In light of the #metoo movement, I have been, like many men, re-visiting my own sexual history. But because I identify as queer, the stakes are different. For, according to one thread of #metoo’s logic, when I examine my conscience, I have to reimagine myself as both predator and prey, groomer and groomed.
The idea of sex as a hunt, however, is grossly heteronormative, something out of Greek mythology, wherein Zeus’s mode of seduction was disguise and trickery. In pederasty as described in Plato, however, the lover approaches the beloved with reverence. Consummated or not, seduction was never about deceiving the beloved; it was a way of guiding the younger man to contemplate the good, the beautiful, and the true as they exist in their pure, unchanging, and eternal states.
My intention here is neither to romanticize a social institution that undoubtedly led to abuses, nor revive Greek metaphysics, nor propose that we forget the denigration of the body that was Plato’s heritage, once Paul of Tarsus and Augustine got their hands on him. My point is that men who have sex with other men do not characteristically imagine seduction as a hunt. Even the fungible roles of top and bottom are erotic theatrics, for only the bottom provides the top with his raison d’être.
When, thanks to #metoo, I revisit moments in my life when I could have been construed as predator, I recall in particular the first tentative steps down seduction’s path. Two guys stripped to their jeans, barefoot, wrestling on the pristine wooden floor of the one’s apartment, trying to negotiate together how far their desire might, in that moment, lead them. Picking up a guy in a nearby bar, you walk together back to your apartment, an adorable boy wearing a baseball cap who spends the night in your bed, and who, when you kiss him, murmurs something between yes and no, and you, praying to the Blessed Mother that you would do anything – anything – for this boy to love you; he kisses you passionately but it goes no further — because that is what he asks. Or the various guys with whom you felt such a profound, deep connection of friendship that your body ached to comfort them; how, one night, the two of you end up sleeping in the same bed; and how, the next morning, with an almost unimaginable kindness, he lets you down.
None of these examples resulted in sex. But still, I worry: was I too aggressive in offering my body to these boys? Or were we in fact communicating silently, somatically, so that whatever consent required had been provided when they stepped into my bed? Or are these examples an alibi for the more banal instances in which I pushed against someone’s hesitation in order to test it or even, to contradict myself, conquer it. Even Plato’s The Phaedrus mentions how, at first, the beloved is not sure what is happening to him and so hesitates at the older man’s “advances.” So many of our sexual metaphors assume a pursuer and pursued!
Even with my partner (and now husband) of sixteen years, I still struggle to determine if he has given his consent – to the point that it irritates him to hear me ask, after sex, “Was that okay? Were you really okay doing that? Did you do it because you wanted to, or because you know I wanted it?” Because, despite our sophisticated ripostes, a certain feminism does indeed shame us for our sexual choices – as I well learned at a Women’s and Gender Studies conference a few years ago when asked to respond to a critique of porn that spoke, in the voice of a morally repulsed feminism, against some of my most treasured sexual fantasies.
Admittedly, I lost my temper. And, admittedly, I apologized later to my three women co-panelists – none of whom ever acknowledged my concern that a colleague was, in a public presentation to an audience of undergraduates, vilifying queer sexual acts that I treasured, acts from which I had learned a great deal about myself, my body, its capacities for pleasure, and its ability to encourage another man to hand his body over to me to make of it, as Kant might say, an object of our mutual enjoyment — and for me to do the same for him. Because I know that, whatever else happens during sex, our shared goal will be to assist the other in the always risky process of taking our bodies somewhere new, discovering capacities for pleasure and unpleasure we did not realize we had. Obviously, in front of that group of undergraduates, I was not prepared to make a case for the way in which disgust itself could be erotic.
Until there are drastic changes in society and culture, when two men have sex, it will never signify in the same way as when a man and a woman have sex. The cultural meanings that accrue to each are significantly different. This is what it means to say sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality are historical constructions. Given the social meanings of gender, sex does not signify the same thing for two people of the same gender as it does a man and a woman (and when I say gender here, I mean gender, that embodied sense of what it means to be male, female, or non-binary; the social meaning of two non-binary people having sex is not the same as two women, a man and a woman, and so forth). Which means that it might not be appropriate to conceive of what happens sexually between two men as if it were exactly analogous to a heterosexual encounter.
Reflecting on my sexual history, I can also recall instances where, from today’s #metoo vantage point, I might be construed as a victim. At the time, however, I felt in control. How should I judge this younger self? Was he really, as some might argue, de facto prey because he was sixteen—even though it was he who had arranged to be places where men a generation older than he was would feel encouraged to act on their desire (because, face it, as much as he was dying, dying to be touched by another man, and whatever his body intuited about communicating that desire, he would never dare make the first move — for fear of rejection)? If I arranged the sex’s where and when, didn’t this make me responsible?
Which is to admit that, on some level, I literally have difficulty imagining myself, even at sixteen, coerced into sex—another illustration of how powerful gender as a cultural construction is. And whiteness? And nationality? And even, in this instance, class? As Hiram Pérez argues, the 19th century eugenicist project of dividing populations into the binary categories of homosexual and heterosexual occurred in tandem with the division of those same populations into male and female, white and black, citizen and alien. Clearly, my own social privilege inflects my sexual fantasies. And perhaps it is that social privilege that leads me to say that, even at sixteen, I was nobody’s sexual victim; never would I construe the sexual journey on which these older men took me as “grooming.”
Yes, not everyone possesses my social privilege. But, as someone who teaches undergraduates, I worry about a generation that fears taking responsibility for its sexual choices. I was shocked to discover, for example, the way some of my students brought up the issue of predatory sexual behavior in our discussions of the films A Single Man and Carol. In neither did an older person prey upon a younger one, and yet some students insisted that, thanks to their age difference and her money, Carol’s seduction of her younger lover was a de facto instance of “grooming.” Seeing themselves as sexually vulnerable, my students could literally not imagine how intergenerational sex might not only be desired by the younger partner, but something that enriched his/her/their life.
And that makes my sixteen-year-old self sad. As someone who lost countless older male friends to HIV disease, friends who were willing to talk to me about queer sex frankly and even humorously, in a way no one else would or could at the time, I am obligated to insist that intergenerational sex has provided men of my generation – and of a variety of races and nationalities — with a life line, a way to survive the constant, relentless, bullying of high school, for example. Like my platonic friendships with older adults, intergenerational sex offered me a view of myself unavailable anywhere else, one in which the very qualities my peers humiliated me for were those for which I was valued. Imagining myself as the victim of grooming, I erase my own agency, the way in which reaching out to another man sexually was a way of saying “I am not what they say I am; I have something of value in me.” And it is more than “just” my body.
Because sex is always more than sex. We act sometimes as if, during sex, we are capable of simply divorcing our “vile bodies” from our inner lives —more evidence of Paul and Augustine’s twisting of Plato’s words, which, despite creating a hierarchy between heaven and earthly love, never cast the latter as evil. Quite the opposite: desire for a beautiful body was the first step toward contemplation of the divine.
As I understand it, a queer sexual politics seeks to open us up to the wider erotic possibilities of the world, and it does so by combatting racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, agism, all the forms of prejudice and hate that interfere with our ability to love the stranger. As Michael Warner has argued, queer life encourages a variety of intimacies that heteronormativity’s impoverished vocabulary cannot grasp. For many men of my generation, there was nothing intrinsically abusive about intergenerational sex, and I can fully support #metoo without rewriting my own sexual history as one of victimhood. Even at sixteen.