opinion

Opinion | 'Dear gay men, it's time to start talking about sexual violence'

The cases of Stephen Port and Reynhard Sinaga have failed to spark wider discussion about sexual violence inflicted on - and by - LGBTQ people, writes Billy Stockwell.

2021-12-18

Words: Billy Stockwell; Image: Pexels (posed by model)

Why did last week’s inquiry into the Stephen Port case receive so little attention from the gay community, or even the general public beyond mainstream media coverage? Where were the infographics, the petitions, the street marches? I doubt that many people even knew it was happening.

Stephen Port, the so-called “Grindr killer”, drugged, raped and murdered four young gay men, all in their 20s, in one of the most horrific acts of sexual violence the UK has seen in recent years. But as far as I can see, there was no movement born out of these horrific killings to address gay men’s safety.

Granted, this is an extreme example to draw upon, but that is the very point. If the likes of Stephen Port or Reynhard Sinaga cannot inspire action within our community, then I don’t know what can.

For those who don’t know, Manchester-based Sinaga was convicted of 136 counts of rape in 2019, being labelled "the most prolific rapist in British legal history" by the Crown Prosecution Service. He lured young men to his flat where he recorded himself violently assaulting them.

These events should be a call to action for our community, as Sarah Everard’s murder has been for women across the UK and their continued fight for safety.

Over 50% of gay men believe that the gay community has an issue with consent, according to a survey conducted by the charity Gay Men’s Health Project, and writer and LGBTQ+ advocate Phillip Henry has even gone as far to say that "the gay community has made sexual assault an appealing and casual art form."

But what is being done to tackle this? In the case of Stephen Port, following his eventual arrest in 2015, police urged dating apps to provide better protection to their users. However, a petition set up around the time of the killings demanding Grindr to protect its younger users by enforcing strict age restrictions was signed by just eight supporters. It’s pitiful.

“If it had been a 23-year-old woman found dumped … if four young women had been found so close together, there would have been uproar,” says Anthony Walgate’s mother, whose son was killed by Port in 2014.

These young gay men deserved an uproar. Instead, they got a sub-standard police investigation and a community that seemed to look the other way. According to last week’s inquiry, the Metropolitan Police’s investigations “probably” contributed to the deaths of Port’s later victims.

Friends and family of the victims have therefore claimed that homophobia played its part in this tragedy, resulting in some MPs calling for an inquiry into institutional homophobia within the Metropolitan Police.

Indeed, it does seem like the police ignored lines of enquiry that one would assume to be routine procedure when sexual assault is a possibility - for example, no DNA testing was undertaken on a bedsheet found with one of the victims, contrary to advice from a pathologist. Friends of the victims also told police that young gay men were at risk of being sexually targeted in the local area, but no action was taken.

However, this case highlights something far deeper than just prejudice within the Metropolitan Police’s investigation: an outright denial of gay male victimhood.

Gay men are rarely seen as potential victims of sexual violence, which has contributed to a silent epidemic of sexual violence within the community. When police frame gay victims not as real victims, but rather ‘gay druggies’ (according to family members of Port’s victims), young gay men are silenced further.

When social movements don’t acknowledge sexual violence within the LGBTQ+ community as part and parcel of the same struggle against the patriarchy and male violence, this epidemic slowly grows.

LGBTQ+ charities, like Galop and Survivors Manchester, that support victims of sexual violence do exist, but we desperately need preventative action within the community too.

Back in 2018, Michael Segalov posed the question “Why hasn’t the gay community had a #MeToo moment?” Even with the likes of Kevin Spacey thrown into the mix, no movement has since materialised.

The inclusion of men into conversations around sexual violence is understandably unsettling for some people, however I suggest that this is a consequence of society’s ingrained heteronormativity – that is, the view of heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.

In this sense, male victimhood is seen as something resulting from female perpetration and therefore less worthy of inclusion into wider conversations about patriarchy, masculinity and problematic male behaviour.

I have personally experienced this in conversations about male violence with friends where they will inevitably pause, look at me endearingly and provide the caveat “Oh, sorry Billy. We don’t mean gay men!”.

To this, there is very little I can reply, for it is not only a caveat coming from a place of support for me and my community, but it is also entirely true – my female friends would be very unlikely to fall victim to sexual abuse at the hands of a gay man.

The problem is that their framing of sexual violence fails to recognise that even when both male and female victims are accounted for, men still perpetrate nearly 80% of reported sexual assault. Gay men are therefore not immune from being both perpetrators and/or victims of sexual violence just because of their sexuality.

After decades of having our sexuality criminalised, our struggles disregarded and our very existence ignored, protecting the borders of our community is often given priority over issues found within. I fear that we do not have the strength to address this crisis, let alone build a movement.

But if anything ignites one, it surely has to be a moment like this. And with the right support – from women, girls, and all allies of the queer community – maybe we can start to answer some long-awaited questions.

Next time you’re chatting with your friends about the issue of sexual violence please ask your gay male friends: how about you? However small that question seems, in relation to its impact it has revolutionary power. I can almost guarantee they will have a story to tell.

Billy Stockwell is the Investigations Editor at Epigram, the University of Bristol’s Student Newspaper. He also writes for both local and national media, focusing on environmental issues, climate justice and LGBTQ+ rights. Follow him on Twitter @StockwellBilly.