The only surprise at the number of “Me Too”s posted on social media would have been if there’d been fewer. I’ve been around long enough, working in theater and publishing, and in life, to know what an epidemic sexual assault and harassment is for both women and men. I’m more shocked when someone tells me they’ve never been a victim. I’m one of those few.
I’ve lost potential work for refusing sex, but in a roundabout, vague, sometimes cryptic fashion. I never would have considered it harassment because it didn’t involve actual touching. And because I’m gay and a guy and we expect it. Heck, where I went to summer stock about 75 percent of the male newcomers who were asked back were suspiciously sexy and non-suspiciously willing to sleep with the (female) casting director.
When I was only 16 an upcoming director offered me a part in his first film. I accepted, he said he’d fallen in love with me, I told him it wasn’t mutual, he stalked me, I told him to f*** off, he disappeared...and so did the film. But he never touched me or made lewd comments or claimed there was an ultimatum. That film might have disappeared for other reasons too, but he never asked me to work for him again. Now he’s in charge of a movie franchise.
When I was in my forties I developed what I thought was a burgeoning friendship with a hotshot playwright. We had great, insightful conversations, and after much time and nervousness, I asked him if he’d read my latest play. He wrote that he would, for sex. When I said no he said he’d still read it, then very quickly wrote me a paragraph-long note saying it was basically the worst thing he’d ever read. He didn’t expand. We’ve not spoken since I thanked him for the “feedback.” I no longer get invited to his readings and productions.
Hurtful as these experiences were, nothing in the sexual arena has horrified me as much as being falsely accused of assault, and these are stories that also need to be shared. In our whiplash world, it’s easy to forget that not everyone accused of bad behavior is guilty; each case exists on its own.
When I was still travel writing for a living, I met, in another state, a charismatic, openly gay politician who approached me at a cocktail party and charmed me like the dazzling drinks. He opened my shirt and touched my chest, he said he wanted to kiss me, he rubbed up against me. Later, in a limo to a big dinner, he suggested we make out. In the limo. With others watching.
While this might sound like the beginning of unwarranted advances, it was quite the opposite. I was attracted to him and welcomed the attention (but not the making out in front of others, which I made the point of telling him would be unwise for his career). He was also married—not a problem, he pointed out, if our sex didn’t involve exchanging bodily fluids—and gave me his private cell number and assured me he’d be in New York soon. But tonight was, hopefully, the night. He grabbed my ass as confirmation and said, “This is how we do business in my state.”
At dinner, seated next to him, I casually placed my right hand on his left knee. That was the end. He whispered to me something about one of his colleagues noticing, and the conversation stopped cold. I never saw him again because after dinner he was flocked by a group of men and stuffed into a car.
The next day, on a trip to see the sights, I found out from a friend that he’d told the head of the tourism board that I’d made unwarranted sexual advances toward him and that he’d wanted nothing to do with me. I was quickly made a pariah on that day’s activities, with no one speaking more than a few polite words to me. There was a delay in the morning as the guide was called away for a “meeting” of some sort.
Not only was I humiliated by the situation, I was terrified I’d be pulled aside and lectured, and, worse, that my boss at the magazine would be told of my callous sexual assault. Would I be sent home and fired? Would my writing reputation be tarnished? How could I defend myself against this local hero?
Turns out I didn’t have to, because when I decided to confront the head of tourism myself, he told me he’d talked to witnesses who’d seen the politician groping me at the cocktail party and that, “it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.” I was extremely lucky, while others are not. In a world where James Brown’s recorded crimes are a footnote to his career and Michael Jackson’s uncharged activities are stamped on his corpse, we need to remember that just the suggestion of sexual impropriety can permanently derail someone’s human credibility.
On another business trip I had the opportunity to meet an established gay activist and writer at his favorite local bar. He walked into the empty back room, charming as all get-out and already drunk, then sat down next to me and spread his legs so I was backed into the corner of our couch. The married man then told me about all the hot men who patronized the hangout and commented that we were alone. I assumed he had an open relationship and we kissed for a while. We stopped when the room started to fill up.
I stayed at the bar with a friend, and a couple of hours later noticed that the guy was even more drunk and preparing to leave. I politely asked him to take a cab. He told me he knew the back roads home. After more refusing (“I won’t get stopped”), I managed to take his keys and said I’d give them back when a cab showed up. His husband showed up instead, and the last thing I witnessed was them having a fight in the parking lot. Before he left he’d been swearing at me.
I never heard from the guy again until he sent me an email informing me that the locals had been notified of my behavior, that I was a sexual predator, and that I’d only taken his keys because he’d refused my advances. He reiterated that he wasn’t drunk. He told me that I’d be thrown out of that bar if I ever went there again. In an odd twist, I’d once told him about my encounter with the politician, and he brought that up as an example of my serial sexual assault. If I weren’t a stronger person I might have started to believe the gaslighting.
My assumption at the time was that he wrote the email for his husband so that he had an alibi for having to be driven home so late, or at least have a scapegoat. It’s also possible that he was so drunk he really didn’t remember anything correctly. Who knows? Regardless, It was hurtful and made me feel oddly guilty (of what, I’m not sure), and a little scared. I knew how much clout he carried as a gay rights champion. Would he write about this? How many other people had heard his fictitious story? Should I have just done the “sensible” thing and left him drive home drunk? I’ve learned in my own way that privileged men just expect to get what they want.
This wonderful movement of people standing up to sexual assault is longer overdue. Be careful what you wish for, however, because if we’re certain that everyone who’s made an assault claim is telling the truth then we’ve thrown reason out the window and given emotion control of the wheels. That’s how feeding frenzies begin.
That guy at the bar was so adamant in his denial that I half expect to scroll through social media one of these days, see his name and the words “Me Too” next to my picture, and the tale of the sordid sexual predator who assaulted such an upstart, honorable, and decent family man, one who, unlike slutty me, is only working to make the world a better place.
It happens that way too.