By Ben Cartwright | Back Out With Benny
A few weeks ago, I was out at a bar on a Sunday afternoon with friends and we were discussing some thoughts about this planned column. In the middle of the conversation, a man came up to us to say hello and during that interaction, he noticed that one of my friends was wearing a snap button-down shirt.
The person who approached us thought it would be “fun” to unbutton my friend’s shirt so he could touch his bare chest. He did it once without asking and got maybe three or four buttons undone.
My friend told him not to do it again, but the man kept saying “Aww come on! You’re asking for it wearing a shirt like that!” and persisted to pull down his shirt buttons again and again, even though my friend kept repeatedly saying “No, this isn’t cool.”
What so many people seem to forget is that no means no. Always.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a campaign designed to raise public awareness about sexual violence and to educate communities on how to prevent it. Sexual violence is a major public health, human rights and social justice issue, and many people don’t even realize what constitutes sexual assault. The story above was a form of sexual assault and things like that happen every single day.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, sexual violence is any type of unwanted sexual contact, ranging from sexist attitudes and actions, to rape and murder. Sexual violence can include words and actions of a sexual nature made against a person’s will. A person may also use force, threats, manipulation, or coercion to commit sexual violence.
With all this said, statistics show that sexual violence is not just a problem that women experience, but it’s also a particularly rampant problem within the LGBTQ community. Four in 10 gay men (40.2 percent) and nearly half of bisexual men (47.4 percent) have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. One in 8 lesbians (13.1 percent) and nearly half of bisexual women (46.1 percent) have been raped in their lifetime.
To raise awareness about the real problem that sexual assault is, a group of local community members have been working for several months to make sure that local agencies better serve GBT male and masculine-of-center survivors.
Fernando Lopez, director of operations at San Diego Pride, started this work over two years ago shortly after he first (anonymously) shared his story of being raped after being out at a local nightclub. After the story was published, he heard from dozens of men who said, “That happened to me, too.” He began to realize how big of a problem this was and wanted to take action.
There is so much work to be done, but the group has begun to make some progress and I spoke to some of its members about the work.
Walter Castaneda, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, said he was drawn to this work because of his experience searching for local resources for male survivors and finding next to nothing.
Luckily, he was able to find a great therapist that helped him to practice self-care and healing, but he was particularly inspired by a workshop he attended called “Sexy Survivors” at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference last year.
Following that experience, Castaneda knew he had to take action, and he reached out to Lopez and myself to schedule a meeting to discuss this. We had our first meeting in March 2016, and while I’ve stepped out of the group, they’ve now grown to more than six people working together to help create a safe space of healing for men.
Castaneda is particularly pleased that the San Diego LGBT Community Center launched a Male Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence group in February, which he said “Gives other men a safe space to share similar stories among themselves, which might help them with their queer identities and relationships.”
We also know that sexual assault, especially among males, is underreported. Walter shared that he believes the answer is complex, but there are social “norms” that play a part. Castaneda believes, especially in his Latino culture, that the expectations of “traditional masculinity” — such as not being allowed to cry or show emotion — coupled with family closeness, can lead to shame; as well as immigration concerns for some, including fears of being deported if they should report anything, are the main reasons why reporting doesn’t happen.
After finally getting the courage to tell his parents about the abuse he had experienced as a young man and reporting it to the Sherriff’s Department in his hometown, he found they were of little help.
“Asking for help was the hardest thing I sought out to do after that,” Castaneda said. “I gave it another shot four years ago when I asked Benny if there was anything at The Center for sexual assault survivors, but there wasn’t. I was discouraged after that again. I feel like that’s part of the reason why male survivors don’t report sexual violence. We don’t feel supported by society due to the lack of resources made available for us.”
Liat Wexler — a gender-queer identified member of our community who uses “they/them/their” pronouns — works for the Center for Community Solutions (CCS) in San Diego and has been instrumental working to create more resources for survivors. They said they witnessed their father’s abuse of their mother and when they began to explore feminism in college, were drawn to the work of ending abuse and sexual assault. Wexler had worked for a number of organizations and projects before landing at CCS as the training specialist in sexual assault and partner abuse prevention and education.
The mission of CCS, which has served San Diego for 48 years, is to end sexual and relationship violence by being a catalyst for caring communities and social justice. Their services include a 24/7 hotline, shelters, advocacy, legal services, counseling and prevention education. CCS understands that partner and sexual abuse isn’t just a women’s issue and have been serving men and non-binary people alongside women for many years — in fact CCS was one of the first to have gender-inclusive shelters.
“Sexual assault in general is hugely underreported,” Wexler said. “One reason is that about 86 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the survivor: often a friend, acquaintance, family member, or partner. People are more likely to report to law enforcement when raped by a stranger, rather than by someone they know and care about.
“Sometimes survivors don’t realize what was done to them is sexual assault; it feels icky, but maybe the person didn’t use force or a weapon,” Wexler continued. “Most sexual assaults are perpetrated with the assistance of drugs and the most common intoxicant used is alcohol. So many times survivors don’t remember all the details of the assault. Trauma also affects memory because when we are in crisis, we often react with a fight/flight/freeze response, which shuts down our ability to remember a timeline of events.”
And then there’s victim blaming. Wexler said our culture blames victims, making it harder to disclose and identify the abuse. Victims are often asked about their sexual history; how much they had to drink; what they were wearing; whether they led the perpetrator on; and why they didn’t fight back.
“Now let’s consider a survivor who is a man, and the ways that society tells men that they should always be able to protect himself and always enjoy sex, especially gay men,” Wexler said. “Many men who were sexually assaulted have said they felt intense confusion if they experienced an erection or ejaculation, believing that meant it wasn’t rape.”
Wexler said that gay men’s culture “in particular” emphasizes sexuality and drug use, which they said could feel empowering and exciting and lead to vulnerable situations.
“At the same time, gay culture doesn’t create ongoing conversations about respecting boundaries and seeking consent in the same way that it does about getting tested for HIV,” they continued. “I’ve heard men and masculine-of-center people in the LGBTQ community express disbelief that rape even happens to them. Men are taught that they can’t be victims and that to be one would threaten their masculinity.”
On average, men who were assaulted as children or young adults often don’t even seek help for the abuse until after they reach their 40s, Wexler said.
So what should one do if they have been a victim of sexual assault?
According to Wexler, you can receive support from CCS for any sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact that you have experienced, regardless of when it happened or whether you choose to report it to law enforcement.
“CCS’s services are free, confidential, available in English and Spanish and to people of all orientations, genders, and immigration statuses,” they said. “You can call CCS’s 24/7 hotline at 888-385-4657 to talk with someone for support, learn about your options if you want evidence collected in a forensic exam, or get connected to counseling and other resources.”
I’m grateful to this small but mighty group of community that has come together to tackle a very complex issue within our community, and their work is only just beginning.
We all play a role in preventing sexual violence and establishing norms of respect, safety, equality, and helping others, so it’s important that we all speak up against the systems that have normalized sexual assault.
And remember: NO ALWAYS MEANS NO.
For more information about SAAM, visit tinyurl.com/hpapenb.
—Benny Cartwright is the director of community outreach at the San Diego LGBT Community Center. He can be reached at 619-692-2077 ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.