What Watching Other People Have Sex Taught Me About Myself
I had an epiphany during a visit to a gay sex party, and it complicated my understanding of sexual development for the better.
I’ve known I was gay since I was 5, and it took me about 20 more years to be comfortable admitting as much out loud. And now, over a decade after coming out — a process that requires conscious engagement with, and ultimately rejection of, society’s homophobic expectations and imperatives that can reverberate indefinitely after saying, “I’m gay” — I’m still being confronted with the uncertainties of my sexuality. What’s the color of love? Unclear. But whatever it is, it’s opaque.
A visit to a gay sex party in Brooklyn last October left me unsatisfied, in every way. In theory, I should have loved the party — my experiences in small groups (threeways, foursomes) have been overwhelmingly positive, and I have enjoyed porn that depicts orgies. It’s amazing how the addition of just one body to a two-person experience can unlock what seem like infinite configurations. In reality, the last thing I wanted to do in that concrete basement with black-painted walls, communal beds, slings, and booths affording semi-privacy at best, was have sex. I thought the environment was uncomfortable — dark, dingy, maybe even self-pathologizing. I worried about the potential for the spreading of bed bugs. The largest group I’d ever participated in prior to that party was with five guys (including me), and aside from attending New York’s notoriously kinky Black Party a few years ago, I’d never been to one of these gatherings. Being there gave me anxiety about performing — which had the potential to be a true performance, given the crowd. That anxiety gave way to more anxiety about my fragile masculinity’s inability to override all else. I left the party wondering: where can I draw the line between “This is what I am” and “This is what I could be if I’d only open my mind, rejected society further, got over myself and my self-defeating tendencies.”
This was not a wall-to-wall fuckfest, by the way. It was one of those parties with a stated emphasis on dancing and socializing where sex is possible (and thus, in the hands of guys who were lusty enough to attend a party like that in the first place, probable). That atmosphere didn’t intoxicate me with suggestion, the way porn does, but instead it had the opposite effect: I didn’t feel horny; I felt confronted.
“Though a confining box to store your identity may seem a tantalizing refuge, it’s a false one.”
In your daily life, you can choose where to train your gaze and thoughts, and your brain never has to so much as graze scenes you aren’t into. At a sex party, the good time other people are having is thrust in your face. Watching guys flirt more heartily than they would at a non-sex club, seeing them start to play with each other, and hearing intermittent pounding coming from those booths made me feel like a feral cat watching his domesticated counterpart cuddled up in a human’s lap. Who were those people? More to the point, Who was I?
I felt uncomfortable with my discomfort. It brought back feelings of high-school isolation growing up gay in South Jersey, of never really feeling at ease in any group that I’m supposedly part of. But this was even worse in a way — at least back then, I could blame it on not having a crowd to call my own. This, for all intents and purposes, was my crowd. Not even the encouraging presence of my boyfriend (who ultimately refrained from play that night, too) was enough to soothe me into the moment. I left distraught. The feeling of failure followed me for days. Why wasn’t I a sexual superhero whose libido could supersede any and all feelings?
It was frustrating because I’ve seen how I can develop if I push myself. For years, I thought I was a top (or the one in a sexual configuration who does the penetrating) simply because bottoming (being penetrated) was too painful — it wasn’t until well into my thirties, when a particularly hands-on urologist advised me to concentrate on relaxing, that I understood the pleasure potential in getting fucked. I’m now enthusiastically, sometimes militantly, versatile and I’ve talked to more guys than I can count who went through similar sexual-positioning trajectories. Some went from considering themselves bottoms to knowing they’re tops, some the opposite. But most found their way to the middle through sheer will.
It wasn’t through anything but experience that I discovered my aforementioned love of threesomes. I became such an enthusiast, in fact, that my regular requests for them threatened, and in some cases, undid, relationships with boyfriends. When an ex of mine and I were having multiple discussions (that inevitably led to arguments) a week about inviting thirds into our beds, I had to ask myself: Am I polyamorous or just slutty? Do threesomes constitute a fetish of mine — one that demands to be taken seriously even at the risk of outside rejection — or do I just need to grow up?
For the sake of refuting bigoted rhetoric, people speak about sexuality in absolute terms — it is innate, immutable, fixed. Though a confining box to store your identity may seem a tantalizing refuge, it’s a false one. The truth is more complicated than definitive sexual boundaries. Human history tells a story of the evolution of sexual variation. In The History of Sexuality, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote of the emergence of the homosexual identity in the 19th century. His view of the proliferation of sexual variety caused by society’s inextricable binding of power and sexuality prompted him to explain: “Modern society is perverse, not in spite of its Puritanism or as if from a backlash provoked by its hypocrisy; it is actual fact, and directly, perverse… It is through the isolation, intensification, and consolidation of peripheral sexualities that the relations of power to sex and pleasure branched out and multiplied, measured the body, and penetrated modes of conduct.”
Society’s relationship with perversion is now more efficient than ever. This is for good and bad. The internet can alleviate isolation by confirming what one desires privately; it can provide inspiration for pushing one’s boundaries; or it can be too much of a good thing, as in the case of those who say they experience porn-induced erectile dysfunction (or, “PIED” as it’s known in the NoFap community). In a 2016 study by three sex scholars that surveyed men on their porn habits, most of the respondents said porn had influenced their desires, informed their fantasies, and led them to actively seek out sex after viewing. Another study conducted by researchers at Middlesex University in England found that almost 40 percent of teen girls and over 50 percent of teen boys considered the sex in the pornography they viewed to be realistic. Further anecdotal quotes from subjects suggested at least a few of them were wary of the expectations porn was setting for them. Talk to enough people about their sexual development, and you’ll get the sense that fetishes can evolve over time, even without any basis in childhood — Freud be damned. We are way more elastic than we sometimes like to admit.
“To stay afloat, sexuality must keep moving. Perhaps to the question, ‘How do we know what we are?’ there is no solution. There is only evolution.”
That’s why I try to stretch my desires to the point of discomfort. As someone who didn’t learn to achieve so much as overachieve, nothing seems real to me unless it comes with some difficulty. If you think of your existence as a muscle that must be regularly challenged to grow, ease equals atrophy.
Granted, stasis could, in the long run, be less fulfilling anyway. In their 2011 book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships, neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam emphasized the importance of variation in the sexual engagement of men. “Males of most species are wired to become aroused by novelty,” they wrote, citing studies that found that rats who seemed sexually exhausted after mating with a female would regain interest when presented with a new partner, and that human men lost sexual arousal when presented with the same pornographic images but maintained it when presented with a variety. To stay afloat, it seems, sexuality must keep moving. Perhaps to the question, “How do we know what we are?” there is no solution. There is only evolution.
I’ve been to a few sex parties since that one that bothered me so much — they were OK. Better, but not nearly as satisfying as my private experiences. Perhaps public sex is not for me; perhaps it is and I’ve yet to learn how to relax and enjoy it. There are only an infinite number of ways to find out. The challenge I face, that most of us face, if we understand life to be perpetual development? Finding peace while in flux.