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Column: Men’s experiences of sexual assault are too often erased

January 23, 2020
Alan Hettinger
Alan Hettinger

Editor’s note: This article contains sensitive subject matter.

When I was 20, I was sexually assaulted. I had just come out as bisexual, and a man I was flirting with at a party asked to split an Uber with me back to my apartment, saying he lived close by. When we got back, he asked to come in to use my bathroom. Inside, he tried to have sex with me. I told him I was too drunk. He kept going. I told him several more times. He asked me if I could walk him home, and then tried to have sex with me again at his place. I pushed him away and left.

I got home and sat on my couch, staring at a blank wall until 5 a.m. When I woke up the next morning, I felt sick. I barely left my bed. He messaged me on Instagram, asking if I wanted to come over that night. I don’t think he has ever fully grasped that he violated my consent.

It took me months to mentally apply the term “sexual assault” to what I had experienced. It took me another year to apply the term “sexual assault survivor” to myself out loud. I at first thought “technically” the definition of those terms matched my experiences, but to apply those terms to myself diminished the experiences of survivors who had been through far worse.

I knew, in the abstract, that sexual assault against men was a thing that happens. I had a vague sense, from various educational materials about sexual assault, that something like one in 20 men were sexually assaulted at some time in their lives. Nothing, compared to one in four women. And usually, anything that went into more depth implied that almost all of those men were assaulted as children.

Eight and a half percent of undergraduate men experienced sexual assault since enrolling at Michigan State, according to a report from the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup. Just in the 2018-2019 academic year, 10% of gay undergraduate men experienced sexual assault. My experiences were far more common than I had come to believe, yet I hadn’t been equipped to process them — either by the university or by society as a whole.

It is important to understand the root cause. Sexual assault, both on and off college campuses, against people of all genders, is a crisis caused by heteropatriarchy. Society doesn’t teach men to listen to and respect the needs and desires of others. Additionally, centuries of homophobia have created a culture in the gay community of anonymity and secrecy, and not of open communication.

Ultimately, what I needed in that year in which I couldn’t place language to my experiences, were narratives with which I could contextualize them. I needed narratives from people I could identify with, but instead, experiences like mine are erased, glossed over, an afterthought. 

Nobody ever needs to publicly talk about their experiences of sexual assault, but if more men talk about our experiences and ally ourselves with our fellow survivors of all genders, we can start to overthrow heteropatriarchy and toxic masculinity and build a better world for all of us.

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