Blaming the Person Impacted Is Never Right, Whether It’s Sexual Assault or Acquiring HIV
by John Francis Leonard
Since I began writing this column, I have developed an interest in social media. I had always shied away from it, but my editor encouraged me to take an interest since it would provide me with a way to promote my own work, as well as the work of the magazine. I quickly became an enthusiastic user of Twitter, but Facebook always gave me pause. I believe in leaving the past in the past and I really have no interest in getting back in touch with anyone from the past that I’m not in touch with already. Since Facebook is another way the magazine is promoted and I like to see comments that are left about my work, I have established a “dummy” profile that gives me anonymity and lets me track A&U’s page. The comments are generally positive and supportive, but there was recently one about my October column that really got under my skin.
The column talks about a guy I was dating who raped me one night when I was eighteen. I divulge the fact that I was very high on drugs that night, we both were, but it is not offered as an excuse for a situation that clearly got out of hand. The author of this missive was kind enough to acknowledge that rape is wrong under any circumstances, but quickly goes on to blame me, the victim, for being high in the first place. He even acknowledges my early sexual abuse, but asks quite pointedly—and quite ignorantly—why all the drug use in the first place? I had obviously put myself at risk.
I’ll be quite clear, I was eighteen. I struggled with drug abuse well into my thirties, but at this time and place, New York City in the eighties, I was doing nothing that plenty of my brethren weren’t doing. It was still fun at that point; I didn’t expect there to be such a high price to pay. The price was giving up my power in this particular instance. Since he had penetrated me without a condom, I had to make a trip to a free clinic and wait weeks for the results of an HIV test. I got lucky this time, but years later received the opposite results as a direct result of poor decision-making due to my alcohol and drug use. I well know the potential costs of drug abuse——I don’t need a supercilious lecture on the subject.
I’m not alone. According to the NIH, LGBTQ individuals interviewed are twice as likely to have used illicit substances in the past year as their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts. A history of childhood sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, for me, increased my chances with the damage it did to my self-esteem. Yes, I did have a lot of fun, but much of it was to drown out the negative voices in my head. I was harassed daily throughout my school years for being gay, adding fuel to the fire. Is it any wonder that I turned to drugs and alcohol for solace? As a young man, I dreamed of a glamorous world of New York night clubs and bars. I thought I’d find myself, and perhaps I did, but I was also running away from a lot. It was the perfect storm.
Having come through all that, I sometimes wish I had made better choices. But we don’t get do overs and those are the choices that I’m left with. I’m happy now; it took fifty years, but I’m there. I can’t waste time with regrets. I choose to live my life differently now. I have a few things to say to this judgemental person who wrote the commentary. Perhaps you did think I didn’t paint a clear enough picture of this aspect of my past. That’s fair. But also understand that I’m given a limited amount of column space each month to talk about the subject at hand. I chose to emphasize the actual rape, never expecting to be shamed for being its victim. People’s lives aren’t perfect; we all have struggles and substance abuse is a disease, last time I checked. I think one of the most important things to do when we’re tempted to judge someone else’s choices is to be gentle. We might not know the whole story. No one asks to be sexually assaulted and no one deserves it, regardless of the circumstances. Young women know all too well the tendency to blame the victim, far better than I do. Rapists are given shockingly forgiving sentences all the time in our legal system.
I never expected an otherwise gentle and kind man to rape me. The thought had never occurred to me. I didn’t love him, but I cared for him and had no indication that he could be violent. I did trust him however and he betrayed my trust. I hope this explains things a little more clearly.
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.