In Praise of Promiscuity

As gay marriage becomes the norm, oldsters ask, when did gay life morph into a Jane Austen novel?

In Praise of Promiscuity
Jeff Palmer

Event planner Michael Scarna, 31, was walking down the street one day when he realized he wanted to be in a relationship. Soon thereafter, he met Michael Lamasa, now 26. The two Michaels met on MySpace a little over four years ago and are busy planning a 2012 wedding. They plan on raising a family in a few years. Lamasa was keeping his eyes open for the right guy since his early 20s. “I’ve always seen myself as a serial monogamist,” the working actor says. “I came out when I was 16. By the time I went to college, I was moving toward a more relaxed, settled-down lifestyle. Family was always important to me. My fun when I grew up wasn’t from experimenting sexually.”

Contrast that experience with the burst of random gay sex during the post-Stonewall years. Sex was anywhere, anytime, with anyone. Those days now exist only in novels like Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance, memoirs like Edmund White’s, documentaries like Gay Sex in the 70s, and the fading memories of a generation decimated by the AIDS epidemic, which brought the dream of sexual liberation to a screeching halt.

Ongoing discussions with men of various ages, numerous blogs and articles, and firsthand experience all point to a generational shift in the way gay men perceive their sex lives and relationships. With marriage and children taking the place of rampant sex, oldsters are asking themselves, how did gay life morph from a porn film into a Jane Austen novel?

Or did promiscuity just go deeper underground? James, 30, produces New York Jock Party, the city’s most exclusive “underwear party.” Nearly all of his patrons, in their 20s, “are more clean-cut, and if they’re promiscuous, they try not to show it,” he observes. “We’re supposed to set a good example. If we’re promiscuous, that’s not what straight people do. They see sex clubs as equaling STDs and drugs. ‘Sex party’ has bad connotations. If they want to be dirty and promiscuous, they really don’t want people to know about it.”

The city’s best-known promoter of raunchy parties, Daniel Nardicio, is witnessing “a lot of judgment. Guys tell me proudly they’ve never been to one of my events,” he says. “They’ve got to brag because they’re ‘better’ than being sexual.”

Kane Race, a professor at the University of Sydney, in Australia, believes that technology—websites like the ubiquitous and mobile apps like Grindr—has taken the place of public spaces or even semi-private ones like the baths. Cruising “has moved online, which is a major shift from the bar, club, venue, and street-based sexual cultures of the 20th century,” he says. “It represents an increasingly privatized sexual culture.”

Or, as another professional observer, New York University professor Philip Brian Harper, puts it: “When there was no ManHunt, the manhunt had to take place in public contexts rather than in private spaces in front of a computer screen.” Hook-up sites and Grindr have made sexual contact easier, “but the serendipity of gay male sexual encounters has been diminished.”

In his landmark 2002 book The Soul Beneath the Skin, David Nimmons analyzed gay relationships on all levels and found that they often arise from casual sex. But then, in 2004, Massachusetts became to first state to legalize gay marriage. For Michael Warner—now at Yale, the best-known exponent of radical gay sexual liberation, and a founder of Sex Panic!, a short-lived group dedicated to fighting buttoned-down sexual conformity and Rudy Giuliani’s war on quasi-public sex—the goal of marriage is the result of collusion among gay-rights groups, the media, and conservative gay pundits like Andrew Sullivan. “All people in their 20s are seeing is this rhetoric,” he complains. “National organizations exclusively tie gay identity to marriage. These young people have no historical memory of earlier struggles, no direct experience of the pre-online world. What we wanted all along was to change straight society. Instead, we fixated on these little tokens and lost the vision of transforming the way people live.”

Today’s activists take to the streets not to protest sex venues closing but to demand marriage. Jake Goodman, 32, is involved with Queer Rising, a grassroots organization that has staged protests against the New York legislature. Although Goodman emphasizes that the group has other issues, and many active members have a problem with the “patriarchy and gender roles” associated with marriage, “it’s a question of rights and protections, and immigration issues. The fact that we’re fighting doesn’t mean we necessarily want to get married.”

Even so, the highly visible (and, Warner complains, stolidly middle-class) marriage movement has steered young guys away from the many and varied ways gay men have traditionally formed relationships. A widely reported study earlier this year showed that at least half of partnered gay men in San Francisco had developed some form of an open relationship. “What’s the reality and what’s the story?” Warner asks. “The story is all gay men want marriage. Guys in their teens and early 20s believe that because that’s all they see. But the reality is that people continue to be creative in their actual lives. We’ve got a real disconnect between the way people live and the way they’re ‘supposed’ to live.”

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