back to ba(sex): msm and consent
With LGBT Pride Month just passed in the United States, there have been some fantastic achievements acknowledging the rights of LGBT+* people in the Western world. The US Supreme Court decision finding marriage equality is a constitutional right has prompted increasing discussion of the matter in Australia. However, Aussie writers, including those at Lip, have highlighted an oversight of numerous injustices suffered by the queer community in favour of focusing on this one issue. Even the Human Rights Commission has stated there are many rights protections unable to be achieved by the Australian government beyond just marriage equality.
Much like in heterosexual encounters, consent is a topic – and a right needing to be paid heed – which is blatantly ignored at the interpersonal level by gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM). As we have previously discussed, this ignorance is also evident at the institutional level as how to negotiate consent is not usually discussed in public. In this instalment of Back to Ba(sex), we pay particular attention to the right to say no and how consent pans out among MSM and self-identified gay men.
Speaking to a young gay man, Ben**, it became obvious the inability to discuss consent among members of the ‘gay screwing scene’ (Ben points out this is a more apt term than ‘dating scene’) hinders the ability to forge a relationship, and can lead to violence.
Many queer men in the 21st Century arguably still adhere to the (patriarchal) view that the hydraulic model of male sexuality exists. Ben points out this may be an internalisation of stereotypes of male heterosexuality thrust upon us by media and, for an even longer time, medicine.
‘I think that it stems from the idea that in today’s society women hold the power over when sex happens,’ Ben said.
‘So in a gay relationship that person doesn’t exist, allowing the idea that men want sex all the time to prevail.’
This belief of unhampered sex gets in the way of forming meaningful connections and broaching the subject of a relationship which men like Ben desire. Compounding the issue, Grindr – and its medley of peer hook-up apps – prevail as a point of reference for many people looking for fun, friendship or affection; here a coffee request prior to meeting up is generally rebuffed by instead asking for sexual favours. While such digital interactions lack the immediate dangers or hurt of meeting in person, those people who do not explicitly ask likely carry the same expectations.
‘Basically a want for sex is assumed; consent is assumed,’ Ben observes.
This can prompt many men, like Ben, to go along with the motions of the ‘screwing scene’ to attempt to form a connection.
‘It’s happening at the moment actually,’ Ben said.
‘I’m telling myself to go along with it in hope that it’ll turn into something else.’
Power to those with a desire for casual sex, but libidos – regardless of their level of entanglement with partners – must be framed around mutual consent and ongoing, frank communication.
Sexual identity presents no mitigating factor to violence, with sexual, physical and verbal abuse experienced by MSM partners and prospective partners. Indeed, Ben says while he hasn’t received vocal threats from potential partners, his choices to decline sex have been met with visible physical symptoms of anger.
‘One guy, whose house I was staying at, obviously had certain expectations – expectations that I did not share,’ Ben said.
‘When I made it clear that it wasn’t going any further it was very obvious that he was suppressing some serious physical rage, clenched fists and everything.
‘He calmed down though.’
Ben’s sentiments are echoed by a number of gay men. Blogger Benjamin Wilson took to Tumblr and Twitter to tell his comrades it’s time for them to talk – and more importantly think – about ‘their own rape culture’. Acknowledging his privilege as a white cis male and writing that he is indebted to the literature of feminists and trans-activists, Wilson states: ‘I see a link between those stories and mine, sister stories about “othered” bodies punished for their “sexuality” and “agency”. I think I am describing my place in rape culture.’
In the eight months preceding his 2014 campaign, the blogger told his followers he’d experienced three physical, ‘sexually-motivated’ assaults, where declining sex or other intimate acts were what seemed to prompt his attacker (read: a sense of entitlement prompted his attacker). Wilson acknowledges that these events – including punches to the face on crowded dancefloors, and being bitten on the bus – are bigger manifestations and the ‘little violations are innumerable’:
‘If I go out, with a body coded as “queer”, my body feels like contested land. I have learnt to say no with a smile, without a smile, with a quiet voice, a raised voice, with anger. I’ve learnt to say no with my hands, pushing lovers off me when they ignore my requests to stop… All my nos mean nothing.’
Wilson also notes, like his feminist and trans-activist peers, that there is a common perpetrator of these infringements, ‘often “straight” men regularly intrude on [his] body’, though not exclusively. His own acknowledgement of his privilege in this discussion demonstrates the severity of Western culture’s reluctance to make the issue of consent prevalent in public discourse:
‘I am a skinny, white, able-bodied, cisgendered man who is conventionally attractive and in possession of a higher-ish education [sic]. I’ve lucked out at the kyriachy. If this is happening to me, what is happening to other people?’
Our own Aussie Ben says the act of saying no is decoded as teasing by the aggressor, much like that interpretation of women’s declinations.
‘They seem okay with it at first but will continue to try and get you “worked up” or horny for lack of a better word,’ he said.
‘Thinking that you’re only saying no for the moment but you’ll cave [i.e. be coerced] eventually.
‘Even at time when I’ve said no because there was no available condom, they’ve still persisted.’
So where do we improve? Our go-to guy Ben echoes us here at Lip to say it’s evident that consent education is seriously lacking in sex education. When this is layered atop education already devoid of more inclusive discussion of queer sexuality, problems abound.
‘What I want is for young gay guys to know that it’s okay to say no.’
*LGBT+: The author acknowledges the acronym is usually more extensive and inclusive of other members of the queer community, typically encompassing intersex, asexual, queer and questioning individuals. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (plus) is used here to reflect the predominant mainstream discourse on the rights of these particular groups in light of the US Supreme Court case.
**Not his real name