Article Title:Backs to the wall, heads in the sand
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:24th November 2003 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:128
Text:Rape ain't nothing to joke about - unless it's between men. takes a look at an issue everyone's having a laugh about, and no-one wants to talk about. I still remember the first time I heard the phrase "backs to the wall - faggots on the crawl". It was my cousin who repeated it to me, after someone repeated it to him. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world at the time (after all, we were only 12). For him, it was a joke to be thrown at any kids who were considered homos and, I might add, something he'd be incredibly embarrassed about if I reminded him of it now. For me, it was one of the first messages I received that told me about what it meant, or rather what society at large said what it meant, to be a gay man. Like most of us, I grew up, got over the insults, and learned that the stereotype of the sexually predatory and anally-fixated gay man was unfounded. These days, we can even have a laugh about it when we pass an advertising billboard that uses it as the (oh dear) butt of its joke. A new Speight's beer billboard currently on display around the country would appear to play into the idea that "blokes" are still a little (how shall we put it?) paranoically obsessed with gay men giving them one up the bum. In Auckland, this billboard can be seen in the heart of the Grey Lynn/Ponsonby district, just before the Williamson Ave intersection. Featuring the two southern men from Speight's television commercials, the young bloke says "Interesting part of town" and the older one says "Keep your back to the billboard, boy". There has been much discussion about this one already. Is it funny? Is it insulting? Kerre Woodham mentioned it during a recent rant on Newstalk ZB about political correctness, saying that we should all be able to "laugh at ourselves" once in a while, and surely no complaints would be forthcoming about this one. One thing is for certain - it gives us an interesting opportunity to think about what it really means. Yes, it's a joke, but we are clearly laughing at a joke that is centred around the idea of male rape, with gay men being painted as the rapists. John Fenaughty is a PhD student at Auckland University, currently engaging in a study of unwanted sex between men who have sex with men (MSM), a large research project funded by the Health Research Council and Lotteries Health Research. He first became interested in this subject while doing his MA in psychology a few years ago, looking at the suicide risk in young gay and bi men. "One of the things that came through in that research was men who had experienced sexual assault, which was defined as unwanted touching or genital contact, and I was quite surprised at how many men had experienced it," he says. "As you can imagine, it's an incredibly stigmatised phenomenon and not a lot of people are necessarily that forthcoming about it, or recognise certain things as abusive, so it was quite surprising that these men had talked about that." Through his research, Fenaughty is discovering a significant and rarely-heard from group of men whose common bond is silence, uncovering disturbing links between unreported sex crimes and negative stereotyping. "It's very difficult for people who have experienced rape, because when going through the court process it's often one person's word against another. For gay men, who may have experienced significant homophobia from the police, it can be an incredibly difficult process to embark on, especially if they think that police won't believe them... "I've talked to police who have said that some, though definitely not all, police may respond 'well, you're all arsebandits anyway', or 'you wanted it'. Those attitudes are incredibly unhelpful, and thankfully not everyone in the police force holds them." So what effect does a very public joke like the Speight's billboard have? "Unwanted sex is an issue that is incredibly silenced for MSM, and billboards like this only serve to further strengthen the stereotypes that produce this silence, the stereotypes being that gay men always want sex, it's OK to take sex from anyone if you're a gay man, and if that happens it's not meaningful, it's just a joke, so why bother complaining about it?" Comedy is often acknowledged as the most subversive way of getting a message across. It becomes bulletproof by its very nature, as attempts to analyse it are dismissed because it's "only a joke", and the person "taking it too seriously" is then themselves held up as an object of ridicule. "I think it's part of a broader issue that in society we refuse to acknowledge sexual crimes of all kinds, they're so silenced and stigmatised that it's easier to turn them into a joke than talk about them honestly and see them as violence and assault." So we're not only talking about stifling debate on an issue by turning it into a joke, we're also talking about denial, and it's funny that that topic should come up because Speight's seem to be experiencing it themselves. Check out their explanation of what this billboard actually means: "This is in reference to a southern man's tips for keeping your eyes peeled and being aware when you come to a big city," says Doug Paulin, the mainstream brands director at Lion Breweries. "A country man's first visit to the city can be an intimidating thing and this billboard just jokes about them keeping their eyes open for any trouble. It's a survival technique - the southern man would rather have a wall behind him, so that any potential trouble comes from the front." He categorically denies that there is a gay reference to be taken from the advertisement. "It's about being city aware when you're a country boy". Seeing as these advertisements are being placed in cities, who is the target audience? "Speight's drinkers and aspiring southern men." Mr Paulin also said there was no reason for this particular billboard being placed in the Ponsonby/Grey Lynn area, as it was one of seven billboard sites in the Auckland CBD featuring different messages and the intention is to rotate them. The "back to the billboard" wording also features in other locations around the country, including Wakefield St in Wellington. Some of the billboards do appear to be location-specific; one on Mt Eden Rd makes a reference to the nearby Speight's Ale House, one on Fanshawe St (artery to the Auckland Harbour Bridge) talks about gridlocked traffic, and another at the bottom of College Hill in Ponsonby talks about lattes, but Mr Paulin insists that, apart from the Mt Eden example, the others are general CBD references and could be put anywhere. asked Mr Paulin whether he thought it was unfortunate that Grey Lynn/Ponsonby had been randomly chosen as the site for the "back to the billboard" entry in the series. We had not received a response by the time of publication. It would seem nobody wants to talk about this issue. We can blame the ever-widening definition of "political correctness" for that. The PC backlash is in full swing, cleverly moulded by conservative interests into a tornado that sucks in and labels anything and anyone defending a minority's wellbeing as "politically correct" or "too sensitive". Advertisers know how to play the game too, thanks to the recent testing of the waters by Fagg's Coffee with the Advertising Standards Authority. Even though there are regulations in place to protect gays and lesbians from "denigration" in the media, the definition of that word is malleable. Fagg's successfully argued that an ad campaign reading "Not as Ponsonby as the name suggests - Fagg's, the great straight coffee" had no gay connotations whatsoever. The Speight's billboard, particularly considering its placement in Auckland, uses an even more obvious gay joke, with a denial from the company mirroring precisely the one from Fagg's. Ironically, although Wakefield St in Wellington is not considered a particularly gay area, the Speight's billboard there has been placed right next to a Fagg's one. "In terms of the amount of media coverage they get for their ads and their product, courtesy of the PC backlash, you then see all the other billboards and they take on much more meaning," says Fenaughty. "It's probably quite a wise advertsing strategy to have all these billboards in a series, and have one that's controversial that gives all the others a greater symbolic meaning by association." The symbolic meaning of this advertisement and its placement goes far beyond anal sex metaphors, which have been a staple of denigratory gay jokes since Adam and Steve were boys. "It tells gay men - we know you're promiscuous and you'll always seek out sex with anyone. I'm sure there are more men who identify as heterosexual living in Ponsonby but you'd never see the girl from the pub in the Speight's ad being told 'you'd better keep your legs crossed here' implies that gay men rape other men and straight men." The myth reinforcement isn't just limited to gay men, either. "It's also problematic because it highlights the idea of stranger rape, whereas for most MSM the unwanted sex is invariably going to be with a regular partner or a casual sexual partner who they already know." The anal fixation creates links in the mind to many other types of negative sexual experience. "It assumes gay men are always interested in anal sex, and this backs to the wall thing is obviously a reference to the fact that gay sex is anal sex and you've got to keep your back to the wall to stop someone penetrating you, conjuring up ideas of institutional rape, prison rape, boarding school situations, and the broomstick affair." Yet, there is a glimmer of a positive message to be found also. "One positive thing about the ad, which is kind of interesting, is that it shows this butch-looking man from the south as being potentially vulnerable to unwanted sex, and I think that's really important because one of the things people often say is - how can you be raped if you're a man, you should be strong enough to fight off an attack." We're no doubt going to be accused of over-intellectualising at this point. Easy for those accusations to be levelled when one starts analysing a joke. And don't us gays have it so easy these days anyway? No-one really believes this stuff is true anymore, do they? "I think the billboard would be seen as a joke, although one in really bad taste and at the expense of gay men. There's still going to be some residual feeling, despite justifications of 'oh, my gay neighbour in Ponsonby, he's lovely and he's not like that at all'. "The joke wouldn't exist if, at one point, people didn't believe in it. Maybe some people don't, but I imagine there would be lots of people driving past that billboard who still do." In the meantime, if you come across any aspiring southern men with their backs to you, slip them a friendly word that next time they might want to turn around. And perhaps offer to buy them an Export Gold. If you have experienced unwanted sexual contact, there are a number of resources available. You can call your local branch of Rape Crisis or Lifeline (check your phone book) for referrals to organisations in your area. If you're in Auckland, Mensline is a confidential phone counselling service that runs in the evenings (ph 522-2500), or you can contact one of these organisations specifically catering for men: Man Alive (ph 835-0509) or the Men's Centre (ph 415-0049).     Chris Banks - 24th November 2003
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