On Nov. 14, just 4 days after Louis C.K. admitted to sexual harassment and 2 days before Sen. Al Franken was accused, Masha Gessen posed a provocative question on the New Yorker website: “When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?” When I first read Gessen’s article, it seemed too soon in this moment of reckoning with sexual assault and harassment to cast doubt, too early to entertain fears of a “panic” in which all sorts of sexual acts are viewed with suspicion. The momentum with which these abuses of power were coming to light had created a vital movement; handwringing over anti-sex hysteria was not yet warranted.
But now I’m not so sure. Three days after Gessen’s article, Phillip Henry posted a piece in them, Conde Nast’s new LGBTQ platform, about how gay bar culture promotes and normalizes sexual assault, particularly in the form of touch and groping. It’s a concern that had been voiced two months earlier by Marc Ambinder in USA Today, arriving right on the heels of the Weinstein revelations. Reading Henry’s and Ambinder’s pieces over recently, I wondered again about Gessen’s point. “I’m also queer,” Gessen writes, after noting that she too has experienced harassment, “and I panic when I sniff sex panic.”
It’s inevitable that during this cultural shift, gay men should question their leniency regarding the grope, that not-necessarily invited hand on the chest, ass, or even crotch that may occur during a night out—sometimes welcome, sometimes not. It’s encouraging that the discussion has led gay men to revisit the extent to which tropes of masculinity shape our perspectives. And it’s true that, as Henry and Ambinder point out, the laxity of some gay bars can make it harder for assault victims to come forward and be taken seriously.
But the sanitization of gay spaces—a total cleaning up of our sometimes messy brushes with desire—would be a profound loss. What arguments like these make clear is that when it comes to the language of assault, we should not generalize. A “strange hand on our butts” in a gay club, as Henry writes, is not necessarily an act of sexual violence. To lump the two ends of a spectrum together under one category of assault trivializes the seriousness of aggressive acts and ignores the fact that unexpected—but non-threatening—encounters can be a positive part of sexual discovery.
To be fair, Ambinder makes the distinction that “as bad as drunkenly grabbing a butt can be, it is much less bad as many other forms of assault.” Yet overall he paints those drunk butt-grabbers in gay bars as lecherous creeps, “stepping up the boundaries of predatory behavior.” Observing this rather sweeping move, I start to feel uncomfortable remembering that this is exactly how gay men were once vilified in homophobic propaganda: as predators. So any message that points to gay bars and claims this is where predatory behavior is born deserves careful consideration.
New York, sadly, no longer really has a culture of gay saunas. Coming from Melbourne, Australia, where that culture still exists (albeit unglamorously), I have always been surprised and heartened by the code of consent to be found there, a code that I have seen men adhere to responsibly time and again. Someone approaches you in the steam room or the sauna, sits beside you, and maybe touches you. If you’re not interested, you can take their hand and move it off of you—you can also shake your head, and clearly say “no”—and the stranger, having received the signal, will leave you be without protest. In my observation, this code is dutifully followed. In a form of community protection established over many decades, other men will often step in against bad actors, and any troublemakers will be evacuated from the premises.
Entering these kinds of spaces, one accepts a contract that these environments welcome sexual behavior, and everyone has the freedom to participate, or not, in the way that they choose. Saying no is always, and must always be, an option. To suggest that the initial placement of a hand is in itself assault, however, completely betrays this contract and willfully ignores that consent can work differently in different contexts.
People’s opinions will differ on whether a gay bar should automatically be defined by sexual permissiveness. When I first started visiting gay bars in Australia, I felt both awkward and excited by the blurred lines of touch. It also afforded me the chance to deal with discomfort; to learn where my own boundaries lie, as well as how those boundaries shift and change; and to feel empowered to enforce those boundaries myself, remaining respectful of other people’s sexual expression. I would hope that we could allow individuals a similar autonomy (including, perhaps, deciding that cruisier gay bars are not really their scene) rather than dictating how everyone should feel from on high.
And what then of specifically designated sex areas, such as dark rooms? Pushing past some cheap curtain to fumble blindly among other willing participants, one engages a similar contract as that of the sauna, agreeing to the terms of the sexualized space. This is not to say that sexual assault doesn’t take place within these spaces, because it can and does. But when the spaces themselves are called out for permitting a “level of impropriety,” as Henry writes, it comes across as impugning sexualized spaces altogether, consenting or not. Henry also writes that all men feel similarly violated by such improper interactions: “We know all too well the things running through your head when these casual gropings happen.” Do we all know? Aren’t we permitted some agency over our own private reactions, be they flattery, arousal, or discomfort?
Another piece in them this past weekend, written by Darnell L. Moore, takes the idea even further, suggesting it’s not only gay venues that create predatory behavior, it is also gay men’s private thoughts. “That’s where it begins,” Moore writes, “in the expansive space that is our imaginations.” Moore writes that when he observes a stranger on the subway or at a bar, he turns them “into an object of [his] affection, stripped of their agency and clothes,” and that this is an unacceptable violation. But doesn’t this idea—that Moore can strip a person of their agency with his gaze—still leave Moore with all the power, as he presumes to know how that person feels about cruising in the first place? “Some gay, bisexual, queer, and trans men often think it’s okay to look at or touch other people’s bodies without permission.” Look at? Are we to imagine a future in which acceptable interactions begin with eyes cast down until consent to look is given? “So many men believe the exterior and interior parts of another person’s being are ours to access and dominate.” But isn’t this exactly what Moore is doing, by reading malicious intent into everyone’s passing glances? And doesn’t this all begin to sound like thought-policing, in which an authority muscles in on our erotic imaginations and admonishes us for desires that are “wrong”? As with the “think of the children!” sex panics of the past, this kind of extreme view employs a morality that treats all sexual thoughts as hostile, something that gay men have historically fought against.
Most dangerous about this kind of thinking is that it reduces our essential ongoing conversation around sexual assault to a micromanagement of gestures, not just in properly de-sexed environments like offices and business relationships, but also in supposedly sex-positive spaces. To enforce a code onto all queer spaces which says that physical contact—even looking—is inherently “improper” risks imposing a paranoia into our still much-needed havens for sexual expression. I don’t think Henry or Ambinder intend that degree of regulation (Moore perhaps does), but we should nevertheless be more diligent when terms like inappropriate become interchangeable with violation and assault. For many, including the current vice president, all homosexual acts are considered inappropriate. All the more reason for us to be wary of this casual use of terminology.
“Over the last three decades,” Gessen writes, “as American society has apparently accepted more open expression of different kinds of sexuality, it has also invented new ways and reasons to police sex.” This kind of policing should be challenged. Our whole LGBTQ movement began as a refutation of the policing of our spaces. And questioning this level of regulation should not be seen as an opposition to the larger fight against sexual assault, particularly as it occurs in workplaces. Henry is right when he says that gay men have a responsibility to ensure our spaces remain vibrant and explorative, as well as safe. The last thing I want for our cherished gay spaces, however, is that safety translates as sex-phobic propriety.