This post contains cable TV-level references to sex. I’m not sharing this story as any kind of example of men being victims too, or we’re all in this together, or to take anything at all away from the many stories we’ve heard of the variety of inappropriate to illegal sexual situations women are routinely forced into. This disturbing facet of our society is almost exclusively populated by male perpetrators and female victims. It’s just that in light of things like the Harvey Weinstein story and many others, I realized that a thing that happened to me a long time ago is part of that landscape. I’d always considered it some weird one-off thing, just some pervert randomly singling me out, but it’s one piece of a large and gross puzzle. It’s also a crystal clear example of white male privilege working greatly in my favor.
Some time between 1999-early 2001 (based on the dorm I remember living in at the time), I was shopping at the Bearden Kroger on Kingston Pike in Knoxville late one evening. I was by myself, and I turned down the cereal aisle to load up on probably Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Nature Valley bars or something. There was one other person in the aisle, a middle-aged man in a ballcap, dad jeans, and glasses. Whatever I was getting I was putting several boxes of it into my cart and he walked over and said “Do you like those?” I paused briefly, letting the silence comment on the fact that I’d put three boxes into my cart.
“Yes, I do.”
He said something awkward about trying something new for breakfast, and I smiled and nodded. I started to move away and he said something I didn’t quite catch and I smiled and nodded at that too and moved on to the next aisle.
He followed me over there, and his energy level was totally different. He was excited and fervent, and he said something about me being cute. I realized then that he was repeating the last thing he’d said in the breakfast food aisle, to which I had smiled and nodded and he saw that as an open door. This would be fine if he didn’t immediately start asking me if I liked blowjobs. This threw me and I walked over to the bread section (I remember so clearly where we were standing for the different stages of this, but not the specifics of what he said). He said something like “Yeah, I bet you do” and then propositioned me. A couple in their 20s was nearby, but out of earshot of his intensely low voice. He wasn’t touching me but he was far too close. They could tell this wasn’t a normal interaction.
I finally gathered my wits and said “Look, I’m sorry, I don’t go that way” and walked away. I think I managed to get a few more things I needed and then beelined it to the registers. The cashier was a guy in his 30s, and as he was scanning my items the man who’d propositioned me for oral sex was coming over to another register. I saw the possibility that he was trying to follow me out to the parking lot, so I quickly pointed him out to the cashier and said that he had been bothering me. The cashier called over another guy and introduced me and said this man could walk me out to my car. They all played it very cool. We took my stuff out and as I was driving off I saw the harasser coming out of the store. I flew home, not sure how much this guy was just trying to hook up with strangers at a grocery store or if he would follow me to my dorm. I didn’t see him again.
Until literally years later, shortly before I left Knoxville. I was at the Borders (RIP) by West Town Mall, idly browsing like we did back when bookstores existed. I was standing in the middle of an aisle looking down at a book I was holding. Someone else came into the aisle within my field of vision–I could only see him from the waist down as I looked down at whatever book was in my hand. I noticed out of the corner of my eye he was scratching himself. Ew dude. Then I noticed he kept scratching himself. Then I noticed he probably wasn’t scratching himself and I moved away and of course it’s the Kroger perv. I don’t think he remembered me at all; I think this was just something he did all the time. I tried looking at another book by the registers but he came over and knelt down pretending to look at a book and trying to make eye contact with me. I just left. A few weeks later I went into that store again and he was there and I saw him see me and I just immediately walked out. Never saw him again.
Anyway, that’s what happened to me. Nothing serious, nothing scarring. Just some doofus with zero power over me being sexually inappropriate. Like I said, I’m not trying to draw any analogy between my experience and what so many women have described on social media in their personal lives and workplaces, other than to point out that this is practically sewn into the fabric of our society and I can’t imagine many people who’ve been able to completely avoid it. As one woman pointed out to me, she doesn’t even remember details of all the times things like this have happened to her, like I do with this single instance. I do take note that I definitely apologized to him (“I’m sorry, I don’t go that way”) and after the fact worried that I’d brought it on myself by smiling and nodding when he said that thing I didn’t quite hear, as if that were an invitation for him to ask me to have oral sex with him. It’s scary how easily those thoughts came to me.
And about that white male privilege: the cashier immediately believed me and took action to help me out, and the man he called over complied without question. I have no doubt whatsoever that anyone who reads this will believe me. I never felt truly threatened by this man and knew that if it came down to it and I had to physically defend myself, any authorities who became involved would almost certainly believe me and I’d avoid any sort of punishment. It didn’t leave any real lasting impression on me, because I haven’t thought about this in years until the stories about Harvey Weinstein finally saw the light of day. I never thought anything like it would happen to me again, and it hasn’t. Now, if I may A Time to Kill this scenario, take all that away. Imagine I’m an African American woman. The cashier doesn’t believe me, the perv follows me to my car, I have to fight him off, the cops show up and assume I’m the aggressor, and suddenly I’m in jail for punching a guy who was trying to sexually assault me (this is unfortunately one of the better scenarios that could play out). I’m emotionally imprinted by all of this so when I see the perv at Borders later some kind of PTSD takes over and I’m a wreck and then I assume he’s been following me all these years. It takes therapy for me to be able to relax in a public setting. And again, this man had no power over me! I can’t begin to imagine receiving this sort of attention from someone who employs me.
Like I said, I had chalked this up to just some random perv crossing my path at the wrong time, an isolated incident. Now I realize that he’s one of who knows how many men who don’t understand how to relate to people they’re sexually attracted to and abuse all kinds of social norms to bridge that gap. So, believe women. And women, please keep telling your stories.
UPDATE: I was worried I might be missing something here, overstepping some boundaries as someone who considers themselves an ally but lives in a pretty privileged place. Turned out I walked into a big blind spot my friend Phillip pointed out on Facebook, and we had a good conversation about that which follows:
Phillip: I’m sorry, Colin, I have to be honest: as a gay man something feels … straight privileged in this story telling. It’s not one thing you wrote but the subtext, and you adding to this age old narrative of an innocent white straight male portraying himself as a victim of yet another lecherous perverted gay man. Adding to this narrative that gay men are so often sex crazed and dangerous bc they try and defile good straight young men. Something about the way you had to let us know that you let him know that you are straight. Why did you need to let him know your sexual orientation? Is this to suggest that bc if you were gay then fine, no problem, he could’ve blown you? Like that’s something all of us gays probably do in grocery stores, but bc you’re straight – that’s the reason this was extra scary and unwanted? If it was so undesirable why didn’t you just say “nope, not interested” and walk away? Is part of what upset you so much is that it was a man who hit on you at a grocery store? I’m guessing if a pretty young woman made a sexual advance at you at a grocery store, whether or not you’d been interested, this wouldn’t even be a story. It’s so typical that straight men suddenly become “victims” when men find them attractive and make a pass at them but when a woman throws herself at a man, well, that’s awesome and hot. Such a double standard, so latently homophobic and so deeply problematic.
Also: you’re trying to say that you had your own sexual harassment experience – and this doesn’t qualify as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment refers to what happened to you usually by a colleague or a boss or someone in a work or social situation. Not at Krogers by a stranger. What happened to you was that some horny, inappropriate man who may or may not have had some mental health issues misperceived you as possibly gay or queer or convertable and aggressively tried to pick you up. This story is nothing unusual in the gay world. Walk around Chelsea in Manhattan, go to various gay spaces and you’ll invariably eventually run into this among gay men. The fact that you found yourself on the receiving end of a sexual pick up by a gay man does not make you a straight victim of gay sexual harassment. It means some man made an inappropriately pass at you at a Kroger and at a bookstore some time later. Let’s not conflate sexual harassment with what you experienced.
And I’m not a woman, but I hardly think this example is the same situation that women face at the work place by a boss or someone else who has the potential to negatively effect their life for rebuffing their unwanted advances.
This left a really poor taste in my mouth. I appreciate you seeking to find a way to understand what it is women contend with – but you can’t understand it, Colin. You’re a straight cis white male. A gay man offering to give you head does not make you a victim and does not suddenly compare. Your job as someone with the privilege you have is to listen and consider what you hear. To be an ally if you so choose – not to insert yourself into the narrative and by doing so microagressively add to the shaming of gay men.
One more thing: did you consider anywhere in this story what it might be like to be a gay man in the south 15 years ago (assuming it took place a while ago) – that maybe this guy was deeply closeted and while it was inappropriate to aggressively hit on you, the whole reason he’s messed up is in part bc of a society of straight men who pushed him in the closet to begin with? That it wasn’t safe for him to come out, that he didn’t have any safe spaces to explore his sexuality and so that part of the sadness here is that it played out like that for him?
Me: My straight privilege definitely plays a role in this story as well, and I wish I had mentioned that up front. Instead it just flavored the whole thing and I regret that. I also really regret that this contributes to the narrative of gay men as predatory, because I’ve always hated that. This particular man felt very predatory, but I never attributed that to his sexual orientation and I didn’t want that to come across in the story. I like to think that if things were different, if this had been an older woman who went straight from saying I was cute to following me and talking aggressively about blowjobs, I would have been equally unsettled by the situation. But I certainly don’t dispute the double standard.
I wrote my reaction to him as I remember it, and upon remembering it did a double-take on myself. I don’t think at the time that I knew any out gay men and I was about to learn a lot more about that community. I didn’t want to change how I responded to make myself look better, but I should have commented on that response in my story. You’re right, I didn’t have to mention to him that I was straight. What I ultimately did was tell him I wasn’t interested and walk away, but the tone of his approach, which I clearly failed to properly communicate, was very unsettling to the point that I felt the need to get some help because I wasn’t sure what his intentions were. Not because he was gay, but because of the way he approached me. The fact that he was touching himself in Borders, as I mention later, indicates to me that he probably did have some mental issues that he needed help with.
I did try to address the fact that I know this is very different from what women deal with day in and day out, and ultimately my point was to show that for someone like me, a straight white man, when someone is sexually inappropriate with you it’s much easier to navigate out of and it happens very rarely. I do consider myself an ally and I always try at bare minimum to just listen to stories from outside my community, but I keep seeing calls for people like me to stand up and say something as well so I thought this might be a way to contribute. I was wary of overstepping my bounds and clearly had a big blind spot that I walked right into. I feel like I need to do more than listen, though clearly I could benefit from more of it. I was probably overeager. I really regret that and I thank you for taking the time to read it and tell me what you think.
With your permission I’d love to add your comment to the end of the post. My initial impulse was to edit accordingly to address what you’ve said but honestly I feel like your words should just stand there next to the story. If you’d rather I not do that I certainly understand.
Phillip: I went hard on you, Colin, and the fact that you are willing to hear me out and consider this – my respect for you has swelled. We don’t know each other well, but your openness speaks volumes about your goodness. It’s not easy for any of us to be confronted with our words and narratives – myself included. I may be gay, but I’m a white guy and I have a lot to work on myself.
Listen, you’re someone who even from a distance, I can tell has a big, kind heart – so to be fair – I would’ve been 100x more insulted if I didn’t on some gut level know that you had good and pure intentions on where you were coming from with writing that. It’s obvious that you were trying to create a dialogue and stand up and speak out on these issues. That’s admirable. And yet still, it is murky territory when we venture into identifying with the oppressed when we are an agent status.
Mental health: it’s hard to diagnose someone we don’t know, even if he was openly masturbating in a Borders. It could range from him being an alcoholic and having a sex addiction, low self esteem, to him being emotionally unstable to just being really confused and closeted and have impulse control issues. So hard to say. Clearly he also thought you were really attractive. I sort of think it’s too bad that so many men can’t just pay a compliment and leave it at that. The compliment isn’t always wanted or appropriate but when it starts venturing into the sexual, that’s where things get really problematic. Like, he could’ve said to you “you sir, are really handsome.” You may not have loved that, but it probably wouldn’t have made you nearly as uncomfortable as him detailing how much he yearned to get your d into his mouth. And on that note, of course that didn’t feel good to you. I hear that 100%. I have been on the receiving end of lecherous and unwanted attention too. It’s awful. So I wasn’t trying minimize that it didn’t feel good or unsafe.
Thank-you for listening. You can for sure use my comments how you’d like. I hope we can continue the conversation. It’s these experiences that help all of us to do better. Big respect to you, Colin.
Me: Thanks Phillip, I really try. I spend too much time online and I see the patterns of “discussions” where someone calls someone else on their stuff and rather than own up to it, they dig in defensively and it just never goes well. I really like it when people listen to each other and come to an understanding so I try to make that happen whenever I can. And honestly it’s just easier! It feels so much better.
He certainly seemed to have something else going on, and I have received compliments from men that were socially “normal” and I was incredibly flattered every time. Which is probably another point of privilege, because it’s never been a constant onslaught that lets me know I’m seen as pretty much one thing when I walk out the door. That too is baffling to me. Women, I think especially in NYC, exist in a world I’ve only seen through the stories they tell. And I believe those stories! It’s just so crazy to me that they experience something I only see in passing, a random catcall here or there, every single time they leave the house.
Anyway, I really appreciate everything you’ve said.
Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he’s an actor and writer.