If I could find a way to discuss the complexities of men’s ability to admit when they’ve been made victims of sexual assault without actually recounting my personal experience with it, I’d do it. I can’t.
I still have trouble referring to what happened to me as assault. In fact, I utilize Olympic-level mental gymnastics to avoid that terminology, usually saying that I was on the receiving end of “inappropriate behavior” or “was taken advantage of physically.” It took me a year-and-a-half to even admit to myself that I wasn’t OK with what happened, and another year for me to acknowledge the same thing to someone else.
I was 23 years old, still in college (not-so-fun fact: male college students ages 18 to 24 are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than members of the same demographic who aren’t in college) and attending a massive event for the industry in which I was just starting to find my footing. At a large party the first night of the event, I was introduced to someone with whom I was familiar through social media. It was immediately evident she wasn’t sober.
After what I’d generously estimate to be 90 seconds of small talk, she leaned forward and stuck her tongue down my throat. I pulled back. She proceeded to do it again twice more. I made a clumsy exit from the interaction, but periodically throughout the night she’d find me again and make further drunken passes at me, both physical and verbal. For further context, she was several years older than me and had rising stock in our industry. I was still very much at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole.
When I went back to my hotel that night, something felt off. There was a little voice in the back of my head telling me that something about what had happened wasn’t normal, wasn’t appropriate. I stifled that voice. In fact, the next morning, to cover up my abstract shame and discomfort (and to get ahead of any potential embarrassment had somebody seen it) I did the only thing I knew how to do: I bragged about it. I did everything I could to turn it into a crazy party story. I even instigated further contact with her, going so far as to try and see her a few nights later. See? I was OK. I was an active participant in the story, not a victim. Everything was fine.
But in the months that followed, I began to have panic attacks whenever I saw her at industry events. It only worsened when, in the midst of an interaction with a mutual friend, she joked about what had happened. I realized I never wanted to be in the same room as her again. The problem is that we worked in the same industry, so we were in the same room together often. Rather than speak up or seek closure (whatever that even means in situations like these), I let my feelings fester, until I slowly felt less and less at home in the environment I had worked so hard to earn my place in.
Still, I didn’t recognize what happened as sexual assault. I wouldn’t let myself. Because there’s a huge difference between recognizing that men can be victims of sexual assault and recognizing that you, a man, have been made a victim of sexual assault.
I think one of the greatest fears men are conditioned to hold, even if they don’t realize it, is the loss of autonomy. You are the master of your decisions and of your body. You are, at all times, In Control. To admit that you’re a victim is to relinquish that fabrication of control. Admitting to yourself that you’ve already lost it can break you.
On top of that, there’s a stereotype in our society that men are, well, always down for sex. A guy can’t be the victim of an unwanted sexual advance because there’s no such thing as a guy who isn’t receptive to ANY sexual advance, at ANY time. Hell, men who do come forward with allegations of sexual assault are often told by someone (usually with an egg avatar on Twitter) that they’re lucky, that they should be thankful for the experience, that they have nothing to complain about.
So, for nearly two years, I pretended I was OK with what had happened. I never let myself say the words “harassment” or “assault” or “victim” out loud, and every time they’d pop into my head I’d remind myself that I couldn’t have been assaulted ― if I were assaulted, why would I have kept talking to her? After all, I didn’t not want to kiss her, I just didn’t want to do it at that time, and that place, when she were in that condition. Plus it wasn’t like I was, God forbid, forced into sex or anything. What did I have to complain about?
I thought this in total ignorance of facts I already knew to be true ― that victims often return to the people who assault them and try to make peace, and that mutual attraction doesn’t negate a lack of consent. But of course, recognizing these things would mean admitting that I was a victim.
It’s been some time now since the session with my therapist in which I finally realized that what happened wasn’t consensual, and admitted to myself that I had been sexually assaulted. While it’s still not something I share details of openly, the few friends and peers I’ve talked about it with have been supportive and receptive, wholly understanding the situation and never questioning my take on the experience. I’m lucky I was given the space to realize this, to admit that something had happened to me that contradicted my self-constructed identity as a “man.”
Ultimately, admitting you’ve been assaulted doesn’t signify a loss of autonomy or control ― quite the opposite. To take control of your experiences and admit that something bad happened is taking back control. It’s counteracting the negative stigma surrounding men openly discussing sexual assault. The toxicity of conditioned masculinity is a hell of a drug, though, and reaching a point where you’re comfortable taking back that control can be daunting.
I’m thankful for the dialogue started by the Me Too movement and specifically Terry Crews sharing his experience with assault over the last year. It’s created a space in which it feels safer for everyone, including men, to discuss the trauma that comes with being a victim of assault ― a great deal of which is often self-inflicted.
However, my situation isn’t unique. I know men who have managed to convince themselves that they weren’t assaulted, who have utilized the same mental gymnastics to remove the stigma of victimhood from their identity. It’s not a healthy way to think.
In our ongoing and expanding dialogue on the nature of sexual assault, I only hope that we continue to encourage men to feel safe in recognizing their experiences with it. Vulnerability isn’t weakness and victimhood need not be a badge of shame.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
Also on HuffPost
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.