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Is Mainstreaming Killing Us?: Male Sexuality and the Pathway to Legitimate Intimacy

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by Denis “Woodja” Flanigan, PhD

During the 1970s, when the gay community truly began to organize on a major scale, gay male sex was not about love—and it certainly wasn’t about monogamy.

Don’t get me wrong—love has been a part of the gay male experience at least since the formation of a gay male identity in the 1800s. Increasing acceptance of our sexuality has allowed us to think more about love as the consequences of living openly in a relationship (as opposed to engaging in furtive sexual encounters) has become less dangerous. Sex, however, has been the driving force of even a nascent gay male identity—on both the community and individual levels.

In the 1970s, gay liberation was largely about resisting the Judeo-Christian-influenced sex negativity that had become pervasive in the U.S. It celebrated promiscuity and dismissed the traditional marriage model. Of course, there were certainly guys who opposed this open sexuality (Larry Kramer and his book Faggots is probably the best known example), but they were the minority.

Even in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis, the dominant message was to practice safe sex—not to stop having sex. Then in 1989, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen’s book After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ’90s was published—and everything began to change.

Kirk and Madsen argued in their book that if GLBs (transgenders were shunned in their vision) would present themselves as normal—as just like straight people—then heterosexual America would shrug off our differences and accept our sexuality. They promoted the “see, we are just like you” message in the LGBT rights movement. Of course, Kirk and Madsen were not the full force of this transformation, but they provided the architecture for it. In the midst of AIDS fear-mongering, we were susceptible to the temptation of acceptance—even if only on their terms rather than ours. Consequently, the sexual liberation of the ’70s and ’80s was driven underground again, as an emphasis on more hetero-acceptable monogamy emerged.

Though male sexuality is often characterized as focused on genital release, there is reason to believe it is grounded in the exploration and merging of another’s body. Within psychology it is well understood that—whereas female intimacy is frequently performed through conversation and sharing of stories—male intimacy can be enacted through physical proximity and engaging in a mutual endeavor together. Sharing of each other’s bodies can be in itself an act of intimacy for males.

“Tricking” (sex with strangers) has been a part of the gay male experience since long before the emergence of a gay male identity. It has primarily led to one of two outcomes. One outcome is the scenario in which guys have sex and then attempt to establish a friendship or romantic relationship. This outcome is an extension of the bonding occurring in the male sex act. The other outcome is the scenario in which guys completely ignore the other’s existence after the sex act. I believe this outcome is primarily fueled by shame and guilt. I think this outcome is also becoming more common.

Tricking, however, is counter to the heteronormative image we cultivated during the 1990s. As recreational sex has been driven underground—and simultaneously the opportunity for anonymity in sex has blossomed—we have shifted the emphasis on male sexuality to genital release, and away from male bonding. By injecting more guilt and embarrassment into the sexual encounter, we have made it feel safer to ignore and avoid our casual-sex partners. This runs counter to building a sense of community—and facilitates a sense of rejection rather than support or acceptance.

A failure to acknowledge and talk about the role of sex in experiencing legitimate male intimacy subsequently prevents us from addressing how to use sex to experience intimacy. This in turn propagates one of the underlying causes of sexual addiction—an attempt to achieve emotional intimacy through sexual encounters while simultaneously shunning any feeling of emotional intimacy. But perhaps the most potentially dangerous result of this is that it limits our ability to appropriately talk about safer sex.

I think it also prevents us from talking about the role of a desire to exchange body fluids within the sex act—the merging of bodies. Fluid exchange is frequently conceptualized among gay men as a form of giving of oneself. The CDC reports that only one in six gay men is consistent in his use of condoms. As long as we forbid ourselves from talking about male sexuality in non-heteronormative ways, we cannot address the desire for strangers to exchange body fluids (as an act of intimacy), and consequently how to address this while engaging in safer sex.

Both the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have recommended that HIV-negative men who have sex with men begin pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as a means of HIV prevention. However, there are many in the LGBT community who resist this approach. The primary concerns are that it will promote (or acknowledge?) promiscuity, and that it will act as a substitute for condoms. As long as we are concerned with preventing promiscuity (or preventing an image of promiscuity) in the gay male community, we limit the conversation about safer sex.

What research is available has shown that among people beginning PrEP, there is no significant change in condom use. Additionally, I was unable to find any peer-reviewed research that has found that anyone who is fully compliant in his PrEP has become infected with HIV, with or without condom use. Both PrEP and condoms are estimated to have a 99 percent prevention rate if used consistently. There is also a concern that the use of PrEP in place of condoms will increase the number of non-HIV sexually transmitted infections—even those that are transmitted through unprotected oral sex. But whether PrEP is an adequate substitute for condoms or just a good addition to one’s safer sex practices is a discussion that cannot even happen if we are unable to openly discuss the role of sex (particularly outside of a relationship) in male intimacy.

Similarly, it doesn’t let us have open conversation about the implications of an undetectable viral load. Research has also shown that sex with an HIV-positive man with an undetectable viral load is nearly as safe as having sex with someone who is HIV-negative. The majority of new infections occur because someone does not know he is infected—which could make having sex with an HIV-positive man with an undetectable viral load safer than sex with a man who believes he is HIV-negative. If we cannot talk openly about tricking, then we cannot talk about the relative risk of tricking with someone who is HIV-positive and undetectable vs. someone who presents as HIV-negative. This in turn perpetuates the stigma of being HIV-positive, and makes it less likely that men will get tested and disclose their HIV status.

The rate of new HIV infections among young gay and bisexual men is increasing at alarming rates. Guys in their 20s and 30s cannot emotionally relate to gay life pre-protease inhibitors. They are psychologically incapable of understanding what it is like to have an address book in which almost everyone in it is dead. But even men who survived the height of the AIDS crisis are still becoming HIV-positive. I personally know a number of guys who have tested positive within the last five years—all guys in their late 30s to 50s who avoided infection through the height of the crisis. One of the guys I know became HIV-positive within the last 10 months, and he had not even heard of PrEP.

In trying to present a hetero-friendly version of male sexuality, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Let’s stop trying to pretend that the only proper male sexual option is monogamy. Let’s begin acknowledging the sense of bonding inherent in the exchange of body fluids—and address that as a safer-sex issue. Let’s address safer sex from a variety of valid perspectives. Let’s create a conversation about male sexuality that acknowledges the ways in which male sex does and does not effectively function as a pathway to legitimate intimacy. Or it just might kill us.

Denis “Woodja” Flanigan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice. For appointments or more information on his practice, visit Houston-psychologist.com, or call 713.589.9804.

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