a woman survivor nevertheless described how others had responded unsupportively to her disclosure of sexual assault. Chad, a 48-year-old white gay man, said, “Women will have people helping them more so than men because people think of a woman being grabbed in a dark alley.” Later during the interview, however, he described a female friend who was raped in college and had experienced harassment after she reported the assault to the administration; some of the rapist’s friends called her a “slut” and began circulating rumors about her around campus. Consequently, even participants who had evidence of women encountering negative reactions did not typically use these experiences to highlight a lack of support for survivors across gender lines.

My research did not reveal race and ethnicity differences in the number of participants arguing that women receive more support than men; a similar percentage of respondents across racial and ethnic lines made these arguments. Still, while white participants focused solely on gender and sexuality, Black queer men more frequently described the effects of race. For example, Kenneth, a 42-year-old Black gay man, stated:

It just pisses me off that whenever you see it, it’s always some white woman who is snatched into some dark place. Her clothes are torn, really dramatic. Like it’s so ridiculous, who could believe that? That’s why I think it’s easier for women – everyone comes running to help them, like, “Oh my god, what happened to her?” That’s why I see women as being supported more so. Gay guys are seen as so sexual, so we must always want it….Like Black [gay] men especially are always supposed to be there to please any man that comes along….Other gay guys think that….And then if you’re feminine, people think you’ve just wasted your existence as a man, so who really cares if you’ve been raped? Who’s gonna notice a feminine guy screaming rape? People think you brought it on yourself. People need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with a guy being feminine or a gay guy wanting to sleep with other people – that doesn’t give someone the right to violate you.

Black participants highlighted their unique challenges, as Kenneth here emphasized that Black queer men are especially sexualized—as “supposed to be there to please any man that comes along.” Thus, it remains important to account for the sexualization of Black queer men when examining the pathologizing of queer sexual desire, as such stigmatizing may be particularly acute for this group. Black participants also most frequently mentioned that others may view their femininity as a “waste,” as Kenneth did when saying, “If you’re feminine, people think you’ve just wasted your existence as a man.” Black respondents who described themselves as feminine addressed this pathologizing more than other participants, as Black queer men who challenge traditional understandings of gender may be condemned for “inappropriately” representing their racial communities or for failing to live up to racialized stereotypes that associate Black men with heterosexual masculinity (Collins, 2004Meyer, 2015).

Although Kenneth was the only participant to state explicitly that whiteness has been part of how rape victims have traditionally been represented, the common positioning of survivors as not only women and heterosexual but also white likely played an important role in perceptions that women receive a lot of support (Armstrong et al., 2018). If survivors were more commonly positioned as Black, these respondents may not have constructed women as receiving a lot of support as frequently as they did. Participants neglected Black women when positioning women survivors as receiving considerable support, which reflects some broader approaches toward sexual violence, in which mainstream U.S. attention has usually focused on the experiences of white women, despite this group’s lower rates of sexual assault than Black women (Curry, 2019).

When white participants argued that women survivors receive more support than men, these respondents did not typically emphasize racialized challenges, but they sometimes used misogynistic discourse. For instance, Sean, a 53-year-old white gay man, first argued that “women, people will sympathize with – not men,” and then began speaking about how cisgender women’s bodies may appear “really damaged” because “they’ll have blood coming out of their [participant stopped speaking here].” This statement from Sean occurred several months after Donald Trump’s infamous comments about Megyn Kelly, in which Trump used similar language during the 2016 Republican presidential primary. I asked Sean toward the end of the interview if his comment was designed to be a takeoff on Trump’s statement, and he responded as if he did not know what I was referring to, suggesting that he was not necessarily aware of this remark. Nevertheless, as Sean made these comments, he repeatedly invoked this representation of a woman survivor who had been raped multiple times. From Sean’s perspective, such a woman would be viewed sympathetically.

As I probed further, Sean appeared to worry that outsiders would use his multiple experiences of assault, with different assailants, to construct him as a pathological person. Survivors who have been assaulted many times or by multiple assailants may be positioned not as worthy of greater empathy, given that they have been victimized on more than one occasion, but as troubled or demented people. When Sean described his worry over being seen as a psychologically disturbed person for being assaulted by multiple men, he said, “Women who have been raped, people will see as the ‘ultimate victim.‘…But, me, I’ll be seen as, ‘What’s wrong with you that it keeps happening to you?’” The pathologizing of survivors who have been assaulted on multiple occasions certainly extends to women survivors, yet it is also possible that Sean would have expressed less misogyny if cultural understandings of sexual assault against queer men improved. In short, participants’ narratives in this section should be contextualized in relation to not only larger dynamics of gender inequality but also participants’ own concerns, which were informed by ongoing heteronormative discourses that may pathologize queer male survivors.


“There’s a difference between a gay man and a faggot”: constructing hierarchies of queer male survivors

In contrast to respondents in the previous section, another group of participants first responded to questions concerning hierarchies of victimhood not by focusing on women survivors but by emphasizing differences among queer men. These 10 participants all identified as gay and did not describe themselves as feminine. Only four described themselves as masculine, yet a resistance to male femininity was consistently expressed throughout their narratives (see Table 1). Contrary to participants in the previous section, all of these respondents had one or more experience in which a stranger had raped them in a non-sexual context. These participants also repeatedly invoked a particular type of contrast—one involving a queer man seeking consensual sex. For instance, Tyrice, a 30-year-old Black gay man, contrasted himself with his friend, a Black gay man who had a group of men rape him:

The way I see it is there’s the willing and the unwilling. Some go out there looking for sex, while others have it forced on them….I have a hard time with consoling that friend because, to me, you asked for it, you went there to do drugs, you went there to have sex….He’s this feminine guy who likes to party until dawn. I don’t like to hang out with men like him who consider themselves girly….Everything that happened to that person that day was their fault, in my eyes. And, that’s coming from a person who, I can say, is a real victim….I was young, innocent….I was kicking and screaming and had a gun to my head. You were willingly going there to get high and have sex. And one, two, three, whatever amount of people, had their turn with you without your knowledge, because you were too high and out of it. I can’t really sympathize, saying that you were raped, because you went there for that.

Participants constructed other queer male survivors as blameworthy in a variety of ways, but one of these ways was through this emphasis on age and force, as Tyrice mentioned that he was “young” and “had a gun to my head.” He positioned himself as not having the capacity to resist or avoid the assault, while constructing his friend as more culpable and less deserving of respect or sympathy.

Hierarchies between forceful stranger attacks and sexual assaults involving some initial desire for consensual sex have a long history, as media representations have most frequently presented rape as immediately non-consensual, even though survivors may pursue or engage in consensual sex acts before the assailant does something against their will (Alcoff, 2018Harris, 2019). These representations reproduce an implicit contrast between innocent and faultworthy survivors, in which the latter are constructed as responsible for their assaultive experiences or even positioned as “deserving” of the violence (Dunn, 2010Ricciardelli et al., 2021). Tyrice’s discourse, “you went there to have sex,” establishes such actions, rather than those of the assailant, as precipitating the assault, reinforcing the blame that survivors with these experiences may confront.

Although constructions of “real” victims of sexual assault exist beyond LGBTQ communities, the tropes that these respondents drew upon appeared specific to queer men in some ways. Similar to Tyrice, most of these participants, seven in total, referred to “drugs,” three of whom described a stereotypical representation of a “club kid.” For instance, Danny, a 31-year-old white gay man, said: “It’d be one thing if I was some club kid – dancing, doing drugs. Sashaying down the runway, looking pretty, going on Grindr at all hours of the night….They open their legs for anybody. But I didn’t want this to happen to me.” All of these respondents positioned other, blameworthy queer men as feminine or sexual. This emphasis on femininity operated in a variety of ways, but included references to feminized activities or characteristics, such as “looking pretty” or “sashaying down the runway” here.

Seven of these participants mentioned Grindr, which helped to contrast themselves with others seeking consensual sex. A majority, six, also referred to the act of bottoming, or being penetrated during anal intercourse, as Danny did here with “they open their legs for anybody.” Another one of these participants, Tario, a 47-year-old Latino gay man, described queer men who are “looking for sex” as needing “to be more careful with who they let put something in them.” This discourse relies on understandings that being penetrated potentially exposes oneself to negative consequences and, thus, the onus for preventing sexual assault is placed on the sexually receptive partner. Conversely, these participants all explained that they prefer to top, the act of penetrating another person during anal intercourse. Respondents were never asked about their preferred sexual activity, which led to some surprise on my part when they volunteered this information. This articulation of their preference for topping likely helped with masculinizing themselves in relation to other queer male survivors, whom they typically positioned as feminine.

Describing their preference for topping also helped these participants with establishing their experiences of anal rape as non-consensual. That is, this emphasis helped to shield against accusations that they may have wanted, enjoyed, or been looking for, anal penetration—an accusation that other men in this study sometimes experienced, with outsiders reframing incidents of anal rape as desired sex acts. Further, constructions of a sexualized queer man may have comforted these respondents, allowing them to feel safer and to believe that they would not experience sexual assault again as long as they did not imitate this stereotype. These accounts can be understood as examples of “defensive othering”—the process whereby members of a subordinated group reinforce negative ideas about their social category by claiming that stigmatizing labels apply to others but not to themselves (Schwalbe et al., 2000). Instead of criticizing negative stereotypes associated with queer male survivors, these participants exempted themselves from such notions and argued that the stigmatizing ideas pertain to some other queer men.

During the interviews, it remained striking that the respondents in this section positioned other queer male survivors as blameworthy, but usually advanced claims about the seriousness of sexual assault against women. For instance, Yamen, a 55-year-old Black gay man, stated:

You got those out there that they don’t care, they’re nymphos, all they care about is they look for dick….There’s a difference between a gay man and a faggot. The difference is, with a gay man, he picks and chooses who he wants to sleep with; a faggot is a doorknob where everybody gets a turn. A gay man is not going to put himself in a position to get hurt, but a faggot will put himself in the position for anything. Faggots live a dangerous life because they’re sleeping with any and everybody.…They use their femininity for attention. If you carry yourself fucked up, you’re going to get treated fucked up.

This narrative is consistent with a lot of the themes in this section, as this distinction between a gay man and a “faggot” relies on a positioning of the latter as more sexual, feminine, and prone to danger. In contrast to Tyrice’s earlier positioning of himself as “young” and “innocent,” and therefore with implicitly little or no agency to resist, Yamen here constructs a gay man as more agentic than a “faggot”; he positions the former as someone who “picks and chooses who he wants to sleep with,” while constructing the latter as a “nympho” or a “doorknob where everybody gets a turn.”

Later during the interview, however, Yamen described women survivors more positively: “Women don’t receive a lot of support either, so I think they need more….Gay men need to be there for women who’ve been raped and the message needs to go out that it’s bad for us all.” The main difference between these respondents and those in the previous section is that participants here did not construct women as problematically receiving more support than men. Another one of these respondents, Norman, a 38-year-old white gay man, said, “Rape against women isn’t taken seriously enough.”

Although the language these participants used was noticeably less harsh toward women survivors than those in the previous section, respondents here also tended to reproduce chivalrous understandings of gender. Marcus, for example, a 37-year-old Black gay man, explained his reasons for believing that sexual assault against women needs to be taken more seriously: “Women who’ve been raped are treated so badly, too, when you’d think they would be treated with the most love—because women are holy creatures, who should always be respected.” Marcus’s positioning of women as “holy creatures” reproduces chivalrous approaches toward women, in which they are elevated to an exalted status but are treated protectively and prevented access to the same domains as men. These more benevolent forms of sexism may construct women as deserving of love or kindness but nevertheless contribute to gender inequality by advancing a paternalistic, protective view of women (Madriz, 1997Messner, 2016).

These participants, in contrast to those in the previous section, also supported stereotypical representations of rape, in which a woman is forced into a location such as a park or a dark alley. For instance, Jayden, a 45-year-old Black gay man, said:

The raping of women is a big problem, too. They need to be protected. That “woman being snatched into a dark alley” shows what it’s like for all of us….Because there’s a lot of sickos out there. I had a group of guys attack me from behind – how was I supposed to do anything? They overpowered me, so it’s kind of similar in some ways – I was defenseless.…I just don’t like the “aren’t you strong enough to defend yourself?” I couldn’t!

The difference between participants here and those in the previous section arose in part from these respondents all having at least one experience that more closely resembled traditional understandings of sexual assault, in which a stranger had raped them in a non-sexual context. Participants in the previous section who experienced an assault in the context of a hookup may have also had a stranger as their assailant, but those respondents did not view their assaultive experience as aligning with traditional representations, given that the encounter began with some understanding that consensual sex might occur.

Although racial differences did not exist regarding the frequency with which participants constructed other queer male survivors as blameworthy, the Black gay men in this section were more likely than other respondents to describe struggling with perceptions of themselves as strong. Jayden, for example, said, “I just don’t like the ‘aren’t you strong enough to defend yourself?’” Participants’ hierarchical constructions need to be understood in relation to a broader context, in which some male survivors, particularly Black gender-conforming men, may have their experiences dismissed as something they should have been able to prevent through physical strength.

In short, the overlap of inequalities based on race, gender, and sexuality shaped these findings, as some queer men may be blamed for not preventing sexual violence through physical strength, while others may be blamed in ways that pathologize male femininity or queer sexual desire. Of course, a dichotomous understanding of queer men as either feminine or masculine must be avoided, given that imposing such a binary model of gender onto queer men would reinforce heteronormative standards, yet accounting for racial inequality, as well as differences in gender expression, is essential for understanding how outsiders may respond to sexual assault against queer men (Garvey et al., 2017Hlavka, 2017Small, 2019). Among the participants in this section, seven focused on how others may blame male survivors for not physically fighting back. Struggling against such notions, these respondents constructed themselves as incapable of preventing the violence and contrasted themselves with other queer men, whom they positioned as responsible for the assault.


Discussion and conclusion

Based on the narratives of this second group of participants, a particular stereotype of queer men who have been sexually assaulted appears to exist—one of a feminized man seeking consensual sex, on a place such as a hookup app. Although none of the participants in this second group experienced an assault after looking for consensual sex, other respondents had these assaultive experiences. On the one hand, this violence must not be used to stigmatize such situations more broadly. Many respondents experienced sexual assault in the context of a relationship, and yet participants never argued that relationships between men lead to sexual assault and should therefore be avoided. On the other hand, queer men experience assault in these contexts of meeting for consensual sex, and my results indicate that other queer male survivors may be the most likely to blame such men for the violence enacted against them. The frequency with which participants invoked this stereotype of a queer man seeking consensual sex points to its power and to the continued need for queer and feminist work adopting a sex critical approach, whereby consensual forms of sex are not pathologized (Bauer, 2014Fahs and McClelland, 2016).

Given that queer men are often disparaged through sexualizing and femininizing stereotypes, this group is at a unique position in some respects to challenge discourse that constructs consensual sex as the basis for rape and that situates male femininity as leading to sexual violence. This second group of participants, however, did not respond in this more critical way. Feminist, sex critical scholarship can help to reposition this violence as the product of social inequalities, not survivors’ behaviors or attributes (Barker, 2013Pascoe and Hollander, 2016). Casual sexual encounters remain a rite of passage for many queer men, even as heteronormative assumptions may establish such practices as immoral or dangerous. Work devoted to reducing sexual assault could benefit more survivors by emphasizing the value of queer sexual desires and practices.

Resistance to the naturalizing of male femininity as the site of sexual assault against men is also particularly important, given that gender inequality frequently establishes male femininity as setting the stage for negative consequences (Javaid, 2018). Of course, queer male survivors with masculine gender expressions will face many of their own challenges, but participants denounced other survivors by drawing attention to feminine attributes more frequently than masculine ones. Overall, continued research that involves a complex emphasis on the similarities and differences among queer male survivors remains needed, which includes further consideration of gender expression (Dunn, 2012Garvey et al., 2017Javaid, 2018).

In contrast to the second set of participants, the first group, nearly half of whom described themselves as feminine, often criticized the stigmatizing of male femininity or queer sexual desire. At the same time, this group’s frequent emphasis on women survivors receiving a lot of support indicates that significant barriers may exist in terms of creating alliances between women and queer male survivors. In light of larger structures of gender inequality, queer men may find it especially enticing to try and gain status through a comparison with women who have been sexually assaulted. After all, given that gender power relations encourage negative constructions of women, these participants’ narratives remained largely consistent with such aspects of gender inequality. For this reason, it remains important to avoid romanticized representations of survivors, as survivors in the U.S. remain situated in a broader context that involves ongoing inequities. An important path forward is to advance complex representations, taking seriously survivors’ concerns, while also avoiding unrealistic portrayals that position this group as exceptional.

To help reduce hierarchies of victimhood across gender lines, sexual assault scholarship can continue to highlight the role of gender inequality, as well as heteronormativity, in structuring many forms of sexual assault against queer men, in addition to others’ responses toward this violence (Javaid, 2017Small, 2019). This emphasis on gender inequality can make it more difficult for queer male survivors to view their challenges as entirely separate from those facing women, due to some overlap in structural oppression based on gender and sexuality. Constructions positioning women and queer men as competitors with one another reflect pressures toward adversarial relations between oppressed groups—sometimes referred to as an “Oppression Olympics”—in which marginalized individuals are encouraged to compete with one another over who is “more oppressed” (Hancock, 2011).

This discourse may be particularly likely in a competitive and hierarchical context such as the United States, yet emphasizing solidarity among survivors across the lines of gender and sexuality would be useful for challenging pressures that encourage survivors to compete with one another. Resistance to rape myths that construct sexual violence against women in relatively narrow ways—as a stranger attack, perhaps involving a brutal beating—also remain necessary, as participants in this first group often drew on these notions when arguing that women receive a lot of support. These stereotypical understandings exclude many survivors and can be used to dismiss the seriousness of many forms of assault.

Despite revealing the complex ways that participants constructed hierarchies of victimhood, this study undoubtedly remains limited in that these results need to be understood in relation to the research methods employed. For instance, this study may have attracted survivors with particularly forthcoming dispositions, given that respondents had to contact the researcher to participate. Many survivors may not want to volunteer for a study in which they will be asked questions pertaining to their assaultive experiences. Consequently, participants may differ in some important ways from queer male survivors more broadly. In particular, respondents were likely more comfortable speaking about their assaultive experiences than most queer male survivors and thus may have thought about themselves in relation to other survivors prior to the interview. This difference may have led participants to construct hierarchies of victimhood more frequently than queer male survivors in general would. Respondents also appeared to use the interview as an opportunity to situate themselves as worthy of proper recognition as a sexual assault survivor; their discursive work should be viewed in relation to this context.

An additional limitation of this study is that participants were asked about their perceptions of hierarchies of victimhood. Although these questions were left open and asked broadly, this approach may have led respondents to think about particular ideals and cultural tropes around sexual assault, rather than other, more common forms of assault. Nevertheless, given that interview research is useful for examining survivors’ meaning-making processes, these results reveal that at least some queer male survivors may reproduce rape myths focusing on stranger-based violence, as participants were more likely to reinforce than to challenge these myths.

In light of the stereotypes and structural barriers confronting Black queer men, some of which I have outlined in this article, more intersectional analyses remain needed in studies of queer male survivors (Meyer, 2021Ralston, 2012). Certainly, race, gender, and sexuality overlap in important ways to place many Black queer men in structurally disadvantaged positions, yet future research is necessary to expand on my results here to examine how these survivors may have their experiences minimized in race-specific ways. Stereotypes of Black men, linking this group with masculinizing characteristics such as aggression, may make it difficult for outsiders to recognize Black men as survivors, as they may have their suffering go unnoticed as a result (Collins, 2004Curry, 2019Meyer, 2021).

Further analyses also remain necessary to account for the perspectives of transgender and non-binary individuals. Although the number of such participants in this study was too small to make a conclusive determination, some possible differences may exist in this regard, as the hierarchical constructions outlined here may be most common among cisgender queer men. The second group of participants, all of whom identified as gay, may also reflect a more common response among gay cisgender men than among other queer men, such as those who are bisexual. As sexual assault scholarship continues to examine the perspectives of a wide range of survivors, it remains important to understand these perceptions in relation to broader challenges and systems of inequality. Indeed, as I have argued, it is possible that some of the participants in this study would not have produced such hierarchical discourse had they felt that their own experiences of assault were more culturally valued.

Much of the programming devoted to sexual assault in the U.S. remains heteronormative, revealing a strong need to integrate LGBTQ issues into current policies and programs (Messinger and Koon-Magnin, 2019). Some solidarity among survivors across the lines of race, gender, and sexuality remains necessary, yet a continual push to diversify and expand representations of survivors is also needed. Expanding sexual assault frameworks is particularly important for LGBTQ people, as gender identities and expressions continue to proliferate and become more fluid. Overall, as results revealed, queer male survivors may reproduce hierarchies of victimhood by drawing on a complex set of discourses, some of which sexual assault scholarship can amplify and others of which, such as a pathologizing of consensual sex or a minimizing of the challenges facing women survivors, research can continue to resist.




The author would like to thank Alberto McKelligan Hernández and Bailey Troia, as well as the anonymous reviewers, for their extremely helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.

Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Bucker W. Clay Faculty Research Support in the Social Sciences at the University of Virginia, and a summer stipend award in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Virginia.



Doug Meyer



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Appendix A

Interview protocol concerning hierarchies of victimhood

“Do you think a hierarchy of victimhood, or a ranking of who ‘counts’ as a ‘real’ survivor of this violence, exists with regard to people who have experienced rape or sexual assault?”

If closer to “yes” → “What do you think those hierarchies are?”/“Could you tell me more about how you see them?”

If closer to “no” → “What do you think is going on instead?”/“Could you tell me more about what you think is important for survivors?”

Ask, for participants who answered closer to “yes”:

→ “Where do you think those ideas come from?”/“What do you think these hierarchies ‘look like’?”/“Can you explain to me how you think they work?”

→ “What do you think are the similarities and differences among different groups of victims or survivors?”/“What do you think is important about that?”/“What do you think is going on there?”

→ “As you think back to everything you just said about these hierarchies, could you explain to me what you think is most important about them?”/“What did you mean by [repeat something the participant said]?”/“Can you explain that to me a little more?”

Doug Meyer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia. His second book, on which this article is based, is Violent Differences: The Importance of Race in Sexual Assault against Queer Men, forthcoming with the University of California Press.

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