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 ManHunt.com 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.”

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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