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We need to talk about consent in gay male spaces

Sexual harassment continued to happen regularly (Picture: Getty Images)

A month after I started working as a bartender in a gay nightclub a few years ago, I was collecting empty glasses and I felt someone grope me down my backside after sliding his hand down my back.

My gut reaction was to sharply turn to the customer and shout, ‘Don’t touch me!’ as I slapped his hand off and continued with my job.

I was shocked, but I was even more so disgusted that when I later confided in a colleague about it; they tried to reassure me that he was a notorious ‘creep’ and that was just ‘how he is’.

How had this person built up such a reputation among my colleagues – almost as if it was just some quirk of his – and he hadn’t been called out for it?

There’s an unsettling expectation that simply because you’re a gay male, you will – and should – accept all sexual advances sent your way.

If we tell girls from a young age that it should never be tolerated, why do we seemingly let it slide when it comes to gay men?

After the incident, I unfortunately was told by others that this was commonplace and I would be foolish to expect it to stop anytime soon, including the empathy being lost along the way on those I told about any future incidents.

I tried to go on with my job but it lingered with me why this person felt comfortable enough to grope a stranger in their place of work and no one seemed to bat an eye at his behaviour.

It continued to happen regularly and if not with me, then with a colleague that I would end up being told about or seeing for myself. It would happen at least once a month.

If it wasn’t that, you would have a customer brazenly spouting sexual profanity to you face-to-face while serving them, with a look in their eye as if they thought ‘they like this’.

It not only makes you uncomfortable physically but mentally it gets in the way of you being able to do your job when you know someone with such low disregard for you is so nearby.

At the time, I brought up the incidents with queer friends who said they’d experienced similar things. We eventually settled on the sad fact that no one will care if you report incidents like this because this behaviour has been unchecked for so long and to call it out would be going against the grain of accepting the hyper-sexualized community we took jobs in.

But why shouldn’t we? Why is this behaviour so normalised when I and so many others in the community – male or otherwise – are not willing to participate or even entertain it? Why does it seem like gay men will only perk an ear up to Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and bury their heads when it comes to conversations around consent?

Before long, I hated working there. Knowing I’d be going to work and possibly dealing with the same faces who are so happy to grope, harass and sexually verbally berate you as you’re simply trying to make a drink.

Within the LGBTQ+ community, 40% of gay men, 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner

I often thought, ‘If I worked in a straight venue, I wouldn’t have to deal with this’ and this is when I started to relate sexual harassment with the gay community and its venues.

Within the LGBTQ+ community, 40% of gay men, 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the Human Rights Campaign

I’m sickened and disappointed at these statistics but I’m not surprised. The behaviour I’ve witnessed is bad enough but it’s so saddening to see how hard the LGBTQ+ community still has to work on this issue.

Transgender people are even more at risk, sitting at nearly half (47%). As progressive as the LGBTQ+ community advertises ourselves, we are severely lacking in empathy when it comes to consent and with so many people in the community facing such serious sexual trauma, it’s downright dangerous.

That’s not to say it’s a problem exclusive to the LGBTQ+ community. According to a recent survey by Mankind, almost half of all men have had some sort of unwanted sexual experience yet very little speak out due to fear of being stigmatised.

A further 9% have been raped and 21% have been pressured into sexual activity they did not want.

My own experiences have left me bitter and scornful. Places I regularly visited and people I was once close to now sit in the darker corners of my mind and won’t be revisited anytime soon due to my experience with sexual harassment.

All too often, I felt like I may be making a connection with someone on a night out, which quickly turns to them lunging at me, tongue first, with a hand firmly wrapped around my waist or pulling me in with a claw-like hand.

It makes me wary of people’s true intentions and as the queer community doesn’t have many spaces that aren’t fuelled by drugs or alcohol, often the solution is not going to them at all.

There needs to be more than just a discussion on consent, there should be a condemnation on the lack thereof. The acceptance as if it’s a rite of passage needs to be eliminated because if we don’t, we are quite literally giving people a free pass to mistreat people mentally and physically. That starts by holding each other accountable.

I don’t know if it’s because men assume you’re always ‘up for it’ because you’re another male but it’s not on. It’s a reach to pretend your groping or touching of someone is meant to be complimentary.

Regardless of intent, touching me physically in a sexual manner without my consent is assault. And I won’t allow it just because I am a gay male.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk.

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