ALSO READ: CONSENT: THE UNSPOKEN PROBLEM ON THE CHEMSEX SCENE

Words by Stuart Haggas | @GetStuart  | Photos: ©Shutterstock.com/Rawpixel.com

Does the gay community have an issue with consent?


When was the last time you were groped in a bar? Did you tell him it wasn’t acceptable or did you just let it go? According to our survey, 62% of you have been touched or groped in a bar or club without your express permission.

 And, unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

30% of respondents to our survey on consent revealed that they are the survivors of sexual assault, sexual abuse or rape. With the Harvey Weinstein revelations seemingly getting more horrific by the day, consent is finally at the forefront of people’s minds. This inevitably leads us to the question to which 52% of you answered “yes”: does the gay community have an issue with consent?


WHAT IS CONSENT?

Consent is defined in law as ‘an agreement made by someone with the freedom and ability to decide something’, and in terms of sex, both parties must give consent.

Pressuring or forcing someone into sex without their consent is either rape or sexual assault, as is having sex with someone who lacks the ability to give consent because they’ve had too much alcohol or drugs – and in the UK, consequences for the perpetrator if found guilty can include a prison sentence or criminal record, and being put on the sex offenders register.

Giving consent isn’t as simple as clicking the ‘I accept the terms and conditions’ box, because consent isn’t a set menu or all-you-can-eat buffet. Someone may be willing to have, for example, oral but not anal sex, or may consent to anal sex only if a condom is used. And as with an all-you-can-eat buffet, there can come a point when you want to stop. Such choices must be respected. If they’re not, then it’s not consensual sex.

“Consent is about doing what you both, or all, want,” says Catherine Bewley, Manager of Galop’s Sexual Violence Casework Service. “Consent is not a moral judgement about how consenting adults have sex or with whom. Consent is about adults freely choosing to take part in sexual activity, without threat or coercion, and having the capacity to make an informed choice.”

CONSENT ON THE GAY SCENE

What does consent mean to gay and bi men? In law, it means exactly the same regardless of gender or sexual preference. But in practice, how does the notion of consent work in an environment that’s as sexually driven as Britain’s gay scene?

In a reader survey for this issue of FS, we asked: ‘Have you ever been sexually assaulted, abused or raped?’ From over 1000 responses, 30% admit that they have been sexually assaulted, abused or raped. Examples range from being groped in gay pubs and clubs, being pressurised into doing things sexually they were uncomfortable doing (including having bareback sex), and in the most extreme cases being a survivor of rape.

GROPED BY STRANGERS

Richard, 31 from London, and describes how he’s been groped in gay bars and nightclubs on numerous occasions. “This has included, while I was sitting, a stranger sticking his hand up my shorts and grabbing me by the genitals, hands put inside my underwear on the dance floor, and general lesser annoyances like being grabbed by the bum in gay bars.”

How did he react to this unwanted attention? “In the case of the hand stuck up my shorts, I punched the man in the face. Other instances, I’ve pushed the guy away, shouted at them, or simply ignored them as it wasn’t worth my time. I never considered reporting these incidents to the police as I didn’t see the purpose. I felt they were minor and more nuisances than crimes.”

Other respondents shared similar stories. In fact, 62% of the men we surveyed say they’ve been touched sexually in a gay pub or club before a conversation had started. Many of these men believe that having strangers grab their crotch or arse is simply to be expected when out on the gay scene – especially when younger.

“When I was younger my arse and penis were frequently groped by older guys at a club I used to go to,” says Philip, 32 from London. “This was not welcomed, but equally I didn’t feel threatened or abused or violated. My attitude was more ‘gross – dirty old men.’”

“I’ve had my arse grabbed a few times when I was younger, but I’ve never felt violated,” says David, 43 from Brighton. “It was more of an eye rolling ‘whatever!’ sort of thing.”

Although the perpetrators themselves perhaps regard such actions as innocent and flirtatious fun, 33% admitted to FS that being groped in this manner did bother them. And it’s not always easy to rebuff unwanted attention, particularly in an environment where people may be under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.


CONSENT SURVEY RESULTS:

We asked: Are you a survivor of sexual assault, abuse or rape?

  • 30% said yes
  • 56% said no
  • 13% said they weren’t sure, meaning there could up to 43% who are survivors of sexual assualt, abuse or rape.

Of those who said yes:

  • 22% said that they reported it to the police or a support group
  • 78% did not.

TOO WASTED TO CONSENT?

“I was date raped by two men,” says Daragh, 25 from Glasgow. “I was out in a nightclub and got separated from my friend. My memory of what happened is so hazy – but my last clear memories were looking for my friend and chatting to acouple at a bar upstairs.

“After that I remember disjointed bits like sort of coming to in a car but feeling nauseated and having my head against the window, and then being aware of someone fucking me and not knowing how that had happened and reaching down to check if he was wearing a condom. When I actually came around I was in a room with two guys and tried to get out as quickly as I could. I remember struggling to get my clothes on while they laughed because I was so clumsy. I eventually made it outside and called a friend, who picked me up. I just passed out on his couch as soon as he brought me back to his flat.

“I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to think about it. I denied that it happened to myself. I convinced myself for a few years that I had just wanted to have sex with them because that was easier to process than to feel the shame and the hurt.”

“We know, across all genders and ages, most people who experience sexual assault don’t tell anyone about it,” says Catherine Bewley of Galop. “There are lots of barriers that make it difficult to speak up, including shame and embarrassment; thinking you won’t be believed; being confused about what happened; fear of reprisals or exclusion from a community; concerns that those you speak to won’t understand or be sympathetic, which includes the police and other agencies; and the impact of trauma itself. Everyone has the right to report what they’ve experienced to the police and it can help to get advice and information about the process. Whether someone reports or doesn’t, speaking to someone and getting support can be extremely helpful. There are a range of independent agencies which specialise in such advocacy and support.”

UNREPORTED

It does appear that the vast majority of gay men who are the victim of rape or sexual assault don’t report it – our survey found that only 22% of those who’d been raped/assaulted reported it to the police or a support group.

Zack is 27 from London and was raped while on holiday. “A guy walked me back to my hotel room while abroad and insisted on coming inside. I told him I just wanted to go to sleep, and I lay down on the bed and asked him to leave. He climbed on top of me and started trying to fuck me. I didn’t struggle much, but I quite clearly said ‘no’ over and over again but he did it anyway. Although I know I clearly didn’t give consent it didn’t feel like rape. I felt like I led the guy on and I felt like it was my fault. I know that isn’t true, but that’s why I didn’t report it.”

“I think it’s important to empower people to have choice and control within their sexual and social encounters,” says Catherine of Galop. “It’s really important not to blame those who experience sexual violence or to say ‘if only you’d done this or hadn’t done that, it would never have happened’. Sexual violence will stop when people who are sexually violent stop doing it! Some people deliberately go out to rape and sexually assault, or set up scenarios within which that will happen, like deliberately overdosing someone with G. But I also think we must all look at our behaviour and how we treat and respect others and, as a community, we need to think about our social norms regarding sexual contact. Sexual assault of any kind is not OK and allowing an environment which denies people the right to control what happens to their body and what sexual encounters they have, is also not OK.”


CONSENT SURVEY RESULTS continued:

To those who answered “no”, we asked: Have you ever been touched sexually in a pub or club before a conversation has started? This could anything from kissing to groping.

  • 62% said yes, with 34% saying that it had bothered them.
  • 34% said no, while 4% weren’t sure.

We asked: Do you think consent can be given by a look or other non-verbal communication?

  • 51% said yes
  • 33% said no

FRIENDS WHO TAKE ADVANTAGE

Issues around consent don’t belong entirely in the realm of anonymous strangers and random hook-ups. Although the FS survey found that ‘sexually abused by a stranger’ and ‘groped in a bar/club’ were the top two answers, these were followed by ‘sexually abused by a friend’ and ‘sexually abused by a partner’ – illustrating that it can sometimes be the people we know and trust who have the ability to pressurise us into doing things that we don’t want to do.

“I was on a night out with a group of friends. It was all good fun. My friend kissed me and while I kissed him back I told him that that was as far as it would go,” says Christian, 25 from London. “When I went to get a drink at the bar he approached me from behind and reached into my pants, grabbing my penis. I pulled his hand out and got my drink and carried on. He was drunk so I wasn’t going to kick off about it. Throughout the night he continued to grope me and as I became more drunk it became worse. I went to the toilet and he followed me into the stall where he forced me to give him a blowjob, not letting me leave until I did. I don’t remember much more of the night but I woke up with him next to me and I could tell that we had sex.”

“I was staying with a friend of mine at uni after a night out. I had stayed with him many times before and our friendship was only ever platonic. Nothing sexual ever happened between us,” says Conor, 25 from Belfast. “I was quite drunk and was starting to fall asleep. My friend started to remove my pants. I said no and pushed his hand away. He tried again and I didn’t have the energy to stop him because I had had a few drinks. It wasn’t violent but it was still unwanted. I had not given consent and I had explicitly said no, yet he continued anyway.”

Harry is 31 from Glastonbury. A friend raped him when he was 25. “I was visiting a friend who had helped me with a project. We had a good time and I was staying over (we had shared a bed previously). I was in bed reading my phone lying under the covers. He came under the duvet and gave me a cuddle and then just held me down and forced himself inside me. He was much more powerful than me physically. It didn’t last very long, as in literally less than a minute. In shock I asked him what the fuck was he doing? He had already came inside me by then. He told me nothing had happened and to go to sleep. I didn’t speak to him again afterwards for about a year. Then he phoned me up drunk and apologised for raping me, and continued to get wasted and apologise to me for a few months until I blocked his number.”

UNFRIENDLY ADVANCES

Andy is 22 from York, and has been sexually assaulted and raped by friends on several occasions.

“I was sexually assaulted by a friend when I was 17. He pinned me to a bed and tried to kiss me and wouldn’t get off me. He only got off me when his phone rang, which was on the other side of the room. On Halloween 2014, I was groped in a club by the then head of the LGBTQ social group at my university. He ripped my shirt, grabbed my genitals, demanded to feel my chest and then proceeded to have a tantrum outside the club when I didn’t want to go home with him. I was also sexually assaulted by a former close friend I used to live with at uni and occasionally engage in sexual activities with. One night, he put his hand down my boxers and started wanking me without asking. I froze and panicked and didn’t know what to do. It took me a few minutes to pluck up the courage to slap his arm and stop him touching me.

“I was also raped in January 2016 by a massage therapist. We had previously had sex and agreed from then on not to have unprotected sex. I went to his for a massage and part way through, he climbed on top of me and entered me, unprotected, without asking me or telling me he was going to do so. I froze and asked him if he was bare. As I had freaked out, he said ‘it won’t be for very long’. He then raped me for a good few minutes before pulling out. He tried to push me into wanking him but I was on the verge of tears and felt so violated. I had to take PEP for a month afterwards for fear of contracting HIV (he didn’t disclose his negative status until after raping me, but I didn’t trust him so got PEP anyway).”

As well as concerns about contracting HIV, these experiences have impacted Andy’s health and wellbeing. “It prevented me from bottoming and enjoying sex and intimacy. I have had panic attacks and been sick at the thought of my times of being assaulted and raped. It has made it hard for me to talk openly about sex with my current boyfriend, though it has massively improved in the last year.”

Although he did report some of these incidents, none were reported to the police. “I reported the guy who raped me to my university. I reported the former friend who assaulted me at uni to a tutor at my university. The former friend who assaulted me back home has been jailed for multiple sexual offences against others, though I did not report him. I never had the confidence to report anyone to the police and as a law graduate, I am aware of how difficult it is to prove beyond reasonable doubt that an accused person is guilty of rape or sexual assault, especially as my incidents have happened in private.”

Ian Howley, Chief Executive of GMFA told us about the importance of reporting any incident. He said; “Reporting an incident of sexual assault is vital because it does two things. One, it helps the survivor of sexual assault in tackling the issue. Many survivors of sexual assault who don’t report it go on to have anxiety issues, emotional issues and trust issues. Once you report an incident, you are likely to be entered into some form of counselling which will help you move forward. And two, it helps stop this from happening again. It’s highly likely that you are not the first person your attacker has done this to and you probably won’t be the last. Reporting it can help stop your attacker from assaulting another person. We know it’s difficult and it’s not your fault, but there are LGBT+ Liaison Officers within most police departments who are there to listen and support you. They will take your report seriously and show you the respect you deserve.”


CONSENT SURVEY RESULTS continued:

We asked: When it comes to places like a dark room, does consent still matter?

  • 64% said consent matters
  • 14% said consent doesn’t matter in a dark room
  • 22% were unsure.

We asked: At a chemsex party, does consent still matter?

  • 64% said yes
  • 5% said no
  • 31% weren’t sure.

CONSENT IN A RELATIONSHIP

Just because you’re married or a relationship doesn’t mean that consent doesn’t apply.

“When I was 19 I had a boyfriend who would often force himself into me, particularly in the mornings before or just after I woke up,” says Bruce, 36 from Leeds. “I would wake up and he’d be fucking me. It was a bit of a mindfuck, because I never quite knew if it was rape or not... I’d get into it because I was young and it was sex but there was always the question: did I get into it because it was sex or was it because he was basically holding me down? It took several years to come to an answer and realise that yes he was basically raping me, and feeling like I was getting into it was a way of facing the fact that I had little choice. Getting raped in a relationship, especially if on a regular basis, is really hard to see as rape sometimes, but it is rape. Seeing that allows you to take the first steps away from this destructive relationship and you’re not alone – it happens a lot more than you’d think!”

“There is no difference in law about sexual offences within or outside relationships,” explains Catherine Bewley of Galop. “If someone does something sexual to you that you don’t freely consent to, then it’s an offence, whether this person is a stranger or someone you’ve had a relationship with for 50 years. Most sexual assault is committed by someone the victim knows and, usually, trusts.

“Sexual violence can be a feature of abusive relationships and in this case I would suggest talking the situation through with an LGBT domestic abuse specialist, who will give you space to think about what’s happening in your relationship and find out various options which you can take, if and when you feel you want to. It’s also useful to know that the law says that consent to sex can be withdrawn at any time. You are allowed to change your mind – and a partner should respect this, otherwise they could be committing an offence. Your consent – or lack of it – can be expressed verbally but also non-verbally. The legal onus (a ‘reasonable belief’) is on each of us to make sure that the person we’re having sex with wants what we 

want, so instead of the question being ‘how do I say no to a partner’ it is better to ask ‘how do I know my partner is saying yes?’

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

“I woke up to find my ex-boyfriend who I was still friends with having sex with me after we’d both been drinking. I didn’t stop him. I just let him get on with it as I was ashamed,” says Ely, 35 from Suffolk.

“On another occasion when we were both staying at another friend’s house, I woke up to discover this same guy had taken off my underwear and was performing oral sex on me. I pushed him off and told him that it was not OK. He didn’t seem to understand what the problem was.”

And if you decide to have a threesome or more, consent still applies.

“My boyfriend and I were having some chems and were looking for guys for hook-ups. We invited a guy round and started playing. I wasn’t really feeling it and wanted to stop but my boyfriend, who is top, didn’t pick up on how I felt and the guy carried on,” explains Gary, 34 from Hove. “The guy fucked me bareback and it was really uncomfortable, I wanted to tell him to stop but I couldn’t find my voice. Once he finished I was relieved and he left. My boyfriend and I carried on our evening and I put it out of my mind. As I felt it was my fault for not telling him to stop, and as I had said OK when my boyfriend asked if it was OK to invite him over, I felt too ashamed to go for PEP. I was diagnosed as HIV-positive later.”

CRUISING AND CONSENT

The fact that you’re in an intense sexual environment such as a gay sauna, cruising area or darkroom also doesn’t mean you’ve forgone consent. 

“At a cruising area I was attracted to a man but as we started to get intimate another man I was not interested in joined us,” says Steve, 49 from Cornwall. “I wanted to stop but it turned out to be the partner of the first man. I tried to leave but they blocked me in and I became too frightened to push past.”

“I was with my partner at the time at a sauna where we had agreed to include others to join us and play,” admits Ben, 25 from London. “However I was drugged (presumably with G), lost consciousness, and then apparently my partner left me to ‘grab some water’ and came back to find an old guy having sex with me in the cubicle. I have very little memory except a painful feeling. There was no consent and he wasn’t wearing a condom. I regained full consciousness in the shower before heading to A&E to get PEP. It was a contributing factor to the break-up with partner at the time, because I blamed him for leaving me in the cubicle, yet he blamed me for allowing myself to get in such a situation. I then sought therapy and was told that this incident could be a major factor in my current mental state, especially given the fact I had not sought any counselling or support for what happened. Since then I haven’t been confident or trusting enough to develop any form of meaningful relationship.”


CONSENT SURVEY RESULTS continued:

We asked: Do you think the gay community has issues when it comes to consent?

  • 52% said yes
  • 14% said no
  • 34% were unsure.

DIFFERENT SCENARIOS

Is the nature of consent different when attending a sex party or sex club compared with one-on-one scenarios?

“I only say ‘yes’ to this because the environment is different and is where sex is expected,” says Jazz, 24 from Exeter. “I do believe, however, that some sort of contact should be established before any sex is initiated, just so you can gauge whether there is any interest. If there’s none, do not proceed.”

“You go for sex, although I do believe you can choose to stop and leave whenever you wish. If you’re refused the choice then it becomes rape,” adds Danny, 25 from Lincolnshire.

“To some degree it is different. If you’re attending a sex party or partaking in a group session you may appear to have given consent to the people in the group you are with. However that doesn’t mean to say you have given consent to full-blown unprotected sex with all of them,” says Geoff, 55 from North Yorkshire. “There is a certain amount of assumption in these situations and not all participants may be thinking the same way.”

“I think you consent with each action, for example, attending a party, removing clothes, initiating in sexual activity,” says Bilbo, 35 from Manchester. “It’s not a blank cheque, but I think there is more responsibility on everyone to say when they reach a limit (there are different ways to do this). Any party/group/fetish must be respectful of that, otherwise it is abuse.”

“You can start to initiate it with anyone,” says Jake, 38 from London, “but you have to stop if they brush you away or move away to indicate they’re not interested.”

But that doesn’t always happen.

“I was at a sauna once and a guy tapped my foot. I wasn’t interested so, I moved my foot away from his,” explains Ross, 34 from Dundee. “Then he started to undo my towel and I got a fright. I wasn’t impressed. I presumed that the fact I moved my foot away from his meant ‘not interested.’”

“I have been in a darkroom on more than one occasion when a guy tried to have sex with me without a condom. When I asked him to use one he moved away,” says Jeff, 55 from North Yorkshire. “Darkrooms can be quite risky places and some guys can be quite persistent. I did once have unprotected sex in this situation even after I had asked him to wear a condom.”

SAFE WORDS

“I was 18, and I’d hooked up with this guy a couple of times,” says Andrew, 32 from London.

“He was a lot older than me. He was into BDSM, and was introducing me to lots of different kinks. We had established limits and a safe word, and agreed to always use condoms for anal. During our last play session, he got much more aggressive than before. He pushed me to the ground, pinned me down, and fucked me bare, with no lube. I struggled, and used the safe word, but he didn’t stop until he came. After that he just got quiet and wouldn’t speak to me. I got dressed and left. When I got home, I realised I was bleeding pretty heavily from my ass. I was embarrassed, so I didn’t go to the doctor for a few weeks, when it was getting hard to pee. The doctor just said it was Chlamydia, without any tests or exams, and prescribed antibiotics. Within a week, I couldn’t pee at all. I went to the A&E and saw a specialist who said I had a bruised prostate and it had become infected. I was on a catheter for two weeks, and antibiotics for three months.”

Andrew didn’t report it. “I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I honestly believed that I was completely unattractive, and that I should be flattered that he raped me, because it meant that he must have found me attractive. I even tried to see him again, but he never returned my calls or emails. I thought that if I told any of the doctors what had happened, they’d just make fun of me for being gay, or say it was my fault because I went to his house and agreed to have sex with him.”

How did it affect him? “I didn’t have sex for three years after it happened. I still have trouble believing that another guy would ever want to do anything other than fuck me. I’ve never had a boyfriend.”

ISSUES

Does the gay scene have issues about consent?

“Sex is extremely normalised within the gay community, and in most ways I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but because extreme sex is normalised too I think it means boundaries get blurred,” says Zack, 27 from London. “People get carried away and they act before knowing for certain that the other person is consenting. I also think there are problems with reporting it – I didn’t report my incident, and I have friends who haven’t reported theirs. I think it’s very closely tied to our masculinity. Being sexually assaulted is emasculating so people don’t like to talk about it.”

“Many men seem to think that other gay men are quite promiscuous, so consent tends to be assumed, which is a problem,” says Cathal, 18 from Dublin.

Consent may be an issue on Britain’s gay scene, but one important thing to remember is that it is never the victim’s fault.

“There has been silence about the amount of sexual violence experienced by men, as children and adults,” says Catherine of Galop. “I am glad men are now starting to speak up: this is in itself a big step forward. As a community, it is so important for us to face this issue and honour survivors and, as a society, it’s important to better fund proper support services for men and boys who experience sexual violence, alongside services for women and girls.”

GET HELP AND SUPPORT

“Whatever the situation, the law about consent remains the same,” explains Catherine of Galop.

“Alcohol and chems can impair our capacity to consent and our ability to make an informed choice, as well as affecting our judgement about what someone else wants, whether we’re at home with a partner, in a club, or meeting someone via a hook-up app. The key message is: if in doubt, don’t! If you are 

not sure if someone wants to do what you want or you think they might not be in a state to know what they’re doing, then don’t have sex. You could end up committing an offence or causing trauma to someone and that’s not OK. If you’ve been drinking or taking chems, and you think you are in danger, try to get help. You can call the police or an ambulance and we can all do this for each other, if we think someone needs our help. If something bad has happened to you, it is not your fault and you can get help and support.”

Ian Howley, CEO of GMFA calls for more action on sexual assault in the gay community. “Any form of sexual assault from groping to rape is unacceptable in our community and we need to take steps to stop it. I think with all that has gone on in the news regarding sexual assault and the #MeToo campaign, it’s now time for the gay community to stand up against sexual assault too. One, we must do more to educate gay and bisexual men about what the basics of consent is. The fact that some gay men think it’s perfectly OK to grope someone in a bar is unacceptable. And two, we must do more to help the survivors of sexual assault feel empowered to report the incident and make sure they receive the help and support they deserve so they can move forward.

Ian added: “No-one is to blame for sexual assault apart from the attacker. No-one asks to be assaulted either. We, as a community, need to tackle this issue and make gay and bisexual mean realise that consent is key and no means no.”


If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, then there are people out there who can help.

GALOP, the LGBT+ anti-violence charity, will listen to you, offer counselling, and can even help you report any crime against you, as well as advocate on your behalf. You can reach them on 0207 704 2040.

You may also find it helpful to read the LGBT Foundation’s guidance for gay and bisexual men who have been affected by sexual assault, available as a PDF at https://lgbt.foundation/downloads/153 through their website at www.lgbt.foundation.

Survivors UK can talk to you via their website at www.survivorsuk.org, by SMS on 020 33221860, or via Whatsapp on 07491816064. They can even provide assistance through an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor if you so choose.


Read all the articles from FS #162: