I have never told anyone this ― not my best friend, not my boyfriend, not my mother, not my brothers: nine months ago I invited a stranger over to have sex and it went further than I wanted it to and it did not stop when I tried to stop it.
He was an acrobat on tour in New York City who I met on Grindr and as cliche as it sounds, I was excited by the thought of him twisting and untwisting in my bed. I wanted to see exactly what he could do ― and do to me ― with his beautiful German body.
I didn’t intend on him penetrating me. Everything about penetrative sex ― from the prep involved to the level of intimacy it often holds for me to the concerns about health and safety ― tends to keep my sexual encounters with strangers (or semi-strangers) to hand jobs and blow jobs. But this particular man was incredibly persuasive and before I knew it, he was inside of me.
To say that I did not enjoy the experience would be an understatement. At first I tried to tell myself that it was OK ― that I was OK ― but as he continued to become more and more forceful, I suddenly realized that I was not. I panicked. I asked him to stop and he tried to convince me that because he was having a good time, I was having a good time. I was not having a good time. I asked him again, more insistently, to stop and, again, he kept going. He told me to relax. He suggested I position my legs in a certain way to make it “more comfortable” for myself. He did not stop. I realize now, looking back, the question running through my head wasn’t just “how can this really be happening?” but also “is this really happening?”
Even now, in the midst of all of the conversations that are happening about sexual assault and harassment in the wake of the dozens of accusations against Harvey Weinstein (and other powerful men), I not only question exactly what happened (even though I know what happened). I also question if there was something ― if there were many things ― I had done wrong. If, because I invited him over only and explicitly for sex; if, because I did initially agree to let him penetrate me; if, because I didn’t fight harder, was I to blame for what happened that late January night?
“I realize now, looking back, the question running through my head wasn’t just “how can this really be happening?” but also “is this really happening?””
No. I wasn’t. And so, yes, me too. And so many other men ― gay, bisexual, straight and otherwise ― have been assaulted and many of us, due to pride or embarrassment or just being unable to untangle the tricky, slippery strands of how and why ― say nothing or find ways to explain away or, worse, blame ourselves for what happened. What’s more, because it’s so taboo for men ― gay or otherwise ― to talk about being sexually assaulted, few of the conversations that need to be happening are happening.
And still, as much as I want as many people as possible talking about sexual assault and sexual harassment, I was disheartened to read an op-ed in USA Today this morning by Marc Ambinder entitled “How does Harvey Weinstein happen? Visit a gay bar with me.” In his piece, Ambinder attempts to tie non-consensual touching and kissing in gay bars to Weinstein and the culture that allows him and other men to force their way ― in so many ways ― onto women.
While, yes, non-consensual interactions in gay bars do happen (and more often than many gay men want to think or talk about), and, yes, as Ambinder suggests, gay men may have “more responsibility to police ourselves,” I don’t think it’s useful (and I’d go so far as to say it’s downright problematic) to make this kind of a connection in this kind of a way.
In fact, I think it’s important to say that what happened to me is not the same as what happened to the women who were attacked by Weinstein. And I think it’s important to say what happened to the women attacked by Weinstein is not the same as what happens to gay men who are groped without consent by other gay men in gay bars or anywhere else. The point is that one assault cannot be ― and shouldn’t be ― super imposed over another in hopes of finding meaning or solace or answers for how we move forward. They each occur in their own terrible, traumatic way. To lump them all together not only potentially diminishes ― and thereby potentially dishonors ― each specific story, but, I believe, stops us from having nuanced conversations about how we can work together to end this toxic part of our culture and all of the ways it seeps into our lives.
What’s more ― we need to believe men when they say they’ve been assaulted ― and when they say “no,” no matter where or when or why they’re saying it. But we also need to talk about how sexual assault between two male-identified individuals is (or may be) different than sexual assault between a male-identified individual and a female-identified or non-binary individual. Ignoring how sexism and male privilege operate and how their presence or absence changes the way our culture approaches, permits and encourages sexual harassment and assault against women is a different challenge than why and how sexual harassment and assault may occur for gay men.
Of course there can and will be overlap between the two and let’s also not forget that male privilege can and is weaponized against those who identify as femme men, but all of that just proves how complicated and insidious rape culture is for everyone. The big take away for me is that we should be having more and harder conversations about all of this ― not less or less nuanced ones.
That includes conversations about gay spaces and consent, especially when those spaces are often created to encourage and express sexual freedom (something I applaud) and lines can easily become blurred and easily be crossed (something I do not applaud). Non-consensual actions or activities are never OK but understanding how and when those actions or activities occur within these kind of spaces requires honest and complex discussions that go far beyond what Ambinder wrote.
“The difficult truth is gay men have a lot of issues to deal with when it comes to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and consent but the work we need to do in order to address these issues isn’t helped by sensationalist headlines...”
The difficult truth is gay men have a lot of issues to deal with when it comes to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and consent but the work we need to do in order to address these issues isn’t helped by sensationalist headlines such as Ambinder’s. It’s just not that simple.
So, let’s talk about why the man who refused to stop having sex with me may still to this day not have any clue that he assaulted me. Let’s talk about why it took me nine months and a clickbaity headline in USA Today for me to talk about my assault. Let’s talk about why I still have a hard time accepting that what happened was assault. Let’s talk about gay men spending more time interrogating their own behavior and the behavior of their friends and how we can be allies to those who are assaulted. And let’s talk about how all of this and more is or isn’t connected to the experiences of the women who were attacked by Weinstein ― and the countless others who are survivors. But we owe it to ourselves and each other not to be sloppy or slapdash about the connections we’re making or how we’re making them ― no matter how well-intentioned they may be ― especially at this incredibly important moment when these conversations are finally happening, or, more accurately, when the voices of survivors are finally beginning to be recognized, heard and believed.
There’s just too much to lose ― and, hopefully and eventually, too much to gain.