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I’m a man and it took me years to recognize that I had been sexually assaulted

If I could find a way to discuss the complexity of men’s ability to admit they’ve been sexually assaulted without really recounting my personal experience, I would. I can not.

I still have trouble qualifying what happened to me as an assault. In fact, I use Olympic-level mental gymnastics to avoid this terminology, generally saying that I was the target of “inappropriate behavior” or “that was physically taken advantage of”. It took me a year and a half to even admit that I didn’t agree with what happened, and another year to admit the same to someone else.

I was 23, still in college (not so …fun fact: male college students aged 18-24 are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-college members of the same demographic) and to attend a massive industry event in which I was just starting to find my footing. At a big party on the first night of the event, I was introduced to someone I was familiar with via social media. It was immediately obvious that she was not sober.

After what I would have generously estimated to be 90 seconds of chatter, she leaned forward and stuck her tongue down my throat. I backed up. She started to do it again twice. I made an awkward exit from the interaction, but periodically throughout the night she found me and gave me new drunken passes, both physical and verbal. For the sake of context, she was several years older than me and had stocks on the rise in our industry. I was always very close to the proverbial totem pole.

When I returned to my hotel that evening, something did not happen. There was a little voice in the back of my head telling me that something about what had happened was not normal, was not appropriate. I stifled that voice. In fact, the next morning, to cover up my abstract shame and discomfort (and to forestall any potential embarrassment if anyone saw it), I did the only thing I knew how to do: brag about it. I did everything I could to make it a crazy party story. I even made new contacts with her, going so far as to try to see her again a few nights later. See? I was fine. I actively participated in the story, not a victim. Everything was fine.

But in the months that followed, I started having panic attacks whenever I saw her at industry events. It only got worse when, in the middle of an interaction with a mutual friend, she joked about what had happened. I realized I never wanted to be in the same room with her again. The problem is that we were working in the same area, so we were often in the same room. Rather than talking or seeking closure (whatever that means even in situations like these), I let my feelings fester, until I slowly feel less and less comfortable in the environment in which I had worked so hard to earn my place.

Yet I did not recognize what happened as a sexual assault. I wouldn’t let that happen. Because there is a huge difference between recognizing that men can be victims of sexual assault and recognizing that you, a man, was sexually assaulted.

I think one of the biggest fears that men are conditioned to, even if they don’t realize it, is loss of autonomy. You are in control of your decisions and your body. You are, at all times, in control. To admit that you are a victim is to give up this fabrication of control. Admitting that you’ve already lost it can break you.

On top of that, there is a stereotype in our society that men are always ready to have sex. A man cannot be the victim of unwanted sexual advance because there is no guy who is not receptive to ANY sexual advance, at ANY time. Hell, men who to do making sexual assault allegations is often told by someone (usually with an egg avatar on Twitter) that they are lucky, that they should be grateful for the experience, that they have no complaints.

So, for almost two years, I pretended I was okay with what had happened. I never let myself say the words “harassment”, “assault” or “victim” out loud, and every time they came through my head I remembered that I couldn’t have been assaulted – if I had been assaulted, why would I keep talking to him? After all, I don’t have do not I wanted to kiss her, I just didn’t want to kiss her then, and in this place, when she was in this state. Plus, it wasn’t like I was, God forbid, forced into having sex or anything. What did I have to complain about?

I thought this in total ignorance of the facts that I already knew to be true – that victims often turn back to the people who assault them and try to make peace, and that mutual attraction does not negate a lack of consent. But of course, acknowledging these things would mean admitting that I was a victim.

It’s been some time now since the session with my therapist where I finally realized what had happened was not consensual, and admitted that I had been sexually assaulted. While still not something I openly share details of, the few friends and peers I spoke with were supportive and responsive, fully understanding the situation and never questioning my take on it. ‘experience. I’m lucky that I had the space to do this, to admit that something had happened to me that contradicted my self-constructed identity as “man”.

At the end of the day, admitting that you’ve been assaulted doesn’t mean a loss of autonomy or control – quite the contrary. Take control of your experiences and admit that something bad has happened resume control. This counteracts the negative stigma surrounding men who openly discuss sexual assault. The toxicity of conditioned masculinity is one hell of a drug, however, and reaching a point where you’re comfortable regaining that control can be intimidating.

I am grateful for the dialogue started by the Me Too movement and more specifically Terry Crews sharing his experience of assault over the past year. This has created a space in which it is safer for everyone, including men, to discuss the trauma that comes with being the victim of assault – much of which is often self-inflicted.

However, my situation is not unique. I know men who have managed to convince themselves that they weren’t assaulted, who have used the same mental gymnastics to remove the stigma of victimization from their identity. It is not a healthy way to think.

In our continued and expanded dialogue about the nature of sexual assault, I only hope that we continue to encourage men to feel safe by acknowledging their experiences with it. Vulnerability is not a weakness, and victimization does not have to be a sign of shame.

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Need help? Visit RAINN’s National online helpline for sexual assault or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center website.

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