What’s So Funny About The John Travolta Sexual Assault Allegations?

John Travolta’s now been accused of sexual assault by not one, but two, masseurs. But so far, many media outlets are treating the allegations as a big joke. Are they taking the lawsuits less seriously because the alleged victims are men?

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Crazy lawsuit alert,” opens a Reuters story on the first accusation against John Travolta: A masseur alleges that Travolta touched his leg and genitals, then masturbated in front of him and told him, “I’ll jerk you off.” Or as Reuters puts it: “The unnamed victim was apparently so desirable Travolta allegedly refused to take ‘no’ for an answer.” If the allegations are true — and Travolta vehemently denies them — then the masseur’s “desirability” would hardly be at fault. But the line exemplifies the patronizing tone of much coverage of the suit.

Vanity Fair has a post titled “The Most Bizarrely Inane Details of the John Travolta/Masseur Lawsuit Revealed” (an earlier version called them “Hilariously Inane”), which says the document “reads more like bizarre, R-rated fan fiction than a real event” and invites readers to “enjoy.” The Atlantic Wire, in similarly winking fashion, says the masseur accused Travolta of rubbing his leg and “other things in the midsection vicinity.”

Contrast all this with coverage of the very similar claim a female massage therapist made against Al Gore in 2006. Her allegations were called “shocking,” “alarming,” and “scary”, but they weren’t played for laughs (though The Smoking Gun did liken her statement to “R-rated Vice Presidential fan fiction”). Something about a male accuser seems to make writers snicker.

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That something, according to Hugo Schwyzer, a gender studies professor at Pasadena City College and frequent writer on masculinity, is our society’s notion that men simply aren’t vulnerable to sexual assault. Men, he explains, are expected to “fend for themselves” — if they’re confronted with unwanted advances, we expect them either to attack or to recoil in disgust. And the media and public alike have trouble imagining that a man would ever feel so “overwhelmed or confused” by sexual assault that he would fail to react immediately with violence.

The coverage of the suit also reveals, according to Schwyzer, the different ways we think about men’s and women’s bodies. Many people believe — erroneously, Schwyzer points out — that women, if they dress and look a certain way, have the power to make men so overcome with arousal that they simply have “no choice” but to commit sexual assault. But “we don’t believe that men’s bodies have that power.” So when a man accuses another man of a sex crime, “we dismiss it as absurd and play it for laughter. It’s the only thing we can do.”

Sexual orientation is also part of the issue. While gay rumors have been swirling around Travolta for years, he remains married to Kelly Preston. And there are still very few out celebrities in Hollywood. So Travolta’s accuser is faced with a “greater threshold of plausibility” than a female accuser would be, Schwyzer explains. He has to convince America not only that a famous and popular actor would sexually assault someone, but that he would sexually assault a man. Particularly for those who never believed the rumors about Travolta, this may be hard to swallow.

Schwyzer notes that female accusers also face problems that men don’t, like intense scrutiny of their appearances and sex lives. And they, too, are frequently doubted when they come forward. But much as the obsession with female accusers’ history and looks can discourage women from speaking up about violence, treating allegations by men as a joke can keep them silent too. And whatever happened in the Travolta case (it’s important to note that we don’t yet know), men do get harassed, assaulted, and raped.

A second masseur has now come forward to accuse Travolta of harassing him and touching him inappropriately. And the lawyer representing both of them says more men have contacted him to make similar accusations against the actor. It remains to be seen whether more alleged victims will encourage people to take the first more seriously — or if the jokes will continue.

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