The Age of Consent
Let Go of Patterns of Abuse
by John Francis Leonard
We often remember things the way we’d prefer to remember them. Sometimes, memory protects us by relegating that which is difficult or painful to the forgotten. As a society, we’ve had a lot of much needed attention and discussion come to the fore about consent in a sexual context—for both women, and, yes, men. Particularly gay men. So much more needs to be done—just look at the teenage rapist captured on video that the judge let off because he comes from a “good family.” As gay men, issues arise so often around consent when drugs or alcohol are involved. No one has a right to our bodies regardless of the condition or state of inebriation that we’re in. Too often, as gay men, we put the blame on ourselves—we give in when we don’t really want to because we’re in no fit state to make sound decisions. Too often there is a toxic male (yes, we have them too) ready to prey on someone who’s vulnerable. There was an instance of this in my youth that I’ve relegated to memory’s back burner. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but there it was.
I was eighteen years old—living in New York City and spreading my wings sexually for the first time. An overweight, acne-ridden teenager was turning into something else entirely. I was suddenly garnering the attention of a lot of men. It was heady stuff. I felt powerful in a way, but inside I was still that chubby, unattractive teenager. Looking back now, I know that I gave too much of my power away. Now, don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun with a lot of amazing guys, but it would be decades before I’d finally get a grasp on what true self-esteem meant.
I met a guy out one night. He was a well known New York personality and performance artist. We spent a night together and that night turned into several weeks of spending all of our free time either delving into Manhattan night life or hanging out at his Lower East Side apartment. I, at the time, lived with a much older gay man uptown who, fortunately, kept me on a very long leash. But in that moment, I only had eyes for my newest crush (I’ll call him Chris here). We had a great time, Chris and I. Like I said, he was well known and popular and knew everyone who was worth knowing on the club scene. I unashamedly basked in the glow of his popularity. The downtime was great as well, and the sex was incredible and frequent. On any given night out, we were as high as kites taking whatever drugs we could lay our hands on. We were having a blast, for the most part.
Then there was one night towards the end of our obsession with each other where things veered off course. Both Chris and I had returned to his place in the early morning hours after a night of partying. Now the accepted routine was to have sex when we got home and it’s not that I was unwilling, but I didn’t want him to fuck me. I was young and regular anal sex was new to me and sometimes uncomfortable. I was very high that night, but I remember being very clear that anal wasn’t on the table. Chris, however, had other ideas. He was persistent and soon that persistence turned to force. Could I have put up more of a fight? Probably, but I was very high—he easily overtook me. The clearest memory I have of that night was of the look in his eyes. He was like a man possessed, a man who had only been kind and gentle up until this point. I’ll never forget that look as he forced penetration. No small matter in 1989 was the fact that he didn’t bother with a condom. I was religious about their use at that point in my life, we all were. But not this time. Yes, at some point I gave up, too messed up to fight. By messed up I mean high on drugs as well as psychologically. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I felt that I deserved it on some level. It was another theme that would resound through my life and relationships for years to come.
Chris and I parted ways soon after that. It was one of those intense relationships we have when we’re young that burn themselves out quickly. The impact of the rape—I’m finally able to call it that now—would reverberate throughout my life for years. No one else has ever taken it to that level, but I can’t count the times when (usually high) I gave in to a guy when I didn’t really want to. Too often I gave away my power. I’m ashamed to say that often I gave it up for something in return. I put a stop to those patterns long ago, thankfully. Patterns set up by men who took what they wanted when I was vulnerable.
For years, I pushed what had happened to me that night out of my mind. I didn’t see the ripple effect that it had on sex for me. I continued the same patterns of letting things go too far and blaming myself. I know now that it wasn’t my fault. No one should assume the power to make you do something sexually that you’re not happy to do. If they do, you can’t blame yourself, but you can change patterns. You can write the script and at least not make yourself more vulnerable to further abuse. I excused what Chris had done, blamed myself. I broke up with him soon after he raped me, but I excused his behavior. I never called him out on it even upon seeing him in the subsequent years. I don’t forgive him, but there’s another person that I can forgive, and that’s myself.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.