Thursday, November 8, 2007

Promiscuity

I first started to date men in the fall of 1988. This was after I had spent a summer in a Roman Catholic monastery, exploring celibacy as a life calling, and after much fasting, prayer, and discernment, I had come to the conclusion that celibacy was not my calling. I had had a very important spiritual experience during my coming out process, in which I had been praying for God to help me discern whether I should seek to marry a woman, or whether I should live a life of celibacy, and the Spirit said very clearly to me: "Be open to all the possibilities." So after ruling marriage out and exploring celibacy, I felt free to explore the possibility of a relationship with a man.

I was 25 years old, and had never really dated. Not really. I had gone on dates with women, but those dates had been infrequent, and I had never dated anyone I was interested in having anything more than a casual friendship with. When I opened myself to the possibility of a relationship with a man, I suddenly found this huge reservoir of emotion bursting forth: excitement, eagerness, anxiety, fear, relief, longing. Whereas I had always been a casual, uninterested participant in dating with women, now I felt I had a huge investment. Now I had a potential to enter into something that would have huge personal significance.

I began with the idea that I was going to find "Mr. Right," and enter into a life-long, monogamous commitment with him. At the same time, I had no idea practically how to do that.

The first gay groups I got involved in were the various religious groups -- Lutherans Concerned, Dignity (Catholics) and Integrity (Episcopalians). But most of the participants in these groups tended to be older men, men I wasn't so attracted to. I also got involved in the University Gay Community, the group for gay men at the University of Minnesota. But most of these men were 4-8 years younger than I was -- not an age difference that seems like much to me now, but then seemed huge. In most significant ways, these guys were much less mature than I was. But they were also much more sophisticated than I was when it came to dating and relating to other gay men. I guess it would be generous to say that I was introverted, intimidated, and socially awkward in that setting, and found it extremely painful to try to meet men I might date there.

My first real gay friend was involved in none of these groups. I had met him at Lutheran Campus Ministry, though he was only marginally involved in this group. His approach to gay dating was: Cruise the gay bars downtown, find a man you think is hot, and convince him to take you home with him and have sex. If the two of you manage to go on a second date, you're on your way to a relationship! Most of the time, a second date never materialized. There were an awful lot of guys in that scene who considered love or commitment the ultimate turn-off. My friend Paul frequently took me with him out to the bars, and I watched this activity going on all around me, though I couldn't bring myself to participate in it... at first.

One of the problems I was encountering as I began the painful process of going on my first dates was the almost universal expectation that sex would happen very early in the dating process; most often on the first or second date. I had assumed -- from my limited heterosexual dating experience -- that sex would happen only after we had gotten to know each other very well and felt almost certain that we wanted a committed, monogamous relationship with each other. I discovered that, in the words of one friend, "Having sex is to gay men what sniffing butts is to dogs." I realized that if I said no to sex, I risked giving the impression that I was not really interested in dating, no matter how much I protested to the contrary.

I also found that my moral framework for resisting this kind of behavior was seriously eroded by a couple of basic facts.

Basic Fact Number One: getting married is not an option. How does this erode the moral framework for resisting promiscuity? Because marriage gives you a specific, concrete, publicly, commonly acknowledged boundary inside of which sexual activity is blessed, and outside of which sexual activity is frowned upon. Marriage is a solemn commitment you enter into with the intention to make it last. It is a moment when both partners clearly and publicly define their relationship to each other, and to all their gathered friends and families. If marriage is not an option, then how do you know when a relationship is serious enough for sex? Determining that becomes a much more slippery process, much more susceptible to rationalization.

Basic Fact Number Two: homosexuality is considered beyond the moral pale. When you come from a background where no homosexual behavior is ever considered moral no matter what the context, then you are left with the corollary that all homosexual behavior is equally immoral (or moral). Once you get to the point where you are open to considering a same-sex relationship, it is easy to find yourself questioning whether any norms of sexual morality apply to you any more. If the Church was wrong about being gay, why wouldn't it be wrong about sex and marriage? (Oh, yeah, we can't get married anyway.) Why wouldn't it be wrong about monogamy? (Oh yeah, the Church used to believe in polygamy.) It's easy to sink into extreme cynicism and moral relativism. It's easy to convince yourself, or allow yourself to be convinced, that nothing is wrong any more.

Then you enter a scene where that "nothing-is-wrong" notion is the operative assumption, and you start to feel that if you want any chance at happiness, you pretty much have to accept those terms. Or let me own it, that is how I came to feel. I accepted those terms.

I think at the beginning my approach was something like this: you want a relationship with a man. The circumstances under which you have the possibility of getting one aren't ideal. But you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs; you can't plant a garden without getting your hands dirty. So just take the plunge. Live life. There was a great quote by Martin Luther that I loved: "Sin boldly!" The idea was, if you are constantly worried about being perfect, you cannot live. You will hide in a corner your whole life trying to avoid mistakes, when you should be out living. Accept that you will make mistakes. Learn from them. Move on. The chance at finding love is worth it.

So I did. I started dating. I had sex. I enjoyed myself. And then love struck.

I met a guy through the University Gay Community, actually. He was a grad student like myself. We were a similar age, at a similar place in our coming out processes. He was gorgeous. He was intellectual. He was an activist. He was perfect. I fell hard. We started dating. We had sex on our second date, and the sex was incredible. Sex with him was always incredible, a transcendent experience for me. And I was convinced I had found the man I wanted to be with for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I only gradually realized, when we met he was sort of rebounding from a break-up with some guy named Daniel. In the course of our relationship, he would bounce back and forth between ecstasy that I was the true love of his life, and being wobbly and uncertain and stand-offish. Finally, he called it quits. He told me the relationship was over. "We can still be friends," he told me.

I was shattered. I was so sure this was the one. For the first day after the break-up, I was in shock. I literally couldn't stop crying. I showed up at work at the University Archives, and then I hid back in the stacks where no one could see me, the tears running down my face. I ended up having to go home early. I think I was still in some form of mourning for at least a month.

Gradually I got over it. But before I had really gotten over it, I was already back in the dating scene. I could find another Mr. Right, I thought. And find him I did... I thought. But then I had my second Mr. Right break up with me. Then I started dating another Mr. Right. But eventually he broke up with me too.

When the third Mr. Right broke up with me, he told me that he didn't really believe in relationships. He thought there were really great (non-sexual) friendships, which could last a life-time, and then there was sex, which you got wherever you could find it. But you didn't expect anything from sexual partners but sex. He didn't want anything more from me than that. My interest in a commitment left him feeling trapped. He wanted the relationship to end before it got too serious.

That shattered me in a different way. At that point, I was losing not just a boyfriend, not just a relationship. I was losing faith that it might ever be possible for me to find a relationship that I could fashion into the great love of my life, into a life-long commitment.

Following that break-up, I met Göran, the great love of my life.

Though at that point I did not know it yet. When I met Göran I was completely jaded about relationships. Göran and I dated for about a month, and then I broke up with him, using the same shallow lines that had been used on me in my last break-up. I didn't feel I really wanted a commitment. I just wanted friendships. Sex was something you did to satisfy a hunger, to fill an ephemeral need, that's all. You shouldn't invest yourself in it really, any more than you'd invest yourself in the hamburger you're going to eat for dinner. That was really how I'd come to feel.

For about a year following my break-up with Göran, I lived my life very promiscuously. There were a lot of one night stands. I met men anonymously at gay beaches and t-rooms and at the gym and in cruisy parts of town.

I'd like to say I was terribly unhappy, but I was not. I was actually fairly contented with my life because I had lowered my expectations to match what I was getting out of life. "Oh, so this is as good as it gets. Oh well. I can live with this."

And then I met Göran again. And at the point in my life where I met him again, I realized that in fact I could enter a relationship with him, and that maybe that relationship could be a good thing. I could do with it, I could do without it, I thought. I didn't need it. But it could be a good thing. So we started going steady. And going steady evolved into moving into an apartment together. And then one day in August of 1995, we got married. Göran had this crazy notion that had just not entered into my thick Mormon skull that it didn't matter that we couldn't get legally married, what mattered was our commitment to each other. I was skeptical about the benefits of that corrupt heterosexual institution. But once we actually went through the ceremony, I can say there was a tangible difference in the quality of our relationship. It really did matter. It really made a difference.

Almost immediately after Göran and I had made some sort of commitment to each other, I realized how being in a relationship that truly works, where there is true love and reciprocity and sharing and commitment, is infinitely more joyful than the rootless, promiscuous lifestyle I had once settled for. What I did not realize was the depth of joy that could become possible in this relationship. That has taken me much work and many years to fully appreciate.

I realized that I had settled for a lie in accepting a promiscuous life-style, a lie that I told myself to mask the pain I had experienced when earlier relationships had not worked out. What I also realized is that the promiscuity was damaging in fundamental ways I had never anticipated it would be. It created patterns of thought and behavior that caused real problems in my relationship with Göran. To his credit, his love for me was greater than those problems. We have worked through those issues together, and I gradually began to discover the true joys of commitment. Repentance is possible. There is grace and atonement. My loving partner has taught me that.

Then came the call of the Spirit. Since returning to the Church, the Spirit has essentially said to me: "You have found a good way. Now let me teach you a better way." Like the moon is brighter than the stars, my relationship with Göran was more joyful than the promiscuous lifestyle I had once lived. But as I have recommitted myself to apply the principles of chastity in thought and in my heart, as I have set pornography aside and guarded my heart and sought to practice restraint, and given myself completely to Göran, the glory of our relationship now to the way our relationship once was is like the light of the sun is to the light of the moon. I anticipate that our future will only continue to grow and deepen and get better and more glorious in every way imaginable.

I'm inclined to say that sex is a good thing. It is an inherent, intrinsic good, and when we enjoy it even under circumstances that are not ideal, it is still a gift of God. But the goodness of it can be relative. And it is worthwhile to strive to experience it and appreciate it under circumstances that afford us the greatest possible good.

In October 2006 I spoke on a panel at the Affirmation Convention in Portland. I spoke about these experiences. One of the participants raised his hand and expressed frustration that, in entering the dating scene, he was discovering the same problems that I had experienced years ago in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He wanted to date in a more restrained, ethical manner. But he just didn't know how to do that. There are so few in the gay community at large who share those kinds of values. And if he limited himself to those who did share those values, his choices would be impossibly limited.

I didn't have much good advice to give him. I could hardly point to my own life as exemplary. In many ways, I feel as if my happiness is the result of dumb luck. I often behaved in ways that were almost calculated to deprive me of any happiness at all. Sometimes I feel I do not deserve to be happy. Yet here I am, happier than I could ever have imagined I would be.

But I've had time to re-think my answer to this question. I think we can hold on to our values, I think we can keep a moral compass. I think we do have to live life. We have to be OK with making mistakes. And if you are a gay man, you may find you have to seek a relationship under circumstances that are not ideal. But we still need to remind ourselves that accepting non-ideal circumstances is not the same thing as saying that our values don't matter, or that all behavior is morally equivalent. And there are certain places we just shouldn't go and that we don't need to go. How to navigate these waters is not easy. Each of us will have hard choices to make that ultimately we alone bear the responsibility for. I have learned this the hard way.

I realize that I went an extreme route in some ways. Not everyone experiments or explores their sexuality to the extent or in the way I did. Again, I feel lucky. Dumb, undeserved luck. Some people go that route and they don't make it back. When General Authorities warn against behavior that is immoral, this is incredibly wise advice that we should seek prayerfully to implement as best we can. I have lived to experience deep sorrow for the things I did. I do not believe promiscuous behavior to be "victimless." It hurt me and it hurt others. It was not necessary for me to learn in this way. This is one reason I have become a firm advocate for same-sex marriage and for developing broader social support and role models for gay men to build relationships in healthy ways that respect ourselves, respect our bodies, and respect our sexuality. Mohohawaii has posted some good advice on his site for gay men considering dating other men. We need more discussions about this that acknowledge the good, the bad and the ugly, and always take us closer to the good.

Religious opposition to social supports like same-sex marriage I feel to be terribly, profoundly misguided. Such opposition contributes to the moral anomie that is destroying the lives of many, many gay men. Promiscuity does not serve God's purposes. It desensitizes us, it erodes our capacity for genuine love. It cuts us off from the Spirit. It dehumanizes us. This serves Satan's purposes, not God's. The people of God should support anything that helps put safeguards in place and that pulls brothers (and some sisters) back from that brink of destruction.

Our sexuality is sacred, far more sacred than most of us realize. Restraint, self-control, waiting for the right person and the right time is a good thing. It refines us and enables us to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit more clearly. Commitment makes life worth living. Whatever is good becomes far better when we stick with it and work at it. And love is the sacred fabric of the Universe, the beginning and end of our existence and the source of our divine being. Sex that serves love's agenda is the only kind of sex really worth having.

10 comments:

Chris said...

Thanks for this, John. Very well articulated. One of the things that being married to a woman for 10+ years taught me is how important commitment is. Some may see some irony in that statement since I ulimately left my marriage to live a life that felt more natural and authentic. I don't see it that way. The hardest part about letting go of my marital relationship was letting go of that commitment. It was a commitment built in love and one that sustained me for many years, even when it met my needs imperfectly.

My transition into gay life and a committed relationship with a man has not been without its bumps in the road. I have made mistakes that I will always regret to some extent. But I learned a lot from those mistakes, and I think having had the previous experience of living in a relationship which provided a moral framework for sex and intimacy made it easier for me to apply that model to my current relationship with Jed. I feel very lucky and very grateful and very blessed.

GeckoMan said...

John,
Thank you for being so open, frank and putting your unique perspective of love into this valuable post. Even as a hetero-married man, I have learned from your experience. I hope others in the councils of the church are listening.

David said...

Thanks for this...that was exactly what I needed to read this morning. I'm going through similar struggles and looking for the same thing, as far as finding a guy that is interested in a relationship rather than just sex. It makes me realize there's hope :)

Anonymous said...

Amen! You know at times I've been far too casual about sex at differing times. I can't say I'm sorrowful but I do think it has cost me a few years by not focusing on my true desires in life. I've spent over a year now celibate which has been amazingly clarifying for me. I'm much more focused on what I want from a relationship but more importanly, I can now see what I have to give to that relationship and I've never really been aware of that in the past.

I don't think that having sex with the next man I meet will diminish that knowledge at this point, but don't that would divert my attention from my true goals.

J G-W said...

Chris - I have kind of wondered how experience with marriage might have changed the dynamic for me. Part of the difficulty for me was that when I dated women, it just didn't feel real to me. It felt pretend or make-believe to me. I found it literally impossible to start to imagine myself in a real relationship until I was dating men.

Geckoman - I've been meaning to write this post for some time. It just took me a while to get the courage up to do it. I mostly hope it can benefit other gay men out there in situations similar to mine, but if others read it and find it helpful, I'm grateful for that too.

David - I have sometimes wondered -- are there more guys in Utah who are interested in taking things slow and more interested in pursuing monogamy? I've wondered how the dynamic might be different in a place where there are more guys from an LDS background...

Anonymous - I think being willing to take some time away from the dating scene to clear your head is a great idea. I wish I had done that. That would be really great advice for anybody, especially after a painful break-up. But I think another struggle for me was having low self-esteem and feeling desperate. Trying to find self-esteem through sex is a really bad idea.

MoHoHawaii said...

Thanks John for a great post. My own experience concurs with yours. Loving, committed relationships are the path toward stability and happiness.

Your post is a great argument for gay marriage.

Beck said...

This post is very troubling to me. It's made me think more about what I really want... and that it really doesn't exist.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - I hope you noticed that I referenced your earlier BF 101 blog!

Beck - I am always thinking of you. I was afraid that this post would be troubling to you. It is not, and never has been, my intention to derail you or any other married and/or celibate MoHos from the paths you are on. That is perhaps why I have hesitated to blog on this particular subject till now, even though I have had this post in my heart to write for a very long time. (I've probably been working on this essay in my head for over a year.)

My concern here is about reaching those who have been lost and alienated. I have a friend to whom I was very close as a boy, who is dying -- literally, of AIDS. He could never reconcile his LDS faith with his homosexuality. He's in an abusive relationship. He's angry and pulls away from anyone who tries to reach out to him at this point. I am aware of other younger guys, getting lost in the same way. It's fine and good to promote celibacy or marriage, but when that path doesn't work, it can fail spectacularly. We need to address the real, dysfunctional behavior in the gay community, and start to literally save people from that fate. No other kind of salvation is possible unless we do that first. The only way I feel we can do that is to start talking about this stuff, and to model a better, healthier way. That's the purpose of this post.

You know how much I love you, and you know that the last thing I ever want to do is push your buttons...

Beck said...

I love you, too. You know that. You can say anything you like in your blog.

I have personal troubling knowledge of the destructive path that results from the promiscuity you describe here. I had a close friend (my first "gay love") who left the church in bitterness after being unable to reconcile his life with the LDS expectations (though he never ever denied his testimony or his convictions of the Gospel), did all he could in a life of "promiscuity", doing everything in his power within this promiscuous lifestyle to get AIDS. He succeeded and died a horrible, miserable death a year or so later. His dying wish was to have a "mormon funeral", which he had. I've blogged about him early in my blog. His memory haunts me! My not being there for him eats away at me to this day!

I'm troubled that so many transition into this life of promiscuity. Is there no other way? Is there no choice? I've often wondered if I were no longer married what would I do? I wouldn't doubt that I would do the same. I would hope, however, that the strength that comes with commitment in relationships (that is inculcated in us as LDS youths) would carry over into whatever life path one takes.

J G-W said...

Beck - Yes, I've seen what you describe as well. I and friends of mine in the gay community refer to this as "suicide by AIDS."

Yes, it makes sense that we should assume principles of commitment and chastity should apply to any relationship -- same-sex or opposite-sex. But one point of my essay is that when we repeatedly tell people they are worthless or evil because of whom they love, they come to believe it. The ordinary vicissitudes of love get distorted into proof that we are hopeless or degenerate or not deserving of the joys of a truly loving, committed relationship.

For example... I met the love of my life just at the point where I had given up on the possibility of achieving my goal of finding a committed, life partner. I wasted a year engaging in some extremely destructive behavior because I had stopped believing that true love and commitment is possible between two men.

The fact our loving commitment to each other has now endured for 15 years, and shows every sign of thriving and growing and continuing shows that I was wrong, and so were all the people who told me that the love between two men can't last. What we believe in and are willing to put our lives on the line for makes a difference.

Ironic here that right wing conservative Christians seem to agree with far left radical "sexual liberationists." They both agree that homosexual relationships can't or shouldn't last. Doesn't that smell fishy to you? I know from personal experience how destructive this attitude is.