When I was young, I read porn.
Correction: When I was young, I read Victorian sex novels, the trashier the better.
For about three years in college, florid sex diaries were my forté. From Teleny: The Reverse of the Medal to Frank Harris’s My Secret Life, I greedily drank in those terse, overworded descriptions of cis male genitalia and all the wild, wacky things that can be done with and to it.
During this time, I was also obsessed with sex onscreen. I remember voicing, after a dreadful family trip to see Milk, the complaint I had about most of the queer films coming out at that time: “That movie did not have enough sex in it.”
What did I expect from Gus Van Sant—porn? Kind of. Every closeted queer fantasizes about the sexless intimacy depicted in My Own Private Idaho, and I was no exception. But I wasn’t mad at the milquetoast Harvey Milk biopic I’d just seen because it wasn’t sufficiently sexy. I was mad because, to me, the movie seemed to obscure the one thing that was important about gay stories, at least in 2008: sex.
I read about sex and talked about sex and advocated for sex because I didn’t know anything about it. Because I saw it as my way into a world I knew I could never truly enter. All my life I’d thought of myself as a gay guy. I’d wanted to be a gay guy. And the only thing that made gay guys different from straights ones, as far as I could see, was sex and not much else.
So why did the thought of having sex with guys freak me out so much? Why did the one thing that could gain me entry into the world of guys who liked guys make me break out in hives?
Many reasons, but I’ll start with the most important one: For me, hating sex is a sport and a pastime. Let me explain.
As a teen and young adult, my totally bloodless obsession with sex-as-subject masked my absolute terror of sex acts themselves. Sex was a secret. It was a promise. It could, with a stroke, confirm my masculinity or completely undo it. It was a dangerous game, and because I gave it so much unnecessary power, it defined me for a long time. Not sex as celebration, sex as a joyful expression of queerness, or even sex as a way to pass the time. Sex as definition. Sex as a coming-of-age event.
When I finally entered into the world of sex and sexuality, I realized what everyone else had known for decades: As it turns out, sex really isn’t that big of a deal. In fact, it kind of blows. At least if you’re me or someone like me who goes from coming out to having a bunch of tragic semi-sexual encounters before embracing the title of male spinster forever.
When I came out as trans in college, I didn’t know you could opt out of sex. I didn’t realize that there are all kinds of relationships out there—both queer and straight—that don’t involve or prioritize sex. I didn’t know this because nobody told me. Everybody was too busy getting laid. They’d all gotten the memo that college is about having sex with as many people as possible. I’d conveniently ignored that memo in favor of binge-watching The L Word and feeling bad about the fact that living vicariously through Alice Pieszecki was probably as close to an orgasm as I was ever going to get.
Thus, in an age of sex positivity, I became an unwitting crusader in the battle for sex negativity.
Just as the world (read: internet) was starting to undo the work of the Victorian era via the sex-positivity movement, I was realizing that sex, maybe, wasn’t my thing. Or if it was, I had a long way to go toward finding a way of thinking about and engaging in sex before I felt comfortable.
Call it prudishness, but I feel now that the most radical relationship to sex I can have is none at all. In a world that’s been grooming me and pushing me toward intercourse ever since I can remember, maybe the only way I can actually claim sex as my own is to turn my back on it. To neg it for all it’s worth. To say, sure, sex is great for a lot of people, but can we also admit it kind of sucks? Or, failing that, can we admit that it’s not the only thing that’s interesting or valuable about queer relationships? What about the other reasons people stay together? What about the other reasons relationships fall apart? Why is sex thought of as a make-or-break factor in any relationship when, in reality, most of us haven’t even figured out what we want from it yet?
We can live in a world where sex is wonderful and horrible, liberating and enslaving. We already do live in that world: It’s the world set in motion after the rise of #MeToo—and it’s a world both frustrating and wonderfully hopeful to live in.
Sex as self-definition seems like such a ‘70s invention. The time has come to do away with it. I’m ready to embrace a world where sex isn’t the most interesting thing going on. Where sex is no longer the selling point, the centerpiece, the centerfold. Where it doesn’t have to define us or run our lives or hurt us or make us feel like we’re not gay enough.
We’re gay enough. We’re always gay enough.