[content note: explicit description of sexual assault, and lots of discussion of rape culture]
All too normal
Lately I've felt more encouraged to talk about my experiences with sexual assault.
Specifically, I want to talk about the two cases where I was assaulted, and I found it tolerable, although certainly not good. I will also refer to, but not describe a third experience, which I still hesitate to call sexual assault, but which was pretty horrible any way you call it. I have never experienced trauma from any of these experiences (so no triggers to speak of), but they're still unpleasant to talk about for a variety of reasons.
The two cases were very similar to each other. One was at a nightclub, with a stranger I had just started dancing with. He started sticking his hand down my pants and grabbing my penis. I forcibly removed his hand, but he repeated several times. Eventually he disappeared for a moment, and I started dancing with someone else in hopes he wouldn't reappear. The other was at a big house party, with an acquaintance. With sort of a "horseplay" mood, he had started unzipping my pants and grabbing my penis, and I tried to stop him but he did it anyway, against my strength.
Sexual assault means forced non-consensual sexual touching. This is basically the most straightforward story of sexual assault ever. The only thing complex about it is the way it fits into the surrounding cultural context.
The most striking thing about my experience, was the sheer ordinariness of it. Nobody thought twice about it, and the guys probably forgot about the whole affair afterwards. After those experiences, I'm convinced that nearly every guy who's gone to gay parties has had this happen to them, multiple times. And hardly anyone talks about it, because it's too normal.
No seriously, I tried looking up sexual assault among gay men, and I found things like this study, which says that LGBT people are at increased of sexual assault, and idly speculates that a lot of it is caused by hate crimes. But what I experienced was not caused by homophobia. I also found a few articles like this one, confirming my belief that my experience is just so common that people don't even recognize it as assault.
The unwilling social contract
In fact, here's the reaction I expect from the general (gay) public: "Of course you're going to get groped at a gay nightclub!" "That's not sexual assault, that's just normal stuff you have to deal with." "If you didn't want that sort of thing, you wouldn't go to a nightclub!"
What we're seeing here is the dissonance between people's image of sexual assault, and the experience of it. We think of sexual assault as bad, really bad. But to associate sexual assault with practices that are so normal, so widespread in gay male culture, that's deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, for victims and perpetrators alike. It's easier to believe that it's not that bad, and therefore not sexual assault. It's easy to find confirmation for this belief, because plenty of cases of sexual assault are in fact either "not that bad", or "not clearly sexual assault".
And of course, my experiences fall into that pattern too. The first two were "not that bad" and the third was "not clearly sexual assault". Never mind that the first two were undeniably sexual assault, and this was part of what made them less bad. Unlike my other experience, they never caused me doubt or caused me to blame myself, because I knew what they were.
When people ask, "Should this really count as sexual assault?" they're not really asking whether it fits the technical definition of sexual assault. They're asking whether it's "bad enough" to warrant special discouragement. They're asking whether it's bad enough to warrant upsetting the delicate balance of hookup and dating culture
What people seem to want is a space where you can freely approach strangers without it being awkward. In exchange, you have to allow strangers to approach you. It's the unspoken social contract of gay partying. "Approach" is a euphemism here. Sometimes that means flirting, sometimes it means rape. If you get sexually assaulted, that wasn't a nice thing for them to do, but let's not make a deal out of someone being a little awkward about their approach. To actually call it sexual assault would be to break the social contract, because sexual assault is bad, and what we're doing is not bad, it's ordinary.
But it is bad, because I didn't agree to any such social contract. The social contract is as non-consensual as the specific acts in question. Not everybody agrees to the social contract, or even agrees that the contract exists.
Furthermore, since the contract is unwritten, nobody has negotiated any boundaries. People are unable to recognize the difference between inept flirting and sexual assault, or even rape. Even as a person acknowledges that there are some problematic behaviors, the same person will often think that *this* particular action is not among them. People know there's a line to be drawn, but don't draw it in the right place. It only takes a few people who think non-consensual grabbing, forced kissing, or non-consensual sex is okay, and I think it's more than just a few.
The clash of personal and political
Next, I want to talk about feminist messaging about sexual assault, and how it's totally unsuited to deal with this problem. By "feminist messaging", I don't mean to talk about what feminists intend to say, but rather the messages they collectively end up conveying.
When I mention my sexual assault to feminist-leaning people, there are two general reactions. One is to assume that I am really upset about my sexual assault, and I'm really bringing it up to get social support. I don't mind this assumption, because it's nice to know that anyone with a similar story can find social support in these spaces. But I never said I needed the support. The other reaction is to reiterate how bad sexual assault is in general, as if I were trying to dispute this fact.
There are two messages I'm getting out of this. One is that sexual assault and rape are the worst things ever, possibly worse than murder. This leads me to repeatedly question, should I be feeling worse about the sexual assault than I did? Should I, perhaps, be trying to feel bad about it? (The answer is always no. No point in creating emotional turmoil if it wasn't there to begin with.)
The second message is that different experiences of sexual assault are different, and also they are not different. It is wrong to divide rape into "types", because people only ever divide it into types to delegitimize some kinds of rape. But then, we also need to acknowledge differences in experiences, because lots of victims have difficulty admitting that they were truly victims of sexual assault or rape. For some reason we view the "prototypical" sexual assault as being perpetrated by strangers with knives in dark alleys, even though it's far more common for the perpetrators to be acquaintances or partners.
So in feminist contexts, I'm not supposed to divide sexual assault into types. But I can't help it! Even if I just explain how my experience with sexual assault was tolerable to me, and make no attempts to compare to other experiences, people already feel the need to say how sexual assault is terrible in general, and my experience was different. People feel the need to contrast my experience with other experiences of sexual assault.
Also in feminist contexts, I'm not supposed to generalize my experience, because that would take away from the message that sexual assault is terrible in general. But I can't help that either! As I said before, the most striking thing about my experience was how ordinary it was. This is not a numbers post, so I can't really say anything about the numerical prevalence. But it felt like a normal thing in that space, that's all I can say.
This is difficult for me to explain. I'm not trying to say that most sexual assault isn't that bad, or that it isn't a problem. In fact, I'm trying to say that maybe it's a deeper problem than we recognize. I'm saying that in addition to all the sexual assault and rape we normally talk about, we also have this space where it's happening on such a regular basis that nobody even recognizes it. Sometimes it's tolerable, like in my experience. Sometimes it's terrible, like in my other experience.
If I'm right about how common this is (and especially if it's mirrored in straight culture), I worry that this is a major source of rape apologism. A lot of people have experienced or perpetrated sexual assault where it "wasn't that bad", and was just normal. So when feminists come in and say that it's the worse thing ever, deserving special treatment among crimes, people balk.
Why we need feminism
When I said I found my experience tolerable, I was referring to my personal experience of it. But in the larger sense, it certainly is not tolerable. The fact that there's so much sexual assault and people just accept it as normal is bad, really bad. It's totally rotten. It deserves a plague of angry feminists picking apart every aspect of gay male culture. I have no doubt this day will come, the same way it's come for the atheist and gamer communities in recent years. I'm looking forward to it.
It's not that every single individual's experiences are wholly negative. It's bad because there is a wide range, from tolerable to terrible, and it's entirely unpredictable. The same offense committed against a different person may provoke a different reaction. It's basically a crapshoot.
Ordinary social interactions should not be a crapshoot. It should not be, some gay youth go to parties, and love the sexually-liberated atmosphere; others go to parties and start having second thoughts about whether they're really gay if it means being part of this culture where people sexually assault or rape them all the time. That is an unacceptable risk. A safe space for men who love men? Ha.
This is one of the reasons why men need feminism. All too often, feminism comes up short, because it's too busy responding to political pressure from all sides, and because the problems are too difficult. But we need feminism, because this is a widespread, systemic problem that can only be solved through social action.
No single person can rebel against the assault/rape culture, it's just too powerful. I can't blame or accuse individuals, when their actions were just so extremely ordinary, perpetrated by a significant fraction of the population. Moral ostracization simply doesn't work when there are so many to be ostracized, many of whom are our friends. In fact, the whole mechanism of moral ostracization works to our detriment, because within this culture, it's the ones who acknowledge the problem who are considered immoral.
I don't know the solution. I think the solution starts with more people waking up and seeing that something's wrong.
Final note: I just want to make explicit the subtext, that I am an asexual spectrum person, and my experience with sexual assault does not necessarily connect with that fact in any way. Sexual assault happens to all sorts of people.