In Praise of Promiscuity

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

Certainly, plenty of young guys still act on their manly urges. “E.” lived in London and various cities in the United States before settling in New York. (He asked that his name not be used because his father is prominent in his native Turkey.) Now 32, he went through a wild phase of sex and drugs that came crashing down when he discovered he had contracted HIV. In a committed relationship for six years, he sees himself as an anomaly. “I was damaged psychologically,” he says. “The generation coming up now doesn’t have that problem. Some gay kid in Lebanon can get on Towleroad,” a popular gay blog.

“When we were their age, it was all about not getting beaten up or fired from our jobs,” notes Kevin Beauchamp, 48, another Queer Rising activist. “They’ve grown up in an atmosphere a lot less repressive. They come out in high school. When they see their straight friends getting married and realize they can’t, it’s like being hit by a two-by-four. They started off at the point we were trying to attain. The next step is marriage equality.”

But older men like Nardicio see them as being “more interested in following the rules than being themselves.” Aging sexual provocateur Lou Maletta (he pioneered gay porn on public TV and hosted men’s private parties for years) readily agrees.

“Gay people are trying to mimic what straight people do,” he says. “How many straight people get divorced? ‘I love you’ is fine, except that, when you’re coming home with cum all over you, you can’t say you stepped out for a pastrami sandwich. Truth should be the marriage vow: Be truthful together.” Instead of putting himself into a cookie-cutter, straight-defined marriage, Maletta, who has been partnered to the same man since 1974 and catting around for just as long, believes the real test of a relationship comes when one person can say to the other, “ ‘I’m horny. You’re not horny. I’m going out. I’ll be back in the morning.’ People look at promiscuity as jealousy,” he says. “But the best way to hold onto a person is with open arms. If you’re truthful to one another, why let sex get in the way?”

Furthermore, we may be hard-wired to be “unfaithful,” if that means non-monogamous. Rob Weiss is an L.A. sex therapist and recovering sex addict who specializes in gay clients. “Men are more able to have sexual experiences without guilt,” he says. “So men seeking sex with men have no demand for a relational element. For most gay men, recreational sex is not problematic. If, however, someone becomes preoccupied with it, only then is it a ‘problem.’ ”

Harper believes that marriage is putting a square peg (gay men’s sexuality) into a round hole (monogamous marriage); that is, “changing ideas about intimacy within the gay community, at the expense of a fluid understanding of intimacy that you didn’t get anywhere else.” Not defining—or legalizing—a relationship left room for all kinds of contexts, from sexual intimacy to Platonic ardor. According to Harper, “Marriage is going hand in hand with a commitment to monogamy.”

Just shy of 30, Chris Ryan made a name for himself promoting party nights in bars for guys barely old enough to get in the door. He believes that the sea change might be generational—but in reverse. Instead of being promiscuous early in life, his peers are going to find themselves re-learning what their forefathers practiced at their age. “Older guys are more promiscuous,” he notes. “As you get older, you become more comfortable with your sexuality. When younger, you want a relationship. When I was younger, I was not as sexually active.” He admits this is the opposite of accepted wisdom, but “when older, guys in relationships have agreements, three-ways, or ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ relationships. I don’t know any younger ones who do that.”

Meanwhile, men like Harper and Race bemoan the lack of sexual adventurousness among twentysomethings. “If by ‘promiscuous,’ we mean a way of living one’s sexuality that allowed for it to be relatively uncontained, then there was a publicness of gay male sexual culture missing now,” Harper sighs. “There was the promiscuousness of finding yourself in the middle of a cruising situation even if you weren’t going anywhere. It’s a lot like browsing in a bookstore. Speaking as a gay man, that’s something I miss. A lot.”

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