It has taken me a long time to reconcile my feelings towards sex within a culture that overemphasises its importance. Let me preface this article by saying that I love sex and I encourage everyone to have a healthy and enjoyable sex life; my argument is that we need to redefine the importance of sex in modern gay culture. On one hand, I’ve learnt from my environment that being a gay man allows you the freedom to have as much sex as you want but on the other hand, I’ve experienced first-hand how over-sexualisation within gay culture creates anxiety, self-esteem issues and complications with holding down a steady relationship.
Our gay culture is a result of our tumultuous past, a past in which gay sex was overwhelmingly associated with shame, hate and fear. Being gay was seen as a sexual perversion, not as a personal identity. The majority of closeted men had no means by which to express their identity other than through seeking sexual relations with other closeted men. As such the act of sex become intrinsically linked to one’s sexual identity. Until recent history it was unacceptable and more often, illegal, to have a relationship with someone of the same sex so the only outlet for gay men to express themselves was in the bedroom (or any other discrete place). Sex was the means by which one could act on their sexual identity and hence it became one and the same.
As laws changed and society’s acceptance of homosexuality spread, sex was brought outside of the bedroom and into the mainstream. It was used as a rebellious articulation of gay life, a big F U to all those who were already disgusted with the gay ‘lifestyle’. Gay sex even became political. The issue that we now face is that the importance of sex hasn’t evolved. Our modern gay society is at a crossroads, a tension point where we need to take a look at how sex plays into our identities and the importance we place on it within our gay culture. This is so timely as at this very moment people are waking up to the fact that the gender of the person you sleep with need not define your identity. Why then is sex still such a focal point of gay culture?
We’re fed messages of sex through gay media, social media, on posters for parties, in nightclubs and on television. We feel pressured to be having regular, hot sex with many men because as a gay man it’s apparently our privilege. Yet so many of us still feel lonely, disconnected and unable to maintain relationships. I believe that this Grindr culture, built on sexual ‘freedom’ is nothing but an outdated expression of our identity.
The purest form of our confusion around sex can be seen on social media. The most popular InstaGays are the ones who show the most skin or post pictures of themselves with their legs open, asses out, in provocative positions. We support this behaviour by showering them with likes and follows and mimic what they do in the hope that it will be reciprocated. Sex sells, and my God us gays are buying it! It becomes an endless cycle which we cannot escape and social media is making it worse. It upsets me when gay guys on Instagram who I admire for using their social influence for good post shirtless pictures with the hashtag ‘thirstythursdays’. Why does everything have to be reduced to sex? Then again, I’m a hypocrite because I do the exact same thing. The most liked picture that I’ve ever posted on Instagram is one of me shirtless in skimpy shorts. I know that these pictures are going to provoke a response and when I’m feeling in need of attention, I post them. My desire to be wanted sexually, mixed with my need for validation contributes to the cycle.
My personal behaviour and our culture’s obsession with sex has a ripple effect that runs deep – it impacts our self-esteem. In order to be having all the sex we should be having we need to look like people who other people want to have sex with. We strive to look like porn stars, muscled, young and hot and if we don’t, we feel unworthy. Personally, this is something that I’ve struggled with since my teenage years. I’ve spent years trying to unpick the stories I used to tell myself that linked my self-worth to my outward appearance and my attractiveness to other gay men. When I was younger I’d put off dating guys until I felt that my body was ‘good enough’ or I’d get drunk before having sex to mask my insecurities around being naked. I would go to big gay parties and nightclubs and feel anxious because I knew everyone there would be shirtless and that I wouldn’t feel confident enough to take my shirt off. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was sex.
I want to reiterate the point that I do love sex and one of the most fun things about being a gay man is being able to sleep with other men (you should try it…). What I do worry about though is that our approach to sex needs redefining because its importance in our culture is causing loneliness, anxiety and inner personal struggle. I for one have experienced all of these things. Emotionally, I feel that I want to settle down and be happily married yet I find myself behaving in quite the opposite way. I say that I want a boyfriend but I’ll just as readily have casual sex. I see this tension on Grindr when a young gay guy writes in his profile that he’s looking for something serious yet three minutes into the conversation he’s already sent or requested dick pics.
While I’m not advocating that we all stop having sex, I question whether or not we’ve unconsciously inherited a culture that places too much emphasis on the act of sex itself. I’m also concerned that earlier definitions of homosexuality as a mental illness and our own personal shame have caused an unnecessary and unhealthy emphasis to be placed on sex.
It’s not just the way we show ourselves that continues over-sexualisation of everything in gay culture; the way we profile gay celebrities and the way that straight people show their support for equality is rooted in sex. They’ll be topless on the cover of a gay magazine or raising money to fight homophobia in a naked calendar or dancing semi-nude with their sports team in the name of pride. We take someone who is a positive role model, strip them down and sexualise them, which only demeans their message and perpetuates the notion that in the end, it’s only about sex.
Gay Pride Parades are another example of how we overplay sex as a core tenant of our identities. Pride is no longer about protesting for equal rights with banners and chants but rather it’s about working out in the gym for 3-months prior to parade day to look sexy wearing nothing but a g-string. I’m all for homovisibility but when it comes to Pride Parades or Mardi Gras, I find it hard to identity with the majority of people who participate; my expression of my homosexuality isn’t linked to my body or to sex alone yet this is the overwhelming image portrayed during these festivities.
Ultimately the outdated belief that to be gay is just to have sex with men is the unsteady platform on which many opponents of marriage equality stand. They use the argument that gay marriage will lead to the legalisation of incest or bestiality. What they’ve not recognised is that both those things are only related to the act of sex and not to personal identity. A man who has sex with a dog is still likely to be a straight man. His sexual perversion is not a reflection of his personal identify, unless of course he identifies as a dog.
So what is the solution? I propose that we stop making being gay about sex alone and try to skew our focus towards other parts of our identities. Most of us reading this post are lucky enough to live in countries where we can express our personal identity in ways beyond sex. We must continue to celebrate our diversity, our richness of character and our multi-layered identities without reducing everything to sex.
Image by Erick Monterrosa for Homotography