If you're trans or queer, you're more likely to experience sexual assault or rape than cisgender or straight people. Experts say discussion of the problem is lacking—and certain myths about LGBTQ assault are to blame.
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For years, gay bars made me nauseous. I'd waltz in the door totally sober, then immediately have to run to the bathroom and dry heave over the toilet. My nausea sprung from a feeling that I had no control over my body in these spaces. One of the first times I ever went to a gay bar, a place in Washington, DC, a man stuck his hands down my pants and fingered me without my consent on the dance floor. Weirdly enough, I didn't view it as sexual assault. I reframed the experience as consensual, and decided later that something else—perhaps the stench of Acqua di Gio, or general nerves around potential sex partners—was what made me want to projectile vomit every time I saw a gaggle of men dancing to "Hung Up" by Madonna.
Why is it so hard to talk about sexual assault as a gay guy? I've thought about this a lot in the days since the #metoo campaign encouraged folks to expose some of their most painful memories of abuse, after allegations of decades of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein surfaced in the New York Times.
The truth is that being a member of the LGBTQ community means being at greater risk for sexual assault. Forty-seven percent of respondents to the 2015 US Transgender Survey said they had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. According to a 2010 CDC report, gay men experience similar rates of rape by an intimate partner as their straight compatriots, but when you factor in sexual violence other than rape, the rate more than doubles: 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men, versus 21 percent of heterosexual men over their lifetimes (which includes all encounters, whether from an "intimate partner" or not). Additionally, 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women have been raped by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women.
These statistics are often buried in the wider discussion about sexual assault, experts say. "There is a lack of awareness in LGBT communities about the different forms of male sexual assault and rape," said Dr. Aliraza Javaid, a gender and sexuality theorist at Newcastle University. "The absence of discourse or knowledge of the many intricate issues surrounding sexual violence is problematic because it, implicitly, strengthens rape myths." One of those myths, Javaid said, is that "real" men can't be raped.
Trans activist Ashlee Marie Preston points out that Weinstein's accusers, who are cisgender and white, "are a bit more protected by respectability politics than trans women of color." Trans victims, by contrast, aren't afforded the same level of sympathy. "Because of the continuous hyper-sexualization of trans identities in media, people believe that we 'bring it on ourselves' or that we 'desire' it more," she told me.
For a long time, she blamed herself for her own sexual abuse. After all, she reasoned, she'd been on drugs when she'd been assaulted. "I wondered if perhaps I would've made better decisions had my judgement not been as impaired," she explained. "However, the drugs were a social lubricant that numbed my conscious to the demoralizing things that were done to me out of survival. It all went hand in hand."
Gay men, like women, can be culturally conditioned to believe that they brought on sexual abuse. Lara Stemple, an assistant dean at UCLA's law school and preeminent scholar on the male sexual victimization, believes reporting rates for men may not reflect reality because male victims are taught to see all sex as welcome. "Men are portrayed in our society as being sexually insatiable, which makes it hard to acknowledge that something that happened to them—which they did not fight off but which was nevertheless unwelcome—was abusive," she said.
Mike Rizzo, a crystal meth counselor at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said he's seen many gay men afraid to label something that's happened to them as rape. "We've had clients who've been traumatized because they've gone over to party and someone slips GHB in their drink, and they don't remember what happens over the following few hours," he said. "They think, somehow, that they're responsible for whatever happens. They say, 'If I hadn't been there, if I hadn't been using drugs…'"
Serial predators in the gay community rely on that confusion, Rizzo said. He remembers an instance when two men at one of his meetings realized they'd been drugged by the same person. "Someone was talking about something that happened, and another person said, 'Oh my God, that same thing happened to me,' and they realized it was the same person who'd raped them. There certainly seems to be a pattern of behavior by the perpetrators."
It's not hard to find gay victims of sexual assault. David (not his real name) said he was 21 when he was raped by two older men he met at a bar. "Since I was the cute young thing, most of the time I'd end the night not really spending any money at all—everyone would buy me drinks until I was shit faced, then my friends would take me home and I'd pass out," he told me.
One night, after his friends had left, a couple started buying him drinks. "The older guy was the one who seemed to have primary interest in me. We talked about music and movies and politics, sort of general friendly half-sober banter. I got not-sober, then they walked me to their place instead of mine. Eventually one of them brought out some weed—that was my first time getting cross-faded. I slowly started to fall asleep. I remember waking up to the older guy having sex with my mostly not-conscious body. I just told myself to go back to sleep."
Gay men have difficulty recognizing their own sexual abuse, Stemple said, not just because of cultural conditioning, but also due to physiological factors outside of their control. "When a man who is being victimized experiences an erection or a climax, those responses are sometimes read by the victim as implying consent," she said. "I think that's one of the factors that can be very confusing for victims and can be hard for them to reconcile their physiological response with the fact that they did not consent to the act."
Other forms of queer sexual abuse can leave authorities dumbfounded. Diana (not her real name), then a student at a Midwestern university, told me she was sexually assaulted by a woman who began straddling and humping her while they were watching a movie together. "I pulled her hand out of my pants at least half a dozen times, and I wasn't able to overpower her," she said. "I said stop, but I was so overwhelmed I didn't yell at her. I just remember feeling, I guess I'll just let her finish."
When she reported the assault, the police "were totally unequipped because it involved two women, and there was no penis," she said. "They were like, 'Well, we don't get it.' Even though she'd had an accusation leveled against her before me."
"Nobody in the lesbian community defended me," she added. "They were silent. Women that I knew who are currently calling people out on Facebook did nothing. It was like, 'alright, well, we'll sweep that one under the rug.'"
When it comes to reporting their assault to police, Stemple said, "a lot of gay people still experience sexual shame, and then if you layer on to that being in a countercultural sexual setting, whether it's a party or a hookup, there's a sense that those settings are going to move the person further down in the hierarchy of sexual victimhood," said Stemple. "The more 'deviant' the person or setting, the less sympathy there is, and the more reluctance those victims have coming forward because they know their practices are stigmatized."
Rizzo said that he tries to provide legal resources to the men who uncover their sexual traumas in group therapy but that it's sometimes impossible to build a case. "We often find out about it way after the fact, and, because of the anonymous lifestyle, they might not remember who it was [who raped them]," he said.
"When they're partying, their intent is not to blackout and get raped by several guys,' he added. "But yet if it happens, they're reluctant to report it, because they were high themselves and consider themselves part of the problem. It's almost like they've become desensitized to the abuse, as if it was just part of gay culture."
In the wake of what seems like a seismic shift in the way people discuss their own sexual assaults, it's been infuriating and enlightening to hear so many friends and strangers open up about their pasts, and the way they currently comport themselves to avoid unwanted sexual contact. Understandably, there's an impulse not to want to succumb to this kind of fear in the spaces many LGBTQ people see as liberating—gay bars, private parties, the homes of kind-seeming strangers we fortuitously meet on Grindr. But if the LGBTQ community is going to come to grips with its sexual assault epidemic, it first needs to recognize it.
Stemple believes progress can only be made when victims feel empowered to tell their stories. "Every time any survivor comes forward, it's a good thing," she said.