In a patriarchal society, rigid, binary gender roles can inhibit male survivors of sexual violence from identifying themselves as victims and expressing the range of emotions that may follow a traumatic event. It is estimated that 1 in 33 adult men in the United States are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. Despite this reality, male survivors experience a pressure to remain silent and preserve a harmful and limited definition of masculinity, which assumes that men always want sex and are incapable of being raped.
Aaron McIntosh, a gay male sexual assault survivor, explains, “We exist in a culture of maleness that doesn’t honor men’s capacity to be emotional, to be fragile, or to be in pain. You lose respect even in the gay guy community when you can’t be man enough to accept this and move on.”
Aaron is a professor at Maryland Institute College of Art, where he teaches in the fiber arts department. This is where he connected with the creators of the Monument Quilt. Since their connection, he has led workshops, helped with exhibitions, and volunteered in various capacities. The first few quilt squares he made served as educational demonstrations, but about a year into his participation with the Monument Quilt efforts, he made a personal square.
“The process was pretty cathartic for me,” Aaron explained. “I had my own personal experience of rape with another guy that wasn’t really contextualized for me as rape until I started working with the Monument Quilt.”
Aaron described how participating in workshops and displays of the quilt impacted his realization that he had been raped. “Seeing and hearing the other stories of survivors of sexual assault and rape, getting more involved in the project, reading more about sexual violence, and having political activist dialogue kind of opened my eyes to my own experience with rape. My first quilt square commemorates that. It’s like an address to the larger gay community which I feel doesn’t practice enough self care.”
Aaron utilized the term “gay guy community” when referring to his experiences and social circles within the queer community. “I feel like I have to acknowledge the circles I run in are specifically male. That doesn’t mean just cis men but includes trans men, like the gay male-identified crowd.”
A stigma is attached to men, regardless of sexuality, coming forward as survivors of sexual assault, but within the gay guy community the stigma is amplified. Aaron discussed how this stigma manifests. “I find that across the queer community people really shy away from addressing sexual assault in a wholescale way. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that our identities are staked on sexuality and, in a large part, sexual freedom from the status quo.”
Aaron continued that the sexual freedom can lead folks to always expect participation. Expectations reinforce coercion; if sex is expected, then “no” is not viewed as a valid option. “I worry that in so much sexual liberation people forget to take care of themselves and respect everyone’s bodies and boundaries. I think in the back of our minds there’s a fear that acknowledging any kind of failure gets in the way of moving forward in wider cultural acceptance of queerness. There’s a history of not acknowledging sexual assault because of the way sexual assault within the queer community is distorted by homophobia, like the false assertion that gay people are child molesters or perverts or nymphomaniacs.”
Aaron added, “In the gay guy community, sexual assault is pretty rampant. Drinking culture is very much a part of gay culture, and a lot of people feel if they don’t drink that they can’t participate.” The pressure to drink paired with the pressure to not be a “prude” is a dangerous combination.
This assumptive culture fosters a silence around sexual assault in the gay guy community. “I think more than anything guys don’t talk about it. I find that it’s only when asking pointedly what are my friends’ feelings about being blackout drunk and someone still took them home and they woke up without their clothes on that we even come close. How did they feel about that? In my experience, that’s an assumed part of the lifestyle, but it’s normalizing sexual assault.”
This normalization can prevent gay survivors from seeking help or support after the assault. “Like any survivor of sexual violence, a deep sense of shame or guilt may be present, but there’s also the feeling of not wanting to come forward because that will endanger the lives of other queers. Additionally, there’s the fear that the queer community would reject them about being open about such abuse.”
Aaron identified open conversation about sexual assault as a critical first step to addressing the issue within the gay guy community. “More honest and open dialogue is definitely needed. It also leaves out all these other conversations about STIs and the rampant rise in AIDS cases amongst men my age. I think it’s all built into this ‘risky behavior’ that is ingrained in this culture of sexual expectations of gay men.” Aaron emphasized that this kind of open dialogue is also necessary for queer youth. “I don’t mean to get on a soapbox, but there’s really no sexual education in our country. Depending on what state you live in you might never hear about queer people or issues in school. Where is the dialogue about men protecting themselves against sexual assault by other men – straight and queer? Growing up as a male-identified person you learn that rape is something that happens to women, and you don’t imagine that it can happen to you.” Without access to comprehensive and inclusive consent education and role models of healthy queer relationships, queer youth are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and intimate partner violence.
Aaron’s square for the Monument Quilt was a fusion of art and activism, or as some have termed it, “craftivism.” Aaron is no stranger to this concept, but he feels his work has “a kind of quiet activism.” Informed by his Appalachian family background, Aaron utilizes traditional forms, including quilts, to challenge heteronormative assumptions. “I’m looking at the traditional forms from their lives that were very important to me, projecting my own visual encyclopedia of knowledge, and reinterpreting those forms in a way that makes sense to me or through me. A lot of that brings to the forefront my sexuality, my sexual desires and activities. People think they are looking at a taxidermied bear from my family’s bear hunting background, and then they see the bear’s fur is actually made from a very specific kind of gay porn. It’s suddenly, ‘Oh, this isn’t exactly what I thought it was.’
“I think a large part of my work is asking viewers to reconsider their own notions of what Appalachian identities are, bringing the stereotypes out of the woodwork, flushing them out, making them strange.”
Aaron explained how the quilt form is fitting for a public healing space for survivors. “The quilt has a really traditional southern craft form, and it’s also a comfort object.” The Monument Quilt addresses the impact of trauma, but by providing a space for solidarity and healing, it also comforts. “Working with the Monument Quilt creators has been a major inspiration for me, especially looking at how the creators have brought in many voices beyond their own in this piece.”
Aaron’s artistic methods of challenging stereotypes mirror those of the Monument Quilt. The Monument Quilt holds space for hundreds of stories, and through its diversity it simultaneously humanizes survivors while honoring each experience and individual’s complexity. The quilt squares challenges assumptive perceptions of survivors.