I’m a guy who likes guys, this is the 21st Century, and I am living in a city that is not in Saudi Arabia. At any time of any day, I can have sex if I want to. On the internet, on my phone, two drinks in at probably any bar in the city after 10 p.m. — with the effort of like, a disgruntled, teenaged mall employee, I can make this happen. Today, pretty much anyone can. The gift of the Boomers was free love. But what’s the “free” in discussion, here? Has love simply been liberated, or has it also lost its value? And if love has lost its value, can it survive the markdown?
The great loves of our history and myth — of Shakespeare, Austen, and Keats; of Helen and Paris, of Antony and Cleopatra — were profound because the lovers involved paid for them, often in blood, which is to say that the fact of their not being free was in some way inextricably linked to their greatness. What the poets and philosophers of the past 3,000 years have understood is that romantic love is an ancient, powerful force that demands sacrifice, that blesses and curses alike, that has driven men to raise whole cities, and that has driven them to burn those cities to the ground. Free sex — sex without consequences — is possible. Maybe. But free love will never be.
At least, this is what I decided in my bed beside a stranger about a year ago in San Francisco, beset by a too-familiar sense of anomie. It was a kind of emotional hangover I’d always ranked a hair below loneliness, but what on that morning I found I could no longer bear.
I got up.
There’s nothing wrong with sex, or having a lot of it. I don’t believe it’s wrong to have it with strangers, either. Sex is simply a function of being human, like eating or drinking or making fun of Canadians. It only becomes emotionally problematic when you expect more from it than an orgasm, if even only subconsciously, which is the very thing that, if true, kicks you in your gut the morning after your meaningless romp with a cute Australian. So the difficult part, for me, was acknowledging the frightening truth of what I desired, which was — yes — love. Not give-up-the-last-piece-of-cake in love. Not fool-around-and-start-to-date-by-accident-and-now-oops-we’re-married in love. I wanted to be in walk-through-fire-for-you love. I wanted the love of bound destinies, of journeys to Hell, of heartbreak that literally kills. Do these things exist?, I wondered. I didn’t know. No one seemed to know. But where 1) the common, I-think-correct notion that emotional and physical intimacy can be found independently of each other holds with 2) in love, however, they both make more pronounced the other, it follows that emotional and physical intimacy, while different, are still closely related, and they’re easy to confuse. If one wants sex, seeks sex out, and has it — lots and lots of it — then hooray for that person. But if one wants love and reaches for a body in its place, that person is in for a world of hurt.
A year ago, I wanted love but couldn’t find it, and I only knew for sure it wasn’t where I’d been looking. So I decided to engage in the most contrarian, punk rock thing that I could think of: abstinence. In my quest to know love, I would forsake sex without it.
Here is a list of verbatim reactions from my friends:
“Nobody wants that kind of pressure.”
“What kind of pressure?” I asked. “The kind of pressure where sex is off the table? Where there isn’t any conceivable pressure at all?”
“It’s not that I think it’s wrong,” said a colleague of mine, “but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that you should talk about in public.”
I was told that I was sabotaging myself. I was told that I hated myself.
I did not say that sex was bad. I did not say something so traditional and religious-sounding as I was waiting for marriage, even. I was not picking up a habit with the sort of drugs that slowly kill you, or drinking myself out of the workforce, or cheating or stealing or defending Chris Brown. I was standing earnestly for love, for me, and was told that this was weird. In the city of the Folsom Street Fair’s army of fetishists, deranged gutter punks boning in the parks, and legalized public nudity, casual sex has been normalized so totally that the thought of not really being okay with it is shocking to most young people. About two months ago, in SoMa, I saw a leather drag queen with a three-foot wig chasing after a midget with a whip. People chuckled and said “different strokes for different folks.” But the words “I’m not having sex without love” — that was perceived as the really, really crazy thing.
This is the part of my reflecting back where I’d like to write that my experiment lasted seven months, and was occasionally difficult, but that I persevered and found what I was looking for.
In fact, my experiment lasted seven months, was occasionally difficult, and ultimately led to my throwing abstinence away in terms about as absolute as I had picked it up. I intellectualized the meaningless hook ups I’d previously forsworn, and I attempted to sex it up on Grindr. The hook up itself was a miserable failure, if funny, but it didn’t change the fact that I needed to find some kind of balance between a contemporary outlook on love that I found alienating and my idyllic once-desire for what Buffy and Angel had (but with more indie rock and whiskey).
So, I thought, what about starting with this: no sex without feeling.
Because I don’t think that having a code and occasionally breaking it is the problem. It’s the ambiguity that kills me. It’s not knowing what’s right, or where I’m going, that leaves me feeling less than human. A year ago, when I woke up next to my cute Australian stranger, I was operating without a sexual morality. This is not to say that I was operating immorally; this is to say that I hadn’t considered the question much at all. I was lost, and not because I had made some kind of mistake, but because I had constructed for myself no moral operating system from which I could understand the encounter. There is a freedom in the Boomers’ free love, I’ve come to realize. It’s a freedom from tradition. But not all of our traditions were terrible, and liberation is a blade that cuts two ways. We young of today are allowed to love on our own terms, but it is imperative for sake of sanity, I think, that we do call those shots, that we do choose those terms.
What’s your code?
Not your dad’s code, not my code, but your code — what do you believe in? What is right to you, and what is wrong? Why? What do you think about love? Do you believe in it? It’s okay to change your mind. Human beings are constantly learning. This is the nature of a conscious body that perceives. This is the nature of being alive. A healthy mind can change. But, for now, pick something. Take a breath, and take a stand, and look at the world from there. Have a perspective. On this question of love, we’re a generation allowed to make mistakes, but shit, folks, that means that if we’re not making them we’re probably not trying hard enough.