Sexually, I was a late starter, but then by all accounts, I was a strange child. Until I was 15, I was holed up in my bedroom pretending my cuddly toys were Joan Collins in Dynasty. Then, at 16 - in a frenzy of excitement - I discovered a book on reproduction. Rampant masturbation commenced, with hours spent drawing pornographic images of male bodies, with wild pubic hair, which I then hid under my bed, next to cut out pictures of film stars. Oh, the things that Keanu Reeves and I got up to - but only in my head.
I’d always spent a lot of time in my own head. Friendless throughout junior school, I hoped high-school would be different. And yes it was: I was bullied every day until the complex interior world I’d constructed dramatically unraveled in a well of self-loathing when, at 17, I took an overdose. Things became easier when I came out, and six months later I’d have my long overdue sexual awakening: a fumble in the back of a coach with another weird boy. We had nothing in common except for our individual skin conditions: he had eczema, I had chronic acne. But the drought had been broken - I ventured out onto the gay scene, where sex - if not love - was as readily available as the industrial quantities of Jack Daniels and Coke I started guzzling to try and mitigate my crushingly low self-esteem.
I threw myself into the scene with abandon. Men fancied me, and I couldn’t get enough of them. Then I found the cruising ground. A child in a sweet shop? I was like Charlie, cavorting - high on poppers - through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. My sex life rapidly became a numbers game. Would the people who touched me blot out the memory of the little boy standing alone in the playground?
Except a few short relationships, all of my twenties were spent like this (I’d later swap cruising grounds for saunas). What was the problem? I was having fun, wasn’t I? So what it I rarely even exchanged names with the men who I met in the shadows? But every so often I’d wonder what their lives were like. Did we share the same fears and dreams? I rarely bothered to find out.
Because gay men grow up in a heterosexual world, they often lack proper mentors. Straight relationships are all we see. Our desires are hidden, and the shame builds, layer upon layer. Sadly, it seems little has changed since I tried to kill myself at 17. In the US The Trevor Project reports that suicide is still the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24 and that LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. The evidence is clear: isolation kills. Aren’t all of us searching for the same thing - meaningful relationships? My mistake was to lose sight of that search, or rather to allow it to become swamped by increasingly empty sex. Only later would I address this. As I sat talking about gay saunas, my therapist calmly turned to me and said: “I wonder what you lose each time you do this?” My answer came immediately: “Intimacy. I’m not even sure I know what it is.”
“Your problem,” a former friend said to me, “is that you use men as dildos.” “Well,” I barked back, “at least then I don’t have to deal with male psychology.” The truth, of course, was that I’d had little experience relating to men outside of sex. The gay commercial scene is built upon the unrealistic promise of endless, perfect sex. It’s represented as nirvana. Its target consumers are often young, vulnerable gay men. No wonder we lose ourselves for a while.
So, does my behavior make me a “sex addict? The US’s National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity define sex addiction as “engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior acted out despite increasing negative consequences to self and others.” The term is bandied about too much for my liking and suggests a “one fix for all” attitude. Gay men’s issues are, I think, unique and very complex - and each individual has his own story. But yes, I certainly believe that a part of me has used sex to anesthetize my feelings, to feel a little less dead inside.
But I’m not convinced that the approach advocated by groups such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) - to abstain from sex and relationships - works either. As I’ve moved into my thirties, I’ve tackled my intimacy issues through a process of trial and error (don’t we all?). It starts with self-acceptance and builds by learning how to trust others and reveal more of yourself. Sure, it’s painful, but each time I put myself out there it does get easier - and it certainly beats my experience of SLAA, where I found people sitting around in abject misery while repeatedly flogging themselves for what they saw as their mistakes. There are specialist club nights for that sort of thing and, trust me, they’re much more amusing.
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