I love to go out. Get on the dance floor and let the music take over. We have all been there.
Gyrating and grooving to music that seems to make your body move. You are with a friend and your moves are getting close and tight. You bump your ass into something and turn around. It’s a woman, probably straight, and she is having an amazing night too. Is this a movie? Could we both be having the best night ever?
A new song comes on and you go wild; so does she. You start dancing with her and it's fun. You try a few of your classic moves that always get the party going. You put your hands on her hips, because you’re gay and at a gay club it doesn’t really mean anything. You start pulling her in and she seems OK with it. Your hands are now locked while you dance. You’re having fun. So you keep going and you touch her ass and you might spank it.
And that is the point where things get sketchy. Exploring her experience with an invasion of space, Australian journalist Shannon Power recently reminisced in an article headlined "Gay Men Need to Stop Sexually Assaulting Women." After a gay man at a club put his hand under her dress and grabbed her vagina he said, “Babe, relax it’s OK, I’m just having fun.” Then he squeezed her breasts.
This launched a public discussion in Australia and the U.K. What role do gay men have in sexual harassment? Obviously we aren’t the majority of perpetrators, but we are enablers.
“I have been groped, touched and accosted so many times over the years, that I almost expect it to happen every time I go out,” wrote Power. “What a lot of guys say to me after they’ve groped me is: ‘It’s OK babe, I’m gay!’ Well ‘babe,’ I’m here to tell you it’s definitely not acceptable to sexually assault someone under any circumstances. Your sexuality combined with my gender are not exceptions to that rule, just don’t ever touch someone without consent.”
Years of research shows that sexual assault occurs when cultures enable it. Sexual harassment exists when cultures allow it. When gay men take strident and sexualized approaches to women, it perpetuates our cultural problem.
In a 2014 Time magazine article — "Rape Culture Is Real" — Zerlina Maxwell, who now works for Hillary Clinton, recounted her own experience with sexual assault. Maxwell was raped by her boyfriend's roommate and then faced questions about whether she'd somehow caused it. Maxwell recalled feeling that she stumbled upon “a culture in which sexual violence is the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults.”
“It’s no surprise that we would refuse to acknowledge that rape and sexual violence is the norm, not the exception,” she wrote. ”It’s no surprise because most of us would rather believe that the terrible realities we hear about aren’t real or that, at least, we can’t do anything about it.” Maxwell started the hashtag campaign #RapeCultureIsWhen, and it helped show what women go through.
"Rape culture is when women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing," someone gave as an example. "Rape culture is when survivors who come forward are asked, 'Were you drinking?'" Party to this dangerous culture are the attitudes of gay men toward women. It could be inappropriate groping at the club that would be unquestionably bad outside the club. Calling women bitches and sluts when we are friends with them, no matter how we mean it, is also unequivocally degrading. Yeah, we have all done it but that doesn’t change how those words are perceived in the larger culture. I'm sure there are more examples.
The question all of this raises is a difficult one: Are gay men sexists? That is hard to digest.
The answer, we hope, is no. The reality is that sexism exists and we can all implicitly endorse these attitudes by failing to examine whether we're contributing. We don’t have to be actively demeaning and degrading to perpetuate a culture of disrespect.
Treating women with respect isn’t a high expectation, it is basic decency. There is no excuse; no speaker is too loud and no light is too bright to distract us completely. Gay men can do this.
Failing to recognize how we ought to change might make us worse than the bigots we've faced in our own lives — because we should know better. So next time you're on the dance floor, don’t let dignity slide.