Monday, August 15, 2011

Rape Culture and Its Effect on Men

Trigger Warning

A few years back, I participated in a project specifically designed with LGBTs in mind. The intention was to ask for volunteers willing to be fully honest with the organizers. These anonymous contributors were encouraged to share the stories of their first sexual encounter with a member of the same sex. The intention was that these anecdotes would be compiled into a booklet given away for free at Pride, which was then several months away. It was hoped that people who were not queer could recognize the similarities between everyone's first time. The stories collected varied considerably. I’m sure it comes not as too much of a surprise that I wrote out my own experience to be collected. It was not very memorable or very pleasurable, but now having at my disposal a vast amount of anecdotal evidence, I felt better when I realized I was far from the only person for whom gay sex was unspectacular the first time around.

Most of the stories were obviously written on the spur of the moment. Several were written with an ink pen on notebook paper. It was one such recollection that stood out from the rest. The creator of this effort first handed it to me still folded neatly in half, her body language and the very gesture itself indicating that she wasn’t sure whether or not this one should be published. A fairly concise account, upon reading it myself, I understood immediately why.

The encounter existed in that familiar grey area between consensual and non-consensual conduct. Though actual age in years was not mentioned, the main character was likely somewhere between 14 and 16 at the time. An older man, age also not mentioned, pursued the protagonist mercilessly through a public park until the boy finally acquiesced to his persistent overtures. The pursuer could have been as old as his early twenties or much older than that. Having been coaxed into a men’s restroom, the sex that follows is described as agonizingly painful.

I will not share the exact language used because it is graphic, but suffice to say that it describes penetrative intercourse. As if to assuage the pain, the older man resorts to flattery, claiming that he is such an attractive boy that any number of men will always want him over the course of his life. Here the story ended. I wished the anonymous contributor, whoever he was, could have provided more details. Even so, it must have taken courage to share something this personal with a complete stranger.

Knowing what I know now, this entire account sounds and reads like rape. We have uncertainty and an emphatic “no” at the outset. An older, more experienced man capitalizes on naiveté and persistence for his own benefit, disregarding completely the desires of his victim. The boy finally agrees to engage in sex, finding it not just underwhelming, but also agonizing. The older man attempts to normalize what he has just done by fawning words, lavishing compliments. If this happened to a woman, we might think of it very differently.

The contrast here is that the now young man obviously still views this, years later, as a kind of initiation into the gay community. When we take into account barbaric practices like hazing rituals, one can understand how easy it would be to confuse sexual assault with a harsh, traumatizing, but nonetheless required welcome. There is always an undercurrent of violence evident with male to male interaction. It is never expressed in many men, but there are enough repeat offenders that one must always guard against them.

I have no way of knowing how commonplace these sorts of abuses are for men who have sex with men. Reading and listening usually to a female, heterosexual perspective, I have acquired some basic understanding of their frequency. I know the forms sexual assault usually takes and also how public perception is still tainted by the distorting lens of rape culture. What I do not know is how frequently this occurs with queer men. If we assume that men are men are men, removing women completely from the equation, then the crime statistics must be similar. But somehow these offenses are not being reported as regularly as crimes against women. As irregular are reported rapes when they happen to women, they are even more irregularly reported here. I think the most depressing statistic I’ve recently encountered when I asked my trauma therapist how many of her patients had a history of childhood sexual abuse. The answer was nearly 100%. This happens regularly and, much like rape at an older age, it is seldom, if ever, reported at the time.

What partially makes this situation a difficult one to prosecute or to expose is homophobia. Reporting the crime would be an admission of a sort. So long as the closet door is a viable option, many will still stay there. The teenage boy was not beaten up or threatened with physical violence during the encounter he described. In the eyes of many, the instant he agreed to go along with it, he was actively consenting to sex. But what is not taken into account is the fear and anxiety that even a brief two-page account in trembling handwriting reveals. Still, for whatever reason, he assumed that this was the way things were, though he never forgot the experience, or the way it made him feel.

Men are raped. If we extended our conception of the definition beyond adult-on-adult crime, we can see more of the disease. There is something about masculinity that involves strength, power, and the willingness to reinforce it when challenged. This is not to imply that all men are somehow complicit, but that all men understand that force and physical prowess speak larger than anything else. I’m not sure why this is, but I know intrinsically that it exists. It was in place long before I was born. The code of silence is not merely a gay phenomenon. It extends to all men.

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