Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sexual assault in (gay) party culture

[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.


miller said...

The article you link to in passing, Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics, makes an explicitly utilitarian case against sexual assault -- i.e. there are people who are actually suffering because of the behavior -- but you do not seem to emphasize this aspect of the problem. Until I read that article, I read your article as saying that nonconsensual sexual touching is bad even if it does not cause any particular harm in a particular context; in fact, it is *worse* if it does not cause harm, because then people do it more, because it doesn't cause them any harm, on either side of the behavior.

Since I don't understand your fundamental thesis, I can't really evaluate this essay.

miller said...

I'm implicitly thinking about it from a utilitarian perspective, but it's also a perspective where actions can be wrong without causing harm in every specific instance. It's simply not possible to discourage exactly the set of actions which cause harm, and allow exactly the set of actions which don't. So if an action causes harm in some cases but not others, and we can't predict the outcome, then we might say the action is wrong even when it does not cause harm.

I didn't really hash out this stuff about ethical philosophy because it feels tangential and probably not the primary source of objections, but I'm happy to talk about that and other details here.

miller said...

It's simply not possible to discourage exactly the set of actions which cause harm, and allow exactly the set of actions which don't.

Agreed. Utilitarianism demands a statistical approach. But is that really an important point? We have a case of strong people harming weak people, and sometimes strong people unsuccessfully attempt to harm other strong people like yourself. Why is that important? I'n still not sure what you're trying to add to the discussion.

miller said...

It's not important, that's why I only brought up statistical utilitarianism when you asked.

I'm not sure if you thought everything I said was obvious or unimportant, or if I failed to convey a major point to you. Well, they can't all be winners for everyone. If you're asking for the tl;dr version, it's a description of how rape and assault operate in a certain gay subculture, in my experience. There's a lot of normalizing of the behavior, and people seem to think allowing sexual assault and rape is a necessary result of allowing flirting.

miller said...

You've got me all wrong! I think you're generally a profound writer; if I'm not seeing your point, I want to know what I'm missing.

miller said...

I get it, but it's just hard for me to tell what you might have missed, and the best I can do for you is resummarize the whole thing.

Section by section, the points were: 1. A description of how sexual assault operated in my experience. 2. People, rather than deny that this behavior is widespread, will deny that it's assault, because they think it's necessary for hookup/dating culture, and because of dissonance. 3. Bringing up my experience in feminist spaces is awkward, because it appears to go against some political messages. But I think it is consistent. 4. Group social action is needed to change the culture.

miller said...

I think point 2 is confusing. First, you seem to use "sexual assault" descriptively, but the term is inherently pejorative. Secondly, you include "non-consensual" in the definition, but it seems the controversy is whether there is general, implicit consent in the club scene to objective behavior, and if there is general consent, whether or not this general consent is legitimate. Because you include the judgment in the definition, it is easy to lazily conclude that of course we cannot have legitimate general consent to something that is inherently bad, but such a conclusion would be begging the question.

I think another issue that makes the article seem to follow this reason is the inclusion of feminists. In a utilitarian framework, including feminists would seem odd: regardless of women's experiences, gay men's experiences would be just as probative of finding utilitarian harm (or lack thereof, and vice-versa). On the other hand, in an objectivist, deontic framework, finding that forced sexual touching without specific consent (the best definition I can come up with that does not presuppose what seems to be at issue) were benign in a gay male club context would be an intolerable contradiction to the malignancy of the behavior towards women in civil society.

I'm not making an evaluation about the gay male club scene either way, although the Westminster article seems pretty compelling against the behavior on utilitarian grounds (and I've long since come to a firm judgment strongly against forced sexual touching of women without specific consent in any context). I'm just trying to latch onto a consistent framework to understand all the issues involved, especially regarding my role as a SWcGMCM.

miller said...

As a side note, I'm not sure that the connection between the atheist community and gay male party/club scene is compelling. Insiders in the atheist community make a strong case that atheism should be part of civil society, subject to all the regulation relevant to any part of civil society: we voluntarily submit to the requirement to be inclusive of women, of people of color, of people of any sexuality, etc. Many of us inside the community want to be inclusive of women, for example, and we want feminists to critique our failures to be inclusive.

In contrast, I do not know to what degree insiders in the gay male party/club community want to be a part of civil society rather than apart from it (and the rules of civil society, I think, permit some intentional spaces outside civil society) and to what extent they want different kinds of critique. Of course, there are civil standards that no group can relax. Again, I am not sure to what extent which argument you're making: the inclusion-civil standards argument, or the separation-universal standards argument.

miller said...

Sexual assault does have a descriptive definition, and it is also pejorative, and I think that is a great source of dissonance for the defenders of sexual assault. These defenders have an uphill battle, because they have to separate out two definitions which are so strongly connected.

This is a legitimate argument, since sometimes words have multiple meanings that need to be separated out. But arguing that descriptive sexual assault is acceptable behavior is not an argument with much public traction, so people prefer instead to deny that it is sexual assault.

I argue that, though it is a legitimate argument, it's ultimately incorrect. The behavior in question is descriptively sexual assault. There is no generalized consent here (although there could be, if the clubs had official guidelines about it). In addition, the behavior is bad, on utilitarian grounds. So even though the descriptive and pejorative definitions of sexual assault are different, they continue to align here.

miller said...

When I talk about feminism in the OP, I'm not talking about the issue's impact on women, I'm talking about the discourse and tools developed by feminists to address sexual assault. Even though the tools were developed to address what's primarily a women's issue, they are highly applicable even when the victims are men, even when we're talking about a culture where the number of women is negligible. Even if I did not bring up feminism, I think most readers would understand it within a feminist framework.

miller said...

My impression is that gay party culture is not much of a social movement, despite its roots in social movements. In that respect, it's more analogous to gamer culture, which is simply a community of consumers. It's an intentional space in that it's a space for gay and bi men, but people don't really think about it much beyond that. Most of the properties of the culture are emergent rather than intentional. Does that answer your question?

miller said...

As a note to whoever might be reading this comment thread, I think a lot of people, if they just talked about their experience with sexual assault, might find all this philosophical scrutiny rude. But I personally do not have a problem with it, and find it interesting. As I said in the OP, I don't have triggers, so maybe that's why.

miller said...

My criticism is formal, not substantive. I argue that your original argument is confusing because you appear to argue what you have presupposed. I mostly agree with your substantive position.

Note that a "pejorative definition" seems incoherent; I would argue that "pejorative" denotes a particular subjective attitude towards instances of a descriptive acti in a context.

Defenders have two uphill battles. The first is that they are defending actions that seem to cause a lot of harm. I'm not going to help on this battle.

But the second uphill battle is the presupposition of wrongness, which is an uphill battle that defenders of other views, views that do not cause unacceptable harm, also face. I argue against this mode of argumentation for the same reason I argue against "moderate" religion: using a bad argument to support a good position strengthens those who use the bad argument to support a bad position.

miller said...

Perhaps, perhaps not. My very superficial opinion is that feminists typically address sexual assault as a tool of systematic patriarchal oppression (a critique that applies directly to the atheist movement). It does not seem, again superficially, that sexual assault has been a tool of systematic heteronormative oppression of gay men, and you do not seem to talk here about sexual assault as a tool of systematic oppression.

miller said...

I would also note that here, I'm focusing at least my own philosophical scrutiny not* on whether or not some behavior in some context is good or bad, but how we go about evaluating whether or not some behavior is good or bad.

miller said...

I don't know that emergent vs. intentional really matters.

I personally would be very hesitant to compare gay party culture to gamer culture, being a member of neither. I don't really criticize gamer culture, but I would note that gamer culture seems much more inherently public -- and thus subject to public, civil standards -- than gay party culture. It's easy for any random person to stumble unwittingly into gamer culture; much harder to stumble unwittingly into gay party culture.

miller said...

I agree.

miller said...

That's true, and this is a great advantage for gay men over straight women. In a male/female context, gender is a highly visible marker that divides typical victims from typical perpetrators, allowing people for example to sympathize more with men rather than women. In a male/male context, there isn't any such marker. Thus there aren't any privilege/oppression dynamics.

(Although... I seem to recall the Westminster article speculating that the problem is indirectly caused by homophobia. For example, it could be that people put up with sexual assault because they think it's just a necessary part of being a place that accepts them.)

miller said...

I do think this is an interesting angle to look at the issue, and it even corresponds to one of the defenses people use for sexual assault in both male/male and male/female settings. "If you didn't want it to happen, you shouldn't have gone to that club/bar." However, there doesn't seem to be much consensus that this is actually what people want when they enter the space. There are lots of reasons people go to parties that have nothing to do with flirting, much less the kind of "flirting" where people fail to draw any lines at consent. I think people who make this argument have a false image of what people use the space for (based on projection, etc.)

At one of the parties I mentioned, they did something a little unusual. They gave people colored flags to stuff into their back pocket, to indicate whether they were available, unavaliable, or "it's complicated". How's that for an intentional space? I used the "unavailable" flag, but I think more people hit on me at that party than any other party I've ever been to.