I was twenty-four when I had my first kiss. In my teenage years, my courage had crumbled every time I had the chance to kiss a girl. In my early twenties, I’d used my religion to protect me from the pressures of being sexual. But at the age of twenty-four, on vacation on my own in the quiet town of Knysna, I met a guy on a gay dating site and went on my first gay date. My first kiss, and subsequently my first sexual encounter, followed.
Paul turned out to be the ideal short-term match. He was sweet and open, and I felt comfortable with him. I told him I’d never been with a guy, and we did some casual exploration. We knew we’d probably never see each other again once December was over, so there was very little pressure.
I was lucky, even if my fortune came many years later than I would have wished. Young people around the world, gay or straight, could only dream of this experience. Sex usually comes hand-in-hand with hang ups.
My own sex life, both before and after that point, has not been nearly as simple.
The Long List
Sex is one of the most basic mammalian drives. Our physiology all but does it for us. Nonetheless, humans make it impossibly complicated. We place our self-worth in our sexual competence as well as the size and aesthetics of our sexual organs. We judge people as good or bad, normal or perverted, based on their sexual desires and behaviors. We judge ourselves this way.
Relationships are created, maintained, and torn apart based on the sex within and out of them. Crimes are committed through sex. Some of the worst decisions you and I have made or will make are because of our sexual urges.
All of this would be more manageable if sex was something we spoke openly about. Yet for a variety of reasons, most people are not comfortable speaking about it, even with the person or people they’re having sex with. I sometimes still hesitate to speak of certain things with my own husband.
Gay sex comes with its own set of issues. Different people will give you different reasons. Some are scared of the potential pain. Others are worried about cleanliness. The gay community is oversexualized. Religion doesn’t jive with it. The list goes on and on and on.
At the root of these hang-ups is one unavoidable reality. We’re all perverts.
I Am A Pervert
Naturally, I hate the term “pervert.” I grew up hearing that word used in relation to the things I desired. The problem is, even if I no longer rationally believe that any type of sex is perverted, the years I spent obsessing over that word caused me to internalize it.
And why not? I am a pervert, and it’s not because I’m gay. We are all perverts.
Just about every sexual human being has “perverted” sexual desires. How many of us have fantasized about doing illegal, even unmentionable, things. At puberty especially, when our hormones are all over the place, we find ourselves dreaming of things we’d never admit to anyone else. If you haven’t watched it yet, Big Mouth on Netflix does a great job at showing just how disgusting we seem to ourselves at that age.
Some people are able to have these thoughts and move on with their lives. They have secret desires, but so what? They’re never going to act on them. They feel a little bit guilty, and maybe even chastise themselves. Those who are religious might go a little further with the self-reproach. But ultimately, these desires are anomalies, and have nothing to do with who they are as people.
But I grew up believing my entire sexuality was a perversion. I was gay and that made me a pervert by definition. Learning to think differently took a lot of work, work that continued even after I came out. And along the way, that work has been undermined by the fact that I still have plenty of desires that even the most liberal person might call perverted.
This is one part of the common queer experience known as internalized homophobia. And it wreaks havoc in queer individuals, relationships, communities.
The internalized belief that we are perverts often has one of two effects, even on out-and-proud queer people.
Either we act on too many of our desires, indiscriminately, even when they harm ourselves or those we love. Sexual liberty isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it can lead to disease when proper care isn’t taken. People who view themselves as perverts don’t always respect themselves enough to take proper care. It can also tear relationships apart and destroy the lives of innocent bystanders.
Alternatively, we sanitize our sex lives. Instead of exploring and trying new things, we have sex in the dark with an almost Victorian chastity.
Or we do both. I know someone who, when single, would have sex with anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere, including on the dancefloor of certain clubs. Now in a relationship, he won’t have sex anywhere but in the bedroom, with the curtains closed and the lights off. It surprised me when I first heard this, but it’s actually a common narrative among gay men. They may have acted out their supposed perversion outside of the relationship, but they see it as something that has no place in a committed partnership or marriage.
Sanitized sex almost always leads to at least one unsatisfied partner, who may feel he has to go elsewhere to get the satisfaction he needs. It can be a stumbling block for what seem like the healthiest relationships.
Stop Avoiding, Josh!
I notice that I’ve spoken in generalities so far. Every time I mention myself, I get sidetracked. Conveniently.
The truth is clear to me. No matter how enlightened, liberated, or open I consider myself to be, I’m still scared to speak about my own sexuality. So let’s do this.
Mine and Kyle’s sex life is great, but it could have been so very different. He was the first (and, so far, only) guy I did anal with. The first time I bottomed, it hurt, a lot. He was incredibly sensitive and gentle and patient. Nonetheless, I worried I’d never be able to enjoy it. We’d been together for less than a month, and although we were already serious, I didn’t tell him this.
On the fourth or fifth time, I started enjoying it, discovering the incomparable pleasure of the prostate orgasm. But that was, in part, due to the pressure I felt from my own fear of not being enough for him, and not because I actually discussed it with him. Only much later did I actually admit this to him.
The strangest part of this is that we’re very comfortable with exploring things that others might shy away from. Early on, I told him I wanted to try some light BDSM. It’s not something I remember fantasizing about all that much – which might actually be why I felt no qualms expressing the desire to try.
On the other hand, I still find it incredibly difficult to talk to him about my own masturbation. I can mention it vaguely, but I find myself trying to keep it secret, as I did for so much of my life. Part of that is guilt for using porn, watching other guys have sex. Part of it is that I still feel like only perverts masturbate as often as I do or while in relationships.
Which brings me back to my latest crusade: let’s stop using the term “pervert.”
Pervert is not a description. It is a judgment. And it is not a judgment of certain acts. It is a judgment of certain people. We judge the people whose sexuality seems weird to us. We judge people who enjoy things we don’t. Gay people are not immune to it, with many of us judging others who have different desires.
The thing is, we don’t see a problem with this. We have certain boundaries, which is healthy, but we choose to see them as some objective line which no person in their right mind would cross. Only a pervert or deviant would do so.
This comes down to the fact that we’re all still somewhat hung up on sex, no matter how liberal we think we are. We feel justified in thinking of certain sexualities as deviant, whether homosexuality, BDSM, experimentation with bodily fluids and excretions, exhibitionism, and more. We judge the person who has these desires or acts out these desires, even when no one is hurt by them.
But when we judge perverts, we’re necessarily judging ourselves, and all the unsavory acts every single one of us has visualized. We’re making it harder to be open and talk about these things. We’re ensuring that unadulterated desire remains taboo. Instead of redefining sex as a healthy part of being human, we are simply moving the line of who is acceptable.