Gay bars and clubs are often highly-charged sexual spaces: half-naked go-go dancers, topless barmen, men-only cruise bars and saunas. In such environments, ‘groping’ – the touch of a buttock, the tweaking of a nipple, even the plunging of a hand down some Calvins - is frequently considered just part of a night out. Seldom are these actions remarked upon, let alone precipitate an allegation of sexual assault. But does this make them any more acceptable?
Steven, who worked at a popular London gay club, sees little harm in such behaviour. “When a grab to the crotch is the cause of PTSD, what to make of my bruised buttocks and swollen nipples after a night collecting glasses? I had to dodge and swerve at every turn and had to politely but firmly turn down the offers of sexual favours and chancers' kisses - this was just The Job. I read now how some poor, fragile flower has been traumatised by a brush of the knee or ill-judged ‘witticism’ and I wonder how I survived without the receipt of years of counselling and financial compensation.”
Joe is one of many gay men I have spoken to who was “taken under the wing” of an older gay man who “routinely touched me inappropriately: a pat of the arse, a hand a little too high – but he never assaulted or raped me, and I loved him”. But given the proliferation of this kind of behaviour within a gay social space, are gay men more likely to shrug it off if similar things occur in the workplace? Carlos, who works in theatre – where he claims sexual harassment of young gay men is a major issue - certainly thinks so, believing that the lines become blurred, meaning that gay men struggle to challenge such advances in other, more formal settings.
“I believe our upbringing as gay men also plays a part,” says Carlos. “We grew up conditioned by heteronormative behaviour in many ways - this has affected and informed our sexuality throughout the centuries, and there are plenty of fetishes and preferences related to the ‘daddy role’ that sort of makes these things a bit harder to define in our heads. Or at least we accept it more because we have histories of abandonment, power struggle in a society that doesn’t accept us”.
Are gay men more likely to shrug it off if a pat on the bum happens in the workplace? Image: Hotlanta Voyeur. Flickr Creative Commons.
Carlos’s stories are disturbing. He says that he has repeatedly been the object of inappropriate sexual behaviour by some notable West End theatre producers. He speaks of how a former partner – a fringe theatre producer – who repeatedly told him “to be nice” to certain, older producers. This culminated in a coke-fueled party where young gay men were being encouraged to perform. Sexual harassment also led Carlos to resign from a post at a prominent West End Theatre after a producer was “practically foaming at his mouth by watching me bend over”.
“Gay men also are part of a patriarchal society that sort of normalises this behaviour,” Carlos believes. “We are recipients of privileges that women and non-binary or cis minorities don’t have access to, and in the same way, we learn hyper-masculine behaviour and still employ it as we are very much part of that system. The even more tragic thing is that we are also told by that same patriarchy that we are less than, and inferior as gay men.”
Steven, however, strongly disagrees with Carlos over what should be categorised as sexual harassment. “Do gay men put up with, or are more accepting of, sexual harassment? Maybe we are. Or perhaps, generally speaking, I don’t think we recognise the definition given as even remotely applicable to everyday situations.
“The constant use of that contemptuous word ‘inappropriate’ means that soon we will emulate the stagnant centuries-old court culture of the thousands of years of Dynastic China. Where every simple incline of the head, movement of the hand, turn of the ankle proscribed, so that what is acceptable, for which occasions, and with whom one is meeting is written in law and may your omnipotent Deity of choice help you should you ‘cross the boundary’.”
The furore of Kevin Spacey has undoubtedly polarised some gay men. Some, like Steven, dismiss it as “a load of old bollocks”, while others believe that it is finally shedding light on the far too long ignored issue of sexual harassment of gay men in the workplace. “These things are deeply entrenched in our society,” says Carlos. “I just hope that this has deep changes in the way we treat people at work and outside of it. We need better education systems that teach consent and respect, but also sex education that goes beyond the heteronormative bullshit we are told to follow.”
Names have been changed in this article.
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