The Culture of Groping

The women next to us were stunning. Super-model on a magazine cover good-looking.

One, who I called Alice in my head, was in a sleek and snug crystal-colored dress that hugged her frame tightly. Her shoulders and upper chest were bare, showing off her impressive cleavage. Her arms were bare, her makeup light, and her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. She danced effortlessly, arms in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying back and forth. Her handsome husband (both wore wedding rings) stood behind her, wearing a button-down shirt, dark pants, and a jacket. He looked like a Mafia-Man with slicked back hair, a strong jaw, and an amazing build. He watched Alice closely, delighting in her enjoying herself.

The other woman I named Prudence. She was like the hottest librarian I’d ever seen. Tight black sweater, gold necklace, horn-rim glasses, short black skirt, bobbed blonde hair. She danced against a man who must have been 7’1” (like actually this height, I’m not exaggerating), a man who looked like an oil baron of some kind. He danced against a pole and laughed loudly and made fun of the people around them. (“What’s grandma doing over there? You think she’d call the police if I accidentally knocked her down?”) Every time he stood up, the people behind him sighed in frustration, unable to see the stage.

I was there with three gay friends, in a busy 2nd floor concert bar called the Depot in Salt Lake City. The crowd was electric and diverse. Women in their sixties, girls in their late twenties with their reluctant boyfriends, gay men in their 40s, middle-aged lesbian couples, college students, people of every race. I was having a blast people watching. As the opening band finished their set, the club started to get busy, and everyone started to close in toward the stage, pressing against each other, in anticipation for the evening’s main entertainment, the woman they had spent $40 each to see tonight: Elle King.

I’d never been a fan of Elle’s, but I am always happy for new experiences and was thrilled to join my friends. Elle came out in a form-fitting black shirt, black pants held up with a belt and a giant gold belt buckle, and a pink cowboy hat. She had swagger, charisma, and a command of the stage. A few songs in to her set, I leaned in to my friend Cole and said, “I can totally see why you love her. She’s amazing!” There was a smokiness to her voice. She sang blues, old westerns. and love and hate songs, and all of them were delivered with a feminist bend. She sang with sheer girl power, unashamed, and the audience ate it up. I wasn’t liable to go buy her album, but I had to admit, she had some serious charisma and talent when she performed.

A few songs in, I was dancing back and forth near my friends when I felt a hand grab my ass. I turned around in shock and literally didn’t know who had done it. Then another hand grabbed my ass. I turned around and saw Alice, in the crystal-colored gown, smiling. “It wasn’t me!” she said. I raised my eyebrows. “Okay it was me the second time, but the first time, it was him!” She pointed to my other side, where a gay man with far too many piercings stood nearby. He winked. I sighed and turned around. Then another hand grabbed my ass.

I turned back around and Alice was right there. “It’s just so cute, I couldn’t help it!” Then she placed both of her hands on my chest and rubbed them over my shoulders and down my arms. “So good!” she yelled, and her husband started laughing behind her.

Over the next few minutes, Alice went on a groping spree. She grabbed Cole’s ass, then Tyler’s, then Josh’s. The she grabbed the ass of a girl nearby, and then the girl’s boyfriend. She turned around and grabbed the boobs of the woman standing behind her and yelled, “I’m having fun and I’m hot and I can do whatever I want!”

I watched the crowd react to her with curiosity, confusion, anger, and surprise. No one really said anything. Everyone smiled uncomfortably and kind of laughed it off. This gorgeous woman was grabbing everyone in the area as her husband laughed. It was some sort of game. She was pretty and drunk, so we will put up with her groping, we all silently agreed somehow. Alice eventually stopped and then returned to her husband, grinding against him as Elle continued to sing.

The gay man tried to grab my ass again and then pressed himself, but I distanced myself from him, delivering a clear non-verbal message that I wasn’t interested. I remembered a few months before in a club when another man had aggressively groped me in a club even after I told him no multiple times. Here I was in this safe space with a feminist artist, getting groped by a man and a woman both.

I thought about Alice and her groping spree, and how everyone just kind of laughed about it uncomfortably and shrugged it off, even though it was very uncomfortable for the most part. I thought of how the tables would turn if it was her husband grabbing people. Both the men and the women would be uncomfortable, outraged. A fight would likely break out. When he yelled, “I’m hot and I can do what I want!” as he grabbed a woman’s boob, he would likely get punched in the face and have the police called on him. Then I wondered how the crowd might respond if they considered her less attractive, or if she wasn’t there with her husband watching over her. How would the other women on dates react? What about the single men?

I realized this was likely rare in clubs, this thing where women groped other men. This woman was clearly drunk and determined to enjoy herself, and she clearly thought it was okay. Gay men grope other gay men far more frequently in clubs and bars. And straight men group women everywhere and seemingly always: women dealt with this at work, at bus stops, in restaurants, while shopping. I can’t imagine. I was feeling violated and impatient after these few encounters. What must it be like for them?

I started to relax a bit, even as the crowd jostled and pushed around me, getting more drunk. The music was good, and I let my body sway with the bass line and enjoyed the people watching. Twenty minutes or so passed, then I felt a hand at my neck. Fingers gripped the collar of my T-shirt, then, before I could even turn around, I felt freezing water pour down my shirt, followed by a few jagged ice cubes. My shirt was tucked into my shorts, and I felt the ice land at my waistline and stop there. As I turned around, I was already untucking the shirt to let the ice fall free to the floor.

My anger spiked as I turned around, already thinking I was glad it was water and not alcohol that had been poured on me. I expected to see the grop-y gay man behind me, but instead I saw Alice. She was holding her plastic cup, now empty, and she was giggling with delight, like she had played the best joke on me. Behind me, her husband was laughing hysterically, as were Prudence and the giant. I was not amused, and I let my anger out in a soft but stern tone, unfiltered.

“What. The. Fuck. You grab me, you grope my friends, repeatedly. You grope everyone around you and think it’s funny. It’s not fucking funny. And now you are fucking pouring ice down my back! Bitch, you don’t know me. Back the fuck off!”

I watched Alice grow pale and back away from me. I hadn’t threatened her or advanced on her, but she knew I was very, very angry. Her husband ushered her behind him and put an arm out toward me to hold me off, although I hadn’t moved. Behind me, the crowd still danced to Elle’s music.

“Hey, whoa, man, back off,” he said.

“Reign her in, dude,” I said with derision. “I didn’t fucking deserve that.” And he quickly moved her away.

I had a hard time enjoying myself after that. I was far too sober for this. I got jostled a bit more by the crowd, but no one else was groping. The wet streak down my back was cold at first, but then just stayed wet and took time to dry. When I lose my temper like that, I immediately get sad and angry at myself. I regretted what I had said, especially the word ‘bitch’, which I try to avoid at all costs. I could have said fewer words and delivered my message effectively. But I also had a right to be angry. The groping had been too much, but the ice water was way over the line.

I drove home thinking of lofty terms like feminism and consent, feeling free and feeling safe. I had been having such a nice time before all that, and the admission had been expensive. I hadn’t asked for that, and it wasn’t warranted.

A few days later, I attended a party with a group of gay men, and told this story. Several of them shared stories about straight women going to gay clubs and groping the gay men while dancing and drinking. Women grinding up on them, women grabbing their hands and placing them forcibly on their breasts, women unzipping their pants. Yet when I asked them, the men each admitted they’d been groped by other men at the clubs far more frequently. It was just that the attention from other men was generally more wanted due to the attraction. And they all agreed that women likely deal with this much more frequently.

I’m left with a lot of thoughts after this experience, but I’ll close with this:

Alice, wherever yo are, I bet you’re a really cool person. You like Elle King, and you can definitely dance, and you seem to have great friends. I bet we could have some fascinating conversations. I bet you deal with a lot of sexual harassment in your day to day life. And I bet it is almost universally unwelcome. Just recognize that I celebrate your  right to go out and have drinks. But if you want to grope someone, or pour ice down their back, stick to the people you know. Because you left me feeling violated and angry. Your actions kind of ruined my night. I had a right to be there just as much as you did. And no matter how hot you think you are, you don’t get to just do what you want. You’re responsible for yourself even when you’re drinking. Actions have consequences, and I was your consequence that night. This is an era where politicians are being removed from office for behavior like this, and you aren’t a TSA agent.

I’ll keep my hands to myself. You do the same. And let’s start changing the world around us by starting with ourselves. My sons learned this rule in the first grade. Let’s apply this rule to grown-ups, too.

NoDavid.jpg

Sex Education Part 2: And None Will Molest Them…

I loved the hymns. I loved all of the rituals of Mormonism, in fact. Prayers before bed, church every Sunday, fasting and tithing. But the hymns, sitting in the chapel and singing with the Saints on Sundays, they made my heart soar. My family was very musical, all of us, and we would sing loudly in the congregation, harmonizing and singing in all four parts. I loved watching the conductor at the front of the chapel. I loved the piano refrains. I loved tracing the black notes in the hymnals with my eyes.
Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation.
No longer as strangers on earth need we roam.
Good tidings are sounding to us and each nation,
And shortly the hour of redemption will come,
When all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And none will molest them from morn until ev’n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Jesus will say to all Israel, “Come home.”
I knew very early on of my divine purpose. I was a child of God, with a divine destiny in store. Where much was given, much was required. Because I knew of my godly heritage, I was expected to be obedient and follow all of the rules because I loved God and he loved me. Everything happened for a reason. God saw and heard everything and there was nothing he didn’t know. And if anything bad happened, it was because God had something to teach his children. It all made sense. Perfect sense.
There were a lot of women in my home, and I was often hungry for male attention. I had five sisters and my mom was responsible for most of the parenting. Dad was gone a lot, and always quiet and sad when he was home. That left my brother, Kenny. He was 8 years older, and a bully, constantly teasing me and my little sister, Sheri. We shared a bedroom, and he made it widely known that I was not the kind of brother he wanted around. I was too much of a sissy and I liked girly things.
So far as I can put it all together, I was 5 when the abuse started, and I think I was around 8 when it ended. My memories of this time remain fractured. As with all survivors of trauma, my memories are sharp and clear on certain things, and completely blank on others. I write this at the age of 40, and it still brings back dark shameful painful yucky feelings to consider what happened. My family also remains extremely uncomfortable with me talking about it. So I won’t be overly specific, I’ll simply talk about the experience itself.
Kenny, who was in some ways a child himself (though the older he got, the harder it is to use the excuse, and, again, I was only 5), he used the typical tactics of all abusers. There was grooming. He made the abuse feel like a reward for good behavior and deeds. If I helped with his chores, we could go up to our room and spend quality time together. I was warned not to tell anyone. I was given instructions while at school to think up new games we could play together. At times, when I tried to initiate encounters between us, he would shove me aside and embarrass me if he wasn’t in the mood. It was sometimes frequent, sometimes infrequent, and I kept it silent for a very very long time.
As I look back, I think that I thought of it almost like a game. As I process memories not related to the abuse, they are otherwise very normal. Family dinners, spelling bees, swimming lessons, Christmas mornings. My brain hones in on very specific instances and the things that happened, and then there are big gaps. There may have been weeks or months when the abuse didn’t happen at all, and there were times when it was frequent. I don’t know exactly how it started, and I don’t know exactly how it stopped.
I do now that by the time I was baptized at the age of 8, I knew far too much about the male body and how it worked. I still had a lot of innocence, but I knew about masturbation, and intercourse, and orgasm. I knew about sexual shame and secret keeping. And so, that day when my dad dipped me beneath the water and declared I was without sin, that day when I was wearing white, I didn’t realize how deep the darkness within me was. I had no idea how far the roots of pain and confusion had spread.
First there was the awareness that I was different, something I ultimately learned to mean I was gay. And then there was the abuse. And those two things in conjunction with the messages I received about God and divine destiny created deep wells of confusion within me. I developed an understanding that I was designed wrong, that there was something inherently flawed within me. And that deep pain, it was with me during all of those normal moments of childhood. Through the chores, the stories I wrote in notebooks, the playing with friends at recess. It was there on summer vacations, and in Cub Scout activities. It was there when I made friends with boys and girls, when my oldest siblings moved out of the house, and when one of our dogs was hit by a car.
I learned to put on a happy face. It was genuine. I was a happy kid. I was kind and compassionate, I cared about others, I loved learning about animals. All those parts of me were real. But they also became the parts that I learned to show the world while I kept the rest secret. It’s what was expected. It’s what Kenny taught me to do, but I’d learned to hide my differences even before that.
Years later, as an adult, I would look back at these early photos of me, and see an innocent kid. I was the perfect target. I was eager to please, accommodating, happy, easy to manipulate. I kept confidences. I was hungry for attention. And I was in a busy household where it was hard to notice if one kid was going through hard times, especially if he was quiet about it. And above all else, he had easy access to me. I was right there, one bed away, right behind closed doors.
I turned 8, and Kenny turned 16. He started drinking more, and he got a job, and he cycled through girlfriends. And I had no idea how unhappy mom and dad were, they were good at keeping their own secrets. But by the time I was 11, they would split up and we would move across the country, away from Kenny and dad and my childhood home.
And then adolescence began. And suddenly being different from everyone wasn’t okay anymore. I would only become more aware of it with every passing day.
Jesus

Sexual Predators

feral

“Am I a sexual predator? Are there people out there who think I’ve sexually harassed them?” and “Have I felt sexually harassed by others? Who, when, and why?”

I found myself wondering those questions over breakfast this morning, after a late night conversation with the boyfriend about these very topics. Lately, the news has been inundated with stories of sexual harassments and sexual assaults by celebrities and people in power. Social media has been full of outrage at Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more, all of them men who used power and manipulation to harm women (or in some cases men), or who excused their predatory behavior with “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

But that leads me to think back to my own life and experiences, asking two questions internally. Are there times when I have felt sexually harassed, and are there times when others have felt sexually harassed by me?

Are there times when I have used “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing” as an excuse, and are there times when I’ve used those same excuses to explain away my feelings at the hands of others?

This is actually a really painful space to think upon. As a gay man, I’ve had plenty of evenings in gay clubs with loud music and drinks, where I’ve danced with a partner, and that can easily turn into kissing and groping. I’ve been approached by guys in a similar manner. And there is constantly either verbal or non-verbal consent or refusal happening. If someone grabs me in a club and I liked it, I might grab them back, feel flattered, or express mutual interest. If someone grabs me in a club and I didn’t like it, I might move away, give them eye contact to indicate I’m not interested., or feel disgusted or furious. Even more complex, if I flirt and someone doesn’t flirt back, I might feel angry, confused, or rejected, and they might feel things when I don’t flirt back. These basic encounters have sometimes left me feeling like a predator or like a victim, they just feel like part of the process.

But I can also recall times when guys have aggressively grabbed me in clubs. Strangers who have groped me while I walked by, or who have tried sticking their hands down my pants or unzipping my pants, times when guys from behind me have reached up between my legs from behind and grabbed hard. Those times have made me angry, downright furious, and I’ve forcefully removed hands and pushed guys away, giving very direct ‘NO’s with my voice or my eyes. Consent was much more apparent here. (And I’m never that aggressive in my own flirting).

That same feeling of discomfort has existed within me during more subtle encounters, however. I’ve felt anxious and angry at men who give too much eye contact or who aggressively follow me or pursue me at a party or a park. I’ve grown outraged with people who text too much or too aggressively, or who send unsolicited naked photos, or who brag publicly or privately with friends about sexual experiences they have had with me. These encounters have left me feeling unsettled and unsafe at times.

However, examples from both of the previous paragraphs have also been completely okay at times as well. I’ve had guys aggressively grab me and I felt flattered, men have pursued me or sent naked photos and I’ve liked it, guys have bragged about me and I felt happy about it.

It seems to come down to timing, trust levels, readiness, and level of attraction. And it’s difficult to know what will happen or how I will feel.

Self-inventory then ensues, and I begin to wonder about the times I’ve grabbed guys or have flirted too much or have followed a guy with my eyes in a coffee shop or I’ve complimented too easily. There are very likely people who have felt like I’m being predatory and who have felt unsafe, upset, or harassed by me. And that makes me feel worried and terrible.

Isolated encounters almost confuse me more. I think back to a time when I went on a weekend trip with a group of friends. We were in the Hot Springs together, and one of the guys got very handsy under the water, with his partner standing nearby. At the time, I found it enticing, and it went on for a while. It was only later that it bothered me. I never said no and I enjoyed the encounter, yet now when I look back I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little harassed.

I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve appreciated it, and I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve been annoyed, sometimes avoiding them or even blocking them on social media because of it. I’ve had massage therapists get a little bit sexual and sometimes I’ve liked it and sometimes I’ve given a firm no and stayed furious about it. I’ve had clients flirt with me, and sometimes I’ve gotten angry and declared clear boundaries, and other times I’ve kind of enjoyed it and perhaps even subtly flirted back.

I once sat next to a friend during a movie, among a group of friends. During the film, I moved subtly closer until our legs were touching, then I moved my hand a bit closer to hopefully touch his. He responded by getting up and moving away, sitting on the floor, and later he’d told me that made him very uncomfortable. That had been hard to hear, but I respected that, and we are still good friends. I was happy he spoke up, and I was willing to listen.

Consent can be a bit confusing, honestly. And rather than saving my outrage for men in government and Hollywood who I have never met, who have preyed upon others, I’m taking the opportunity to do a bit of self-inventory. There are times when flirtations are just fun. And there are times when flirtations have caused me to feel unsafe and harassed. And there are times when flirtations have caused others to feel like I am harassing them.

I’m not sure what to take from all of these thoughts except to realize that asking is always better than assuming, that consent should be a part of every conversation and flirtation, and that I never like feeling unsafe, and that I don’t ever want anyone feeling unsafe around me.

Harassment and predatory behavior can show up in any space, through unwelcome compliments, eye contact, energy, or gestures. It can show up at work, in friend circles, and in bars. But it’s going to require us all taking stock of our encounters, apologizing when we need to apologize (without making excuses), communicating consent much more quickly, and setting clear boundaries when we need to. We are all sexual beings in our own rights, who experience attractions to others. But someone feeling like they have been marginalized or victimized, including myself, is never acceptable.

We live in a predatory community, and the way men treat men and especially how they treat women should never be focused on excuse-making and feeling rejected, but instead on conversations and consent. But it is very complex when we apply it ourselves. We all need to be using our voices and our ears much more. No one wants to be harassed, and no one wants to feel like they’ve harassed others.

No Homo: when straight guys flirt

Flirt

“I’m straight. But for tonight only, you can do whatever you want to me.”

The guy had wrapped his arms around me at the bar, while I stood waiting for my drink, and he’d whispered those words in my ear. “Whatever you want,” he repeated. I pried his arms loose and turned to face him. He was handsome, looking like a surfer out of California, with a skinny build, a beanie with long blonde hair spilling out, and an impressive jawline. He was clearly drunk.

While he was certainly good-looking, I did not take him up on his offer. I prefer some conversation and connection first, not drunk-in-the-club hook-ups.

But even now as I tell this story, years later, it makes me laugh that he felt the need to point out that he was straight first, when he was clearly looking for a very gay connection.

Then again, straight guys have been flirting with me for years.

I can conjure dozens of stories from the time I was in the close where men, in high school or in college or even when I was a missionary, wanted to cuddle or asked for a back massage or complimented my body, always with the assertion that the were straight.

“Dude, I’m into girls and all, but you look damn good right now.”

Back then, when I was closeted, these interactions were lifeblood for me, giving me just enough male attention to excite or arouse without full exposure that I was gay. I rarely, if ever, reciprocated the flirting, afraid of being exposed as gay, but the encounters were relatively frequent.

But when I did flirt back, I usually experienced frightening rejection.

There was the massage therapist who kept complimenting my body as he touched me everywhere but who grew offended when I complimented his back, the guy in Elders Quorum who said it would be totally cool to share a changing room at the locker room and even suggested we shower together but then told me to make sure to keep my eyes to myself after he noticed me looking, the friend in high school who cuddled up next to me under a blanket during a movie with a hand on my leg but then pulled away in seeming disgust when I placed a hand on his.

Reactions for me back then were always met with an internal flogging, me calling myself stupid and feeling humiliated. To make sure they knew I was not gay, I’d generally respond with an assurance that I was only into girls and then brag about some made up date I’d recently gone on. And, I realize, that is exactly what they are doing by asserting that they are straight.

I remember one night as a Mormon missionary where, with the room dark, a good-looking 20 year old lay in his bed inches from me graphically describing a time he had had sex. As he talked, very dirtily, we both began masturbating and both of us knew that was happening, under the cover of darkness and bedding. We made eye contact for a moment before he turned his head away, but he didn’t stop. Then, when all was finished, he said, “That was cool bro, good night,” and turned toward the wall to sleep, leaving me wondering what had just happened.

Since I’ve come out, now much more comfortable in my own skin, I’ve been hit on by many seemingly straight guys over the years. One straight friend told me how lucky I was to be gay and have sex so easily, hinting that he might be down some time for that. One straight guy over social media told me how he has a wife and kids but how he thinks about guys sometimes. One straight colleague told me how he’s been straight his whole life except for those few years he was in prison.

It seems to be every gay guy’s fantasy, at least in some context, to fool around with a straight guy. (And I know many friends who have had a lot of sexual encounters with straight guys over the years. In Provo, Utah, for example, most gay social media apps seem to be overwhelmingly full of married Mormon men with families who are looking for sexual encounters with men on the side).  Guy friends hook up on camping trips and business trips, during massage appointments, or while having a few drinks. Each situation seems fraught with tension and confusion as everyone wonders who might make the first move, and no one quite knows where it is going to lead.

Me, I’m a naturally flirtatious person, and I embrace that about myself. I offer compliments freely and frequently. Sometimes people flirt back, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes others initiate the flirtations. And lots of times, those guys are straight.

Years ago, I had a straight friend who told me that when on vacation with his family, he liked to walk past the gay beach so that he could be complimented by guys. He always felt flattered when they whistled or cat-called, and one day when they didn’t he’d wondered why. He told me he had no interest in men, but he liked having their attention.

A friend confided in me recently. He is a very handsome gay man who is only recently out. A straight friend of his had been flirting with him in texts and conversations for months, and my friend had flirted back. But recently, in person, when my friend flirted, his straight friend put up major boundaries and let my friend know how uncomfortable the flirtations made him, telling him he needed to stop. My friend left that conversation shaken, humiliated, and ashamed, feelings I know very well from past interactions.

The culture of masculinity in our country dictates that it is unacceptable for men to flirt with men, because if they did they would likely be made fun of by other men. But I think every man out there experiences attraction to some other men, even when it isn’t sexual attraction. Most men are far more comfortable using ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ labels rather than ‘bisexual’, but it could be argued that every human has just a bit of bisexual attraction.

There are men who like men, and men who like women, and men who like both. And then there are men who like women who also seem to like men who like men.

I’ll close this blog with a conversation I overheard while on a college campus recently. Two good looking fraternity guys were sitting outside on a bench as I walked by, and I heard one say, “You know, it would be kind of cool to share your girlfriend sometime. I mean, I’m secure in my masculinity, bro. No homo.”

 

Disclaimer: (Keep in mind that flirting words, texts, or behaviors never imply consent for action or even exchanges of pictures and words. Consent must be a part of any action, otherwise the result is harassment or assault. And women deal with this much more than men, but that is an entirely different conversation.)