While having a bit of a “why me” moment, I decided to sit down and read about the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. I’ve been having some crappy romance related stuff happening in my personal life, and I can’t write frankly about it on my blog out of a fear for my safety (which I hate, btw. I fucking despise secrets.)
But, I do confide in my friends about it, and they have been incredibly supportive. That said, not all of their love lives are so bleak at the moment. “You probably don’t want to hear about my relationship right now…” one of my friends tentatively told me.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Of course I do, tell me!”
So, she told me about her engagement to her partner of over a decade, how maybe she wanted a girlier wedding than she liked to admit, and she pontificated on potential bridesmaids. And I was happy for her, which is rare, because I’m the type of asshole who rarely feels happy for other people. But, I love my friend very much, and I’ve seen her go through her own trials and tribulations and no one deserves a big fat wedding like she does.
My happiness for her, however, didn’t stop the “why me’s.” “Why am I always the one to date abusive assholes?” “Why was I the one to get sexually assaulted?” “Why did I have go it alone so long while others had a loving parter to split their burden with?” Really, though, there’s one question this always dances around which is “why has no one ever loved me?” but I rarely speak it out loud because it pisses off my exes.
“I loved you!” they tell me. “And I still love you — as a friend!” And, I am good friends with a few of my exes, and it is sort of an unfair question, but somehow it always feels kind of true. Maybe the real question, though, is “why, if so many people have loved me, do I never feel loved?”
Anyhow, in the middle of this self indulgent rumination, I decided a long and depressing read was exactly what I needed. So, I picked up And The Band Played On a detailed (if, in retrospect, slightly inaccurate) account of the AIDS epidemic. And let me tell you, all my “why me’s” really pale in comparison to the central “why me” in that book which, essentially, is “why, after years of oppression and discrimination, did I have to pay for my love with my life?”
And you always want a reason, you know, or a lesson, or an upside which will somehow justify a tragedy and there’s just nothing that can ever justify what happened to gays in the 80s. If you go to a party with gay men over 50 in San Francisco, there is always space for the people who should have been there who will never be there. And nothing will ever heal that space, or make it ok. I feel a similar space, to a lesser degree, in my own life. When I remember the 2 years I couldn’t touch anyone after my sexual assault, nothing will ever make that ok. No wisdom gained is worth having to pause a sexual encounter because I’m having a flashback. Sometimes, you just lose things you can never get back, and it fucking sucks.
Yet even if there’s no justification, there are sometimes reasons, and in a strange way as I read And The Band Played On, I see the larger cultural influences of toxic assumptions around sexuality that played into both the AIDS epidemic and my own assault.
Simply stated, on some level, both were motivated by the inexpressible loneliness of men in our culture. Before AIDS, around the time of the sexual revolution, there was a gay male culture of copious casual sex. Now, I don’t think most gay men were like this, but a subset of gay men would have many (say, 1000+) partners. These highly sexually active men became the first victims of, and vectors for transmitting, AIDS. (It is worth pointing out that before AIDS, having copious amounts of casual sex was a much more reasonable thing to do, and the average number of partners gay men tend to have has decreased in the years since the disease.)
It was far less common to see lesbians with over 1000 partners. And the gay male institutions of anonymous sex (bars, bathhouses, etc.) failed to be nearly as successful in the lesbian community. Lesbian culture, I assume, was not documented to the same degree but I get the impression that lesbianism at the same time was tied in with feminism and opening up more gender roles for women. Lesbianism of the 50s and 60s had often involved strong butch/femme dynamics which was very couple focused and I think that lesbian culture has historically had couples as the focal point in a way gay male culture has not.
I even feel that way now in San Francisco; when I go out dancing at a “lesbian night” (we don’t have whole bars anymore) most of the women there are not actually available. They’re out with their partners. Conversely, I get the impression at gay male dances, a much higher percentage of the men are available for “intimacy.” I’ve often felt jealous of gay men, actually, in a certain way. If it wasn’t for the whole AIDS thing, their culture of casual sex sounds pretty good.
Though, when reading And The Band Played On I sort of changed my mind about that.
Joe figured that the attraction to promiscuity and depersonalization of sex rested on issues surrounding a fear of intimacy. Joe knew these were not gay issues but male issues.
And The Band Played On, Randy Shilts p 89
In the book, the picture Shilts paints of many of the early victims of AIDS is one of a hopeless romantic who, after failing to find the love of his life, fell back onto a lifestyle of “promiscuity” to ameliorate the pain and disappointment. I would assume that men who grew up in the 60s and 70s might lack the emotional tools for processing their loneliness around dating, and what a price they had to pay for that. The flip side of the denial of a quantitative education to women is the denial of an emotional education to men. Boys take shop, girls take home economics. Men end up with the tools to run a business, women end up with the tools to run a home.
Gay men lacked the tools to run a home, because of this type of masculine gender oppression, and to this day we are still reluctant to name it as such because we value traditionally masculine skills over feminine ones. Or, phrased another way, we respect people who run business more than people who run homes. Consequently, we view denying women the skills to run a business to be oppression (because we value running a business) but we do not view denying men the skills to run a home to be oppression (because we do not value running a home.) Yet, gay men suffered for this greatly as an epidemic swept through a community of people who had never learned the skills of caregiving.
Gay men now, I think, are often very good caregivers but I am sure this is a skill many learned because of the AIDS epidemic when a gay male culture of caregiving arose out of a desperate need.
Straight men, however, I think still suffer from this type of masculine gender oppression. When I am being my frank self about my sexual assault with potential male partners, many of them express shame over their own sexual desire. But lonely men, not horny men, are the ones I’m afraid of. Horny men masturbate, lonely men rape. I view my assault, and every sexual abuse I have been on the receiving end of, to be a misguided attempt at connection on the behalf of my abuser. As a man, it is shameful to admit you need intimacy. It is shameful to admit you need love. But, it is not shameful to admit you need sex — so that’s what men usually ask for. Or take, as the case may be.
Straight men need to learn caregiving and self care the same way gay men did, but unlike gay men, they don’t have the same incentive to try. When all your friends are dying, taking on embarrassing gender roles is kind of a non issue. When you believe finding a female partner is the answer to your loneliness, you are incentivized to lean into the gender roles you will believe will attract such a partner even if those are the same gender roles that trapping you in your isolation.
Women have the converse problem. While it is socially acceptable for women to admit a need for intimacy and love, many women are deeply out of touch with their own sexual desires. I joke with my straight-bros sometimes that hooking up with women is like tossing spitballs at a wall to see what sticks.
You try something, and ask does this turn you on? Then, if it doesn’t work, you try something else. What about this? What about this? Are you turned on yet? What about this?
Women often have a difficult time articulating what they like, and you sort of feel like you’re fumbling around in the dark until you luck into something they like. As a woman, however, I find myself on both sides of this one. Even when I know what I like, or I know what I want my partner to do, often my voices fails me when it comes to asking for it. It’s hard to say why exactly, I don’t feel afraid or embarrassed. It’s more like, I’ve just been conditioned not to do that. It’s like adopting a habit that’s not my own.
When reading My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, a book of women’s sexual fantasies compiled in the 70s, my mind was opened to just how deep female sexual repression goes. Friday pointed out that many women have internalized the impropriety of their own sexual agency, to the point that even in their fantasies they will not allow themselves to act on their desires. Instead, the fantasy usually takes a form of a man magically doing to a woman all the sexual things she’s craving without her ever having to admit to him what she wants. This is, additionally, where the highly misunderstood “rape” fantasy comes from. It’s not that a woman wants to be forced into sex acts she doesn’t like; it’s that a woman doesn’t want to be accountable for her desire when she is “forced” to do the sex acts she is secretly craving.
Indeed, I’d argue that many women express a desire for intimacy when what they are really experiencing is lust. It has almost become a trope that women nowadays will try to present themselves as little nymphettes, sexually available for all that a man wants to do to them. They attempt to recreate themselves as the embodiment of male desire, yet this conformity has an intimate edge to it as if they are saying “I want to be what you find pleasing.” Women are willing to remake themselves in the image of male lust, almost as if it is a gift they are presenting to their partners.
Yet, behind this gift, lives a raw feminine desire that society forbids the expression of.
It is hard to touch the places in ourselves rendered voiceless by our own oppression, but I see a direct parallel between the mute lust of women and the mute intimacy in men. In heterosexual relationships, it is possible to get your needs met while pretending to meet the needs of your partner. Women tolerate sex 3 times a week because their husband wants it. Guys cuddle their girlfriends after sex because otherwise she’ll get mad. But in same sex relationships, this mechanism that fosters denial breaks down.
Gay men need to find a way to explore intimacy, and lesbians need to explore a way to find lust, and hopefully the wisdom learned in these communities can filter out into the rest of society. Because when we act out of denial of our own needs, when we can’t admit what we want for ourselves and ask for it openly, we risk hurting other people and ourselves by seeking it covertly. And, until we can admit what we want, we’re unlikely to ever really get it. Men may get an approximation of intimacy, women may get an approximation of sex, but I think we have a lot of cultural problems from large levels of gendered dissatisfaction on both fronts.