Gay men and the promiscuity ‘problem’

When you first come out as gay, one of the very first things you might do is reject the notion of homosexuality entirely. This doesn’t define me, you may think, these are not my people. You may even joke you’re the only homophobic homosexual you know.

You’ll rail against the stereotypes; you’ll complain the behaviour of other gay men is damaging your own experience. You won’t live your best life because you simply don’t know how yet. This is all so common, so expected – which must be painful to hear for everyone who thought they were the only ones to feel this way – that it could be mapped out as stages on a chart as you track your progress along the gay pathway. You may hurt yourself and hate yourself because you feel you should, before anyone else – be they straight or from the very community you’re so desperate not to be a part of – has the chance to hurt or hate you first.

You want to be accepted, to show you’re not a threat, not like the others, and because being gay is linked to sex, that’s the first thing you attack – and it’s usually the sex lives of others who cop the fallout.

Like an ex-smoker who’s seen the light, or a former binge drinker who tuts at you every time you lift your Bacardi Breezer, it’s quite usual for gay men to behave in a certain way once they’re in a monogamous relationship. Relieved to have been finally rescued from the shallow, empty world of Grindr, gay bars, saunas and glory holes, they vent forth on the irresponsibility of the men they’ve left behind, still sadly wandering the singledom circuit looking for fulfilment and ‘the one’.

Never mind that the vestigial pong of his Jean Paul Gaultier clings to the air in the darkroom, as far as this attached guy is concerned, it’s an alien world that he’s nothing to do with. But whether we take part in these activities or not, it is still our world. If the gay community really exists – and I wonder whether we need to send out a search party for confirmation – then we have to accept that, yes this kind of thing happens but, no, it doesn’t reflect on you in any way, unless you let it.

Why are people so obsessed with gay men’s sex lives? It’s not just straights with the prurient curiosity – gay guys judge and poke their nose into others’ relationships just as much. There are many dull clichés attached to being gay: that we’re stylish, good at interior decorating, prone to playing the victim, promiscuous, drug-addled, hedonistic to name just a few. Some of these are self-perpetuating – there will always be hookup apps, there will always be drugs, there will always be clubbing – and the reason these stereotypes exist is because these people do exist, but there’s a reluctance by anyone who lives even slightly outside these narrow parameters to see anything beyond them.

It is very easy, and convenient, for someone in a monogamous relationship to dismiss other gay men as shallow and promiscuous because it suits them to think it. Somehow, to them, it validates their own relationship and lifestyle choices. We bucked the trend, they think. We can be just as good as the straight people, they tell themselves. It affords them the dim glow of respectability to call out these harmful stereotypes and say they’re nothing to do with them. Perhaps what they don’t realise is that they’re creating new ones, that are just as toxic –  the prissy, monogamous gay who believes other gay men shouldn’t do things that straight people may nor approve of so we can ‘fit in’.

There isn’t anything wrong with monogamy, if it’s what you want. I am in a monogamous relationship. Devoting your entire life to one person, having eyes for no other, knowing someone inside out – I can get behind that. It’s a beautiful idea and, for many, it’s the dream, the ideal. And if you really want something, you should go for it, achieve your goal. But you should not step over and trample those who don’t fall in line on your way there. Nor should those who reject monogamy criticise anyone following it. It’s not necessarily ‘straight assimilation’ to chase a monogamous relationship – plenty of heterosexuals don’t buy into them either.

Monogamous couples complain that promiscuous guys try to infiltrate them, and will approach one or both of them with a view to either breaking them up or even becoming the third wheel. This isn’t necessarily a ‘gay’ problem, or even a ‘male’ problem. We live in a culture now where there’s potentially always someone ‘better’ just around the corner. Technology brings us closer together and shows us more of the world. We’re told to live out our dreams, go for what we want; we spend most of our time curating our autobiographies, told by Instagram photos and tweets and Facebook posts and blogs just like this one you’re reading now.  Who can blame the single ones for trying their luck, when we’re enabled and empowered more than ever before to sleep with who we want, to take more chances, be who we want to be? We believe our own hype, that we ‘might as well’ because you never know unless we try. People we don’t know follow us, interact with us, listen to us – you can’t blame us for thinking this means we’re fascinating, or interesting, or desirable.

Don’t think I’m totally blind to the problems promiscuity can bring – when it becomes associated with sadness, hurting others, mental health issues, or compromising our own safety, for example – but monogamy or denial of our true selves and pleasures can be just as harmful in exactly the same ways.

If promiscuity, or rather, a less stringent view of commitment, has been more prevalent among gay men, it’s because, historically, gay monogamy has  been a different proposition from its straight counterpart. Straight relationships had a clear evolution: engagement; marriage; children; grandchildren; “72 baps, Connie – you slice, I’ll spread”. And that was that.

Until the advent of civil partnerships, marriage equality, relaxed rules around adoption and modern attitudes toward gay people having children, there was no clear-cut path for gay couples. Once they got together and moved in… then what? Get a dog? Buy an antique shop together, maybe?

Perhaps this is why many couples who’d been together a long time would turn to open relationships to ‘keep things fresh’ – a much less expensive distraction back then than having a child like all their straight friends were doing once they hit 30. Open relationships aren’t necessarily about kinks, or greed – they can help a relationship evolve. Some people don’t want to stay the same for ever, and who are we to judge? Just because marriage and kids are now pretty much available to all, it doesn’t mean everyone has to fall in line. We all have our own narratives.

Acceptance by straight people is useful in many ways, but we are shortsighted in making it our primary goal. LGBT equality is about us all living the best lives we can, being visible, the redistribution of power. Equality is not about being palatable to heterosexuals – it’s about being able to do whatever we want. Just like they do. The idea we have to be monogamous and chaste so that straight people accept us is a dangerous one, and will only create ill-feeling among us, while the heteros look on and marvel at how stupid we are. It will perpetuate the stereotypes that young gay people fight against; it may discourage them from coming out and lead to self-loathing and a lack of understanding of others. It promotes hatred, and we have enough of that without it coming from within.

We have other battles to fight. We have problem with racism, transphobia, sexism, homelessness among gay LGBT youth, violence – we simply don’t have the time to care who is having sex with whom and how often. Is this really the hill you want to die on?

With homophobes, we can’t win. Don’t change to try to please them – it doesn’t work. We overcome it by living as rich and full a life as possible. Whether that’s walking down the aisle and dreaming of forever, or feeling twenty tongues in every hole on a Saturday night, my advice is simple: you do you.

Or whoever else you want to do.

More like this:
Yes, straight men at my gym, it’s true – I’m secretly in love with you all
About a boy, and a doll
13 reasons we hate hookup apps – and why we might be wrong
The strange case of the phantom gay uncle

Image: Flickr

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9 thoughts on “Gay men and the promiscuity ‘problem’”

  1. So interesting to read this article after the last one I wrote, which talks about men and penises.

    In short, I think societies obsession with gay sex is somewhat related, though at the time that I wrote that I didn’t think about this at all.

    With gay men, it seems similar in one or two ways to how we deal with the bodies of straight men. To be a man is to be a functional being — the things we do have purpose. And the male bodys purpose is domination in our culture. The only use for a naked male body is sex. The only use for a relationship is sex/procreation. The obsession with gay men and their sex lives I think is caused in part by this subconscious connection we make between male bodies and it’s intended purpose.

    No one makes hay of lesbian relationships, nor for that matter of transsexual men (except of course in the typical angst about what a “real man” is).

    The bottom line? Society cares very much about male bodies and how we use male bodies. It’s a very precious object to us. And I think this is one reason why gay men get so much press (and transwomen).

  2. I’m sure you’ve seen Panti Bliss’s talk on this subject – so beautifully articulate and educational. It’s really important, but sadly I don’t think the people who need to read it will ever read it.

  3. In re promiscuity v monogamy, gay or straight, bi, queer or trans, or completely label-less, I just think of Esther Perel’s quote:

    “There is no such thing as The One.
    I CHOOSE to treat you, as The One.”

    I look longingly toward a future where the googlies we rub against each other aren’t the issue. However we view The One, in solitariness or with consenting others, we agree that we’ll always treat our most treasured partner[s] as The One[s].

    But then, I’m a drippy lefty who abhors romance novels but still wants the basic tenets of bodice-ripping, pants-zip-pulling passion to be the norm. Which I think requires treating your Significant Other[s] as The One, in all that entails on a day-to-day, bill-paying, loo-cleaning, dishwashing, mug-rattling, dog-snoring, and life-living basis.

    Anyhoo, Guyliner, have you checked out http://www.wordtwist.org/ for your online Boggle needs? (apologies to your partner if you become hooked on that and otherwise unavailable to him for a while)
    🙂

  4. “Being gay is linked to sex..” –exactly! When I define myself as poly, it has the same effect – it gets people’s minds on who I’m fucking, then I have to clarify, not a swinger, just poly. Like telling you not to think about the color yellow. Stop it! Stop it now!

    1. Please don’t tell me being poly is like being vegan:

      “How do you know someone’s vegan? They’ll FUCKING TELL YOU.”

      Now I’m thinking about vegetables. 🙂

      Q: Why do you feel the need to define yourself as poly? Unless sex is on the menu, it doesn’t seem to be a conversation-opener that’s likely to have people stop thinking about the colour yellow.

      1. Great question! I assume it’s under many of the same circumstances where someone would identify as gay or any other sexuality niche. I don’t know about other places, but I live in Mexico, and one of the first things that comes up in any kind of small talk here is ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’

        I guess I could lie by omission and just be like ‘no.’ But I never do that. Do you?

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