An image has been going around Facebook that says, “Homophobia: the fear that gay men will treat you the way you treat women.” Meaning to skewer patriarchy and homophobia, the saying touches on a more uncomfortable truth: sometimes queer men do treat other men the way women are treated under patriarchy.
We coerce each other sexually. We invade each other’s physical and personal space with unwanted touch and flirtation. We play games and send mixed messages. Not all of us do this, and not all the time, but this thread of coercive sexuality deserves attention.
Recently, I asked a number of gay, queer, and bisexual, male-identified friends about their experiences with consent and coercion in gay/bi/queer male spaces. Some talked about being groped by guys at bars who did not apologize when they were told to stop; some doubled down. Others shared stories about near-sexual assaults, sexual interactions that got out of hand with men who ignored limits.
One friend expressed the longing for this kind of attention as a sign that he would be considered attractive. Another shared his experiences of being rejected repeatedly, only to be told that the rejector “really” wanted him to try harder and would have consented eventually.
"You really saw my wild side last night. Normally I don’t bareback. It’s okay we did that last night, but we shouldn’t again."
"We didn’t decide to do that. You took your condom off without telling me. When I told you to put one on, you kept going."
Far too often, gay men who speak up about being victimized get shut down by their peers: “Sounds like you got drunk and did something you regretted, and now you’re trying to blame him.” The defense of the accused is an insidious invalidation and character assassination of the person who dared to speak. The message is clear: you’re at fault for being coerced.
The impact is different between people of similar levels of privilege, but the source is our toxic dominant notions of masculinity. When we internalize the image of predatory male sexuality, stifling and denying our own vulnerability, we inflict it upon each other.
I want us to move toward a culture of consent and mutual respect, but I would not sacrifice the pleasure, thrill, danger, and joy of our sexualities. Sexual assertiveness and playfulness is one of the great gifts of gay male cultures. Context matters. Being at a bathhouse suggests a desire for erotic contact more than being at a coffee shop or bar, but presence alone is not a blank check of consent.
Friend, writer, gay male, and leatherman Daniel Hall offered to me perspective:
[T]hinking is not where consent arises. It arises in relationship, in connection moment-by-moment, whereas thinking often pulls us back from connection and relationship, back into our own thoughts we’ve thought before (fantasies), or about experiences we’ve had before (with other people, with social situations, or even other experiences we’ve had with the person we’re presently with). Consent constantly changes because relationship and connection are constantly changing — moment-by-moment in fact.
It’s an exciting edge to play, a bit like surfing. It’s relationship, even if it’s only for a few minutes, such as passing a cute guy in a bar and wanting to reach out, and relating is exciting. Being skillful at relating is exciting. Getting the rewards of relating, such as consent to touch another person, is exciting.
Within this framework, eliciting consent is an active, sexy, risky proposition, a skill we can build. We experiment while learning attunement, discovering the signals that signify consent and refusal. We learn through experimentation, discovering what feelings and actions help us to successfully elicit and gain consent and what feelings and actions close down consent. The assertive person cultivates the ability to honor his desire and put it into action while listening to and respecting the response of the person he desires.
Protective laws are necessary for a culture of consent, but laws are blunt tools that can cause as many problems as they solve. An ethic of consent would be flexible and adaptive, experimental and curious, daring and respectful. In the next post, I will propose two values for an ethic of sexual consent: bodily autonomy and respect for subjectivity.