WHEN I WAS six-years-old, a young man molested me. I was walking home after an early summer tennis lesson, past an abandoned baseball field, the desert sun baking on my skin, the sounds of the next class fading behind me, when an aggressive hand from an unknown source found its way to my backside, all fingers and force and seeming experience. My tennis shorts were woefully ineffective as a shield to his skill, as were my protestations. For a moment, time ceased, the sun was no longer hot, the dust no longer floating about. I could hear the scuff of our shoes as they battled one another; a grunt from him as he struggled to violate, my own muffled cry of surprise. Smells, too, commanded their own attention: his nervous sweaty odor, his breath on my face.
As I struggled to free myself from – as it turns out – the hands of a male, approximate age 18, dark hair, dark skin, wire rimmed glasses, and an impish smile I was greeted with a confusing proposition. What my molester said to me was: “You better not make me do that to you again.”
I should have run. But instead, I found myself strangely lingering, compelled to stay as long as I could, busying myself with the collection of my dropped tennis racket, the fumbled balls, and the arrangement of the clothes that seemed to have been reversed onto my little body. He stood a few feet away, his eyes intensely focused on me. “Do you want to see my dick?”
The words echoed in my head. Did I want to see his dick? I knew I was supposed to say no, but the truth is, I felt another feeling far more powerful than fear. His gaze unbroken, I imagined that he could see what I dared not look at – my small, pathetic, embarrassing erection – a huge sign that I was enjoying him.
I said, “No.”
On my way home, I resisted the urge to run back and throw myself at his feet and encourage him to do what he would. But instead I continued on my way, the confusing pain and heat in my midriff and groin growing unabashedly as I walked across the railroad tracks, up my street and into my house.
The house in which I grew up was a fortified safe-haven from dangerous, dirty thoughts and lazy habits. My mother was a religious fundamentalist, and my father was of the military variety, so there was order, cleanliness, family togetherness, structure, an inordinate fear of God, and – most importantly – there were expectations. Failure to live up to the latter was probably the virtue to which I most fervently cleaved. One thing of which I was perfectly clear was that my new “desire” would not be high on their list of projected accomplishments for me. I mentioned nothing to my parents and didn’t allow thoughts of what happened to be seriously indulged until I went to bed that night, where the memories of my encounter could be safe and where I allowed all manner of fantasy to pervade my dreams. Thus, I was introduced not only to the world of eroticism, but to the conflict and lies surrounding it, a theme that would follow me for the rest of my life, at least until I met my therapist.
Twenty-four hours didn’t make a difference. There was no confusion on my part. I wanted to see him.
The next day at the tennis courts he was there, waiting at the same spot in back near the baseball field. I took note of what he was wearing, what he really looked like, how the toes on his boots were slightly worn, how he seemed to know I would be there. I was sickly nervous, but approached him.
He took me through a hole in the fence, which was made of painted plywood, and there he showed his penis to me, and it was a marvel to my eyes: bigger, hairier, scary and fascinating. He made me take mine out, comparing them. Again I was embarrassed, because mine was so little and insignificant compared to his, but I was no longer afraid that he would get the wrong impression from it.
He told me to follow him, which I did. He led me from the baseball field, back into one of the racquetball courts, locked the door, and came close to me, rubbing his body against mine. He didn’t kiss me, and I don’t remember what happened until he ordered me to lay face down on the concrete floor, which I did as he pulled down my shorts. He lay on top of me. The feeling was pleasurable — the sound of his breath in my ear, the weight of a mature body on mine, the feel of whiskers on the back of my neck. His movements were warmly mechanical, the grinding of his hips and the ceaseless grasp of his fingers. Then he tried to penetrate me, and I immediately recoiled, so far removed from possibility was this act from my mind. He tightened his grasp and told me to relax and tried to convince me it wouldn’t hurt. Where everything up until then seemed natural, enjoyable, and acceptable, this seemed unnatural, as if he’d made it up on the spot as a kind of game. He tried again. I squirmed and cried out. Suddenly the romance was gone, I was afraid, and I didn’t like pain. I freed myself and went for the door, only to be stopped by him, and he assured me that the experience was almost over, but only if I watched him masturbate, which I did. His orgasm completely confused me, the way he wouldn’t take his eyes off me while he pumped his fist, that unknowable gaze staring right into me, through me, at me; then the ejaculate splashing unceremoniously on the concrete floor, the film of lust dissolving from his eyes, the tucking of his penis back into his pants. As soon as he zipped up his fly I was out the door, never to see him again. He didn’t come back around, and I didn’t want to see him if he had.
I now understand how lucky I was in comparison to many, for these events acted as a catalyst for my sexual exploration, and there was little if any harm done to me. Somehow I had boundaries, and somehow – against all odds – they were respected, to a degree. And while there would be more powerful experiences in my life that would shape my desires, I still sometimes masturbate thinking of my little push into the world of sex.
I began meeting with a therapist when I was having trouble in my marriage. (I use the term ‘marriage’ in its descriptive rather than literal form. In 2010, as I write this, gay marriage is not legal in New York State.) Our troubles were typical of anyone who has spent many years with one person in the classic American heterosexist ideal of a union between two people: frankly, they were of the financial and sexual boredom variety, and were modeled on our parents’ unions. We approached this therapist as a couple, and quickly got to the core of our dilemma, which turned out not to be much of one at all, we had a few great heart to hearts, and my partner dropped out of therapy, jokingly proclaiming himself ‘cured.’ I continued with therapy alone because there was much more I wished to investigate.
First, I gathered the courage to talk about two very specific emotional affairs in which I had engaged in the previous four years, both of them with straight, married men who were close friends of mine. Both were unrequited, intensely emotional, and highly sexual for me. I was literally dying to talk about them with someone; I drank a lot more than was my inclination during this time in an effort to muddy the actual feelings I had for these men. I spent a great deal of time committing the fantasy of them to my senses, and the amount of work that went into this dream life was extraordinary. I could barely get the words out in the first session after my partner had dropped out, the shame at breaking the imagined paradigm of my forebears, the shame at how silly I would seem to my therapist. After I sheepishly delivered the admission I remember thinking there was a look of relief on my therapist’s face. As if he was saying ‘finally.’ That was the beginning for me, the journey I have been on ever since, guided by his benevolent, sure hand.
Our first step was to start at the beginning, though it is always a roundabout path to get there, full of jags, lulls and bursts of memory, half-truths, denial, embarrassment, infinite loops of accepted cuts devised for maximum comfort. Stanley was quick to reveal an arsenal of mental surgical instruments, however, to excise the fruitless from the fruit bearing. The beginning.
We discussed my parents, my brothers, my religious upbringing, my work life. I glossed over a lot of this so as not to seem trite or typical. I wanted my case to be exceptional, for whatever that’s worth, and I could sense something from my therapist that was akin to boredom, or, perhaps, impatience. I tried to convince him that my parents were great at parenting, that I valued my upbringing in their household, and that I was a moral, upstanding, sophisticated adult because of them. I had never participated in therapy before and wasn’t aware of the nuance of things both spoken and unspoken, and that it wouldn’t take much more of my blather for my therapist to come to a simple preparatory conclusion: I was raised to please. I was, in fact, trying to please him, was trying to please my parents by not speaking ill of them to him. I was subverting the truth of my life so as not to be perceived as a complainer. That simply wouldn’t do.
As I felt safer, I was freer in discussing the facts about my childhood with my therapist. I became more conscious of emotional weight; that anger, joy, sadness, and pleasure coexisted on exactly the same plane for me, but that safe retreat into comfort and stability of my marriage allowed me to witness them from afar, as opposed to actually experiencing them. It was as if I had been standing at the amusement park, watching the roller coaster, longing to get on it but unsure of its safety, envious of those brave enough to get strapped into its seat and get thrown headlong into its undulations, its twists and turns. I had the ticket at this point, though I still wasn’t sure I was ready to hand it over, to commit, to get on.
The ticket, of course, was sex. There was unfinished business needing my attention. We had discussed the emotional affairs with my straight married friends, the frustration resulting from them, the embarrassment of having made overtures that were met with awkward dismissal, the glorious real world shame I’d concocted for myself. The developing pattern of a desire to be humiliated and rejected could be seen if one looked closely enough.
Slowly, with my therapist as witness, I put together the fractured pieces of my sexual history.
For most of my childhood, I was not engaged in any sexual activity – outside of the usual experimentation with my best friends. I remembered trying please them too, showing them how to orgasm, the memories of my molester as my guide. I would try to suggest that if they did something to themselves it would make them urinate but that the resultant expulsion wouldn’t be urine, exactly, and that it would probably feel better than going to the bathroom. My more adventurous friends were always game to try, but it really never amounted to much.
Much of my childhood sexuality was encoded in my dreams and fantasies of which I had many. I often dreamed about my father and while these dreams were not overtly sexual, they were as erotic as any I ever had.
My father was a star athlete of the amateur sort, nationally ranked, state champion — all the result of focus, determination, and (his own words) a morbid fear of losing. What motivated him was not victory, but a determination not to lose. I, on the other hand, wasn’t motivated by much at all, though I had an active imagination and a hunger for mystery and things unseen: ghosts, UFOs, macabre tales, Sasquatch. I spent hours pretending to be hunted and murdered, and found myself taken with jealousy when unspeakable things happened to real life children. A childhood friend drowned, and I wish I had drowned with him, exploring the murky muddy bottom of the pond forever after, hand in hand.
The fear I had of my father was real, the stuff of classic Americana, his hard-assed pragmatism and logic leaving little room for a fantasist child such as myself. Corporal punishment was meted out methodically in our household. Infractions were punished calmly, with precision, and unemotionally. It was exacted by my father, with his shoe, and delivered to our backsides. If the upset was caused by all three of his sons, we were lined up against the piano and hit one by one. We got to choose what the order was. I always went last. It never hurt as much as I thought it would, and the sensation afterward became one I grew to like, the heat of blood returning to a lightly traumatized section of the body akin to a gentle heat lamp exposed to bare skin.
It wasn’t just the physical pain I came to enjoy, my therapist noted. What was becoming clear was the dynamic between a hard to please father with a child who endlessly tried, but hardly ever pleased. Later my therapist would point out how I seemed to eroticize this dynamic between pleasing, rejection and pain as a way to turn this struggle into something manageable, if not, in my own my mind – beautiful. In sex, I could be in charge of what happened, I could act out the drama while at the same time surrender to its passion, mystery and magic – the paradox leaving me in a state of ecstatic pleasure.
Of the dreams I recounted to my therapist about my father, one stood out for how it spoke to this struggle. In it my father tried to shove my head into a Plasticine grid which was molded in the shape of a brain and fit neatly in the niche of his armpit. I was the size of a Ken Doll compared to him – he held me in his grip and used the point of my head to try to penetrate the object under his arm. I felt electrical shocks, followed by the sensation of some kind of huge release. When I awoke the sheets were soaking wet. My therapist’s interpretation was that I had already learned to eroticize my fathers “violence,” coupling it with physical pleasure in an unconscious attempt to bear it. By then, he said, “the path was already set.”
My adoration of my mother was where I could feel safe, warm and loved. In her presence I could even be a little flighty without fear of debasement. But not too flighty – ours was a practical family, not given to daydreams and myths with one great exception. My mother’s church preached a lean version of contemporary Christianity with a smidgen of Old Testament dread, namely the tale of an imminent any-day-now Armageddon, the first date of which passed my young life in the year 1978, so to be alive in 1979 was a real coup, in my mind. My brothers and I would go door to door, handing out pamphlets for our church, spreading the gospel. The humiliation was substantial and consequential. My oldest brother was given the unconscionable task of being the one who had to recite the proverbs and compel people to come to the specified upcoming meeting of our congregation. We were sent alone on this pioneer work, as it was called, in an effort to increase the numbers of membership of our particular sect. We had been told that in the end there really wouldn’t be many people welcomed into Paradise Regained once His hand came down to wipe the face of the earth clean. I already knew by the time I rang those doorbells I wouldn’t be one of them.
For our family there was no celebration of: birthdays, Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving Day, Valentine’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Armistice Day, Arbor Day, or any other day recognized as being remotely associated with paganism or man-worship. Of course, secretly worshiping men was exactly how I protested the presence of God in our family life. As my therapist put it, “a poetic twist in my erotic puzzle.”
I went through the usual ordeal of school life, which included but was not restricted to being called a faggot, which intensified and peaked in the 7th grade. By the time I was fifteen, I was fully indoctrinated into the closeted world of gay men in small towns. I always had friends in whom I could trust, and I myself took out my own frustrations on those I deemed weaker than I. I was a good student, well liked by teachers, and well enough adjusted to navigate the trickier waters of typical small town life without being too cruel or feel that I had been unfairly victimized.
The surprise came from Frank, a friend of my older brother. He approached me one day on the street and out of nowhere asked me if I “knew”. Of course I knew, but did we know the same thing? I stood silently terrified. He asked the question again, “Do you know?” Finally, I answered, “Yes.” Slowly, a smiled formed across Frank’s face. “That’s good,” he said. This was a moment, I’ll never forget. It was the first time my homosexuality was acknowledged, no less affirmed.
School continued as it always had and the world did not come tumbling down around me. About a week after meeting Frank, my good friend Jenny and I received a surprise invitation to his house. Jenny had dated him for a few years, and now, she told me, he lived in the country with a man somewhat older than he.
We arrived at a modest, though lovely, hand-built house on the desert plain. Frank and Elliot were warm and friendly. I tried to hide my excitement at being in their presence. We were offered beer and pot, both of which we took gladly, though pot was new to Jenny and me. The drugs soon took their effect, and I was feeling warm, comfortable, and slightly nervous. After much small talk, Jenny was sent out of the room to investigate something with Elliot. Frank leaned in, grabbed my arm, and kissed me.
Though I had anticipated it, had fantasized since childhood about it, I was not prepared for the sinkhole of emotion, arousal, and elation that accompanied that first male kiss for me. The whiskers, the alcohol, the experience of the older man – all of them were there to be deciphered, tasted, and digested.
Thus began my sexual affair with Frank and Elliot, which lasted through the last week of my high school senior year, the same week I was outed to my parents. The details are too angering and painful for me to even speak of now. And the result was shocking. I was expelled from the house, covered in shame, anger, and remorse, and sent out to fend for myself. In an instant, I was abandoned by the people who were supposed to love me. Yet, somehow I was prepared for it. My childhood had given me the confidence that I could take care of myself. I was seventeen when I left home.
The night before I left town I went to see Frank and Elliot. It was the last time I saw them, and it was the last satisfying sexual experience I would have for the next twenty years.
I moved to the closest big city, got a job for the summer then went to South America for a year. It was 1986, and AIDS had been in the back of my mind since the first time I had sex with Frank and Elliot. In rural America at that time, the HIV virus was easy to pass off – however naively – as an urban problem, but the fear of it, the stigma attached to it, and (in my mind) the government-backed vilification of homosexual sex as an effective tool for political oppression had left me so frightened that I actually took a vow to abstain.
For two years I didn’t have sex of any sort. I masturbated infrequently. My thoughts of sex were bland, numb, flavorless. None of the old fantasies saturated my consciousness. My mind was working overtime to keep me a chaste man. I didn’t tell anyone I was gay throughout my travels, and no one asked. South America was full of beautiful people, and I didn’t want to fuck any of them. Mostly, I felt shame.
My first “love” affair came shortly after I returned to the United States. Paul was fifteen years older. He had lived all over the world. It all went terribly wrong, of course, almost from the start. I grew tragically in love with him. It lasted eight months only, but it was what I had been searching for: an extraordinarily emotional, violent connectedness that almost seemed the ideal of romance as it is depicted in some of the best works of art I had been studying. I didn’t know it then, but through therapy I now recognize, it struck all the notes at the core of my erotic and emotional being. I tried to leave a few times, only to crawl back begging for mercy. It was the first time I had begged to be humiliated, and it seemed apt since I was already shrouded in shame. The experience left me impotent, yet another form of humiliation and castration. My experiment of romantic love had failed, and my body was proving it, was flogging me with it. I tearfully left, my tail between my legs and escaped to New York.
Because I had excised sexual fantasy and indulgence from my being, it is no surprise that the sex with Paul was terrible, I begged him to humiliated, which seemed apt since I was still shrouded in shame. It was the first time someone had so cowed me with their bluster and sophistication that it made me something I never expected to be: impotent, which of course also served me well.
In New York, despite all of the sexual opportunities, I forced myself to stay in the protective environs of celibacy. I had already expunged sexual fantasy and indulgence from my being, now I was afraid of AIDS and used it to help justify my abstinence – a trick for further removing myself from the game. Had my parents known they would have been so very proud.
Two years into my life here, a man started asking me out. He was handsome and kind, and because I was in a coma, it took eight months for me to realize what he was doing. During these eight months, an awakening of sorts was happening. I started to look at people with whom I was working, and thinking of them as sexual beings. The moment could be fleeting, but I took notice. It was clear that I was sleepwalking through a city in which everyone around me was having sex, and it was the first time I actually started to see it. People were having it in bathrooms between their first cigarette and their second. Women would come out of the stairwell hiking up their skirts looking flushed, smiling, happy, gracefully sliding back up to the bar and grabbing their drink. Men in parks during lunch hour had their hands up the tops of the women sitting on their laps. A parked car on the street would reveal a bobbing head in the lap of the winking, unashamed driver. A slight trickle at first, for me, noticing these things. If I scratched beneath the surface of my workday life, I would find that practically everybody in the office had slept with each other.
I finally said yes to this man, and being with him was akin to slipping into a warm bath after a tiresome day. I was at the time still operating under a dimmer version of romantic love – a bit less hot, the expectations easier to attain, the shallowness less obvious. I was waking from a sexual slumber, had regained some potency, and our dating turned to living together kindly, respectfully, and dispassionately. We live together to this day, almost twenty years later.
Trouble started brewing gradually, when my friendships with married men gradually turned to unrequited one-sided love “affairs,” non-sexual emotional tours-de-force that gave me some gravitas to suck on. After fifteen years, my marriage was still good, solid, fair, and filled with kindness. Sex was tender and sweet and happened infrequently. But the sexual desires formed in my youth were trying to make an appearance, were brewing and steeping in their own juices and I had been denying them for far too long. So in their tricky fashion they donned a human cloak that showed itself in the light of day, defying me to dance with them. I had forgotten what it was that gave me passion.
In the second year my conversations with my therapist grew more intense, as did my sexual desires. But they didn’t seek their satisfaction in the body of my partner. He was easy to please, without an ounce of aggression. Lovely, but this was not the mix of chemistry that inspired my deepest longings.
I could no longer hold them back. I responded to them, via the internet. I answered an ad looking for someone who needed to please, to be controlled, dominated, and humiliated. The molestation, my father, Frank and Elliot, my dreams and fantasies were there in these words. I felt wildly aroused.
That I should then find myself in bed with a prissy man, his hard edges formed by his own confusion rather than the confidence I had imagined – and that I decided to go through with it as my new experimental phase warranted – left me feeling pleasantly relieved, not only by surrendering to my desire, but also at the outcome. Sadomasochism of the theatrical variety wasn’t my bag. In fact, the disconnect between pleasure and my investigation became so clear that throughout the evening of being pummeled, tied up, inspected, and sodomized with various sex toys revealed a fugue state of scientific objectivity to which I could easily retreat should I find myself in such a compromising situation again. Flip the switch on, and I could begin to understand the moments that brought real pleasure; flip the switch off, and I could look at what was happening and get beyond the cabaret, the cheap props, and the bizarre performances to know what I would never need to try again.
I checked that off my list, and tried a couple of mini-affairs with poetic, artistic men, meaning they were full, sexual, intimate, and although loving in their way, couldn’t measure up to the love I already felt for the man whom, every day, I slept beside.
One brief affair inspired a great surge of creativity and inspired profound visions of my life as I was living it as a dangerous, apocalyptic place full of monsters whose sole motivation was my imprisonment and death. The vividly lurid colors of this world were unforgettable, the creatures so believably threatening and omniscient, and my struggle to escape it so heart stopping, the breathlessness and fear so palpable, that I was inspired to commit them to paper and give them to him. It was a wonderful feeling, bridging the gap of sex, creativity, and creation, though once I actually delivered the fable to him, I never wanted to be with him again.
A year into it, I started to feel the responsibility of what my journey entailed, and started to understand that there were bound to be casualties, that the brief commingling of my orbit with those of other human beings wasn’t to be taken lightly. I also began to understand that I was not protected from being the casualty.
The chasm separating me from a full sexual life, my creativity, the realm of dishonesty in which I had placed my relationship with my partner, my actual peace-of-mind and happiness, shrank a bit after making these forays into an adult world of my deepest desires. I stopped needing broad strokes, and started to look into the more specialized event: the man who needed his feet rubbed to get him off; the one who shaved my head; the one who brought his friend; the one who made me do pushups; the one who stayed far too long, making me nervous at being discovered. Most of these men were married, identified themselves as straight, and I realized it was something I enjoyed, getting off while helping them fulfill their own trip through the woods – it was a place in which I was the comforting resident tour guide.
Yet, as time went on and I learned – with the guidance of my therapist – to appreciate the connection between my true desires and my conflicted history, I increasingly felt less of the need for them. Somehow, the darkness that once inspired them was beginning to turn lighter.
Sex is elusive. It is tied to who we are in a way that other experiences aren’t. It reveals more about disappointment, creativity, conflict and happiness than I ever cared to admit. Before I began my sexual journey, I was blind to this knowledge. Beginning required a vital first step – really looking into an immeasurable void and not being afraid of what lives there. Getting to know those little hobgoblins I shelved years ago is helping me to become whole.
Still there is one major chasm to cross. Like the secrets I kept from my parents and peers, I have hidden my affairs from my partner. Yet, I’ve learned by making the journey, that repeating my history has finally worn thin and rather then waiting until I am outed to my partner by a well-intentioned “friend,” my therapist is helping me prepare to tell him the story. Of course, I desperately fear that I’ll be kicked out of the house as I was when I was seventeen, and as dreadful as it would be should it happen, at least I know that I am no longer half a man.