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.)

Mr. Scrumptious

bath1

“Well, aren’t you just Mister Scrumptious?”

The older man had followed me into the dry sauna, where I had taken a seat on the upper bench, arranging my towel to cover myself comfortably. My skin broke out in a blissfully hot sweat right away in the scorching heat. I took a swig from my water bottle.

“You really are very scrumptious.”

I hadn’t even had time to acknowledge the first statement before he spoke again. This time I looked over, and nodded, muttering a thank you. He was likely in his late 60s, thin white hair brushed over his scalp. Wearing only a towel, the man was barely 5 feet 5 inches, his skin a bit sallow and spotted. He had on a pair of thick glasses that were fogged up, and I realized there was no way he could see me nod, so I said thank you a bit louder, then settled back against the wall, closing my eyes.

I breathed the hot air into my lungs, then held it there for a moment, clearing my head of the world outside. I was facing some big decisions in my life soon and it felt wonderful just to shut my brain off.

“Do you mind if I touch you a bit, Mister Scrumptious?”

I tilted my head slightly, curious and confused at this particular combination of words I had never expected to be spoken aloud. I kept my eyes closed. “Um, no thank you. But thank you for the offer.”

“What, you don’t like to be touched?” His voice was a mix of determination and frustration.

“Everyone likes to be touched sometimes. But I don’t want to be touched right now.” I felt my stomach contort with a laugh.

“Well, then, what are you looking for?” Now he sounded annoyed.

“I’m not looking for anything. Just relaxation. I’m here with some friends.”

The man paused, quiet for a moment, and he lowered his voice to an almost whisper. “Well, your friends aren’t here now, but I am, Mister Scrumptious.”

This time I laughed out loud. He was certainly persistent. “I think my friends are out in the hot tub. Thank you again, but I’m just here to relax.”

“Oh come on, who comes to a bath house just to relax. Everyone here is looking for something.” His voice took on a whiny pout now.

I sat up and faced the man, who still had his fogged glasses on. He had his arms folded and one leg crossed over the other. What was I doing here, I wondered. I was here in Denver on a road trip with a few friends from Salt Lake City, all of us formerly Mormon, all of us fathers through our previous marriages to women. Despite being in our 30s and 40s, we were still learning about gay culture, being gay, and how the gay community interacts. We had been sitting in our hotel room. Someone had mentioned a bathhouse and we had all curiously agreed that going to one would be a learning experience. After all, there are thousands of bath houses across the world, in every major city.

It was a Sunday afternoon when we found the facility, tucked into a back residential neighborhood, a single sign discreetly placed revealing its location. We had parked our car in the parking lot, which was tucked away from view, and entered the main room, a dark small space with a front desk attendant tucked behind a security glass window. The man had explained that only members could enter the bath house, and that we could purchase an annual membership for 25 dollars, plus a mandatory locker rental fee each time we used the facility. We paid for memberships, rented a locker, and were given a single key to an assigned locker along with a plain white towel.

We had entered the locker room, all of us curious about the new experience, stripped down, and put on our towels. I wandered through the building, exploring. The main floor had vending machines for snacks, coffee, and water. Down a long hallway, there were individual rooms that could be rented (higher priced than the lockers), each small with an individual bed and television (used for pornography). A few of the rooms had the doors slightly ajar and I could see men inside, their doors left open on purpose as they clearly hoped for some company. A small swimming pool and two hot tubs were available, one indoors and one out on a patio over a small grassy yard, as well as three separate saunas, dry and wet. A room sat off to one side with benches, and pornography played on a large screen.

A long stairway went down to the lower level, a basement where long darkened hallways twisted and turned in a maze-like pattern that was intentionally disorienting, leaning toward men being able to meet anonymously for sex. Various rooms were set up with bunks, benches, slings, and holes in walls. A few men stood in their towels in darkened corners, hoping to meet someone.

Outside in the hot tub, I had ruminated with my friends about the history of gay men. Millions of men who grew up in secret, telling no one about their attraction to other men. Connections to other men, including through sex, had to be carefully protected, discreet and anonymous, to protect families and careers. For decades, men had only met other men in public parks designated as gay meet-up spaces, at bars, or at bathhouses. Now, post-2010, being out as a gay man was much easier. Meeting other gay men through phone apps, dating sites, or public events was commonplace. Yet clearly there was still an appeal, a fascination for bath houses, the potential for anonymous sex away from prying eyes.

“Men do like their sex,” I had said. “In fact, if women enjoyed bath houses, straight men would be in these places all the time. Straight men use coercion and violence in the name of sexual gratification, yet places like this inspire such discomfort to others, hidden in plain site.”

We had had a long discussion about our former lives and where we were now.

And then I had walked to the sauna. I looked back at the older man with the fogged glasses, there waiting for me to show interest in him. I certainly wasn’t looking for random sex with an older man in a sauna, much as that might frustrate him.

“Honestly, sir, I really just here to relax.”

He got the flirtatious tone back in his voice, not missing a beat. “Well, I can help with that.”

My word. “Sir, really, you’re very nice but I’m not interested in that right now. We can have a conversation if you like, but I’m not looking for a hook-up.”

The man got up, tightened his towel around his waist, and headed toward the sauna exit. “Well, all right, Mister Scrumptious. But if you change your mind, I’ll be downstairs. You’ll know where to find me.”

I thought of the man in the basement maze below and laughed to myself again as I leaned my head against the wall, thinking of humans and their history, and my place in all of it.