TW: Mentions of Sexual Assault/Rape
I think about sex daily. It’s an integral part of queer culture, serving as a strategy for empowerment and coping to combat the continuous homophobia and heteronormativity that deems queer bodies and relationships undeserving and disposable. But I rarely think about just sex and my thoughts are often in conjunction with reflections on how violence infiltrates sexual spaces and dynamics. In particular, I spend a great deal of this time remembering instances where I’ve been sexually assaulted or where I’ve regretted the sex afterwards.
Sexual assault stereotypically features violence at the forefront, actions are concise and clear as the aggressor exhibits their power abundantly and triumphantly. But my experiences often had the violence behave more insidiously as it was the fear of physical violence that often kept me in submission rather than being overpowered at all. The lack of grabbing or pushing actually made recognizing when I’ve been raped and assaulted much harder and has drastically shifted my own definition of violence in that context. Though there was pain, sometimes because I was hurt or it was just a consequence of being the receptive partner, not having bruises or scapes to see in the mirror made that distinction, and accessing empathy and compassion for myself, really difficult.
Instead, I’ve come to realize that the harm I encountered worked in mental and emotional ways. It became about whether or not my body language was even clear and rigorously evaluating my behaviour, like what I said and did, that might have given someone the impression this is what I wanted. I tore myself to pieces trying to figure out if something was wrong with me, that maybe I just wasn’t connecting the dots like these men were and that was the actual problem. Doubting my feelings became a typical exercise where I’d ask myself how I could feel that way as if I needed to provide substantial evidence as justification. It’s continued as guilt for cutting people off who might have been genuinely interested but took advantage of me, and that has compounded with the guilt from struggling to reciprocate intimacy.
I’m afraid of letting people in emotionally because that kind of pain seems so much harder to grapple with than the physical injuries I’ve endured. Its healing process isn’t as clear as a fading bruise or a scab, though physical harm penetrates bodies in ways beyond our comprehension too, and that lack of clarity makes it ethereal. Emotional violence is capable of returning without warning, it can settle in your gut and incapacitate you, and then it just lingers. It’s unfortunate because this is a hurdle I’ve wanted to overcome for years. I was raped when I was twenty years old by the first guy I ever went out with. He was my first kiss and those milestones will always be there as a haunting reminder of what seeking sex and intimacy has cost me.
These experiences have shaped a flight or fight mechanic that often favours freeze and it has taken me this long to realize one of the things I have the hardest time saying is, “I don’t want to.” I have only ever managed to be that honest with one partner and I cannot articulate how scared I was that I would disappoint him. That’s how the violence I experienced when I was twenty manifests itself now; I shut down when I’m too uncomfortable to vocalize my disinterest and I feel crippling anxiety I’ll disappoint someone I genuinely care about when I manage to. Thankfully, this realization has revealed the benchmark I need to utilize when I’m seeing someone and that is if I feel capable of saying no.
It seems simple but it has been surprisingly complicated. There have been people I’ve met where things progressed quickly and that conversation wasn’t necessary because I was into it but there have also been plenty where that talk probably should have happened. I’ve never said I was raped. In fact, how I wrote it above was the first time I’ve phrased it that way because I’ve usually relied on the vagueness of the term sexual assault to avoid being that precise. This journey has felt a lot like being in the closet where less clear terms become a shield to deter invasive questions or assumptions. That parallel has come with its own set of cruel memories and it’s something I’m still working to digest and articulate clearly. But what I wanted to talk about was how overwhelming it feels to tell other people about my past, especially people I am interested in.
I don’t want someone to be scared to touch me. I always feel silly when I say it like that because what I mean is I don’t want someone I care about to be afraid they’re going to hurt me because I’m fragile. I’ve talked about how I don’t want to be strong because I think there are other qualities that feel more compelling and strength is so easily associated with independence and dangerous perceptions of masculinity. But I don’t want to stop being fragile, I think there is value in being soft in a world where capitalism, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity idealize being hard. But it’s still an awkward and uncomfortable conversation to have with others and I still haven’t worked out how I want to do it moving forward. That being said, hopefully writing this gives me a starting point, or at the very least, some momentum.
I recently mentioned that the work I’m developing right now is reckoning with where I am and where I want to be. This piece, currently titled Carnal Prophet but may change in the future, is simply a gold-plated meat hook. It’s an idea I had while I was still in school and never quite got around to seeing through and it’s the first thing I’ve really made since finishing. It’s an object I look at and it prompts a lot of thoughts about the intersections between sex and violence, like the commodification of bodies and how that translates into senses of entitlement to them, and also the active and passive roles in the existence of sexual violence. It’s not easy writing about being the recipient of harm but I think it can be differently challenging to recognize when we are the perpetrator. I’ve had trouble coming to terms with those moments, particularly when they resonate with my experiences as someone who has been taken advantage of, but they do exist and it wouldn’t be honest for me to pretend they don’t. I can’t pinpoint all of them but the ones I do recall are a potent reminder that even I have lots of room to grow and that my relationship with consent needs to be ongoing and always developing.
Gold-plating a meat hook is also a humbling reminder to reflect on my privilege as an artist and what it means to make things, especially things that incorporate materials so distinctly tied to notions of class and power. I’ll admit this is something I need to think about further and it will be on my mind moving forward but I felt it was important to mention. I don’t necessarily have an abundant amount of resources or wealth to dedicate to my practice and perhaps these thoughts are a result of my constant criticality but I have difficulty distinguishing how an object like this functions differently coming from me versus a more established white guy. This isn’t to garner sympathy or neglect to recognize the nuances of my own identity and experiences but it would be inappropriate for me to avoid acknowledging the fact men like me have often been the wielders of such devices. In that way, making something like this has asked me to face that fact and dedicate more time to consider what I can contribute to dismantling these systems. This piece is personal and I’m confident it is riddled with dangerous implications that I want to confront openly and I look forward to those conversations. To conclude, while I can eagerly incorporate my knowledge of sexual violence as a gay man who has been raped and sexually assaulted, or who attempted sex work and realized it was far too triggering, the rates at which this harm occurs to people of colour, women, the larger LGBTQAI2S+ community especially our trans and non-binary peers, immigrants, the poor, substance users, and disabled people should be a priority.
Thank you for reading.
Photos by the wonderful Chelsea Yang-Smith.