Why we must talk about sexual consent in the gay community

"No is a NO!" - Navigating the intriguing intricacies of gay sexual consent

Love + Sex Sex Education Simon Elstad

This article was published on June 24th, 2020

Sexual consent is a challenge for most gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with other men according to the findings of a study published in the Journal of Sex Research.

You’ve probably experienced it too. You meet a guy at a club, for example, good vibes all around, drinks are flowing, and conversation. Soon you’re getting all-handsy with each other, and before you know it, you head to the dark areas (or home) with the explicit intention of consummating your mutual feelings.

Somewhere along the way, however, you change your mind. Maybe he says or does something that pisses you off or is just a turn-off, and you know deep down that happy ending ain’t happening. Unfortunately, now you have to tell him and “kill the vibe.” How do you do it?

That’s just one scenario.

While some men have no issues negotiating consent, most do. 78 percent of the 350 men interviewed for the study reported numerous issues around negotiation. Another 64 percent told of instances where an unwanted sexual experience occurred.

Photo by christian buehner on Unsplash

Why gay men, why?

The study findings, according to Lead author Raymond McKie, M.S., a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Ottawa, paint a unique picture of the experiences of gay and bisexual men “prior, during, and post a sexual encounter.”

Unlike heterosexual partners, gay and bisexual men rely majorly on non-verbal approaches while negotiating sexual consent. These, as you may have experienced, don’t always work.

Raymond continues, “Sexual scripts are constructed based on societal norms and ideas around sexuality. However, for GBM, these scripts and norms are less clear, and as such, GBMs have to navigate their understanding of sexual consent from a perspective that does not always fit their sexual interactions and desires.”

Most gay men, for example, understand the hypersexuality stereotype in the gay community that assumes you’re always ready and interested in smashing. This view makes negotiations more challenging and complicated.

The sexual settings don’t help either according to the study’s authors. Sexual settings (e.g., bathhouses, cruising areas, gay clubs with dark rooms meant for sex) made consent negotiation even more complicated. A man may, for example, be in a space seeking for sex, but perhaps not with the person who chose to pursue them,” McKie describes.

Normalizing the sexual consent talk

Most participants in the study (and most gay men) experience some form of communication barrier while navigating away from unwanted sexual experiences. It becomes more difficult to assert yourself and say, “NO.” For example, participants reported communication issues around risk, sexual positioning, and expectations to engage in sex.

“Once an unwanted sexual situation was underway, many described using several different methods for diverting the sexual encounter. These included lessening intimacy/intensity of the sexual act, turning the partner off to end the encounter early, or ‘giving in’ to unwanted sexual experiences to avoid confrontation with a partner,” McKie says.

Some gay men also experience feelings of obligation, especially in situations where they are not interested in sex either with a particular partner or in general. There’s also the concern that failing to meet stereotypical expectations may lead to aggression or social ostracization.

The study, which involved participants aged 18 to 73, also found that there aren’t many differences in experiences by men from different geographical regions. The struggles around sexual consent apply to all. 

More research is needed to understand the intricacies, especially among individuals from marginalized backgrounds, with less access to LGBTQ resources and communities.

According to McKie, the purpose of the study is to understand gay and bisexual men’s challenges better while navigating sexual consent issues. As the national and international debate rages on about the age of consent and the #MeToo movement, the LGBTQ community must also grapple with the problems.

“If we can better understand the issues GBM is facing navigating sexual consent, we can aim to then shift the focus on methods and approaches that allow GBM to have the type of sex that they want. Academics can work with GBM, community leaders, and gay-led organizations to begin important discussions related to sexual consent in our community and to aid in building tools for GBM to navigate out of the unwanted sexual experience.” McKie says.

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