Sex, Intimacy, and Being Gay

I started to write this piece a few weeks ago but have since had to start over. I had a conversation with my best friend and found I wanted to shift focus. All of this came about because I read a few pieces on this site and others about how women should have more sex with their husbands or why women may not want to have sex with their husbands. The fundamental theme was about intimacy and communication between partners. It made me think: When was the last time I read something in the LGBTQ media about sex as communication between partners? Maybe I'm not reading the right magazines. Perhaps lesbian-centered media talk more about it. Certainly I can't remember the last time I read anything about sex and intimacy in media focused on gay men. But why not?

As I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that gay male culture in general doesn't talk about intimacy between partners, or at least either not in the same way or not as often as happens elsewhere. There's plenty of talk about sex; we are a very sexually permissive group. But there are ways in which sexuality for gay men is complicated beyond fighting broad systems of oppression. There are ways in which that oppression, especially isolation and rejection from families, has damaged many of us. A therapist once asked me if I thought my relationships with the men in my family negatively impact my relationships with other gay men. I've thought about that a lot in the past couple of years, especially as I've more recently had a growing awareness of the extent to which my self-loathing is affecting every aspect of my career and search for a mate. Perhaps this estrangement from the men in our families makes it difficult for us to trust and to open ourselves to emotional intimacy. It certainly presents a pivotal developmental experience of rejection that could inspire the fears of rejection so many of us suffer from.

I don't mean to say all our problems date back to childhood, however much that may be true. Gay male culture has a strange attitude toward sex. I feel isolated at times by the choices I am presented with. I know from past experience that an open relationship doesn't work for me. I don't know if I think monogamy is the same for gays as it is for straights, but I think there is some value to making a commitment to someone to be sexually exclusive. It says something about how much you respect and value that person that you would eschew others for them. I have also experienced and seen too many scenarios where opening up a relationship has been about creating emotional barriers or been a way for a partner wanting out of the relationship to cause it to fail. I've seen the chaos involved in relationships where partners decided to be open, and I've watched the hurt and anger fester in other relationships where two people decided to stick together in spite of jealousy and self-doubt caused by being open. It isn't that I'm saying open relationships can't work long-term, just that I've never seen them last. If that works for you, then I wish you the best and hope you have many happy years.

But, returning to my point, sex seems central to intimate and romantic relationships. If it is a means of intimate communication, and communication is the secret to a lasting and healthy relationship, why don't we gay men talk about it that way more often? When I'm online I see a lot of guys claiming to want more than casual encounters. But we're men, and men are socialized to want sex, so there's often the caveat of having fun while waiting for Mr. Right. That's in some of my profiles too. But this seems to follow the trope of sex as sport or separating emotion from sex and just having fun. But do I really want to have sex with someone I don't even really like? And how do we refocus sex from fun to intimate communication between partners once we find the right guy?

I've read profiles of guys who were recently out of long-term relationships who wanted no strings, no commitment, and just to have fun. That right there seems to be a way of acting out on hurt feelings by drowning in as much dick and ass as they can get, which then makes me think they can't actually separate out emotions from sex. It instead sounds like they want to punish themselves or their ex, using sex as a self-defacing act to fuel self-loathing over a failed relationship. But even more than that, when sex is such an intimate act, a kind of interaction that is so out of the ordinary and places people in uniquely vulnerable positions, doing it with someone you have no reason to trust seems slightly self-defeating, if not self-destructive.

Now, we have very few models of what commitment looks like among gay men, one of the few reasons I sometimes envy lesbians despite all the systemic disadvantages they face. Marriage equality has changed that, and there are more and more gay men benefiting from the validation that legal recognition provides. But our cultural dialogue on sex still focuses so heavily on disease and non-exclusive sexual behavior that it is hard to develop and sustain attitudes of intimacy and trust. This is certainly true as a single person; I then imagine it is true for couples. While all relationships are work, and while it takes a lot of emotional security to trust a partner over the course of a long-term relationship, it is especially difficult to do so as gay men. One of my few couple-friends who are making it work have discussed the pressures of maintaining the trust and communication in their relationships. They have to deal with the pervasive attitude among single gay men that one or both of them is fair game despite their committed status. They then tried to develop more friendships with other couples only to find that many of them saw my friends as fair game as well, with one or both partners looking to mingle with one or both of my friends. However prevalent this may be among heterosexuals, there are two things that make it different for gay men. First, dominant narratives insist that heterosexuals are mostly sexually exclusive with partners except when men cheat. Second, the members of the heterosexual couple are presumably not attracted to the member of the second couple who is of the same sex.

None of this is meant to provide any answers to these problems. It is too easy for us to essentialize that all gay men are promiscuous, that all lesbians are monogamous, that men only want sex, and that it's all due to damage done by our parents. If we want committed relationships, however, we have to face down these self-defeating narratives and stop creating obstacles to intimacy with our (potential) partners.