Me Too: When I Was a Boy, My Basketball Coach Paid Sex Workers to Perform Acts on Me and My Teammates
Sitting on the waterfront of Lower Manhattan on my final day in New York City, running the gamut of 20-something life-status questions with a close friend, my subconscious let spill a thought I had not previously let be spoken or considered within myself: a frantic searching had resulted from the ways in which my last relationship ended and its prolonged moments of isolation and deep depression. Certain ruptures had reopened with a self-interrogating need for the myths of closure and complete understanding. Expressed less articulately at the time, the cursory thought did not bear much weight until later that night when I lay awake, fresh off a small run of shows, eyes closed, waiting to sleep, soon to rise and return home to begin a new period of motivated artistic movements.
Before I had taken the trip, I’d thought of my return to LA as a chance to achieve noble goals, like cutting out sugar from my diet, finding more stable employment, and sharpening the punchlines of my comedic Oxford comma lists of triplets. Yet, it had also been becoming clearer that the free ideas had not been flowing for months, as I felt increasingly saddled in a purgatory of Langstónia, trying to write around gulfs that only widen as the camera within me tried to ceaselessly pan away. I’ve written about the form of sexual abuse I experienced as a teenager, and was quite convinced for some time that simply recounting the details would be enough. However, now I am more convinced that I will need to look at this in the eyes for some time, in whatever manner that stare down manifests.
When I was fifteen years old, an athletic trainer and basketball coach of mine took several other boys and me — some a year or two older than me, one even a year younger — through South LA to engage in, what I assume he saw as, a ritual of stepping into manhood, particularly as Black boys. The ceremony, if you will, was simple: we received the services of local sex workers on his coin, which for some of us (particularly speaking for myself) was a possibility universes away from any romantic or sexual contact we had previously experienced. I don’t remember if I had yet touched anyone’s tongue with mine in a kiss, but after that night, my teammates and I walked out of a motel with a reluctant milestone forever in our minds and memories. I know to this day, we all remember that motel room off Figueroa, and the collective, nervous silence briefly broken by the four women who chatted with us as courtesy before beginning their work.
It was as a sophomore in college that I first thought back on the night as a way to work through some unease that my campus’s hookup culture had been birthing in me. I fictionalized an account into a 22-page short story, playing a game of dress-up in the minds of my teammates that night, trying to envision their internal conflicts through the careful dialogue and subtle action of a reimagined evening in Las Vegas following an AAU tournament. However, I learned then that there is only so much that realism can accomplish in art, for a portrait, as detailed and carefully rendered as it may be, sometimes only conveys a snapshot of reality if viewed too closely. In other words, I thought the piece would bring me closer to understanding why things happened, but writing it simply brought a profound remembrance and bout of quizzical reflections. For the first time, I took stock of what had happened, but I couldn’t bridge the distance between the sense memories I felt and my bubbling anxiety about participating in casual sex.
It did not help that I used the story for a fiction workshop, and was surrounded by well to-do white university students, several of whom balked at the possibility of such a scenario happening. Some close to me did read the work, though, and saw right through the layer of fiction, suggesting I take legal acton or issue a public statement. Yet I felt embarrassed and confounded when finally taking the time to account all the details of what happened; how I felt then; what I felt after writing about it. I said nothing and was determined to leave it there, hoping it would all contract and I would then grow from having merely acknowledged it. I was wrong.
I do know that a primary reason behind my inaction and silence has been the myth of “locker-room talk”; the “boys will be boys” pact of emotional hardness; the stoicism at loss of innocence that is disproportionately expected of Black boys.
With the media’s recent, Columbus-like “discovery” that sexual assault exists in all facets of society and rungs of power, I think I may have begun to assemble the parts of my history and contemporary standing into a more coherent string of thoughts. Though it generally takes time to process buried moments of confusion and hurt, I do know that a primary reason behind my inaction and silence has been the myth of “locker-room talk”; the “boys will be boys” pact of emotional hardness; the stoicism at loss of innocence that is disproportionately expected of Black boys.
We were supposed to walk out of that motel as fully-fledged men, our life’s progress affirmed with the consumption of a sexual act and person as the ultimate demonstration of our complete maleness. Some remarked on the details as we collectively drove off, while other sat, in process, and I know even those who expressed enthusiasm had to have at least felt a tinge of how I did. We surrendered the ritual, innocent, unknown of teenage sexual discovery for one man’s notion of upbringing. We — or at least I — agreed behind the soft-coercion of wanting to prove we could kick it, with all that entailed. The echoes of being told I was never Black enough or Black at all aided in gluing my mouth shut. Thus, I silently consented to what masculinity has been and continues to be: a hive mind of complicit toxicity, even in careful reticence such as mine.
This would have me believe that what I experienced was just an unconventional and unfortunate, lone event that brought me to my gender’s adult consciousness; that to be a male is to fuck, to conquest, to brag about it in a club of mutual understanding. It was to be a victory, in that it happened to me at fifteen. I should have had extra bragging rights. Niggas don’t snitch, and I knew I had to prove I understood that, to prove I was doubly a man and a nigga. I have since gotten over the fear that I would be breaking some code by divulging my thoughts, and I understand who I am as a Black man is not dictated by the amount of things I can keep on the low or any performance of hardness. I did not want to participate in that night’s events, but I saw no way to refuse. I was already too “soft” on the court, too quiet, and too frequently in my own head to let mull any “suspicion” that I was irrevocably a simp, faggot-ass, weirdo.
In my head swirls a want for it to go away, for it to have never happened, for an answer to a question I don’t quite know how to finish asking. But there is something I do not have to ponder: I had something taken from me and was given something to live with. So this must be my me too.
After middle school, I left my childhood friends on the east side of town to play basketball on sports-incentivized financial aid at a small and relatively unknown but athletically stalwart West Los Angeles private school. From day one of practice/school, I felt extracted and planted into a foreign world, one with mostly Black kids on the court, posturing for starting roles, and a largely white student body in the classrooms, there to consume our presence as interactive diversity training. During my two years at that school, I was far more interested in sneaking in hours on World of Warcraft, drawing surrealist character sketches, and practicing trick dunks in empty gyms than performing athletic dominance and Blackness for the student body and my teammates. Consequently, accepting my coach’s offer seemed like a natural conclusion and perverse remedy to my position. Still, it was beyond peer pressure. The whole scenario stemmed from one man’s authority to define the limits of what inclusion and team participation looked like, coercing my teammates and I into accepting his reality as a sort of twisted bonding exercise or opportunity. I have thought many times about how to qualify my actions, feelings, and slightly disconnected disposition about the whole notion of action, justice, and personal retribution. In my head swirls a want for it to go away, for it to have never happened, for an answer to a question I don’t quite know how to finish asking. But there is something I do not have to ponder: I had something taken from me and was given something to live with. So this must be my me too. This is not to overly-centralize a woe-is-me male-suffering narrative into the dialogue and epidemic of women not being heard — nor do I, as someone with light-skinned privilege, seek to take up excess space in larger discourses about the intersections of toxic masculinity and Blackness. I am simply trying to move past acknowledgement into a territory of larger understanding and action.
I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to posit that the male-driven sexual/romantic economics of the day dictates a woman’s affection and role be predicated on more effort and pursuit by a rapt party (in the vein of convincing her enough), not that she has the choice to be interested or not. If she’s not having it, she’s a bitch, and ironically, a slut, and (across the cis het aisle) men are supposed to want all sex and female advances that come their way. If a man does not, he is considered an anomaly, or more so, he is emasculated and labeled effeminate and “gay”, such that the main way we have been taught to be men and masculine is by casting ourselves as diametrically opposed to anything remotely feminine. For example, even as folks joke about, extoll, or give the side-eye to rappers dressing more androgynously, the supposed embrace of a feminine angle still has not seeped into the actual ways in which people and artists speak on gender and power — bringing to a larger stage of cultural visibility the phenomena of something “preposterous, like an androgynous misogynist” (shouts to Talib Kweli). It’s still a performative joust of comparative “fucking your bitch”, with a woman functioning as the mostly symbolic protectorate of he who dares not have his possessions soiled. Only now it’s encased in Covergirl-thugster-chic. This is not to center Blackness or “Black culture” as the root of this larger issue (my family’s complexion will attest to the continuing, endemic historical phenomena of white male power abuse and overdue emergence of this dialogue). It is simply a particular, personally familiar observation (as a rapper myself) of how entrenched and banal it is; in the sense that, even when beginning to seemingly deconstruct masculinity, we (yes #allmen) still haven’t established consistent definitions of what it is to be a man without subjugating/dominating someone we demarcate as female.
This is not something women can hold our hand through. We have to figure this shit out and call our ourselves out on this daily legitimated nonsense. The normalcy of aggression and deafness toward women and their desires and needs, jokingly and seriously — by those in some instances very close to me — has always perturbed me. It’s been hard for me to express my problems with it, particularly when trying to figure out how to let someone know I am attracted to them — not only do I fail at telling people I’m interested, but the examples of egalitarian, non-coercive, and consensual romance are so few and far between that I’m not sure, as a society and culture, we know what healthy interaction looks like. Because my first instance of sexual intimacy was with a stranger and mediated/obliged by the persuasiveness of another’s money, I have had a unique challenge of needing to (re)learn what it is to be close to someone; how much of myself to share and when; and where might I have unrealistic expectations, as to degrees of, and progressions toward, intercourse.
Indeed, in learning how to be a good partner I have faltered in proper communication and emotional availability with a few women, but I would like to firmly believe that I’ve always listened to someone when she has verbally or nonverbally expressed discomfort or need for space. But that ultimately isn’t for me to decide. People know their own reality, and I must listen from my position of male privilege, even with what happened to me. The blame for what occurred when I was fifteen will never be on “what I was wearing”, how I “lead someone on”, or the “amount of drinks I had.” Furthermore in recounting my story to a few individuals, between expected lamentations and one unexpected reaction of soft congratulations, only one person defined my circumstance as borderline rape. I, in heterosexual contact initiated by a woman, could not possibly have been abused, because a man of any libido could never experience rape at the hands of a woman. We have not made room or consideration for such an inversion of power as we know it. It is a thought akin to head explosives, like the reality that sexual assault exists across the spectrum of gender and sexuality. Still, even though my being male does play into this matrix of society’s larger ideas about who can and can’t be sexually abused, we must acknowledge the rarity, in a larger public forum, of flat out condemnation of the timeworn male terrorism that so subconsciously figures a woman’s humanity and suffering as inherently of less value than a man’s.
Arguing for compassion only on the pretext of sexual assault happening “to my daughter or wife” is an attempt at empathy, but linguistically sells us all short, as if the only way we can feel for victims is to centralize ourselves, particularly as men.
There is a normalcy given to the abuse thrust on women, in its frequency and mostly nonexistent due process, like it is some sort of recurring and unspoken natural disaster. When addressed, a common way to assess these acts’ severity is to invoke the “daughter or wife clause”, wherein an accusation of rape and sexual assault immediately gains an emotional heft and credibility after a man puts forward the notion of violence befalling the women in his life (his women). It is an effort of sensitivity but also a reference to people he stewards, their exposed vulnerability stifling his person, his honor, his capacity to protect. A woman postulating about a son or husband’s injury will instill concern, but it does not carry this connotation, this inherently male self-regard. The male gender’s dominance of thought and discourse — and, well, the planet as we know it — has been so fixed in place that even measures of attempting to bring justice are still tipped to one side and voice. Arguing for compassion only on the pretext of sexual assault happening “to my daughter or wife” is an attempt at empathy, but linguistically sells us all short, as if the only way we can feel for victims is to centralize ourselves, particularly as men. This shows an inability to sympathize outside our reality, and by dictionary definition, an absence of real empathy.
The intent and major effort here must be to unlearn and reimagine what courting, intimacy, and respect could be. Undoubtedly that is difficult with the unwieldiness of so much virulent power and lack of admissions on the part of our collective society. We have yet to wholly consider what denying victims does to our shared psyche; how perpetrators destroy the humanity of not only others, but themselves when they continue to hurt. For some imagination is a privilege, particularly those that have had their mind colonized by traumatic experiences and the mental violence of trying to make sense of those events. With contemporary theories suggesting that suffering could pass hereditarily through generations, I think we might all benefit from considering realities that are not our own and cannot possibly be — as well as not silencing ourselves, those of the injured party. Though some would emphasize that the proverbial wheels of progress turn slowly, let us not allow the abusers and apologists to weaponize that cliché and hold this inevitable sea change from rising. Furthermore, we must not misconstrue those who have been forcibly silenced to live with their festering memories for the folks who are in the midst of thinking through and processing their pain. In patience we must listen to the women, hear out to all the victims, and make truth stand, even on the shaky ground of the present.