I never believed it was possible for me to be sexually assaulted.

I’m a big guy and I have played sports and lifted weights all my life. I imagined myself being able to fight off a person who was attempting to overpower me physically. I assumed that all sexual assault occurred prior to, or as part of, some physical attack.

It never occurred to me that there were other ways to force me to have sex with someone. It never occurred to me … until about a year after I was sexually assaulted.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to draw attention to the subject because it is an issue that is not talked about enough, especially among male victims. It’s even more taboo in the gay community.

As a gay man, I see, hear and feel the hypersexuality that exists in my community. This hypersexuality encourages gay men (especially younger ones) to take unwanted advances, touching or unsolicited photos as compliments or something to brag about. It teaches us to feel value only when others value our bodies, regardless of how they show that value.

For example, queer dating and hook-up apps encourage people to identify themselves as either a “top” or a “bottom.” These roles in bed become akin to personality traits on social media.

I am regularly asked on social media what my “position” is. This makes me very uncomfortable and I refuse to answer. It is no one’s business but mine.

Because dating apps and social media have encouraged this behavior to the point of normalizing it, an intimate detail of my life has become something that people in the community feel entitled to know. I see countless couples on social media refer to each other as “their top” or “their bottom.” Though said in (what I hope is) lighthearted fun, it whittles the identities of these people to solely what they are capable of in bed.

What makes sexual assault much more challenging to handle is when it comes from someone close to you, like it did to me with another man.

This man gave me an edible and withheld how strong it was, knowing that this was my first time trying marijuana in any form. I don’t remember much from that night, but I know we had sex. I believe he did this to “put me in the mood” to have sex with him.

That’s hard for me to write. This was someone I trusted.

It took me almost a year to recall that I had been sexually assaulted. There’s no specific moment that I can point to as the moment when everything came back to me, because it didn’t happen like that. Little things came back to me one by one, memories of things that happened that didn’t seem quite right.

My brain had blacked out the memories, and remembering it was scary at first because I would think, “What is still hidden? What haven’t I remembered yet?”

It took me some time to get out of this mindset, but I wish I had been warned about this. Like most people, I always thought that if I was sexually assaulted, I would recognize it immediately and wouldn’t forget.

I thought I could see everything that was happening, and I thought things were good. Because how could someone you’re close to do something like that? How could you not realize or forget something like that? It seems impossible, but it’s not. It took me lots of reflection and growth and acceptance to acknowledge it even to myself.

It took even longer to say the words “I was sexually assaulted” out loud, and it still sticks in the back of my throat sometimes.

This was the worst episode during the time I knew this man, but other times I felt manipulated, made to feel guilty and coerced into engaging in some form of sexual behavior after saying “no” countless times.

I realize that there are those who would say, “Why didn’t you fight him off? Why didn’t you continue to say ‘no’ if you were as uncomfortable, as you say?”

The answer is simple. I wanted to please this person. I felt guilty for saying no, and I wanted to make sure he felt validated in his desires and in his sexuality.

It took me some time to not blame myself for “allowing” this to happen to me. Eventually I turned that blame into pride for overcoming what had happened, and I share my story now to help others.

But that has not been without its challenges.

At times I have allowed people close to me to make me feel bad for sharing my story; It feels as though they were worried about what others would think of them for being associated with me because of how open I am with what I went through.

And that’s the two-fold nature of being a survivor of sexual assault. Not only did I have to survive the act of the assault, I have to survive the stigma that others put on me for being a survivor, and then even more so for sharing my story.

My advice to anyone else who has gone through this: Understand it’s not your fault, and there is so much strength in sharing your story.

The people who would make you feel bad about either of those things do not belong in your life. I am currently seeking therapy to work through what I have survived. Though my life now is full of love and happiness, I recognize that I still have things to work through.

I feel no shame in asking for help. I encourage anyone, even the most mentally healthy people, to go to therapy. There is power in asking for help.

Sexual assault comes in many forms, and it can happen to anyone. There is no singular formula for assault to occur, something I wish I’d known a few years ago. Though it is difficult, sharing my story brings me peace and it brings me power — power over a situation where I was at the time utterly powerless.

My power is being a survivor.

Couper Gunn, 22, is the Director of Social Media for the Sports Equality Foundation, a former player and two-time captain of the men’s soccer team at Colby-Sawyer College and graduated in 2021 with a major in History and Political Studies and a minor in Education. Couper is currently teaching high school history full time while pursuing his masters degree. He can be reached by email ([email protected]) or on Instagram and TikTok (@cmaxxg).

Couper Gunn is in his final weeks at Colby-Sawyer College, where he was a leader on the men’s soccer team.