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On Going Without

On Going Without


If an active gay man is one who regularly sleeps with men, then I am the opposite -- an inactive gay man, though not by choice. Since 2003, I've had a neurological illness that leaves me unable to go out often or for long, or to interact with others in any substantial way, either outside or at home. I am left alone, under these circumstances, to explore a never-experienced sexuality. I am trying to be gay -- from a distance.

When I was a teenager I didn't much like the scene. I hung out in London's Soho a little. Sex was there if you wanted it, and I did, but that was not how I wanted it. Being approached by a guy in a bar was not enough time, I thought, to decide whether you wanted to sleep with him, no matter how good-looking. I wanted to know first what he believed, how he saw the world, what he liked and disliked.

After eight years of unintended celibacy, that approach now seems somewhat chaste.

The same reservations about the scene's more superficial aspects remain, but for many of us, especially when we are young, it is a rite of passage, a chrysalis out of which emerges a new self. I miss not having had that experience -- when I had the chance.

Sex, for the moment, I should say, is almost entirely impossible. If an extraordinarily fortuitous sequence of events were to fall into place (a cute and up-for-it delivery guy happening to arrive at a time when my apartment was empty and I had enough energy to do what was required, for instance), it might be doable. But that situation has yet to present itself.

Problem-solvers and the more helpful among you will by now be thinking, Webcam sex? Well, yes, thank you. There is that. Actually, I have an old college friend who is determined to get into my pants, at least visually. ("How are you doing?" the Skype conversation begins. "Oh, good, glad to hear it, want to show me your cock?") But unfortunately he is... not my type.

Last year, in an attempt to find a better solution, I looked up another friend whose advances I had turned down during college. I tried to explain the situation and asked, as politely and Brief Encounter-ly as possible, if the offer was still on the table. But nothing came of it. It's one thing for two people to proposition each other spontaneously and in person; it is another for one to ask the other for sex out of context and from a distance. For me, etiquette has gone right out of the window. There is no Emily Post manual on the proper way to request sex from old friends during illness.

"Going without" for so long is not as difficult as you would think. Its near-impossibility makes the need to obtain it that much less urgent. Sex gets put on the back burner, replaced by the desire for what is possible, what is doable. Priorities change according to circumstances. You'd be surprised.

Without being able to meet in person, even basic relationships are similarly problematic but, unlike sex, cannot so easily be substituted. There is no love porn. At best I can experience a relationship secondhand -- that is, by reading about the romantic encounters of others. Proust, Isherwood, Diana Athill, Joan Didion -- they paint a vivid enough picture to provide at least a partial representation of what I'm missing. I cannot have a relationship, but I can remember those that I have had, and learn, through the writings of others, about those I have not.

Romantic tourism, if you like. It is a consolation of sorts.

Occasionally I am set up with men by friends on a correspondence basis. This allows for the sharing of ideas, for a dialogue to emerge, but it's difficult to get a sense of a person's physicality, for there to be any real attraction, without meeting face-to-face.

Lately I've been playing with Grindr, which finds other gay men who are nearby via the GPS in their cell phones. Sure, there are the usual unfortunates who seem to have been born with picturesque scenes instead of faces, but it makes the scenario of the luckily available delivery guy more likely. Failing that, it is nice to use my phone just to chat with other gay men. It provides a sense of interconnectedness. At least I know that possibilities for interaction exist nearby, when I am up to it.

All of this is a far from ideal situation. Trying to experience one's sexuality within such insular and limiting parameters is, to say the least, challenging. But it's helpful to remember that it is the inclination, not the act, that makes us gay.

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