Friday, 20 May 2011
Autres Temps, Autres Moeurs
I’m not sure if I can pull all or any of this into a connected thread but three things happened recently to make me think about (my and others’) gay life.
Ken Clarke the Justice Secretary who I’m convinced moonlights as the Churchill Insurance nodding dog barked some stuff this week about thinking there ought to be different categories of rape – but seemed ignorant of the fact this crime can and does happen to men. The LGMC is currently rehearsing to sing in aid of the male rape crisis charity, Survivors UK.
On the excellent author Paul Burston’s facebook thread, there’s been massive chat about how ‘barebacking’ (unprotected anal sex) is becoming what you might call ‘fashionable’ again not just among older participants who consider that even if they got HIV it is unlikely to significantly shorten their span, but among teen and twentysomethings described as waving their arses in the air in clubs and saunas to invite the invasion of what we once called ‘all comers’ but meant it about boxing. A lot of socially conscientious gay men wrote to defend their right to do so.
A 27-year old guy messaged me online yesterday and recalled a day and night he’d spent at my flat, revisiting intricate details from the key rack in the hall, exactly what I cooked for him, the painting in my living room, the sex , several complex things about my work, hobbies and travel plans, the specifics of how we subsequently broke up, to an ancient anecdote I must have told him about an acquaintance visiting a bondage hustler in San Francisco when there was a fire alarm and the building was evacuated leaving him tied to a kitchen table.
Even prompted by a photograph, I cannot remember a thing about him or our encounter, and it’s barely seven years ago when I didn’t entertain so many hot twenty-year-olds that my memory should erase one so very easily.
Of course some water has flown under my bridge since then but I can’t believe that in the ten years I’ve lived in this flat, sex has become so throwaway, and, if you consider what’s happening in the clubs, life apparently so throwaway too.
It’s trite to blame the internet explosion: gay men were promiscuous long before gaydar, Grindr and their subspecies, but even the most enthusiastic slut would have had more work to do to find partners for anything other than a fumble in a public lavatory.
Throughout my twenties, there was only one place for ‘personal ads’ – the back pages of the fortnightly newspaper ‘Gay News’, dull as a parish magazine and devoid of nudity, it still attracted the attentions of Mrs Whitehouse and a private prosecution for blasphemy in which the editor narrowly escaped jail. But, with careful wording, you could advertise your preferences (no photos, no hanky codes, no reference to active/passive or specific sexual choices) and hope for a response – replies had to be sent to a box number, with a loose first-class stamp for each, and the paper forwarded them a week or so later.
I almost can’t tell you the excitement of receiving those letters. I lived in Southampton at the time and a package of a dozen or more responses meant contact, of a sort, with men in more major cities and a window on their lifestyles which was almost unknown to me. Of course they were all handwritten or individually typed – even photocopiers were pretty rare – and generally contained a fuzzy photo booth picture, since anything racier would have had to be taken to a specialist printer as Boots wouldn’t process shots of your bum or genitals. I went to one in Acton High Street once, and it cost a fortune.
If you liked any of your respondents, you again had to craft an engagingly-worded letter, wait for him to receive it and reply either by post, or phone if you were brave enough to give out your (traceable) landline number. And if you were in when he rang, I’m not sure even answerphones were hugely popular in the 70s and their fiddly cassettes often mangled your messages anyhow.
The point I’m making is not just that it took time to arrange to meet, whether for sex or a potential relationship, but that the back-and-forth of advert, wait, responses and reply made you think two or three times, whether in anticipation or anxiety, about the guys and certainly in my case meant I probably only got as far as actually meeting a very small percentage of my suitors.
It was through one such advert that I got courted to stand in the local elections, and for the Conservative Party, which was a bizarre by-product, but an entirely other story.
This is also in the days before the ‘gay cancer’ was identified, and our only condom-favouring anxiety was to avoid pregnancy, and curable STDs like gonorrhea and NSU. I don’t think I used a condom at all before I was thirty, with men or women except for Vivienne Segal, the University bike, but that was because you’d really have been safer with her to keep your coat on. Funnily enough, she became a genetics lecturer.
So is it better or worse that you can turn on your smartphone or computer and find a compatible sex partner in minutes? Or that you can see his dangly bits from every perspective other than that of his personality? I’d be a hypocrite to say I haven’t taken advantage of this, but in all honesty I do miss a bit of mystery, and romance, and perhaps the optimism of how we went about this back in the day.
As for the barebacking – to quote Joyce Grenfell ‘I am not easily shockable, but I am offendable’ and for a new generation to deliberately ignore the naked truth that barebacking can kill, and kill both parties, seems offensive folly - given the number of deaths and the vast back catalogue of campaigning on the subject by gay activists and health workers.
Maybe in his revision of the legislation, Clarke should be considering reclassifying virally-loaded unprotected sex as ‘assault with a deadly weapon’. Or at least statutory rape.
I think what most horrified me was that there’s a whole terminology for young men who deliberately seek to acquire HIV. They have parties at which HIV positive 'gift-givers' are incited to infect them. They call themselves ‘bugchasers’ which attributes a fake cuteness and taboo-breaking impishess to something that’s eventually fatal and ought to be criminal.
I feel dirty. I want a bath, and a cuddle.