I am naked and in his bed. He is, too.
I’ve no intention of having penetrative sex. I told him as much earlier. Over and over again. As we made out on the couch, as he stripped me of my clothes, as he clambered atop of me, I told him.
Still, he tries again to force me.
I protest. I squirm. I wriggle out of his arms but crawl right back. Except for his repeated attempts to ram himself into me, it otherwise feels quite nice there, in his arms, my lips on his.
Years later, I rewind and play it back.
Was I being a tease? Should I have left at the first sign of danger? Was it reasonable, or even fair, to draw the line where I did? Was I explicit and clear enough when I said yes to all but that one sexual act. Should I have sketched diagrams on how consent works? Prepared a PowerPoint?
Should I have reached for the non-existent walkie-talkie on the nightstand and said:
“Joseph? Come in, Joseph. You need a yes to everything we do together tonight, as do I from you. I’ve said yes to all but the one act you seem to want most. In fact, I said no. Trying to force me as you are now is attempted sexual assault. Do you copy? Over.”
I wonder if that would have stopped him.
The scene that follows seconds later is so absurd even in the moment I can only make sense of it as an observer.
Two men are in bed, wrestling. One is 1.68 metres and 60 kilos sopping wet. The other is of similar height but has a 20 kilo weight advantage, mostly muscle. The bigger man is erect and trying at every opportunity to insert himself into the smaller man, who resists. Only groans from sheer physical exertion are heard from either during the five or so minutes that elapse as they fight.
They fall from the bed to the floor, where the bigger man pauses to catch his breath.
The smaller man uses the moment to wrench himself free. He eyes the stairs next to him that lead down to the living area, where inside his jeans on the floor are keys to his car parked outside.
“OK,” the bigger man says. He puts his hands up. “Let’s just sleep.”
Despite his better judgement, the smaller man agrees. It’s 2am. They crawl into bed and cuddle. At dawn, the smaller man leaves, taking with him the suspicion that the bigger man had done that before. That he would again, to someone else. Like he did after being repeatedly sexually abused from age 12 by his dentist, the smaller man tells no one of what happened.
He and the bigger man work for the same company. The bigger man is senior, a director in a separate division. They never speak nor see each other again.
My psychologist tells me of the limbic system—that part often called the ‘reptilian brain’ in our neural wiring that tells us, when confronted by danger, whether to fight or flee. I was in danger, but my reptilian brain was indecisive. My fight-or-flight response was bewildered by my sexual desire and the reasoning of my prefrontal cortex, which said Joseph ought to respect my choices about my body.
He did not, but I stayed. Was I revisiting the scene of the original crime, my childhood abuse? A satisfactory answer I have yet to find. I also carry with me guilt that I told no one—neither what my dentist did nor what Joseph tried. The former especially. The man was a serial child abuser who’d violated many boys before me and more after, until two braver than I laid charges that led to a conviction.
Joseph was not the last man to sexually assault me, or at least try.
Another for whom I found the words to stage a confrontation was shocked, as I’m sure Joseph will be to read these words. The shock was genuine. To this other man, what happened was one of the most beautiful experiences of his life. In my mind, the facts are that he dismissed my repeated no’s and sexually assaulted me.
The stark differences in our understanding of events make me take stock of my own history. Are there sexual encounters that I have blocked out or rationalised away where I violated the consent and bodily integrity of my partners?
Possibly. Maybe even probably.
While in no way deterministic nor an excuse, men like me are more likely to become perpetrators of violence. Men who were sexually abused, witnessed or were subjected to other forms of violence as children, and lacked healthy avenues to express their feelings. That is the vast majority of men. That is how men are presently made.
In this patriarchal world, becoming a man is to be subjected to violence from birth and told to take it. Not just by parents but by society.
This makes men victims. And it also makes us perpetrators, actual and potential—a point many progressive scholars on masculinities and anti-sexism activists make strongly. They speak of masculinities, the plural, and recognise that other systems, such as white supremacy and capitalism, enhance or diminish a man’s social power.
Some have argued that this calls for a more “nuanced” response from the press when reporting on acts of sexual and other violence of men. They suggest blame is heaped solely on the individual, and too little examination is conducted of the other violent systems and structures in which men operate, Black men in particular.
This perpetrator-focused argument rings hollow, as a victim aware of my own capacity for violence. I gained this self-awareness through the work of African feminist scholars, activists and women who raised me. They decry patriarchy as they recognise colonialism, for example, exploited African men and masculinities for its own ends. They gifted me and others the words to understand ourselves, and speak to our realities and each other—not only as men, but as Black men.
Why do we refuse this gift?
Why do we undermine their labour as “Western feminist” in origin, as though African women at any point ever lacked the capacity or words to theorise and examine their own realities?
Why resort to denials and tap into patriarchal power structures to discredit victims?
My hope is that if, or when, my turn comes around, that I’d find within me the humanity to own up. That I’d listen, re-examine my actions, raise my hand and say #MeToo. I, too, was sexually abusive or violent. And attempt in any way I can to be accountable. It’s a possibility that every person raised to be a man should contemplate, with honesty and humility.