I recently wrote a post called “Better to Stay in the Closet” on self-esteem issues, and several gay men told me they’ve had similar experiences. Others have been curious about sexual abstinence. Almost no one has to be celibate, they say—certainly not in 2016, when there so many people looking for love on Scruff and OKCupid and SeniorPeopleMeet.com. “I’m sure you’re somebody’s type” is the buck-up-it’s-not-so-bad statement that many of us have come to dread. Based on responses to my personal ads, I’m the type for guys decades younger who live overseas (surely I’m the first American they’ve contacted) and men at least a decade older whose dogs have recently died.
After dating sites, the helpful suggestions devolve to include anonymous sex in very dark rooms and getting over any hang-ups about paying for someone’s company.
With all these options, some gay men wonder how anyone can go for years without sex. I have three explanations, none of which are working for me right now.
I now think the antidepressants helped to create a kind of fog, helping me to ignore the coupling going on around me. During this time, I enjoyed, with an air of detachment, movies and TV shows about people falling in love or just boinking each other. How fun to watch them make fools of themselves! When I first came out, I had a very attractive friend who fell for one wrong man after another and frequently told me, during after-midnight phone conversations, “I envy you. You don’t have this kind of drama!” When I was in good pharmaceutical mental health, I began to think he was right. But when I went off the meds, social isolation stopped being so tolerable.
The second explanation is that I spent a long time working from home, which also normalized social isolation. I lived alone in a mid-rise apartment building, and most of my neighbors were Asian and Middle Eastern young adults who rarely spoke English in the elevator; we said “thank you” to each other whenever someone held a door open, but that was the extent of our interaction. They had their noisy lives, I had my quiet life, and that was it. I didn’t expect an invite when they had loud parties, sometimes in the middle of the night to watch a soccer game on the other side of the planet, though part of me felt it was a mistake I wasn’t there. (I often think of Woody Allen being on the wrong train at the beginning of Stardust Memories.)
That was in Boston, where the Puritans are long gone but their snail-slime trail of joylessness is still wet. Now I’m in New York, commuting from the Upper West Side to Midtown every day, and I pass dozens of beautiful, loud people on every block. In Boston, I think of sex happening behind closed doors, by appointment, like a perfectly respectable, no-funny-business massage. In New York, uninhibited sex seems ready to break out anyplace—or, at least, any place I’ve just left. It’s a very trying city for a celibate.
The third explanation has to do with friendship as a substitute for sex. In Boston, I had a friend of many years who did a lot of things with me—walking around the city, drinking too much, going to see avant-garde plays and movies, and taking quick vacations that occasionally had us chastely sharing the same bed. I was flattered and comforted by someone choosing to any spend time with me, even with iron gates around the chance of sexual intimacy. It was better than nothing, and who was I to complain that it wasn’t enough? Why spend Friday night getting rejected on Grindr or, worse, being one of the oldest people sitting alone at a gay bar when I could have a cocktail or two with someone who didn’t mind my company?
Even before I moved to New York, my friend became involved with someone and became much less available. Since the move, communication has been minimal. He is responsible in a way for these blog posts; until recently, I would have just talked things out with him instead of putting my thoughts online.
Once when I was washing dishes a drinking glass broke apart in my hands. I think it was just old. Suddenly I had a shard in one hand and a glass with a V taken out in the other hand, everything covered in soap suds and water. I think a lot of friendships end that way—not with a fight or a crash, but broken in a way you didn’t see coming and can’t do anything to fix. Whoops, I should have handled it more carefully, nothing I can do about it now.
Things fall apart, it’s scientific. With the slightest bit of pressure, or an imperceptible change in the atmosphere, even the happiest of lives can fall apart. So there’s no sense in complaining when an unhappy life falls apart. The amazing thing is that it lasted so long.