Challenging Perceptions

UTA researcher lauds Netflix hit series ‘Baby Reindeer’ for portrayal of violence against men

Monday, Jul 01, 2024 • Neph Rivera : contact

Photo of Morgan PettyJohn, assistant professor in the School of Social Work" _languageinserted="true

In the hit Netflix series Baby Reindeer, an act of kindness by the main character toward a vulnerable woman leads to an obsession that impacts both their lives.

Based on a true story, the show follows Donny, a bartender and comedian, who is stalked by Martha, the woman he showed kindness to, over a period of several years. The experience of being targeted by a stalker prompts Donny to reflect on his experience as a young adult, when he was sexual assaulted by a man who promised to help launch his comedy career.

It is a unique story that demonstrates that men, not just women, can be victims of violence—in fact, about one in four men experience some sort of unwanted sexual contact across their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Even though it was a heavy show to watch, it is one of the few examples of media I can think of that featured an adult man’s experience with sexual violence and stalking at the hands of both men and women perpetrators,” said social work Assistant Professor Morgan PettyJohn. She published a study on the experiences of adult men with sexual violence in Psychology of Men & Masculinities in 2023.

“My team and I wanted to look at all the existing literature, see how we could synthesize it, see where we were as a field and then see where we needed to go next in terms of improving men’s experiences,” she said.

Out of an initial search of more than 2,800 scholarly works, the researchers identified 41 that examined men’s first-person experiences with sexual violence in adulthood. Four overarching themes came to light:

  • Common sexual victimization tactics used against men
  • Men’s cognitive and emotional processing of the experiences
  • Men’s behavioral responses after experiencing the violence, and
  • Influence of masculinity constructs on help-seeking.

An examination of the literature revealed that male survivors have unique experiences with sexual violence because of sociocultural messages about masculinity.

“Often, sexual violence is labeled as a feminine experience. When men go through it themselves, there may be this need to reassert their masculinity and prove to themselves that they are a ‘man,’” Dr. PettyJohn explained. Baby Reindeer depicts this through Donny’s complicated relationship with Martha. While he is fearful of her behaviors, he also appreciates feeling desired as a man following the sexual violence he experienced earlier in his life.

Part of PettyJohn’s ongoing work is breaking down the myth that trauma can only be discussed in terms of a victim’s childhood.

“While focusing on child sexual abuse is important, we also need to recognize that adult men experience this as well and need the same resources and advocacy,” she said.

Resources available include the National Domestic Violence Hotline. and RAINN are also available for men or those who know men that need support.

When it comes to Baby Reindeer, PettyJohn says it does a good job of showing Donny’s experiences, including being stalked, being victimized by a male coworker, and how these events are connected. She believes the Netflix show can help make a difference and inspire men who are victims to ask for help. One charity for victims of sexual abuse saw a significant increase in calls following the show’s initial release.

“This was an important example to put out there to challenge the perception that men are always the perpetrators and women are always the victims.”