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In 2002, I was eleven. As is fairly customary for eleven year olds, I went to a lot of birthday parties. Some of them were sleepovers. They tended to revolve around impersonating wrestlers, drinking gallons of coke, sharing a Silk Cut Purple, robbed off someone’s ma, among eight of you, for the cheap thrill of momentary lightheadedness. We’d binge-watch a whole series of an awful sitcom, stay up until 6am and still, miraculously, wake up 3 hours later full of boundless energy.
All pretty wholesome activities, typical of a prepubescent boy’s experience. These parties were pretty indistinguishable from each other. Except one, in my case. It was late at night and the conversation, as it occasionally did, turned to sex. At 11 or 12 your misconceptions around sex and sexuality are comically off the mark, of course, but those conversations were important because you couldn’t really have them elsewhere. Social media was nonexistent, save for MSN, and classroom sex education consisted of being told how disgusting it all was; a necessary evil for procreation and nothing else.
“I heard you’re a queer”, one lad belted out, apropos of nothing, before gazing at me. The others giggled. My face felt as though it had set itself ablaze. Partly in unparalleled mortification, partly in rage. I didn’t know then that I was bi – not really anyway – and even if I did, this certainly wasn’t the environment in which to announce it. What felt like 500 comebacks raced through my mind in the space of a couple of seconds but before I had time to process any of them, I found myself darting out of the room, seeking sanctuary in the bathroom opposite. After about five minutes, the door knocked. It was one of the others – not the lad who’d made the claim. He pushed me against the wall. “It’s true isn’t it?”. I asked him to stop. Rather than stopping, rather than sensing my discomfort and apologising, he violated me. He tore my boxers from me and tugged at my penis aggressively for a few seconds but what felt like an eternity of hell. Somehow, I built up the strength, eventually, to shove him aside.
What happened next was, unfortunately, a formative experience in my life as a queer person. I told the room what had happened and was met with a chorus of hysterical jeers. “Fuck off queer boy. You wish!” The boy who had assaulted me was infinitely more popular than I, he lived in a big house with parents who had plenty of money. He might have only been 11 – but he had things I did not. He had status. He had social capital.
The cynic in me looks back at that early experience and concludes that any attempt I’ve made since to speak out against my body being violated has been doused in naivety. In writing this, I’m trying to rally against that narrative but it’s always been preeminent in my thoughts. And in these circumstances, why wouldn’t it be?
Fast forward almost a decade, to a house party. In that time I’d come to terms, to a certain degree, with my sexuality. I liked to fuck women and I liked to fuck men and I liked to fuck people that were neither men nor women. Any of the limited number of people who knew this at the time had no issue with it. That afforded me a sense of security, but one that proved horribly unwarranted. We’d substituted fizzy drinks and shit films for cans of Dutch and bad hash but hadn’t – and still haven’t – rid ourselves of a toxic obsession with status.
It was a pretty big house. Typically suburban. It was late and I drunkenly stumbled from the garden, where I’d been smoking, to the hall, intent on finding the room everyone had congregated in. One of my friends appeared in the hall behind me and guided me into an empty room to the left of the house. It feels bizarre to use the word friend in the context of what followed, but that’s what he was then.
I remember so many insignificant details about the room – the offensively high number of lilac cushions. A glistening photograph of someone’s confirmation. Beige blinds which weren’t quite long enough to cover the window and therefore allowed the moonlight to pierce through. To create a spotlight. He told me he wanted to know what it was like. He wasn’t like me, he clarified, God no, but he wanted to give it a try. I told him I wasn’t a practice device. He wasn’t listening. My initial reaction – not stopping him – led me to question myself. Maybe I was OK with it. Maybe I was flattered. Maybe I should have been grateful for the attention.
But no – above and beyond those conflicting thoughts, I didn’t want this to happen. Certainly not in these circumstances. I vocalised this very clearly. I was ignored and subsequently raped violently for more than 20 minutes. The monstrous animal I once called a friend hasn’t faced a shred of repercussion in the years that have since passed. Status. Social Capital. All the things I learnt as a confused child years before were repeating themselves. He was a handsome overachiever with a beautiful girlfriend and a bright future. As if he’d jeopardise any of that over a scruffy little dropout with no discernable ambition or life goals. They would unquestionably be the dominant narratives. Of course they would.
I buried my head in the sand for years. I’d write off anxiety and panic attacks and profuse sweating to other factors. Any factor, actually, that didn’t acknowledge the reality of what I had faced. So I carved out relationships and held down jobs and acted out a normal life as best as possible. I’d put weeks at a time off work purely down to stress. I’d attribute a fear of going outside or getting on a bus or doing the fucking shopping down to shyness, y’know, a personality trait. I somehow sustained a long-term relationship in the face of this crippling self-hatred but have failed spectacularly to sustain others for that very reason. Every year, the anniversary would come and go and all of these raw emotions would be exacerbated for a couple of days. I’d be a nightmare to be around and then revert to type.
This year, for some reason, something changed. The guilt and shame were still there, but so too was a willingness to talk to more than the handful of people who already knew. A desire emerged within me to try and become more than a permanently quiet victim. In February, I opened up to a friend who had been through similar experiences, and to be listened to and believed and supported unequivocally by them was galvanising. So I talked to a couple more people. And a couple more. In May, someone came into my life who I trusted fully and talking to them gave me further strength, to the point that I wrote a short, and not-entirely specific Facebook post, viewable to about a quarter of my friends list, none of whom would have known. It wasn’t a public outing by any means but it was a step towards personal recovery done on my own terms.
The months since have been therapeutic in some respects and incredibly difficult in others. My mental health deteriorated to a point lower than even in the immediate aftermath of what had happened years before. I planned my suicide in specific detail, made arrangements and wrote a detailed explanation, but something caused me to call an ambulance beforehand. It came and 12 hours in a dark, empty space akin to a police interview room was the exhausting precursor to accessing substantial help for the very first time. I told my boss. I told the HSE social worker. I told my mother. They’d all heard me before, decrying a so-called inexplicable depression. This time, I decided to tell them the unabridged truth. That was in August. I haven’t stepped foot in my office since, but will be doing so next week. Just a few days a week to begin with.
These incidents, at different intervals in my life as a now 26 year-old, are the substantive ones. I could write another thousand words, though, on the ostensibly respectable music manager who handled rejection by gaslighting, or the adored Gentleman and darling of queer politics with a manipulative streak, or indeed the live-in landlord who had a “way around” the problem of late rent.
The parallels are abundantly clear in the experiences I’ve spoken about at length above and in those summarised examples. Status. Social Capital. Status. Social Capital. Status. Social Capital. These are the tools men have utilised to manipulate and abuse countless numbers of women, and some men, be it from the grandeur of Hollywood or the relative modesty of a Dublin suburb. Be it from their role as millionaire film directors, actors or artists, or their position as ostensibly humble activists in Irish left-wing circles.
There are no easily presentable solutions because people address their experiences in different ways. It took me years, as it has done so many of the brave and wonderful people who have spoken out in the last number of weeks. Speaking out isn’t an option for everyone, though, and some never will – whether that’s because they’re not ready in themselves, or doing so is unsafe, or they simply don’t want to deal with the trauma of the inevitable public assessments on the legitimacy of their lived experiences.
As such, there are just a handful of universally applicable asks: if someone is brave enough to share their story with you, listen to them, believe them and support them. Take the lead on how you should react from them and don’t make assumptions as to what’s best for them. Many don’t wish to speak out and nor should they have to. No-one should have to re-traumatise themselves to be believed. No-one should be traumatised full fucking stop.
Solidarity with all survivors. Let’s hope that one day, the systems of oppression that have enabled and facilitated our trauma, along with the individuals who exploited them, are dismantled for good.
Thank you to A, I, P and C, who in their own ways have helped me find the strength and courage to write this piece.