I was staying at my parents house for a summer internship before my senior year of college. It was an especially hot summer in LA, and I remember when I woke up that morning I couldn’t tell if what I was experiencing was a fever or if I had just forgotten what a real SoCal summer felt like. I remember sitting down on the toilet, looking between my legs and seeing blood. I remember thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
After one visit to my family doctor and then another to a specialist, I learned the man I had slept with the night before had left me with not one, but two treasures to remember him by: internal hemorrhoids with abrasions (the blood) and herpes (the fever). When I called to tell him, he didn’t answer. When I went to find him on the gay hook-up app where I had met him, his profile had disappeared. When I Googled his name and the hospital where he purported to work as a physician, I found nothing.
That’s the man who raped me. I don’t remember the name he gave me and I’m almost certain it was a lie, so let’s call him John R. Smith. The “R” stands for rapist.
An Assault on Identity
Looking back I’m almost thankful for the medical trouble Mr. Smith caused in our encounter. In the immediate aftermath, it allowed to me to focus on my physical health, which was approachable and comforting in its capacity to be “fixed.” What he had done to my psyche, however, felt nebulously painful and, at the time, unfixable. So I avoided it.
Back at school, I was involved in an activist movement at my university to reform administrative responses to sexual violence. After seeing the need for reform first hand while working as HIV test-counselors on our campus, some co-workers and I took on leadership roles in the activist group. We were overly familiar with the issue: survivors of sexual violence were turning to our resource for a sense of security and comfort when the administration failed to adequately support them in the wake of an assault.
All of this is to say: I knew what happened to me wasn’t my fault. I knew the violence I encountered should not and did not tarnish my character. But I still felt those feelings. And I told no one.
As a gay man, I was caught in both the cultural expectations of my gender and my sexuality. What kind of man is raped? If he isn’t able to fend off his attacker, is he a man at all? Shouldn’t he have that John Wayne aversion to feeling that would allow him to disregard the incident entirely? I hated these questions, but I found myself asking them nonetheless. In my social life, I regularly derided “‘toxic masculinity” and considered myself free from its clutches. In the wake of my assault, I found myself feeling as if I had somehow lost the license to call myself a man.
My gayness complicated the issue further. Prior to my assault, I had just begun to feel the agency and self confidence required to comfortably explore my sexual desires and in doing so, enjoy the normalization of casual sex within the gay community. So much of gay male culture is about being “out and proud.”
I was supposed to be the fun and free-living gay guy who not only enjoyed casual sex, but navigated its treacherous, tangled roads with aplomb. What did it say about me that I couldn’t? I didn’t want to believe it happened. And for nearly a year, I told myself it didn’t.
New Semester, New Love, New Problems
When I returned to school in the fall, I did everything I could to avoid facing the truth. I kept having casual consensual sex, partially because I enjoyed it and partially because I wanted to prove to myself I still could. I became less involved with activism around sexual violence, using a heavy senior year course load as an excuse. I withdrew from friend groups and communities that demanded too much vulnerability from me.
And then I met a wonderfully tender guy, who became my first serious boyfriend.
As our relationship progressed, my assault and its effects on me became increasingly hard to hide. One night, after we had gotten into bed, my boyfriend rolled over to hold me. This was in no way unusual, but suddenly an insidious thought seeped in: “He’s going to rape you.”
I lied there in silence with my heart racing, convinced a man who never showed me anything but love and respect was about to attack me. After about twenty minutes he asked, “Is everything okay, babe?” I burst into tears. Sobbing, I told him I had been assaulted and it “really wasn’t a big deal.” It had just popped into my head, I said, but everything was fine.
He tried to talk about it with me the next morning. I evaded his questions and words of support.
And then came what I call the “night-jumps.” Almost every night, my boyfriend would wake up at around 2 a.m. to go pee. About three months into our relationship, I started shooting out of bed and shouting “Who are you?” upon his return. I would usually come to full consciousness about halfway through the question. He would apologize for startling me, I would apologize for startling him and we’d go back to bed. At first, we both thought it was sort of funny (I still sort of do), but eventually it became indicative of how deeply Mr. Smith had affected me. And my partner and I agreed I needed to seek professional help.
Help is Waiting When You’re Ready
I was blessed to grow up in a home and community in which therapy wasn’t stigmatized. I already had a therapist who I had found after a bout with depression and social anxiety. We checked in when I felt I needed a “tune-up,” but when I returned for counseling on this particular subject, we hadn’t spoken for nearly a year.
My therapist and I worked on processing what had happened to me. We worked on developing new tools and strengthening my previously established tools to assist me in confronting and healing from the trauma. She encouraged me to tell my friends, particularly the gay male ones, knowing they were truly supportive and kind. Not only did these men welcome me with open arms, they shared their own experiences. From my work, I knew men who have sex with men regularly experience sexual violence. But until I brought it up, we never really talked about it.
I’m still dealing with my assault. I no longer jump out of bed screaming. I do sometimes have nightmares about it, but it’s rare. I’m always surprised by what will bring it back to the forefront of my mind. Certain sexual positions make me nervous and take me out of the moment. I still don’t like to be touched on the back of my neck. I recently re-watched an episode of a favorite TV show featuring what I once viewed as a harmless, though graphic, joke about sexual violence. I had to turn off the TV.
A Space to Talk
If anything this experience forced me to confront underlying issues I already had regarding my own masculinity and sexuality. It forced me to work on issues I’ve had with intimacy for as long as I can remember. I’m not thankful this happened to me, but I’ve grown from it. And furthermore, in working through it, I’ve become a better and more compassionate person. By opening up about my experience, by sharing it with my friends and in turn creating a space for them to share their own, I’ve strengthened my relationships and shifted the culture of support within my community. And that is something I am deeply proud of.