#mentoo: sexual assault in Berlin's gay scene
The chain reaction of #metoo shows no signs of slowing down. SIEGESSÄULE writer and Berliner AIDS-Hilfe counselor Ahmed Awadalla continues the conversation in the context of the local gay scene
Dec. 26, 2017 – I never thought it would happen to #metoo. I was raped about four years ago in Cairo. At that time, my job was counseling survivors of sexual violence. I started in 2012 after years of working for several NGOs dealing with sexual health and gender topics. Till that point, I thought I had it all figured out. However, I fell into silence. I didn't want to share it with the closest people around me, let alone report it to authorities. I knew if my story was downplayed or discredited, I would suffer even more. I also couldn't have endured being blamed for what happened to me. I struggled with feelings of guilt and shame which I often heard from my clients, even though one of the first things we learnt to say to survivors was that it wasn't their fault.
From what I experienced during my work in that organization, I can relate to Tarana Burke, founder of the “Me too” movement, with her realization that this problem is bigger than we previously thought. What she started in 2006 was propelled by the hashtag in 2017 to help more people realize how widespread the problem is. As expected, the debate showed how most of the victims are women* and that the majority of the perpetrators are men. However, it didn’t stop there – a large number of queer men started speaking out. Perhaps this reflects a hidden problem that needs to be addressed.
During my work at that organization, we were busy addressing that question. If we observe that a large number of men* are affected, why don’t they come forward? And how do we help break the barriers? To allow more men* to seek our services, I was the first male hired to work in my team, because we wanted to give survivors the choice of working with a female or a male counselor. Now that I am part of Berlin’s queer community, the question remains: why do queer men* who survived sexual violence find it particularly hard to share their stories? Is it a desire to assert our masculinity by showing we are invulnerable? Do we draw different boundaries for what we can do to ourselves and to others? Or do we hesitate to tear the community apart by calling out our perpetrators?
The community was faced by such difficult questions when several men* raised assault allegations against celebrities like Kevin Spacey, John Travolta and Bryan Singer. Spacey attempted to divert accusations by coming out as gay, which triggered debates about when alliances can be broadened, and how to respond when members of our community commit such acts.
Celebrity culture aside, abuse of power positions remains a basic feature of sexual violence. It happens when people use the opportunity to exercise control over someone else. How do those dynamics of power play out in Berlin queer scene? In the wake of the #metoo domino effect, I had several conversations with different men* who faced various forms of sexual assault. “He was my doctor and I thought I could completely trust him. That's why I did what he asked me to do,” Rezan, a 25-year-old Kurdish-German, tells SIEGESSÄULE. He recalls how, despite going there for a cold, his doctor performed a prostate examination, twice. Only on the third attempt did he refuse the doctor's orders. “It wasn't till later, when I heard about that doctor's reputation for being particularly creepy with young patients, that I could make sense of what happened.” From my observations, it’s not uncommon for survivors to understand their experience only in retrospect.
Of course, abuses of power similarly happen in the workplace. “He told me my contract could be renewed, and then he put his hand on my leg," tells Antonio, a 30-year-old PhD student, of his boss at an academic institution. He says that while it wasn't the first sexual advance coming from his boss, it was the most overt. Feeling uncomfortable bringing up such advances with his boss or others at work, Antonio declined the offer.
Another facet that complicates the conversation about sexual violence is alcohol and other drugs. A common misconception is that substance (ab)use leads to sexual assault. While we can't blame assault on drugs, perpetrators do use them to facilitate assault. Marc, a 29-year-old student, relates his experience at an after-party where he ended up collapsing after using GHB. “I turned around to see that I wasn't sleeping in my boyfriend's arms. This guy had already hit on me during the party, and I clearly rejected him.” In the wake of the incident, Marc told a friend, who became very uncomfortable and finally proceeded to admit he, too, may have taken advantage of another guy's blackout. As a consequence, Marc decided to not use G “unless the doors are locked and I'm only around people I already know I wanna fuck.” ManCheck's harm reduction advice about GHB use is to monitor dose levels because of its ability to blur the boundaries of consent. Even if consent was present, many of us know of this particular drug's ability to lead to “bad choices”.
At first I thought the repressive conditions in Egypt were the reason behind the difficulty of having those conversations, but I realized that things are still complicated in a progressive environment like Berlin. I think in our fight to depict gay sex as healthy and natural, we have a desire to keep its image intact by hiding its darker sides. But now, we have the opportunity for a wider discussion about how professional institutions and recreational venues can have better policies to address sexual violence claims and ensure that survivors receive proper support. It's up to all of us to create the space for survivors to open up and share. If it weren't for the courage of my flatmate in Cairo, Yasmine, who publicly spoke of her assault experience in Tahrir Square, I wouldn't have been able to share my story or find the strength to go on. The beauty of #metoo lies in how these two simple words can give reassurance and begin the journey toward healing.