I stand behind the women in my life ready to deploy my privilege in their defense when they ask me to.

-Josh Rivers

by Josh Rivers

Content Warning: This essay includes discussion and description of sexual violence, with details that could be triggering.

“You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognise that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work towards that future with the particular strengths of our own individual identities.” — Audre Lorde

During a recent interview with a gay Black friend for my podcast, Busy Being Black, the thoughts he expressed on the #MeToo movement reminded me that gay men often vastly underestimate the damaging role we can play in women’s lives. As he expounded upon what he sees as nuance and complexity to both consent and victimhood, I found myself reeling and dumbfounded.

For me, the #MeToo movement is very clear cut, and I feel compelled to challenge the recurring disavowment of our role as men in a world that is designed for our advancement to the detriment of women (and I use “women” in the most capacious and inclusive understanding of the identifier).

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He first questioned women who choose to pursue wealthy men in order to be looked after and provided for. His apparent issue: that women who pursue this kind of lifestyle are somehow limiting the image of women and contributing to the perception of women as objects.

The second point he attempted to make was about women in Hollywood who have made the decision to sleep with someone in power in order to advance their career. “I think they now have a bit of buyer’s remorse,” he said, as I choked on my coffee. According to him, women who may have slept with someone in order to get ahead, now have no recourse to say #MeToo. In short, he believes that they chose this path and this is the treatment they agreed to.

The most unimaginative among us can understand why he and others can have this highly-problematic and ignorant point of view. Western society teaches us that women, in deciding how they choose to interact with male-dominated structures, have tacitly agreed to rank mistreatment by those men.

This man is my friend, someone I care for. And so, in the midst of my disbelief, I must find a way to have this conversation with him, and other gay men, because that is my responsibility as a man.

At 17, I was sexually assaulted by a man twice my age. I didn’t understand at the time that it was a gross abuse of his power and influence; I didn’t understand that he should have known better than to ply me with alcohol, and I didn’t know that I should have spoken up. I thought, “I must have agreed,” and “Maybe I wanted it”.

As I wiped blood from my ass the next morning, I didn’t realise that I would sit with that confusion and anger for years, nor that it would metastasise inside me and tar my sexual interactions with other men. I didn’t realize that him robbing me of my virginity or my power would have such an incredible impact on how I reacted (or didn’t) to the pain and oppression of others.

I didn’t begin to unpick the tangled knot of distrust, rage, and resentment that incident left wound up within me until some twelve years later. A deeper understanding unravelled before me. I woke up to the fact that assault is always related to power.

Rape is the most violent theft of one’s power, but there is a catalogue of behaviours among men that are protected, encouraged, and celebrated because we have been trained to treat consent with a flippant disregard. Getting a 17-year old drunk and sexually violating him is a direct result of a man deciding to take another’s power, whenever and however he pleases. But this is an obvious example.

What of the older man who grabbed my ass and asked if I was wearing a jockstrap as I served him wine at a restaurant where I worked? What of the older man who, to this day, kisses me on the mouth when we say “Hello” and who has ignored the grimace on my face every time it happens? What of the older man who grabbed my crotch while I was working an event? What of all the moments I’ve been grabbed, yanked, shoved, and mishandled as if my body was theirs and not my own?

My body is not yours, so keep your hands off it. We are not socialized in the gay scene to make this confident demand. Unless we actively fight it, our bodies, consent, and boundaries will often be disregarded. “Oh, I’m just having a bit of fun! Relax!” so many have said. It’s a disrespect I’ve learned is par for the course and this journey of re-discovering my self-worth and my boundaries has become a great deal of work.

So, if we are not safe from a casual disregard for consent as men, then surely women aren’t either—and not because women are less than, but because attitudes towards women over centuries have proven they are not safe from men.

Dr. Robin Diangelo awakened me to my role as a danger to women by her admission of her danger to Black people as a white woman. This admission struck me like a bolt of lightning. If we grow up in the world as men, a world that has been designed for our success, then why would I be any less damaging to women simply by virtue of my sexuality?

Spoiler alert: I’m not.

For many of us, femininity has become a marker of shame. Playground taunts, locker room banter, and constant challenges to our masculinity mean we’ve had to constantly defend our masculinity, if only to ourselves. Our defense of our masculinity is in our performance of it. From the bro to the heteronormative prepster to the drag queen, we take on the pain and often turn it into how we present ourselves to the world.

Everyone should perform whatever version of themselves they want in any given situation. The performances in and of themselves are a non-issue, but we must examine our performances to ensure we don’t act out the same toxic masculinity this patriarchal society has used to emasculate us.

From use of the word “bitch” to RuPaul’s recent admission that he would not allow women to perform on Drag Race, it’s becoming increasingly clear that (trans)misogyny, internalised homophobia, femmephobia, and transphobia are so deeply embedded in our experiences as gay men. These are just my observations.

We have to re-examine consent, especially consent under duress, and our attitudes towards it—not so that we can evaluate and validate claims made by women, but so that we can better evaluate and modify our behaviour as men.

As gay men, we should be using our access and our privilege to speak to other men about our behaviour. We should not be using the #MeToo movement as a way to discuss and dissect the situations in which women find themselves and how they choose to get out of or through them.

To absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the behaviour of other men, or to disavow our man-ness because of our gay-ness is a gross disservice to our sisters and siblings. We need to understand that we are not without fault, and that, while our intersecting identities often place us in similar spaces to women, we are still prone to elbowing our way past those women in defense of other men.

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As a gay man, society and socialising has placed me in close proximity to women—a proximity I’ve come to treat with the reverence it deserves. My sisters, both my mum’s and my own women-friends have had a truly immeasurable impact on my life. I have a responsibility to be an ally to women. I stand behind the women in my life ready to deploy my privilege in their defense when they ask me to. As my mum says, “What about you is so special that you think women need you to save them?”

In dealing with the repercussions of my own assault, I’ve come to understand the role that power plays, whether it’s women or gay men who are being robbed of it. I’ve come to understand that I am a man in the world, no matter the challenges to my masculinity. It is imperative that I am aware of that privilege and that I use it to dismantle the systems and structures that keep my sisters and siblings fighting for their lives, for the right to live free from harassment and assault.

What the #MeToo movement has (or should have) elucidated for men is the role we play in the lives of women, regardless of our sexuality. It’s an opportunity for us to examine our behaviour, not the choices women make while trying to make it through the assault course of patriarchal society alive.

Josh Rivers is a writer and host of Busy Being Black, a podcast exploring how we live in the fullness of our queer Black lives.