Zeke Thomas’ revelation can change how we see male victims of rape

DJ and producer Zeke Thomas’ brave public revelation Tuesday that he was raped twice — once as a 12-year-old and again last year — coincides with a grassroots Twitter campaign to raise awareness about the pressure we put on boys to be masculine, however narrowly such a thing is defined.

Thomas, 28, is the son of basketball legend Isiah Thomas. He stars in a new public service announcement, during which he encourages survivors of sexual violence to speak up and offers suggestions for what to say if someone tells you they were raped. On Tuesday, he went on “Good Morning America” to discuss the PSA and told host Robin Roberts that he survived two sexual assaults.

“I want to give the voiceless a voice,” Thomas said. “The healing really begins with the voice. The healing begins with, ‘This happened to me. I can get through it.’”

Last week, HuffPost editor James Michael Nichols posted a tweet about a childhood memory. “I think the weirdest code of masculinity i was forced to ascribe to growing up was the policing of the length of my shorts,” he wrote.

Others started to chime in with memories about enforced masculinity, prompting Nichols to suggest, “We should start a hashtag #failingmasculinity.”

In poured the tweets.

“With responses ranging from memories of parents forcing kids to take part in sports against their will to kids and adults policing human responses considered feminine, like crying or expressing too much emotion, the hashtag #FailingMasculinity painted an important, and sad, portrait of what expectations of masculinity can do to children in American culture,” Nichols wrote the next day.

What does #failingmasculinity have to do with Thomas? Quite a bit, maintains author and masculinity researcher Andrew Smiler.

“A lot of folks see being a victim as a failure of masculinity,” Smiler told me Tuesday. “What could be less masculine than not defending yourself?”

That type of thinking, he said, often leads men to stay silent about what they’ve endured, including sexual abuse and rape.

In Thomas’ case, he didn’t press charges in either instance of rape because he “just wasn’t ready” and didn’t want to be labeled a victim. His family, he said, has been supportive since he told them about both incidents and helped him find the courage to work toward recovery.

That starts with talking about it, which is all too rare, Smiler said.

“It’s very unusual for guys to make public acknowledgments of ways in which they don’t conform to societal standards for what it means to be a man,” said Smiler, who wrote “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male.” “It’s potentially a little bit freeing for guys to be able to show this vulnerability in a public space.”

Which is what happened with the #failingmasculinity hashtag.

“My dad would yell at me every time I crossed my legs when I sat because men sit with their legs spread out,” tweeted one person.

“I was told crying is for queers … which kinda made me cry more,” tweeted another.

“We still very much have this notion that there is a single way to be a man,” Smiler said. “We’ve seen a variety of other versions in the last decade or two decades, and maybe even some acceptance in public spaces of different ways that don’t fit the more narrow stereotype. But the notion that there’s just one way to be a real man hasn’t been dislodged yet.”

It’s odd, he pointed out, in a nation that loves choices.

“There are 8 million flavors of Jell-O,” he said.

Both Thomas’ message and the #failingmasculinity hashtag make way for a broader definition to take root.

“It chips away at the idea of a man being a failure if he doesn’t meet the societal standard for masculine,” Smiler said. “If he’s a survivor, it helps get rid of the notion that he’s all alone or doesn’t deserve help or can’t get help.”

As Thomas says in his PSA: “Everyone heals in their own time and in their own way. The path isn’t always a straight line, and you don’t need to go it alone.”

We can all do our part to create the space for that healing to begin.

©2017 Chicago Tribune