While the end of the pandemic that shook the world to its core is still hanging on, President Biden has surpassed his promise of 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days, and it looks like we will reach double that goal. The success of vaccine distribution has given many of us a bit of hope that life could resume to somewhat normal before 2022. By the end of this year, hopefully we will be heading back to the office, hugging loved ones (I miss hugs), and dating. While I have been on few dates since moving to Vermont, I was optimistic before the pandemic and going out and to gay events in Burlington, hoping to meet someone. As we move closer and closer to normal again, one has to wonder how we will navigate a return to the possibility of romance (and possibly sex) after a global pandemic?
One thing the COVID pandemic did was to give us a lot of free time. For many people, it was too much free time, especially in the beginning. When we weren’t scrambling for toilet paper and sanitizer wipes, we were sitting in our homes with every topic under the sun swirling around in our heads. It meant watching a lot of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney+, not to mention way too much online shopping. With more time than usual to sit and think, many of us have reconsidered what we find to be important in our lives. The loneliness of quarantines and lockdowns has made a lot of us realize just how much we would like to have a partner by our side.
As we begin moving forward once COVID is a memory, many of us who are single might be rethinking how to go about not only how we date, but who we date. It won’t be a surprise if people take their time and get to know people more often. I think people might be a little more careful and get to know someone better before moving forward. I think it will be important to think about whether this was a person who diligently wore a mask and observed social distancing because it will tell us whether he cares about the well-being of others or if he is just a selfish asshole. Of course, the alternative of just swiping right and setting up a quick hookup will still be available, but I think the COVID pandemic has taught us a lot about human nature. We’ve spent a year and some change with not much else but ourselves and our thoughts, and that longing for human connection could result in a wave of monogamy, something that technology and smartphones seemed to have left in the past.
As the world starts to reopen and we can return to bars and clubs (I miss the monthly drag shows in Burlington), it’s important to remember that while we were alone during 2020, we should remember that it’s not a bad thing to want a solid foundation in terms of a relationship. However, there is a flip side to this because life is like a coin. There are always two sides to every situation. Yes, the lack of human connection has been dismal, but the nonexistent physical contact has been just as bad for many. Once people are vaccinated, we can once again get together with others without fear of contracting a disease that has killed over half a million people in the US alone. We might see a rise in not only monogamous relationships, but a whole lot of hookups because for a lot of people—that’s been off the table for over a year. I recently downloaded a few dating apps again, mostly to see if anything had changed and if the landscape of available men had changed. Men are definitely horny. I’ve seen a lot more interest than I usually do when I log into those apps, but I am looking for something more than just a quick one night stand.
Relationships are probably going to get deeper and more common but there is also going to be a sexual revolution of sorts with more people (dare I say, desperately) looking for hookups. With that, it’s wise to remain cautious not just because of COVID, but also keeping in mind that STDs have not ceased to exist. If you’re not the type that realized a need for a partner after this and just want to hookup, keep in mind that there are plenty of people exiting the pandemic with the same sexual needs. So, it’s always smart to practice safe sex—more so than ever because people are going to be screwing around like well, they haven’t fucked in over a year.
Throughout history, major events have always had an impact on our romance and sexual lives, and COVID is no different. Whether we’re seeing the reality of having someone close at all times, or the power of sex—the post-COVID world might be a wild one.
An Athenian red-figure kylix (cup) dating from around 510–500 BC depicts a young pentathlete pulling his older lover towards him for a kiss. In many of the city-states of ancient Greece, sex between a man and a youth was an accepted – even idealized – form of love, its virtues extolled in works by writers including Plato.
In Ancient Greece, some philosophical reflections even idealized same-sex love. We can find notable examples in the Symposium, the philosopher Plato’s description of an intellectually high-powered Athenian dinner party. One character, Phaedrus, extols the virtues of manly, same-sex love among warriors and legislators: “And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.” This, allegedly, was the inspiration for the Sacred Band of Thebes, comprising 150 pairs of male lovers, which fought heroically at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC before succumbing to the overwhelming forces of Philip II of Macedon.
Another dinner guest at Plato’s imagined symposium, Pausanias, contrasts “base” love (with women and boys) as merely for sexual gratification and therefore inferior, with “noble” love (with young men). The latter, he says, is “pure” and about instilling guidance and wisdom in a pedagogical relationship rather than sex. This rationalization of same-sex love, whether platonic or carnal, had an extraordinary resilience in western societies over the next couple of millennia and beyond. Take, for example, the famous defense by Oscar Wilde at his trial for sodomy and gross indecency in 1895: “The ‘love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”
Throughout history, the receptive/penetrated partner in male same-sex relationships has often been seen as the lesser person in the relationship. One of the most famous examples of bottom shaming is Julius Caesar, who has often been portrayed as a macho, militaristic, elite Roman leader. Much of that masculine power revolved as much around his ability to demonstrate his sexual prowess (think Cleopatra) as it did around political prowess. However, his contemporary political rivals saw this masculinity differently and often commented on such. Julius Caesar was nicknamed the “bald adulterer,” which fit the Roman political stereotype perfectly by sleeping his way to power. As a young man, he spent a considerable amount of time at the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia, fueling a series of rumors about an affair in which Caesar was the submissive party. His return to Bithynia just a few days after leaving to “collect a debt” further fanned the flames. Suetonius tells us that this was the only stain on Caesar’s masculinity. But it was a stain that proved difficult to wash out, and he would be reminded of it throughout his prematurely ended life. One colleague, Bibulus, addressed Caesar as “the queen of Bithynia.” During an assembly, a man named Octavius hailed his co-consul Pompey as “king” and Caesar as “queen.”
Male sexuality and sexual masculinity have been defined throughout history by the role played by the receptive partner. Women have been seen by most of world history as the weaker sex, and because they take on the receptive role in sex, a man who is the penetrated partner for another man is seen as less of a man. A gay man’s position in the bedroom can extend to how he’s perceived in the LGBTQ+ community. Bottoms, those who are the receptive partner, are often not afforded the respect they deserve. Bottoms deserve a lot more respect than they usually receive. All too often, the terms “bottom” and “submissive” are used interchangeably. However, not all bottoms are submissive. Some bottoms can be quite aggressive, thus the term “power bottom.”
Even versatile men can have a more submissive side because they may prefer those who bottom for them to be more aggressive, but versatile men may also like those who top them to be more aggressive. The opposite can also be true: a versatile gay man who is more dominant may prefer more submissive bottoms and to take control of sex when they are the bottom. Then there are the “strict tops” who refuse to bottom no matter what. These men are often the least respectful of bottoms, and “strict bottoms” may often feel (or be perceived as) inferior to tops for being the receptive partner. The dichotomy of the top/bottom relationship needs to be more respectful for both positions.
Most tops do not consider that being a bottom takes a lot of preparation before engaging in anal sex—something a top benefit from but seldom worries about. The idea of spontaneous sex might sound like a thrill, but it is an unrealistic fantasy of the gay community seen in depictions of gay life from m/m romance novels to gay porn. We don’t want to think about all the preparation available. It’s similar to something I once read about Henry James’s novels that no one ever goes to the bathroom in his novels, though that is true of most novels. However, for a bottom who hasn’t prepared for sex, it can be a stressful and uncomfortable experience. To avoid any awkward mishaps during sex, most bottoms will prepare for it—even if there’s only a tiny chance, they might have sex that day. Even with the most preparation and precautions taken, most bottoms will still hope and pray the entire time that no accidents happen.
Furthermore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that anal sex can be painful at times, and it can take a lot of getting used to before it becomes a fully satisfying sexual experience. When it’s been a while, it’s literally like sticking your finger in a Chinese finger trap, and we all know that isn’t the most enjoyable thing. Most gay men will prepare themselves for bottoming ahead of time. Still, if they don’t know their partner’s penis size, this could make the experience more satisfying if he has a larger than average girth but might be less enjoyable if his penis is less girthy. There is a lot to consider and be prepared for, but it’s also a gamble if you don’t know what to expect. A bottom might ask for “Size?” or “Pics?” from a potential partner while chatting online. Those are not just questions for size queens; they can also be a question so that the bottom can be more prepared for the top. Many men will just see those questions as crude, but the bottom may just be trying to prepare for a better experience for the top.
In the gay community, bottoms are still seen as the more feminine ones. Bottoms are looked at as less than tops in the community. If you doubt this is true, then ask yourself, when was the last time you heard someone refer to a “top” in a derogatory way. Gay men often have insecurities about being labeled a bottom because the gay community all too often engages in “bottom shaming.” Why is this the case? It goes back to historical perceptions of gay sex which ingrained in men the idea that the receptive partner was lesser: either they were the younger partner, a slave, etc. Achilles and Patroclus were an example of this, while the exception was the relationship between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion. Yet, even with Alexander, all of his male lovers were not equal, such was the case with another of his favorite sexual partners, Bagoas, a eunuch “in the very flower of boyhood.” It’s a stereotype that we must work to change.
The fact is your sexual preference be it top, bottom, or versatile, doesn’t mean a damn thing when it comes to your masculinity. We should be proud if we are a bottom, a top, or a bit of both. We should be proud of our sexuality and not get bogged down in roles because why does it matter? You need to realize it doesn’t matter, and we are all a part of the same community and should uplift each other instead of trying to tear each other down. Tops come in all shapes and sizes, including short guys and feminine guys. Plenty of drag queens out there are tops. Don’t assume someone is a top or a bottom because of the way they present or because of their size. There are also plenty of well-endowed bottoms, and while many of us may find that a waste of a good penis, we should respect their preferences. It boils down to each of us respecting one another.
From the moment we leave the womb, we are indoctrinated with ideas about what gender means. Real men don’t cry. They don’t ask for help. They don’t back down from a fight. Our culture teaches masculinity in ways both subtle and overt, through schoolyard taunts and gendered bathrooms. It carries over to sports, the gym, fraternities, and other male-only spaces. The result of this relentless social conditioning is that every gay man inherits an identity crisis: we must reconcile our sense of masculinity with our inability to conform to the world’s inherent enforced heterosexuality. While some resolve the conflict by rejecting gender norms altogether, a surprising number embrace the very customs they fall short of, striving to embody cultural notions of masculinity in how they speak, act, and dress. This is particularly true when it comes to dating.
In the gay community, a sexual premium is placed on masculinity, which puts pressure on gay men to be masculine. Dating (hook-up) apps often feature ads saying they are looking for “Masc4Masc” or describe themselves as “straight-acting.” More feminine-acting men are seen as less desirable sexual partners for these men. In one 2012 study about gay men’s attitudes toward masculinity, a majority of those surveyed said it was important not only for themselves to present as masculine but for their partners to look and act masculine as well. Other studies have found that gay men are more attracted to masculine-looking faces and muscular builds. The more masculine one rates oneself, the greater importance one places on masculinity in his partner.
I remember as a child being made fun of because I liked to play with the girls or that I walked with a swish or used my hands to talk. These were seen as feminine, but there was the unspoken belief that if others derided me for that behavior, I’d conform to the masculine ideal. I remember my father even made me play flag football during recess because that’s what all the other boys did, even though I hated it and felt uncomfortable playing football. He did not care. When I reached puberty, and my voice changed, it did not become very deep, and I was often made fun of for the way I talked. Other boys used to mock me with an over-effected gay voice. I spent most of my life in school trying to avoid being seen as feminine or gay. While some may dismiss the reverence of masculinity among gay men as “just a preference” or the ridicule of less than masculine men, both have been documented to have adverse mental health effects. Gay men who are more gender-nonconforming struggle more frequently with self-esteem and experience higher levels of depression and anxiety. Those who prize masculinity are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, gestures, and voices.
A primary reason people in the LGBT community have more mental health issues is not only because they experience higher levels of marginalization from society at large but also because of the intense pressure to be, look, and act in a masculine way. However, there is also the larger issue of this social exclusion happening within the queer community itself. We’re judging and excluding one another because of perceived gender roles. Gay culture’s obsession with masculinity hurts both masculine and feminine men alike. Even gay men who endorse their own masculinity feel a degree of uncertainty about whether they are manly enough in the way others see them. There is a certain feeling that they will never be masculine enough.
While such feelings are most common earlier in the coming-out stages, masculine norms continue to affect gay men’s sense of self long after they’ve come out. Many gay men want to fit in and be seen as “normal,” not different. If you pay attention to gay social media personalities, you may notice that the strict division between masculine and feminine appears to be blurring. A majority of Millennials believe gender falls on a spectrum, and a survey from queer-rights organization GLAAD showed 12 percent of this generation identifies as gender non-conforming. Take, for example, the social media personality Tate Hoskins, who has grown in popularity by blurring the gender norms for young men by switching from an ultra-masculine country boy to a femme boy in a French maid outfit and cat ears. He’s taken a lot of flak for embracing a non-gender conforming attitude. Still, he continues to stay positive and have his message heard by his nearly 754K followers on TikTok and his close to 30K followers on Instagram. The following video has more than 2 million likes and has been viewed by many more:
Gay men know instinctually that that masculinity is fluid. Even the most “straight-acting” gay man can’t call everyone “bro” all the time. All gay men engage in code-switching, butching it up in a job interview but letting themselves “queen out” at the weekly Drag Race gathering. Much of this variation in behavior stems from a desire to avoid negative social repercussions from society at large, but gay men also tend to put on their straight faces to be more appealing to other gay men. As young people push the boundaries of gender, an increasing number of gay men feel comfortable questioning gay culture’s idolization of traditional masculinity—and the notion that desire is bound by it. It would take a whole new series of posts to discuss the gay obsession with straight men. In gay romance, you sometimes see the trope of the straight man who falls for a gay man either only to realize he was always gay or that he is gay for just one man. Then there is the genre of gay porn that uses gay for pay actors to get viewers or the gaybaiting of the bromosexual culture. Straight men can be a nice fantasy, but a diversity of gender norms (or lack thereof) can all be found within the gay community.
We should respect the diversity of the gay community more and quit looking outside our community for what is considered normal. Too many gay men only want a masculine, fit top with a large penis. Other gay men have an obsession with the myth of a six-pack gay (a straight man who will go gay after a six-pack of beer). It’s all unhealthy. And while some men exist out there who are very masculine, have a perfect body, and possess a huge dick, they are few and far between, and it’s an expectation that is found more often in porn than in real life. We need to look more for what is in a man’s heart than his outer appearance, whether that is his body, fashion sense, or mannerisms.
Tomorrow, I will discuss how bottom shaming has hurt gay men throughout world history.
In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Education released its updated campus sexual assault regulations under Title IX. The law prohibits sex discrimination at federally-funded institutions. Schools were given only until August 14, 2020 to adopt compliant policies and procedures while Betsy Devos and the Department of Education (DoE) spent the last three years drawing up these new Title IX regulations. In 2017, the DoE withdrew the Obama Administration’s guidance documents on the subject; a year later, it issued a lengthy notice of proposed rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act. This was the first full rulemaking on a major Title IX issue since 1975, and the only one ever dedicated to sexual harassment. It is not without controversy. What do you expect from a Secretary of Education who is neither an educator nor an education leader? The woman has NO experience in public education, never even attending a public school.
Sexual assault is a serious issue on college campuses, but it was not initially addressed in Title IX; however, the Supreme Court did address sexual assault, but only in discussing whether an institute of higher learning receiving federal dollars could be held responsible. In 2011, the Obama Administration issued a lengthy “dear colleague letter” spelling out the many measures schools must implement to “end any harassment, eliminate a hostile environment if it has been created, and prevent harassment from occurring again.” Still, the Trump Administration withdrew the “dear colleague letter” to reframe Title IX. The 2016 Republican platform devoted an entire section to Title IX charging that the Obama Administration’s “distortion of Title IX to micromanage the way colleges and universities deal with allegations of abuse contravenes our country’s legal traditions and must be halted.”
So, what are the issues with the new Title IX regulations? The general outline was laid out in the November 2018 proposal. Its central feature was a return to the framework established by the Supreme Court in 1998-99. No longer would schools have broad responsibility “to take effective action to prevent, eliminate, and remedy sexual harassment” by “changing the culture.” Now, the focus was on schools’ responsibility to address cases of serious sexual misconduct. Simultaneously, though, the new rules have gone far beyond the Supreme Court in establishing what constitutes harassment, what schools must do to identify and adjudicate cases of misconduct, and the remedies they must provide to victims of such misconduct. As a result, the new administrative regulations are less radical—and more demanding—than the DoE’s critics often suggest.
What forms of harassment require a response from educational institutions? Under the new guidelines, the following are considered forms of sexual assault: rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object, fondling, incest, and statutory rape. While the Supreme Court held that harassment must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” to trigger Title IX, the Obama Administration pushed schools to address harassment before it “becomes severe or pervasive” to prevent the creation of “a hostile environment.” Schools are now to address the incidents, but are not expected to address the culture that causes such incidents. The entire matter is very complicated (if you want to read more, you can read this article from InsideHigherEd.) I was asked instead to read my university’s new policy and comment on it.
I immediately noticed the definitions of sexual assault and its archaic language. It differentiates between rape and sodomy.
Rape is defined as penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person without the victim’s consent. Sodomy is defined as oral or anal sexual intercourse with another person forcibly, and/or against that person’s will (non-consensual), or not forcibly or against the person’s will in instances in which the victim is incapable of giving consent because of age or because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity. This is what I don’t understand: Why is the federal government requiring separate definitions of rape and sodomy? Both are defined as forcibly or non-consensually having the victim’s vagina, anus, or mouth penetrated with another person’s body part or sex organ. I don’t see the difference. Why must the two terms be spelled out? In my opinion, the use of the word “sodomy” is intentionally using homophobic language.
Sodomy is a word that has been demonized as a weapon to promote intolerance against gay people which is the main reason for my objection. The word promotes negative stigmatization, prejudice, and discrimination to practices such as anal or oral sex which have been associated mostly with the gay community. The term is sometimes even replaced with “crimes against nature.” Originally, sodomy was derived from church law designed to prevent nonprocreative sexuality anywhere and any sexuality outside of marriage (in some cases, any intercourse not in the missionary position between a man and a woman). Historically, the term has been used as a form of discrimination against gay men.
Though sodomy has been used to refer to a range of homosexual and heterosexual “unnatural acts,” the term “sodomite” usually refers to a homosexual male even though the real meaning is nonprocreative sex. The term is derived from the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Christian churches have referred to the crimen sodomitae (crime of the Sodomites) for centuries. The modern association with homosexuality can be found as early as AD 96 in the Jewish historian Josephus’ writings. Sodomy, in historical biblical reference, probably did not even pertain to homosexuality, but the acts of bestiality and female and male castration for sexual slavery. The story of Sodom’s destruction and Abraham’s failed attempt to intercede with God and prevent that destruction appears in Genesis 18–19. The connection between Sodom and homosexuality is derived from the described attempt by a mob of the city’s people to rape Lot’s male guests. Some suggest the sinfulness for which Sodom was destroyed might have consisted mainly in the violation of obligations of hospitality which were essential according to the original writers of the Biblical account.
In essence, the new regulations are forcing educational institutions to use derogatory and homophobic language to differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual sex. The DoE is forcing colleges to violate Title IX, a law passed to protect people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Title IX covers students and employees at these institutions. Therefore, the new policy contradicts the Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, which ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex.
Aren’t we supposed to be past using derogatory and discriminatory language such as sodomy in our laws? If you include anal and oral sex in the definition of rape, why is it necessary to also include sodomy and give virtually the same definition? Am I the only one who finds the term “sodomy” offensive?
I am neither effeminate nor hyper-masculine. If being effeminate was a 10 and being masculine was a 1, on a scale of 1-10, I’d guess I’m a 7. During my years in the closet, I tried to appear straight. But according to the bullies who tortured me at school, I did a really crappy job. When I was in school in the 80s and 90s, being smart was seen as gay and uncool, and in Alabama, if you were a guy and didn’t play football and every other sport, you were gay, a sissy. I remember I used to wish I’d been born a girl so I wouldn’t have the constant pressure to play sports. After I discovered the joys of having a penis, I rarely wished that anymore. A dick is a wonderful thing; it can bring so much joy to your life.
Many gay men are self-conscious about “sounding gay,” and I am one of them. Allow me to explain this whole “sounding gay” thing. “Sounding gay” continues to be a trigger for mockery, bullying, and violence. LGBT kids are far more likely to commit suicide or drop out of school because they feel unsafe. I was always made fun of for my “gay voice,” and sometimes I still am. It has always, even to this day, raised my hackles. Hard to believe, but few, if any, studies have explored the phenomenon of “sounding gay.” Voice and sexuality—two fundamental features of human existence, and yet most people don’t have a clue how they are related. Instead, we have stupid stereotypes. A lot of people think it’s okay to be gay as long as you don’t act—or sound—that way. The daily pressure to cover, hide, or “pass” affects many sexual minorities.
I remember two incidents very clearly. One was when I was a four-year-old in kindergarten. I always preferred to play with the girls; they were my friends. I didn’t count any boys among my friends. I guess this worried my kindergarten teacher. One day she handed me a truck and told me to go play with the boys. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn’t feel I had a choice. It’s like she thought she could change me by making me play with a toy dump truck. People need to let children express their sexuality any way they desire. It would make growing up gay much easier. We would be able to explore our feminine or masculine traits more freely and without fear of ridicule.
A few years later, probably around the fifth grade, the boys at recess always played flag football. I preferred to play on the swings with the girls. One day my dad came to pick me up from school. Recess was at the end of the day. He noticed all the boys playing football, but I was playing with the girls. He was furious. From then on, if Daddy was coming to pick me up (thankfully, a rare occurrence), I had to steel myself to play flag football. I HATED it with a passion. I love to watch college football, but I never wanted to play it. While I wasn’t bad at it, I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life. But, if they handed me the football, I could usually outrun anyone chasing me.
There was only one sport I ever really wanted to play; that was baseball. There’s just something about baseball players with bats and balls that appealed to me. However, I’ve never had good eyesight (another thing that put me in the “gay” category: wearing glasses—eventually I got contacts). Without good eyesight, I couldn’t hit the ball; I just couldn’t see it well enough, and quite honestly, I am just not very coordinated. When my parents forced me to play a sport during my middle and high school years, I played basketball (normally I warmed the bench). I also ran track for a couple of years, and in my senior year, I played golf. I wanted to learn golf so when I became a lawyer, I’d know how and could take clients to play golf. These days, I rarely play golf. I haven’t played in years, and I never became a lawyer.
So, those are the underlying impressions of me when I was in school. I’ve always been self-conscious about “sounding gay.” I got mocked constantly for it. It’s one of the main things people have told me “gives me away” as gay. Add in the Southern accent, and I’m just slightly more butch sounding than actor Leslie Jordan. Some people tell me they don’t notice it; others find it very noticeable. I think because of my accent, it’s more apparent to Southerners than those outside the South.
The worst is when I’m on the phone. I have always been called ma’am over the phone, and because if this, I usually dread phone calls with someone I don’t know. I remember once calling my bank. The operator actually argued with me that I was not who I said I was. She said I must be my mother. I had to recite my date of birth, my social security number, bank account number, and all those other ridiculous security questions, and I don’t think she was ever truly convinced I was a man. Because it happens so frequently, I usually just laugh it off when the person is apologetic, but because this operator was so rude, insistent, and unapologetic, I was rude back and complained to her supervisor. In the South, I always got called ma’am in a drive thru. At first it annoyed me, but then I realized how funny it was to see their faces when they realized they’d taken an order from a man. Sometimes, they’d apologize, but mostly it was just a shocked look on their face after which they’d pretend it hadn’t happened.
When I first began to talk, I had a terrible speech impediment. Only a few people could understand me. One was my sister; she used to translate what I had said. I never had speech therapy, so I learned on my own to speak more clearly. Also, I had what they called tongue-tie (ankyloglossia), a congenital oral anomaly that decreases the mobility of the tongue tip and is caused by an unusually short, thick lingual frenulum, a membrane connecting the underside of the tongue to the floor of the mouth. To fix this, my pediatrician “clipped my tongue,” also known as a frenotomy, a procedure where they cut the lingual frenulum to allow the tongue to move more freely. By the way, children undergoing a frenotomy had to be restrained during the procedure; very little, if any, anesthesia was used back in those days. Luckily, like circumcision, I do not remember the procedure, but my mother said I bled like a stuck pig and screamed bloody murder. I was probably two or three at the time. The procedure left me with a slight lisp at times and the inability to say certain words, especially those with “sm” or “th” sounds in them.
Several years ago, there was a documentary called Do I Sound Gay? which examined the gay voice. The film explored the existence and accuracy of stereotypes about the speech patterns of gay men, and the ways in which one’s degree of conformity to the stereotype contribute to internalized homophobia in some gay men. The documentary claims the gay voice is generally depicted as having five characteristics:
Gay men tend to pronounce their vowels more clearly.
We tend to draw out our vowels longer.
Our Ss are longer often giving us the stereotypical lisp.
We pronounce our Ls longer.
We over articulate Ps, Ts, and Ks.
One thing many gay men who are considered to have a gay voice had when they were young is a speech impediment. Some had speech therapy, others like me did not. Having a lisp or speech impediment caused many gay men to be more precise in their speech. More masculine speech tends to be less articulate. Of course, the deepness of someone’s voice also plays a factor. Upper class voices are considered gayer which is a stereotype from the dandies in old movies. My voice has never been deep. David Thorpe, the filmmaker of Do I Sound Gay? came to the realization that sounding educated, cosmopolitan, and refined equals the gay voice.
So, why is the gay voice derided by both gay and straight people? One reason is it’s seen as more feminine. Gay men say they want a “man.” If they wanted a woman, they’d be straight. Also, “dandies” in old movies were either depicted as villains or comic relief. They were not characters to be admired. Then you have what Disney did for the gay voice. Disney used the “gay voice” for its male villains. Think of the voices of Captain Hook (Peter Pan), Jafar (Aladdin), Prince John (Robin Hood), Professor Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective), and Scar (The Lion King). Each of these characters is portrayed with what we would consider an exaggerated stereotypical gay voice. No wonder we hate our own voices.
Thorpe is a fellow Southerner from Columbia, South Carolina. When he went to a speech therapist, one of the things she tried to do is to remove the last vestiges of his Southern accent. Often, gay Southerners have it worse because we do draw out our words, we do over articulate, and we are more precise in our language. And if you think of any Southern gentleman in a comedic role, he usually has the gay voice. I do not want to lose my Southern accent, and besides, my accent is more noticeable than my “gay voice” up here in Vermont. It’s also seen as charming, and of course, I am charming when I want to be.
Gay stereotypes exist. You cannot deny men are judged because of stereotypes. All people, no matter their gender, face stereotypes. I suspect stereotypes will always exist. Maybe one day, we can overcome them, but I suspect that will not be in my lifetime. As long as there are hateful people out there, we will be judged by stereotypes. Most everyone judges people by their first impressions, but the better person keeps an open mind and doesn’t judge until getting to know the person.
Since we are talking about my voice, I thought you might be curious so I recorded it for anyone who would care to listen. I’ll let you judge if I sound gay. You may listen to this and realize you hate the sound of my voice; you wouldn’t be the first, nor do I expect you will be the last. I’ll be brutally honest, when I first wrote this post and recorded my voice for it, I thought it would enrich what I had to say and be something extra my readers might enjoy. However, with my voice insecurities, I agonized over whether to actually post it. What if one or more of you are so disappointed by what you hear you decide you don’t want to read my blog anymore? What if one or more of you leave a nasty comment? Ultimately, I decided if I am judged by the sound of my voice and found lacking, that just proves my point about negative perceptions and stereotypes based on the sound of someone’s voice. So, here it is to listen to or not; it’s up to you:
In a post on his blog, New Homo Blogo, Jeremy Ryan suggested the TEDx Georgetown talk “Why am I ‘so gay?’” by Thomas Lloyd, a graduate of Georgetown University. I watched the video, and it fits perfectly with some of what I talk about here. Lloyd speaks about being in middle school and becoming aware of being different. Here is an excerpt:
It was around this time that, even though I didn’t necessarily feel all that different from my peers, other people did. And what had started as, “Oh, you’re so gay!” became whispers, became rumors, became slurs. This is when we, as a community, human beings, have a sort of tendency that, when we detect difference, when we detect something we don’t understand, even if we can’t name it yet – and we were all too young at this age to name what was different, or to act on what was different – we try to correct it through less than honorable means. And so, people would make fun of the way that I walked…. So, I would suddenly think about every single step that I took. It became deliberate. And people started to make fun of the way that I moved my hands when I talked….And then people would make fun of my voice, even though none of our voices had changed yet….So, you can imagine how difficult, as a New Yorker, it was to walk and talk, and have a conversation while I’m motivating every single motion of my voice and my speech. The things that we take for granted, the ways that we navigate the world in normal ways were critical things that I had to think about every second of the day. I had to expend all of my creative energy on covering what it was that made me different.
I identify with what he says. My voice may have been part of what made me seem gay, but I was told I walked like a sissy, and people made fun of that too. I tried to walk more “butch,” but I honestly didn’t know how to walk any other way. It was the same with my voice. I once tried to deepen it when I talked, but not only was that exhausting, it hurt my throat. I also used to talk with my hands. As I got older, and had to be in front of the class, I would clutch the podium so I couldn’t move my hands. When you are in the closet, or even before you understand you are gay, you begin to change things about yourself so people won’t bully you for how you talk or how you walk or that you move your hands when you talk. You even dress differently than you want, because you don’t want to go through another day of people making fun of everything you do. To hear Lloyd talk about how hard it was as a New Yorker; it could not have compared to how hard it was in the South.
You were coming of age before gay internet. For guys who were 18 even in 2005, the internet/mobile apps made it fairly easy to meet other guys. It seems you didn’t have this advantage. How did you finally connect with other gay guys? How did your first experience with a guy happen? How did you feel about it?
These are good questions, but I didn’t think I could do them justice in a comment. They do limit the number of characters you can use so I decided I’d write a post to answer RB’s questions.
I first used the Internet in 1997 when I was taking an undergrad class on Medieval England. Our professor taught us how to do scholarly research on the Internet. It was still in its infancy. We had to use the university library’s Internet lab for access. Thankfully, the Medieval archives had begun early on to digitize their collections for researchers. For those of you who might be curious, here is a short timeline of Internet availability during the 1990s:
1991: CERN introduced the World Wide Web to the public.
1992: The first audio and video were distributed over the Internet. The phrase “surfing the Net” was first popularized.
1993: The number of websites reached 600. The White House and United Nations went online.
1994: Netscape Communications was born. Microsoft created a Web browser for Windows 95. Yahoo! was created but was not incorporated until March 1995.
1995: Compuserve, America Online (AOL), and Prodigy began providing Internet access. Amazon.com, Craigslist, and eBay went live. The first online dating site, Match.com, launched.
1998: The Google search engine was born changing the way users engage with the Internet.
As you can tell from the timeline, this was all new stuff in 1997. It would be three more years before I had Internet service, and that was after I moved to Mississippi for graduate school in 2000. Occasionally, I would housesit for a doctor I knew; he had Internet access through AOL. I also had Internet access at work, but mostly I used that to order from Amazon.com which I think back then only sold books. It meant a new world of gay literature to discover as the local Barnes and Noble was somewhat limited in their inventory.
When I was still an undergraduate, the only way to meet gay people in Alabama or Mississippi was online. Well, you could hang out at Oak Park in Montgomery to meet men, but the Montgomery police always seemed to be rounding up gay men there. Montgomery had a gay bar for a short while, but no way was I was going in there. I also had no desire to hook-up with any of the out gay guys at college. There were only a few that I knew of anyway, and they all seemed to work on the student newspaper. The irony is the last girlfriend I had also worked on the student newspaper, but she never introduced me to anyone else on the paper.
My first-time meeting with a man is an unpleasant story. When I was living by myself in Mississippi, 200 miles away from my family, I began to explore the Internet to meet men. I met a guy on one of the websites which I doubt exists anymore. We decided to meet up. I knew he was older; in fact, he was closer to my father’s age. He also lived in the next town. This was before I’d come out to anyone, so I was being discreet. It was the worst date you can imagine. The only way it could have been worse would have been if he’d murdered me. Due to an injury, he had a penile implant, but insisted on topping me. He was also a cross-dresser. I have no problem with transvestites; to each his or her own. It’s just that I am not one of them. Yet after we had sex, he insisted I too put on a woman’s nightgown. And then there was his kissing. They were very wet slobbery kisses. That was bad enough, but he had the gall to tell me I was a bad kisser, and someone should teach me how to kiss properly. Now here’s the thing, I had kissed a fair number of girls by then, and all of them had remarked on what a good kisser I was. He is the ONLY person to ever say anything even remotely negative about any of my oral skills. I was mortified. I never should have met up with this guy. There is so very much more to this story, but I’d prefer not to describe it except to add, it would be over a year before I even attempted to meet up with another guy after this horrific experience.
The first time I went into a gay bar was in New Orleans. A friend took me to one while we were at an academic conference there. She had been the first person I’d ever come out to, and she wanted to take me to the gay section of New Orleans. We went to Oz, which is the club where drag queen Bianca Del Rio, the season 6 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, got her start. Sadly, I never saw her perform. At first, we just sat at the bar while my friend put money in the underwear of men dancing on the bar as if she was feeding coins into a slot machine; I enjoyed the eye candy. We then went to dance a bit. I still remember walking into the room where the dance floor was (OZ is smaller now than it used to be thanks to Katrina). The smell of the men in that room was intoxicating; that smell still turns me on. This was also when everyone at my grad school found out I was gay. For about the next week, the news of my sexuality spread like wildfire. It wasn’t that I’d hooked-up with anyone that night. I was just the subject of gossip for about a week. Except for one professor, it was all overwhelmingly positive.
Maybe a year after that, my best friend who now lives in Texas but went to grad school with me, took me to the gay bar near our university. She was a local. When we went in (the bar was never overly busy), she saw some guys she knew who almost immediately began hitting on me; I was fresh meat after all. One was totally tweaked out, so we left him alone. The other guy was nice and had gone to high school with my friend. Before the end of the night, we were making out. That night, I went home with him, and unlike my first sexual experience with a man, this was fantastic. I never knew sex could be that good, nor did I know my legs could go behind my head. It turned out to be a one-night stand, but it was fun. We exchanged numbers but he never responded so I dropped it. Later, I found out sex could be even better than that.
From then on, I often met guys online. Gay.com, AOL Gay Chat, and Yahoo! Messenger were all ways to connect with guys back in the early 2000s. I have rarely been with a person I did not meet online first. Furthermore, I only saw one of those guys more than once. We became, what you’d call “fuck buddies.” We never really got to know each other; we just enjoyed having sex with one another. I knew what he did for a living, and he knew what I did, but little other information was exchanged. The last time we hooked up, I found out he had a girlfriend and that was the end of that. Once I moved back to Alabama, meeting guys online essentially dried up. I did meet a few guys, but when I started teaching at the private school, I had to be extremely careful.
The few guys I did meet were either on Grindr or OkCupid. OkCupid is where I met the boyfriend with whom I had my longest relationship. Things were going well until I got released from my teaching contract and found my current position in Vermont. When I told my boyfriend I had lost my job, he surprised me with dinner at the restaurant on top of Mount Cheaha, the highest natural point in Alabama. We had taken a vacation there the previous spring break. It was a very romantic gesture.
In the early days of my coming out, the Internet was available, and I used it, but mobile apps did not exist. It wasn’t as easy to meet other guys as it is today. And, there weren’t a lot of gay bars in Alabama or Mississippi. New Orleans and Mobile had gay districts, but they were about two hours away. That’s not realistic for a night out. During my time in grad school, there were a couple of nearby gay bars; when one would close, another would open a few months or a year later. We never had more than one gay bar at a time. I guess you could say my generation and especially my geographic location proved to be a disadvantage. It was also a time when gay bars were struggling because men were meeting other men through the Internet and not at bars. But eventually, I did connect with gay guys on the Internet; sometimes it went well, sometimes not. One of the things I’d like more than anything is a gay friend who lived nearby. I’ve never had a gay friend; all my friends have been straight. My first experience with a guy was an utter disaster and probably scarred me for a long time. I am trying to be more outgoing these days, but with the pandemic, there has been a halt to that.
When I was growing up, I only knew of two possibilities when it came to with whom I would spend my life: I’d either marry a girl or I’d remain single. From about first grade through my senior year, I had a “crush” on a girl in my class. She was smart; I was smart. I thought we’d make a perfect pair. And it didn’t hurt that she was pretty. To a six-year-old, this all made sense. It was what was expected of me. I also thought I’d be a wealthy lawyer, but I ended up changing my mind about that too.
Then came seventh grade. Within the first week of that school year, and it may have been the first day, some of the guys in class started picking on me. I was constantly bullied and called gay slurs. Some of the girls even talked behind my back. But that same year, we got a new boy in our class. He was blond, blue-eyed, and beautiful. The new guy made them stop. When he was around, he protected me from the bullies. Without realizing it, I had my first boy crush from that day forward. I basically worshipped this kid. He was my hero. He was a genuinely good guy.
As I’ve said before, I never contemplated being gay until college although I had fantasized about a number of guys once I’d had my sexual awakening. However, that new kid in seventh grade was the person who almost always fueled my sexual fantasies. Thinking back on it, he probably fueled my whole sexual awakening. I was utterly delusional, though. I had no awareness I was gay. I never, or rarely ever, fantasized about girls. It was always guys, and always the guys who were nice to me. Being kind was and still is a sure way to my heart.
The ironic thing was the new guy and the girl I’d had a crush on eventually became a couple and have been married for nearly 25 years. He’s put on a few pounds but not much, and he’s still just as handsome. They have beautiful children too. The girl hasn’t changed one bit. She still looks like she did all through school. She had a twin sister who went to college with me, and I ended up going out on a few dates with her. She too still looks the same as she did in school. All the other people I went to school with are basically unrecognizable to me when I see them on Facebook.
Probably the strangest thing in my dating life occurred in my junior year of high school. I knew a girl who had been my best friend since I was five. Even though we lived in different towns much of our school years, we stayed pen pals. I’ll get back to her in a minute. In high school, I worked for a short time at a Subway restaurant. I ended up asking one of my coworkers to go to the homecoming dance. We were an odd pair; she was beautiful and quite popular, and I was the nerdy fag. Some of her friends had nasty things to say about us going to the dance together. My coworker basically told them to fuck off; she thought I was nice.
That same fall, my earlier-mentioned best friend was dating an older guy who was one of the most handsome guys I’ve ever laid eyes on; he was fucking gorgeous and so sexy. He also had big muscles and a big dick, which I heard about from my best friend. (I knew the dick size of everyone she dated.) He took my best friend to the homecoming dance. Little did my best friend and I know that a few months later, my date and her date would hook up, and my date got pregnant. They literally ended up having a shotgun wedding; her father, with a gun pointed at the guy, forced them to get married. They had several kids and lived somewhat happily for a little while, but eventually got divorced. Then he had a logging accident which left him paralyzed. He eventually died from his injuries. These days, she’s remarried to a much older man and is a successful real estate agent. I’m still friends with her on Facebook; she used to send me housing listings she thought I should look into. I’m pretty sure she used Facebook to get her real estate business up and running. Her oldest two sons, who are now in college, look so much like their father.
By the way, that best friend of mine growing up always considered herself a Republican. These days, she is the biggest Trump supporter I know, and we rarely speak to each other. When we do talk, it’s through Facebook, and it’s only to argue politics. I keep her muted so I don’t have to read about whatever stupid conspiracy theory she currently believes. It’s really disgusting how much she supports Trump. Last Christmas, she wrapped all her children’s presents in Trump wrapping paper. I was appalled to know such a thing even existed.
I shouldn’t be surprised, though, by her support of Trump. Their morals are about the same. In high school, she had sex with any guy who would look her way. (I don’t say that to slut shame; I’d have done the same thing if I’d been out and had the opportunity.) And yes, that included me, not one of my prouder moments. It was also one of my most traumatic sexual encounters, but that’s a story for a different post. Let’s just say, she could be very manipulative. For instance, she purposely got pregnant by her first husband before they married and were both in high school so he’d have to marry her and not go off to college. I believe she’s now on her fourth husband. She’s been a bit silent on Facebook lately. She’s a nurse at the largest hospital in Montgomery. I wonder if she sees Trump differently because of his disastrous handling of the pandemic. I suspect not.
I know there were at least a half dozen guys I had crushes on in high school, yet I never would have called them crushes back then. It wasn’t until I took psychology in my senior year in college that my mindset about being heterosexual would change. Back then, I thought my crushes were a form of admiration, a desire to be like them. Also by then, I had discovered the internet and gay porn, but I still couldn’t admit to myself I was gay. I thought maybe I was bisexual, but definitely not gay. My world view changed in that psychology class. My professor asked us to submit questions anonymously on any topic related to psychology. He’d spend the last few minutes of each class answering some of the questions. One day, someone (not me) submitted a question asking if there was a way to tell if you were heterosexual or homosexual. This was the late 1990s in Alabama. It was a legitimate question. I could not have been the only person clueless about their sexuality. Someone else had asked the question after all. The professor told the class to consider whether we fantasized or dreamed predominantly about people of the opposite sex, the same sex, or both equally. That could be an indication you were either heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Thinking back on it, he was progressive for Alabama at that time. Hell, he’d be considered progressive for Alabama today. It was then I realized girls were never a part of my fantasies or dreams. It finally began to dawn on me I was probably gay. I was horrified at the prospect.
When you are raised with no alternative to being heteronormative, it can be difficult coming to terms with a sexuality that doesn’t meet that ideal. Anything else is out of the question. Let’s not forget, I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s when AIDS was a scary thing. My mother had me believing all gay men had AIDS. It’s amazing I ever came out at all, but I’d always been more liberal-minded than those around me when I was growing up. Nowadays, I’m considered somewhat conservative in Vermont. Who knew?
I’ve known a lot of men over the years who have been confused about their sexuality. Some even married women. Some got divorced later in life and have since come out; others remained married. I dated one girl in college and when that ended, I never dated another woman. I was still trying to figure out my sexuality, and once I did, I knew I’d never marry a woman. I’ve always believed if I did get married, she’d be miserable, and I’d be miserable. I know that is not the case for everyone, but it’s how I feel about myself. We all make choices in our lives, and for some, those choices work out for the better; for others, it does not. Part of my philosophy on marrying a woman probably comes from the lawyer I used to work for in college. She never married. She once told me she didn’t get married because of a lack of opportunity; she’d been proposed to on numerous occasions. Each time a man proposed to her she considered whether she could see herself getting a divorce. Every time, the answer was yes, so she remained single. She died alone a few years ago from a heart attack.
I’m not crazy about the thought of dying alone. But I’ve decided, if it happens, it happens. Sometimes, I feel I’ve wasted my best years being in the closet. That is why I advocate for people to love their children no matter what and to encourage them to feel comfortable no matter their sexuality. Maybe if things had been different, maybe if my parents and family had been more understanding, maybe if homosexuality had been more acceptable back then… But that is something I will never know. I am happy it is easier today for kids to come out and at a young age. However, I do know that is not the case for everyone: gay people in the South still have a difficult time; Mormon kids may have it the worst. I pray for the day when all expressions of sexuality are accepted, when we can live in a more equal and welcoming world.
I don’t think the generation after mine realizes how lucky they are. I am in awe of the wealth of information and data at our fingertips these days.. When I was a teenager, the Internet was very new. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was in college the first time I had the chance to use the Internet. I took to it fairly quickly, though. I was able for the first time to better explore my attraction to guys (even if I didn’t understand what all that meant at the time). One thing many of us take for granted is the quick and easy access we now have to more…adult content. Our content was so innocent compared to what young gay men have today. At least it was for me.
For better or worse, gone are the days of magazine clippings, underwear catalogs, and dial-up internet connections that take 15 minutes to load a torso. That’s what it was like for me as a teenager and a young college student. The idea of going to the adult section of a movie store, or god forbid just using your imagination, is completely lost on the youth of today.
One interesting thing though is that generations prior to mine were much freer about male nudity, especially in locker rooms and such male only spaces, but my generation rarely got fully naked in from of one another. On rare occasions did I see guys get fully naked in the locker room at PE or when I played basketball in high school, but even those few times were very brief. Masturbation was a completely taboo topic, and you’d never dare admit that you did that. In some ways, the generations after me have been freer to discuss such things, and they are becoming less shy in the locker rooms again.
Earlier this week, Twitter came together to reminisce about these desperate times. The conversation was initiated by Chris Kelly, known for his workon Saturday NightLive. “What photo do YOU remember printing out on your family’s shared computer and masturbating to for weeks/months?” wrote Kelly, alongside a pixelated picture of a shirtless Jon Bon Jovi.
Gay Twitter sprung into action, all too eager to share the first additions to their own masturbatory fantasies. There were some of the usual suspects. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Heath Ledger, and Marky Mark. There were also clippings from fashion magazines and underwear advertisements. Does anybody remember International Male or the Undergear Catalogs?
Then there was even a smattering of some obscure ones. The kind of pictures you might resort to in a pinch (we’ve all been there). My most obscure (i.e. embarrassing) was probably the Nelson Twins. Good God, that hair! Those clothes! I remember I had a special edition magazine dedicated just to them. I actually did like, their music.
There were also the myriad of workout magazines. Those magazines, the catalogs, etc. were what I kept secretly under my bed. Then when I was in college, I discovered A&F Quarterly. OMG, they were so homoerotic, you could even excuse the fact that they sometimes showed girls. It just took a little bit of skin back then to turn me on. Tastes change though.
Now there’s PornHub, Snapchat, Twitter, and OnlyFans just to name a few of the massive amount of masturbatory material out there. Not to mention all the information you’d ever want about being gay. While things were beginning to change back in the late 90s and early 2000s, things were nowhere near as open as today. Kids are coming out younger and younger. Many do not have the fear and stigma of being gay that my generation had, and it was worse for the generation before mine. I said many because there are still very religiously conservative enclaves out there, such as my home state of Alabama or God forbid you’re a gay Mormon in Utah.
So my question of the day is: What was your favorite special material to get you off? Who was it? Where was the source of your entertainment? I honestly would like to know. You can always comment anonymously if you’re too embarrassed to sign your name to it. Let’s hear it.
How to Do It: Sex Education and the “Sex Life”
By Joseph Gamble • March 19, 2019
In 1696, in Somerset county in southwest England, a schoolboy named John Cannon and his friends took their lunchtime break on the banks of a river near their schoolhouse. Unlike other uneventful riverside lunches, though, this day was memorable enough for Cannon to record in his memoirs. An older boy who was “about 17” years old, Cannon writes,
took an occasion to show the rest, what he would do if he had a female in place, and withal took his privy member in his hand, rubbing it up & down until it was erected & in short followed emission. The same was he said in copulation & withal advised more of the boys to do the same, telling them that although the first act would be attended with pain yet by frequent use they would find a deal of pleasure, on which several attempted and found it as he said. Indeed, courteous friend, I cannot excuse myself for being one of his pupills at the same time.1
A group of teenage boys standing in a circle by a river, learning to masturbate during their school lunch break: this might well have been a scene in Laurie Nunn’s new Netflix show, Sex Education. Sex Education follows the lives of a group of students at Moredale Secondary School, a fictional high school (as we would say in the United States) set somewhere in the countryside of England. The show’s protagonist, Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), is the sexually-anxious son of a sex therapist, Jean (Gillian Anderson).
Despite his own sexual hang-ups, Otis has soaked up enough of his mother’s thoughtfulness about the complexity of sex to be able to help his peers work through their own sexual difficulties, a skill that his friend Maeve (Emma Mackey) turns into a business. In their clandestine sex advice clinic, Maeve collects the clients, and Otis talks through their sexual problems with them. There are, as it turns out, lots of clients with lots of problems.
Given its emphasis on the relationship between Otis and his clients, the show might well have been called Sex Therapy, rather than Sex Education. Indeed, at least in the public education system in the United States, “sex education” generally entails little more than a discussion of various sexually transmitted infections.
In many states, sex ed courses are perfunctory, and sometimes even taught by community volunteers who are not trained educators. “Education” is a generous word for what goes on in those classrooms. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 37 states “require that information on abstinence be provided,” with 27 of those states — including my current state of Michigan — requiring that “abstinence be stressed.”
Typed page. Heading: “High Schools and Sex Education.” Stamp of the Treasury Department at the bottom of the page.
As you’d expect, a 1922 edition of recommendations for sex education in high schools… from the US Treasury Department. (Archive.org)
My home state of Alabama is one of 7 states that stipulate that homosexuality cannot be discussed positively in sex education courses. Alabama Title 16. Education § 16-40A-2 (c) (8) mandates that sex ed courses include “an emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” Never mind the fact that the US Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision declared unconstitutional the sodomy law referenced in the statute, and never mind that the damage — both emotionally and physically — this statute does to queer youth clearly runs counter to the “public health perspective” it claims to support.
Similar homophobic statutes (so-called “no promo homo” laws) exist in Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Such “education” seems like the furthest thing from the honest and open communication about the emotional and physical difficulties of sex that Sex Education stresses.
The show does give us, though, a small glimpse of this sterile form of clinical education in the first episode when Otis and Maeve are tasked with labeling the various parts of the vulva and placing a condom on a dildo. But what makes Sex Education so brilliant, in my opinion, is that it portrays this clinical sex ed as not enough. The students of Moredale can label diagrams of the vulva all day long; they still need someone to talk through with them how to give blowjobs, how to listen to their partners, and how to figure out what it is they find pleasurable.
In a mere eight episodes, Sex Education manages to carefully cover a huge range of sexual issues that might not normally fall under the guise of “sex ed”: desire, including queer desire; performance anxiety; unwanted pregnancy; abortion; gender expression, and the dangers faced by transfeminine/gender nonconforming people; communication in relationships; anxieties about being a virgin; sexual reputation and rumor; divorce; adultery; parenting; (cyber)bullying; immigration; and addiction.
Cartoon of a woman’s reproductive system… but really a disembodied uterus, fallopian tube, and vagina.
A still from a (wholly inadequate) 1960s American “sex ed” video. (Archive.org)
What the show understands is that people have sex lives — sex lives that aren’t just accumulations of scientific knowledge about reproduction or quantifications of how much sex one is or isn’t having, but complex and ever-changing relations to sex. And it understands that the sexual knowledge that undergirds those sex lives is not primarily transmitted from teacher to pupil, but from peer to peer. After all, John Cannon — the man from my opening anecdote — didn’t learn to masturbate from his school teacher, but from a boy in the class above him.
Sex is a Tragicomedy
As a historian of sexuality, I was so struck by Sex Education because it, like Cannon’s anecdote, treats sex as a learned skill. In my scholarly work, which examines how English women and men learned how to have sex in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I approach sex in much the same way as the show does: not only as a learned skill, but as a learned skill that is both logistical (how do you figure out how to make your body fit with, on, or in someone else’s body?) and emotional (how do you figure out what you feel, and why you feel it, and how other people feel about you, and why?).
The social organization of sexuality has changed drastically over the past 400 years — to give just one example: sexual identity categories like “straight” and “gay” and “bisexual” simply didn’t exist in the seventeenth century. But the daily work of crafting a sex life — the anxieties and the pleasures, the anticipation and the rumination, the fumbling and the stumbling and even, as the show dramatizes in the second episode, the vomiting — has largely remained the same.
Taking up both the logistical and the emotional challenges posed by sex, Sex Education deftly captures the fact that sex is a tragicomedy. The show is so sympathetic to its characters that it allows us to see the comedy of sex and to feel how very serious the anxieties surrounding sex can be. We are supposed to laugh when one of the school’s gay boys, Anwar (Chaneil Kular), confesses to Otis that he is “freaked out by bumholes” and when another boy worries that he might be “addicted to wanking.”
We are supposed to laugh, but we aren’t supposed to laugh at. Lily’s (Tanya Reynolds) alien-laden sexual fantasies, for instance, are funny not because the show makes fun of her, but because sex is weird and funny and, well, kind of alien! (While the ensemble cast of the show is wonderful across the board — I mean, come on, it’s Gillian Anderson! — Reynolds’s performance stands out as truly spectacular).
The show even manages to create sympathy for Adam (Connor Swindells), the headmaster’s son and school bully. In the first episode, bothered by his recent inability to ejaculate, Adam takes three pills of Viagra and becomes distressingly erect. The show wants us to laugh — “it’s like a third leg!” Maeve quips — but then immediately shifts from the comic to the tragic.
When Maeve reveals that she knows about Adam’s sexual problems with his girlfriend, the music stops, and the camera rests close to Adam’s downtrodden face as he takes a beat. “Too much pressure,” he says. “I just can’t stop thinking about stuff when I’m shagging: what if I’m not good at this? Maybe I’m doing it wrong? Maybe she knows I’m doing it wrong!” These aren’t the sorts of questions that are answered by the school-sanctioned worksheets and condom demonstrations.
Among the many brilliant choices this show makes is the extension of its narrative arc past the obligatory school dance episode. Where less thoughtful writers might well have ended the show with the high drama of the dance, Sex Education understands that sex has emotional afterlives — that it can continue to reverberate after any particular act, and that understanding sex holistically requires resting in both the pleasure and the discomfort that remain when the traditional narrative climax has passed.
As a viewer, you feel like the show takes care of you, even in its smallest details. It’s no accident, for instance, that the play the students are discussing in their English class is Shakespeare’s As You Like It — a play in which a woman pretends to be a man in order to teach the man she loves how to woo women. As You Like It is, in many ways, Shakespeare’s “sex ed” play.
There are, in fact, many early modern precedents for the holistic approach to sex that Sex Education takes. In addition to John Cannon and Shakespeare, consider just one final example: a mid-seventeenth century text called The School of Venus. This text is composed of fictional dialogues between a young, soon-to-be married woman named Katy and her older, married friend Frank. Katy, a virgin, comes to Frank to air her anxieties about her impending first sexual encounter, and to ask her advice about what she should do. “Pray tell me what your Husband doth to you when he lyes with you,” she asks Frank, “for I would not willingly altogether appear a Novice, when I shall arrive to that great happiness.”2
Katy says, in effect, “it’s my first time and I’m nervous”: a sentiment as readily legible in the seventeenth century as it is today. It’s not hard to imagine Otis sitting in the stall next to Katy, taking a breath and replying: “Ok, before we get to the ins-and-outs, tell me a little bit about your relationship ….”
Cannon, John, The Chronicles of John Cannon, Excise Officer and Writing Master, Part I: 1684-1733 (Somerset, Oxfordshire, Berkshire), ed. John Money (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 26.Mudge, Bradford K., ed. When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature (Oxford University Press, 2004), 17.
About the Author
Joseph Gamble (@jmgmbl) is a PhD candidate in Women’s Studies & English at the University of Michigan, where they are soon to defend a dissertation on sexual pedagogy in early modern England. In August 2019 they will take up a position as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toledo.
On August 1 of this year, the last remaining users of Gay.com received a message informing them the site had changed management and that the iconic online chatrooms would “disappear” and all their data would be erased. Forever.
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