It’s Time to Get Real About Your Love Life – Britt East
Moving from self-shame to self-love
Of all that I have endured, by far the worst type of abuse has been neglect. Moving through the world unjoined and unloved. Living the cruel paradox of desperately seeking attention while also cowering like a house cat under the bed of life. A life unseen and unwritten. A soul in waiting. Longing for love’s tender mercies. The sweet sense of feeling seen and sought. Of others carving out a space in their lives with my name on it. A steady togetherness that transcends vicissitudes. The confidence and continuity that comes with belonging to a world and a people.
And I know I’m not the only one. Most of us gay men could use more love in our lives. A simple space in this world where we might breathe free. Even those of us with full adult agency sometimes grapple with the residual sexual shame of our childhood. Wrestle with our internalized messages of bigotry, first foisted on us by society then amplified by our families, and finally embraced by our darker natures. We wonder why we feel so battered and bruised. Exhausted from the struggle. Paralyzed by the fear. Afraid to ask for what we really want or need. And there are precious few more fundamental human needs than sexual fulfillment. So when they attacked us for our sexual behavior, what they were attacking was our humanness.
We must start by acknowledging that homophobia is actually a form of sexual abuse. Sex is the focus of their hate, because so often the sex act is all straight people see when they look at us. Rather than fully-realized individuals moving through the same world as everyone else. Wanting to love and be loved. And when some of those straight people instill a deep-seeded shame in us, a shame they explicitly link to our sexual orientation, it should not then be surprising that the results in our lived experiences are sexual in nature. We can draw a clear line here. When people in power stigmatize our attractions, we sometimes act out or act in on that hate. When they fear or fetishize our entire range of sexual expression, we might internalize those messages and allow them to distort our behavior. And alter our capacity to love. Because that was the entire point. They meant to obliterate us. And sex was just the tip of the spear.
Many of us gay men experience a delayed emotional adolescence. The denial of society’s standard rites of passage in some cases stunted our emotional growth and maturity. And the results are often disastrous. This theft helps prevent the creation of those memories that would form our sense of self and place us in the larger culture. It denies us the opportunity for a regular low-stakes practice of relationship-building. A sort of playing at individuated love. A love that we might experience for the first time as wholly separate from our families. As we would prepare to jump from the platform of our family into the adult world. But instead we are left with a void. Missing pieces where our individuality would go. And many of these missing pieces are sexual in nature.
While many straight boys are first dipping their toes into the pond of life, some of us gay boys are too busy hiding our true selves. Or trying not to get killed. Here are a few contrasting milestones in the lives of some straight and gay boys:
- First Crush: some straight boys relish their first crushes on girls, while some gay boys hide in shame, having no clue or context for their new and frightening attraction to other boys.
- Sexual Sharing: some straight boys start sharing their sexual urges about girls with their friends, while some gay boys are too afraid to share their homosexual urges, and get stuck in their secrets.
- First Dates: some straight boys start dating girls in the real world, while some gay boys immerse themselves in homosexual fantasy since it is unsafe for them to date boys in public.
- First Kiss: some straight boys share their first kiss with a girl and feel excited about it, while some gay boys share their first kiss with a girl and feel afraid or ashamed about it, or with a boy and risk rejection or violence.
- Social Functions: some straight boys go take girls to various social functions (Homecoming, the Prom, etc.), while some gay boys panic and take girls to these events, or stay at home alone, missing out on all these experiences.
- Sexual Exploration: some straight boys have their first sexual experience with a girl and fall in love, while some gay boys have their first sexual experience with a girl and feel lonely or afraid, or with a boy and risk rejection or violence.
It is easy to see the potential consequences of bias, bigotry, and negative messages towards gay youth, as reflected in the sexual development milestones of some Western cultures. Over the years, the accumulation of these experiences can be debilitating or disempowering. And some of us don’t reclaim these experiences until our mid-twenties or thirties, or even much later. At which point much of the harm has already taken its toll, and the physical, mental, and emotional consequences of their behavior can be more drastic and dire.
One of the most common ways we express our internalized sexual shame as gay men is as a crippling fear of intimacy. It used to be illegal for us to congregate, much less show affection. In some places it still is. Being steeped in negative messages about our love’s lack of worth as children can prevent us from sharing physical affection as adults. We might fear holding hands in public, even when it is ostensibly safe and legal. We might refrain from kissing other men, even in the privacy of our homes. We might scuttle potential relationships as soon as love or commitment enters the picture, even when we really just long to be loved. Perhaps we prefer pornography to people, even if deep down we want to be seen and known by another man. Maybe we’re unduly passive, and afraid to ask for what we really want, even when we have full agency. There are myriad ways in which we might express our fears of intimacy. And many of them go unchecked for years, becoming patterns of negative love or cycles of isolation.
For the most part, gay youth grow up culturally alone, without direct access to knowledge or community. This isolation was further compounded for many of us who grew up before the advent of the internet. When access to information or community was spotty at best and downright dangerous at worst. In the absence of sexual mentors and role models, some of us turn to pornography as a lifeline. An educational tool, a method for connection, and a gateway to healthy fantasy. In this regard, access to the internet (and its concomitant proliferation of porn) has been a game changer for many gay youth. They no longer need feel quite so alone. And they have a wealth of information on a variety of healthy sex practices. Information that can help them learn and discover. And even save lives.
Now that the internet is in its second decade, many of us have had a chance to experience its dark side and unintended consequences. From echo chambers to cancel culture, it is now clear that this technology is not the utopia for which some of us hoped. While it’s true that we now have access to more online communities and information than ever, it’s also true that if left unchecked, our patterns of negative love can rear their ugly heads. Many of us reflexively turn to our smart phones whenever we feel bored or uncomfortable. In some cases we are losing the ability for stillness and sustained reflection. And in the sexual sphere, we sometimes immerse ourselves in unhealthy fantasies at the expense of human connection.
If as children we were tormented and abused by the objects of our desire, as adults these adverse childhood experiences might distort our sense of sexual self-esteem, and even conflate pain with pleasure. Over time we might recreate these childhood experiences in fantasy or pornography. Modes over which we hold sole dominion, and can reclaim our power. This strategy can be a really healthy and effective stopgap, until we find the capacity for real healing and transformation. But in some cases it backfires. Eventually we might ritualize these fantasies as we continue to chase that high. And these rituals can grow into fetishes. Our need for darker and more intense pornography grows more desperate. Until regular human contact no longer fulfills us. And we end up more powerless and alone than ever.
Sexual fantasies are healthy and wonderful, so long as they don’t derail the rest of our life. If we find ourselves engaging with pornography for hours a day, perhaps it’s time to take stock. What is it costing us? Perhaps we are using pornography to avoid other issues or feelings in our life. Maybe it keeps us in our comfort zone. Maybe our pornography feels safe and predictable. If we were to monitor the type of pornography we consume over the course of a few weeks or months, we might notice some patterns. Maybe it’s escalating in quality and quantity. Maybe the characters in the porn we consume are experiencing increasing distress or even abuse. Or maybe we’re keeping secrets about our use of pornography.
If we find ourselves looking at increasingly lurid images of men in extreme circumstances, we might be engaged in a personal shame cycle. This is a great time to get curious and do some inquiry: what are we getting out of this behavior? What is it costing us? How do we feel before, during, and after the experience? All that data is excellent information that will help you get empowered and make some great questions. If we feel powerless over pornography, there are all sorts of free and paid programs available to help us. As always, I recommend contacting a paid professional to help review the various underlying issues and the wide array of available options. In the end, you are your own best advocate and have to do what’s right for you.
As we start venturing out to sharing sexual relationships with others, we will invariably encounter issues of consent. Men of all sexual orientations are sharing more of their sexual abuse stories than ever before, which is critical if we’re truly going to heal. Their honesty has laid bare some of the struggles and transgressions so many of us have endured, especially with regard to informed consent. Unfortunately, sometimes consent gets lost in our community, with our focus on freedom and play. Somewhere along the way we gay men learned how to dial up the allure, but not necessarily how to ensure our partners are on the same page. Maybe we just assume everyone is OK, and hope for the best. Or maybe we fear checking in on their well-being will kill the mood. Or maybe we fear the truth. But whatever our apprehension, I think consent can be sexy. Continuous consent can even enhance our sexual experience, if incorporated with confidence, caring, and fun.
But consent alone is not enough. For most of us there’s nothing less sexy than feeling disregarded. Disregard inhibits intimacy. Keeps us stuck in our comfort zones. Reduces us to roles. Empathy brings us closer. Creates space for us to be ourselves. Allows us to be seen. Risks everything. And thus intensifies the thrill. In this setting, empathy is not any one thing. It’s the artful mixture of words and touch that communicates what we want, receives and respects our partners’ needs, establishes ground rules, and sets the stage for escalating arousal. During healthy sex we demonstrate empathy and consent continuously — throughout the process of seduction as well as the aftercare. This continuity of experience over time builds trust, which allows us to deepen our pleasure and exploration, without sacrificing our essence, health, or wellness.
Sexual consent alone is actually a pretty low bar when you think about it. It says nothing about our mutual health or wellness. Many of us consent to behavior in the moment that’s not truly in our best interests, or even what we really want. Agreeing to sexual behavior that we don’t really want can come from a variety of past experiences, ranging from the seemingly unrelated to the truly traumatic. In some cases our consent is impaired or uninformed. Maybe we’ve had too much to drink. Or perhaps we don’t have all the information we need to make a healthy choice. In other cases our consent is tainted by the consequences of our past experiences. Some of us have an irrational and co-dependent fear of losing the love of a friend or partner. Others of us experience a mental shutting down when confronted with sexual violence reminiscent of other incidents we have endured.
Once instilled in our bodies, this pattern can present as any number of seemingly benign behaviors. Perhaps your partner asks you to act in ways that make you feel uncomfortable, yet you comply out of fear. Or maybe you’re the one pushing your partner further and further, without first having open and honest discussions. Perhaps you push your partner away, opting for isolation. Or maybe you find secret consolation in the arms of others. In some cases the consequences of our behavior are readily apparent to many who know us, in others they go hidden for years. But what remains consistent is an absence of intimacy. And the sense that we are slowly hollowing out our insides. Stuck in some unseen cycle. That even though our bodies are naked, we are missing the insight of tender honesty and the strength of loving kindness.
In some cases, we might resort to a quantity or quality of sex that is outside the bounds of what we really want, or is even sustainable by the human body. Living in an almost permanent state of sexual arousal. Forever on the hunt. And in fact for decades some straight people have used the stereotypes of unchecked masculinity run amok to keep us single and scared. Prevent us from legalizing our relationships, or them from examining their bigotry. They portrayed us as sexual predators unfit for the fabric of society. Reduced us to caricatures of lust and longing. Some of us internalized these roles, re-enacting them as some mix of perpetrators (sadists) or victims (masochists). And this somehow got tangled up in our personal liberation. Until what some of us truly wanted got lost along the way. There’s absolutely nothing morally wrong with our fetishes or fantasies, so long as they are safe, consensual, and fun. But there is also an issue of capacity. If our sexual behaviors start to consume our lives, then we lose our ability to construct well-rounded lives, and they outlive their usefulness.
From time to time it’s healthy to examine the costs of all our behaviors, including sex. How much money a month do we spend on sexual stimulation? Has chasing a sexual high cost us our friendships? Our jobs? Injured our reputations? Harmed our bodies? Nobody can answer these questions for us. And we avoid them at our peril. For to ignore them is to be at their mercy. And to procrastinate is to roll the dice. Hoping that today will be a day of fewer consequences. Magically different than the day before. And so it comes down to personal inquiry. Creating the awareness that will help us make healthy choices. Choices that empower us to live our best lives. Based on who we truly are.
In some cases we have become addicted to sex. I think of “addiction” as any compulsive, mood-altering behavior that renders our lives unmanageable. That means just about any behavior can be addictive. And sex addiction is just the unsustainable use of sexual adrenaline and orgasm to avoid our problems. Or any feelings we deem undesirable. Perhaps we had a rough day at the office, and we opt to hire a sex worker rather than feel our feelings. Or we had a fight with our husband, so we decide (in secret) to hook up with a stranger, rather than experience the anguish of our anger. Or we masturbate for hours a day because we’re too afraid to get out there and live our life.
In and of themselves, those behaviors could lie in any number of places on the spectrum of addiction. Perhaps they are compulsive, because we lack the ability to refrain from them in the short term. Or maybe they are just transitory behaviors used to temporarily avoid something. Addiction speaks to the cost and stubbornness of our behaviors. That we can’t help but cling to them, even as they destroy us. As they erode our integrity. Gobble up our money. Poison our relationships. Rob us of everything we thought we had. Until all that’s left is chasing the high.
Only we can name and claim our own addiction, because only we can truly assess the impact on our life of the consequences of our behavior. Nobody can do it for us. Others might intervene to grab our attention and shift our awareness. But we won’t truly recover until we admit where we are. Then embrace the work. And do the work. Over and over. In the recovery of addiction there are no finish lines. No end to the process. The goal is a spiritual transformation such that we might birth a new freedom. But we are forever just one behavior, one really bad choice, away from repeating the addiction cycle.
As gay men it has been so easy for us to slink in the shadows. The penalties of transgressing the expectations of straight society can be severe. And for centuries their most extreme punishments were reserved for the sexual sphere. Because in their eyes we were only gay in the middle of the sex act. The rest of our lives simply didn’t count. And so sex became symbolic of the ultimate expression of our humanness. When we were both most alive and most vulnerable. But their oppression didn’t stop there. To protect themselves from our sex lives, they had to fire us from our jobs, deny us housing, end our relationships, and refuse us entry to the brotherhood of man. One decision led to another, until all they could do was try to pray us altogether out of existence. For there is no sinner without the sin, and the vast majority of human beings cannot exist without sexual fulfillment. Besides, what else would they have us do? Marry their daughters?
If I could impress just one thing upon you, it would be this: our secrets are killing us. Like the old slogan goes. And so it remains. Not just in the lingering shadow of AIDS, but in the slow deaths of self-abnegation that each of us experience when we self-censor or play it small. In the countless ways our bodies atrophy amidst this epidemic of loneliness. How we toughen our hides, as we cut our teeth on each other’s flesh. Or scramble over the backs of our brothers. Desperately seeking higher ground, amidst the rising waters of fear. Hungry for home, yet clawing for crumbs. Determined to deny it all. If only once, just once, they might give us some small nod of approval.
Gay liberation is not about garnering the praise of a homophobic society. Nor is it the extreme reaction against their strange suburban moral standards. Nor narrowcasting to facilitate family conversations during the holidays. Nor imitating any number of media-driven narratives about normal relationships. Gay liberation is about the right for us to exist as we are. Right here. Right now. Today. And to thrive. Removing the stigma of our orientation. Opening doors to a wealth of opportunities. Eliminating tax and legal punishments. Implementing and protecting equal accommodation to housing, employment, and marriage. Experiencing the full range of our humanity and community culture. And nowhere does this hit home more for gay men than in our love lives. And the more awareness we can muster, the stronger we will find our voices. As we proudly proclaim who we are. Live openly and honestly. Stand behind our choices and identities. Boldly embrace those behaviors that serve us. And revel in our play.