Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Patrick Strudwick, himself a victim of such behaviour, argues that far too many people accept it as a fact of gay life

Patrick Strudwick
Thursday 17 April 2014 07:12 BST
Beyond the boundaries: according to the men the writer canvassed, non-consensual sexual acts are common on the gay scene
Beyond the boundaries: according to the men the writer canvassed, non-consensual sexual acts are common on the gay scene (Rex Features)

In the noisy, never-should-have-come-to-court outrage following Nigel Evans' acquittal for rape and multiple sexual assaults, and in the hubbub over tales of serial sexual harassment in Westminster that have emerged since, another, more disturbing issue has been drowned out, unnoticed and unheard.

The subject was prompted by the courtroom testimony of Evans' accusers. One by one, young, gay witnesses said either "it never entered my mind" that the alleged incident should be reported, or "never in a million years" did they think it would end up in court. A further accuser, who alleged rape, said: "I didn't feel able to say – to be strong, to say something that would've made social awkwardness at the time." Another complainant, also gay, alleged that Evans groped him in a Soho bar. The prosecution said "he did not want to cause a fuss".

Reports of the trial picked up that the accusers "did not consider themselves victims". And the verdict was clear – Evans was found not guilty. It called to mind, however, innumerable young men I have met on the gay scene over the last 20 years, men who have been abused but who do not consider themselves victims, do not attach words such as "rape" or "sexual assault" to their experiences, do not feel able to wield consent, and do not think they can complain, or report it.

Women who are kicked or punched by their husbands often do not consider themselves victims, instead blaming themselves, brainwashed by the conjoined psychological abuse. And so, the question we must ask is, what other factors are at play? Why might some within certain groups not consider themselves victims?

Earlier this week, I asked on Facebook for gay men's attitudes and experiences of non-consensual sexual acts. I was inundated with responses. Some spoke of the mild end of the spectrum. "There have been a few times when a snog has been forced upon me," says Liam, 31, who said that, in those instances, he laughed and pushed them off, adding: "I know very few people who would actually make a fuss. I don't want to offend anyone."

When probed further, a familiar story emerged. "Knowing what rejection feels like, I guess that you have some empathy," he says, adding that he "absolutely" cannot cope with being disliked after a closeted adolescence in which he felt "uncomfortable with myself", hiding behind a girlfriend so that his sexuality wouldn't be discovered. As a result, he says, he is a gay cliché: a "people pleaser".

Exonerated: Nigel Evans MP was found not guilty of rape and sexual assaults
Exonerated: Nigel Evans MP was found not guilty of rape and sexual assaults (AP)

Other anecdotes were darker: "When I was 18, my then boyfriend's best friend groped me and then assaulted me when I was asleep and I didn't report it because I felt like it was just a rite of passage," says Edward. "My own boyfriend told me he'd been spiked the first time he went out and that things just happened on the [gay] scene."

The story of another man, in his twenties, conveys the confusion over how to categorise such experiences. "Some dude kept grabbing my neck. I told him politely to go away and he kept doing it, then touching my bum, following me to the toilet, to the point where I told him to fuck off. It's like, because it's a gay club, you have to shag everything. Wasn't an assault but was non-consensual."

The first person to comment under my Facebook status said: "Someone touching you up or grabbing your arse etc without consent isn't assault, how ridiculous."

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that a sexual assault occurs if "he (A) intentionally touches another person (B), the touching is sexual, B does not consent to the touching, and A does not reasonably believe that B consents".

Another respondent agreed: "We've all been touched up occasionally – if you're not interested, you just slap their hand away."

For many gay men, derided and dehumanised by a hostile culture, and then steeped in the values that have surrounded them in a counter-culture built on trauma, someone touching a private part of their body, uninvited, becomes normality, not an assault, with the onus on them to deal with it. The results can be devastating.

"When I was 19, a couple of older guys pressured me into penetrative sex, despite me clearly saying I didn't want that," says David, now in his mid-thirties. "A week later, after hating and blaming myself, I plucked up the courage to speak to them about how I felt about what they had done. One seemed shocked about how I felt and the other laughed and said I needed to pull myself together because 'that's just the way it is on the gay scene'. There was no way that I felt that I could report it. I thought that I would be laughed at."

A further respondent was raped in London last year by two men after his drink was spiked. Although he did recognise what had happened and have the confidence to report it, "the police didn't take it seriously. They didn't follow it up." His impression was that they felt "all gay men sleep around".

All of which means that if you wish to commit a sex crime, apart from children, young gay men will likely make the most silent, compliant victims. Wider culture grooms us for sexual violence and gay culture normalises it. To understand the mechanics of this, we must examine the early lives of gay people – all too often invisible.

Section 28, forbidding the "promotion" of homosexuality, which gagged teachers from discussing it at all, was in effect from 1988 to 2003, but its shadow loomed for years after. To grow up gay in the Eighties, Nineties and part of the Noughties was to be the great unuttered, one's existence unacknowledged by those in loco parentis, muzzled by fear and law, unable to help or validate.

Add to this an epidemic of homophobic bullying that still pervades, and where as recently as 2012 (according to a study by Stonewall) 99 per cent of school children hear "gay" used as a pejorative. The majority of gay pupils report being bullied – 60 per cent of whom say that teachers who witness this do not intervene.

But the erosion of self-worth is both subtler and more panoramic than these obvious markers. It is compounded by a pressure to conform to gender roles while being pushed into a protective self-made closet – preventing truthful, intimate bonds among peers – amid a heteronormative society that validates little about a gay person's identity. As a minor, the message from every angle is clear: you are not welcome and you are not safe.

Sexual violence has been normalised within gay culture, the writer argues
Sexual violence has been normalised within gay culture, the writer argues (Alamy)

Professor Dinesh Bhugra, a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told me last year, in an interview in which he came out publicly, that the "alienation, isolation and discrimination" experienced by our gay youth is the "perfect storm" for low self-esteem and mental health problems, leaving them vulnerable to myriad dangers, with "the slightest bit of stress" likely to trigger self-destructive behaviour.

Consider, then, a fairly typical gay kid: late teens, still coming to terms with their identity, still recovering from a tough time at school, with depleted self-esteem, in search of like-minded folk, needing security, friends, romance, sex, venturing out onto a very adult pub and club scene – as well as online and app dating – with different norms and boundaries, unsure how to navigate them, but desperate to fit in. What, do we suspect, would be their likely reaction to someone crossing the line?

"Young gay men don't usually have the same chances to flirt, hold hands, and become more comfortably acclimated to normal sexual situations," explains psychotherapist Matthew Stinson, a former drug and alcohol counsellor for gay people. "This often results in insufficient confidence to assert oneself in sexualised situations. As gay culture often revolves around alcohol and drugs, some men find themselves in situations where they aren't sure of the rules of the game. This can lead to young gay men being easily influenced or taken advantage of, and lacking the basic skills to understand what their rights are." And so, it is not that this normalisation of sexual violence is worse than the rape culture blighting the lives of women – gay men are no more predatory toward young guys than straight men are to young women. It is that the environments differ, along with the expectations, reactions and beliefs of those affected.

Men of all sexual identities are even less likely to report such incidents than women. Survivors UK, the charity for male victims of rape and sexual assault, estimates this amounts to about 3-5 per cent, bringing into sharp focus the Mayor of London's cutting of all funding last year to support services for male victims. But a divide in attitudes to attacks can be traced along lines of sexual identity.

"The commodification of sexual activity is often deemed as some sort of rite of passage in gay society," says Michael May of Survivors UK. "A lot of vulnerable young gay men who experience something that makes them uncomfortable don't know how to categorise it, and when they do say 'But I didn't want that to happen', others shrug and reply, 'It happens all the time, get used to it'. So they will look around and think, 'If this is the place I'm safe, I have to accept these things in order to be safe. I can't negotiate on them.'"

Over time, self-assurance may increase, making complaints more likely, but reactions remain similar. Paul Burston, the former editor of Time Out's LGBT section, and part of the London gay scene for the last 25 years, told me about a recent experience of his.

"I was in a club in Vauxhall with my husband and this guy walked over and just grabbed my nipples really hard and twisted them. I said, 'What are you doing?' to which he replied, 'What's your problem? You're in a club!' I complained to the management, [but] nothing was done." On another recent outing, one of Burston's heterosexual relatives went to the loo, where someone lunged at him, to make a pass. "He was freaked out that gay men's boundaries are like that and it was eye-opening for me – I'd been so absorbed in the scene for so long that you don't even notice certain behaviours until you see them through someone else's eyes."

All those I spoke to left me reconsidering my own youth, and how I count or categorise the times my consent was not given. Would I include all the occasions I have been groped in gay bars? Do I count the time a huge middle-aged man spied my defenseless inebriation, pinned me to a wall and forced his tongue in my mouth? How do I categorise the time that a man I dated did not stop when I asked him to? And why did I, an educated – some might say mouthy – middle-class man from a liberal family, say nothing?

I am left wondering this, too: which deserves our most urgent attention – the treatment of suspected sexual predators or a wider culture that cultivates a sub-section of mute, unknowing victims?

Some names have been changed

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