Question: Have you ever been raped?
OK, here’s another: Have you ever had sex - or been coerced into having sex - that you didn’t really
I’m willing to bet a significant number more of you answered ‘yes’ to question two than question one, but aren’t we wading through some very murky water already? It seems too many of us have - at the very least - an ambiguous story to share when we dig into our sexual pasts.
When I’m talking to young adults and, vitally, in the eyes of the law, rape is defined in black and white: any form of non-consensual penetration is considered rape. We all understand that even if consent is given and then withdrawn, sexual penetration must stop. We also know that the similar crime of sexual assault covers a wide range of non-consensual behaviours.
And yet, when confessing the worst, bleakest corners of our sex lives we seem to stumble into some very shady grey areas. I fully accept this is anecdotal evidence at best, but I spoke to a fairly diverse cross-section of gay and bi men on the subject of rape. While only one of the men I spoke to for this article agreed the word ‘rape’ was applicable to his experience, all
the men I spoke to admitted they had experienced a cocktail of coercion, physical assault, unwanted molestation, threats of so-called ‘revenge porn’ and one had even been locked in a perpetrator’s flat against his will.
Stranger rape is very rare. The nightmare of a cloaked figure jumping out of a bush is mercifully uncommon – although just this week a male jogger near Crawley finally felt confident enough to report his rape back in August. Far more usual, in fact in 82% of cases, a rapist is someone we know, be it an acquaintance, colleague, friend or lover. Statistics would have us believe male-on-male rape is much, much rarer than male-on-female rape, and while I imagine this is
true, I wonder if reported cases of male rape represent a tip of the iceberg. Many studies have explored how deep-rooted shame and emasculation often prevent male victims of rape from coming forward, but what if this is compounded by the fact that so many of us don’t even use the word ‘rape’ to describe the non-consensual sex we may have had?
I’ve had two encounters that I
wouldn’t describe as rape, but you might. The first was about eleven years ago and it was the first time I invited someone to my house via Gaydar. Remember Gaydar? Oh, more innocent times. Anyway, I invited a guy over for A DRINK. I was in my early twenties and still quite nervous about sex. Yes, I was horny. Yes, I anticipated we might fool around a bit. You can see where this is going – he wanted much more than I was offering. He was bigger than me, much bigger. I was pinned down and unable to get away. Him saying ‘don’t worry, I’m not going to rape you although I could if I wanted,’ did little to comfort me. I sort of submitted to the assault. I worried if I resisted he could seriously hurt me. In the end, my corpse-like stillness obviously wasn’t a turn on and he went home in a huff.
The second encounter was a couple of years later. Again, I’m sure this will ring a few bells. Late one Friday evening I invited another guy around, this time fully expecting to get it on. In this instance, the guy on my doorstep was about ten years older than advertised, reeked of Benson and Hedges and lager. Once he was in my flat, he wouldn’t bloody take the hint and piss off so I ended up entering into some very perfunctory sex just to get rid of him. It was repulsive. Nowadays, I’d have turned him away at the door, but that kind of assertiveness comes with experience, I believe.
How many of us have had experiences like that, where consent is so flimsy it’s almost non-existent? Furthermore, how many such experiences are in some way linked to apps like Grindr, Scruff or Gaydar. It’s very clear that inviting someone to, or agreeing to, a ‘hook-up’ is not consent and yet, when speaking to men for this piece, it seems to be a delusion of consent, a digital miniskirt.
Examining my two experiences, in the first case the guy apparently saw my invitation as consent while in the second I felt obligated to give consent as I’d sent out an invitation. I fear that had I been raped on either occasion, a defence lawyer would have almost certainly used my online activity as proof of consent. Sadly, cases have been built on less.
When talking to men about their experiences, there was a depressing fatalism to the conversations. ‘Well I learned from it,’ ‘I wouldn’t do it again,’ ‘God that’s the last time I go to a chem party’ and so forth. Classic victim blaming; absorbing responsibility from the only people who should be blamed – the rapist or would-be rapist.
Little research is carried out on male-on-male rape, and much of that is conducted in men’s prisons in the States. I feel that in cases of male-on-female rape, the imbalance of power and privilege is so pronounced, it’s easy to identify who is the victim. Between men it’s not always so instantly clear. It’s difficult for men to come forward as victims of rape; they worry they won’t be believed and there is an inaccurate assumption that they should have been physically strong enough to prevent the attack. We are so versed in the vocabulary of masculinity, we’re hardly encouraged to admit weakness, to admit we are victims too. For me, real strength is in seeking help, in asking for support, in speaking out.
As a community we need to a) recognise that men can be victims of rape and sexual assault and b) we need to shatter the silence and c) we need to stop blaming ourselves when things go wrong. Being gay or bisexual does not place us outside the law in terms of being both victims and rapists. Being on Grindr does not
mean anyone deserves to be a victim of sexual assault. Having had numerous sexual partners in the past does not
mean you can’t withhold consent now. Consenting to sex does not
mean you can’t change your mind. Just because you consented to sex once does not
mean you’ve given automatic lifetime consent to a partner.
I sometimes wonder if exposure to a gay scene starts to chip away at a man’s self-worth. No gay or bi man deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted. If we don’t start speaking out on this issue and saying it’s wrong, we risk normalising it.
Do what I did. Sit down with your friends and ask the two questions I asked at the start of this piece. The response may well surprise you. It seems that none of us are alone.
For further information and support on male rape and sexual violence, explore www.survivorsuk.org.
Words by JAMES DAWSON (pictured above).
More by James:
Should Pride by a party or a protest?
Are we all too hung up on 'tops and bottoms'?
Gay men and biphobia: It's real and it needs to stop