The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My own rape shows how much we get wrong about these attacks

Some people still see rape according to the old cliche: vile men dragging innocent women into dark alleys and then brutalizing them. (Arturo Latierro )

[WARNING: This essay describes sexually explicit situations.]

“I made these for us to celebrate,” he said, sauntering out of the kitchen with two shot glasses full of a red concoction.

“Celebrate what?” I asked.

He cocked his head to one side. “You’re here!” he cheered. “You finally made it.”

I had been on a long, grueling bus ride up from Washington DC to his apartment in New York. It was already 9:45 p.m on a Friday last summer. I felt sore and had just taken a shower to rid the bus experience from my skin. I laughed and, holding the towel around my waist in one hand and the shot glass in the other, I looked at it. “What’s in it?”

“Gin!” I thought he said, more excitedly than he should have. Gin makes me sick. “That’s not really my thing,” I said. Then he pouted, comically and even adorably: “But I made it just for us.”

So I drank it and it was a bit sharp but really delicious, like tart watermelon. “You can hardly taste the gin,” I said.

“What gin?”

“You said there was gin.”

He laughed. “I said G.” He meant GHB, gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, commonly known as the date-rape drug. Later came several more druggings, as he held Gatorade up to my limp lips with who-knows-what mixed in. I spent the weekend — about 60 hours — semi-conscious and didn’t leave his apartment until Monday morning. Sometimes I think I never left his apartment, that someone who merely looks and sounds like me walked out.

I had received anal sex twice in my life before that night. By weekend’s end, it was 17 times, according to my fog-of-war count. Eyes squeezed shut, the tally was the only thing I focused on at times — like a ticking clock in a solitary confinement cell. Every addition to the tally meant I was one moment closer to the end. He moved out soon afterward, which helped erase the existence of that place for me.

I was raped. I had met him a few weeks earlier at a house party, and we had hit it off. He was handsome: 30, well-built, tall with long black hair, a surfer’s laugh, and great taste in “X-Men” (Gambit). He was not some lecherous old man. He was not a sexually repressed loser. There was nothing about him that was “rapey” (a word I detest). The sex itself was — I can’t really say it was “good,” because that’s far too moral of a word and far more than he deserves, but it was highly skilled. He knew exactly what he was doing, exactly how to stimulate me. What he didn’t know was when to listen to me saying “no,” when to stop, when to realize that my kicking and punching and shoving and screaming and writhing was not just some sick roleplay while he blasted Lady Gaga’s “I Like It Rough.” He covered my sobbing mouth with his hands. He hushed me and called me “sexy,” as in “You got this, sexy.”

When I wrote about men who are raped by women, for Details magazine in 2004, it caught the eye of Bill O’Reilly, who discussed it on his show. “If you’re lucky enough as a guy to have some girl come on to you in that manner,” he said, “but you don’t want to reciprocate, you stand up and you leave, unless the woman is 240 pounds and tackles you. The man is traditionally stronger and better equipped to leave the room.” There is a great disbelief out there, despite the numbers — from the CDC! the NIH! the Justice Department! — about how 1 in 33 men have experienced “a completed or attempted rape,” or 12.9 percent have been sexually assaulted. Mostly it’s by men they know. (I have a couple dozen mutual Facebook friends with my assailant.)

Some people still see rape according to the old cliche: vile men dragging innocent women into dark alleys and then brutalizing them. As we are finally learning, the reality is much more complicated than the conventional-wisdom cartoon. Sometimes those women experience orgasm, which can be psychologically devastating. I was erect for much of my rape (at least the parts for which I was awake, but probably other parts, too); my assailant knew how to stimulate the physiological response of an erection — as opposed to the emotional or psychological response — even if I was crying or actively trying to think about unsexy things. I wasn’t handcuffed or tied up, but was in a version of dissociated shock. The invisible, immeasurable shackles of such a violation are immense.

From the bed, I could see the front door, but it was miles away and I thought, No, I won’t be able to get to the door, unlock it, open it and escape before he beats the hell out of me. And what was my option, anyway? To run naked and groggy through his halls and down Ninth Avenue? It’s amazing how much fear can make you want — really want — to appease a captor.

Rape may be as bad as murder, but, like murder, there are many kinds of rape. War-crime rape, date rape, rape as a ritual for pledging a fraternity, spousal rape, incest, rape with known assailants, rape with unknown assailants, police officers sodomizing a man with a broomstick. Rape contains multitudes. Any discussion of rape is going to require us as a culture to get much more imaginative about it. (Helpfully, the Justice Department just expanded its definition to include men.) Every time we discuss rape as if it’s only men dragging women into alleys, we make the act of reporting it all the more uncomfortable, burdensome and alienating for women being raped by their boyfriends, or students being raped by their teachers, or men being raped by women, or men being raped by men. It is an act of theft on top of an act of rape.

* * *

What’s shocking about this limited perspective is, sadly, how much opportunity there is to see the full spectrum of rape in our culture. Not only are dozens of colleges currently embroiled in sex assault investigations — including James Madison University, which just punished three rapists with “expulsion after graduation” (or, as a friend noted, just “graduation”). There are the twin revulsions of Dov Charney and Terry Richardson. New York magazine put Richardson on its cover last month with the question “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” as if a person cannot be both. There’s self-described “Vine star” Brittany Furlan on the red carpet for Soap Opera Network’s Daytime Emmys coverage telling a male actor “We’re going to get you away from us before we rape you.” It’s a world where George Will realistically can defend writing that sexual assault survivors “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.” The Web site, which tracks Republican blunders on rape, is now in its eighth edition.

When male victims are discussed, it’s almost always about children — the Sandusky stories and all their perverse variants. For adults, in or out of prison, male-on-male rape is mostly thought of as an attack on a heterosexual victim, rape adding homophobic insult to injury. Yet rape is, ironically, always on the tongues of men. “I’m gonna rape you in Halo!” “This Monday morning is raping me.” “Paper jam? Ugh, I wanna rape this printer.”

The terrible thing about being a gay man is that it is dependent on expression. If you’re straight and have never had sex, you’re a virgin. If you’re gay and have never had sex, you’re confused. How can you know you’re gay unless you’ve tried it? In the wake of my nightmare — and all the subsequent nightmares and daymares that have come with it — I wanted nothing to do with sex. But what is a gay man who doesn’t have sex? I wasn’t even sure what I became.

When I finally freed myself from that apartment — I flatter myself; the truth is, he was done with me — I took the next train out of town. I wanted to be as far away as I could. From the lobby of Union Station in D.C., I sobbed into my phone and told a friend what happened. He might have saved my life by urging me into a cab to Whitman-Walker Clinic, where I began a 30-day anti-HIV drug regimen (I am HIV-negative, thank God). In the exam, when the nurse asked me to exhale deeply, I could smell his sweat and semen on my breath, and I began crying all over again, because I didn’t remember giving — or being forced to give — fellatio, and suddenly I realized there was a whole extra circle of Hell, hidden horrors done to my unconscious body with no way of ever knowing fully what happened.

I wasn’t going to write any of this. But even given all those statistics, I’ve never heard a story told from my perspective, and certainly never expected to be the one telling it. I had come to accept my life as a kind of ongoing closet: a secret room in which a plaything called Richard — called “sexy” — broken by some zealous child. But the untold stories are precisely the most important stories to tell. The more stories that are told, the less they can all be the same.

* * *

I know how dumb and selfish and even endangering this can sound, but I don’t want to charge my attacker (not everyone does). After the JMU assault, the survivor told the Huffington Post that “It was kind of hard for me to deal with. I just tried to diminish the situation. I didn’t want to bring it up, didn’t want to talk about it.” That resonated with me. I don’t want anything to do with him. I don’t want him in my life, even in a courtroom. I kept imagining, perhaps too cinematically, that he’d toss off some haunting quip as he was hauled away. I won’t let him. I won’t even let him have a name now. He’s a nameless demon who has taken so much that I don’t want to give him even the possibility of taking more.

Being assaulted changed sex for me. The total absence of intimacy during that horrible weekend restored my need for it. In the world of hook-up apps, where you can know the size of a paramour’s penis before you know his name — if you ever learn his name — sex becomes worse than casual, worse than carnal; it becomes transactional. Using Grindr and its ilk, men order guys over to their apartments as if they were specialty pizzas.

Afterward, the 30-day anti-HIV drug regimen weirdly helped things. I was certainly not about to be sexually active in that time. It enabled a kind of monasticism. My new rule became that I didn’t want to have sex with anyone I wouldn’t bring to a dinner party. I recently spent an evening with a guy that peaked with hand-holding. (It was everything The Beatles promised and more.)

So much — too much — of our collective gay story is about sadness and despair and downfall. “Giovanni’s Room.” “Dancer From The Dance.” “The Normal Heart.” “Angels in America.” “My Own Private Idaho.” “Philadelphia.” “Brokeback Mountain.” “Milk.” “Weekend.” When the two hot teenage boys in “Y Tu Mamá También” hook up, it destroys their friendship. Even “Will & Grace” ended with the lifelong friendship in decades of ruin. It’s an unspoken trade-off: gays can be in pop culture as long as they’re vacuous or miserable or both, as if we’re born with the gene for sad endings (#itgetsbitter).

I can’t offer a happy ending here. I don’t want the sort of closure that turns incidents like this into a neat three-act “Law & Order” episode. I’ve decided instead — and writing this is the first step — that the resulting self-awareness, and hopefully, beyond me, a truer social awareness of rape, is a sufficient coda. It would be pretty ironic for me to force my takeaway upon anyone else, but in the year since my trauma, I’ve rededicated myself to kindness and hope and intimacy, which has made me feel comfortable enough to realize that my story can serve a purpose, too. That, I pray, can at least be an everlasting happy beginning.