A few months ago I had coffee with a straight female friend from high school. She had met a new partner online and I wondered which pictures she’d used. Oh, none, she said. She didn’t want to attract the “gropers.” The what? “Oh, you know, they just want to get into your pants.”
And what is the problem with that?
In an age in which gays and straights seem more and more alike, and monotony threatens from all sides, stories like this are music to my ears. They give me hope and an overlooked sense of community. We are not so similar after all.
My friend thought I should try something similar, and I had to politely explain that such a chaste approach might not work in the gay world. Our norms are slightly different. A gay ad without a picture is a gay ad without a result. Even the grottiest of pictures — undersea shots of genitalia squirming like squid in mud — has more traction than “long walks on the beach.” In gay life, no physical buzz equals no connection.
Which may be why I’m so fascinated by straight advice on dating and romance. It’s like reading a 19th-century novel about suitors and dowries and a lady’s “lack of conversation” — so distant from my own life, it’s comforting. It takes you back to a time when partnerships were for life, sex barely mattered and allegiances were based on money. Which is to say, practical stuff that could be managed, discussed and arranged.
Love is unruly and unexpected, inimical to rules, but you wouldn’t know that from the dating experts. At the moment, most straight advice is ultra practical and deaf to pleasure. More fixated on the flaws than the fizz.
“Don’t look for a good man. Look for a man who is good for you,” says Canadian dating guru JM Kearns (as paraphrased by the Globe and Mail), which is fine if the guy has stuck around long enough to be judged.
One of the biggest problems in gay life is getting from A to B — A to Z we can do — whereas most straight advice assumes you’ve already met someone and you just have to kick the tires a few times to see if they’re a safe ride.
One way to induce a little stickiness is sex on the first date, but that’s an absolute no-no according to just about everybody.
“Mom was right,” said Psychology Today last July. “Sleeping with someone prompts your brain to release neurochemcials” that cause you to bond too much too soon, and that’s hard on your objectivity.
Or as the Globe and Mail’s Leah McLaren put it in a list of 10 romantic commandments: “Thou shalt not shag his head off on the first date if thou likest him as much as thou might want to.”
Now this strikes me as both eminently sensible and wildly impractical. It gives you time to assess your partner as a friend. It frees up your judgment. It loosens the bonds of lust and prevents unsightly vulnerabilities. But what happens if you really, really like someone and then you finally go to bed and it turns out there’s absolutely nothing going on between you? That would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it? And please don’t tell me that desire grows with affection. Maybe with women. Not with men.
In a famous Atlantic article called “Marry Him!” Lori Gottlieb advised straight women not to hold out for the perfect mate but to “settle.” “Marriage isn’t a passion-fest,” she wrote, “it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often-boring nonprofit business.” And for that you need, not the perfect lover, but “Mr Good Enough.”
Now this is really good advice and strikes directly at the unsentimental heart of marriage — what Marx might have called its economic imperative. But I don’t think gay men settle. I did once hear of two long-time gay friends who, after a number of years, decided that they should become partners. And it worked. But that’s the exception that proves the rule. For the most part, gay men throw themselves at each other — like a chef flinging spaghetti at a wall — and wait to see what sticks.
Still, if we don’t settle, I do think we operate on a fairly even keel, mindful of the psyche’s many conflicting needs and desires.
Personally, I like the attitude of a gay character in Lawrence Durrell’s 1957 novel, Justine. As an “invert,” he said, he’d escaped “this fearful struggle to give oneself to another. Lying with one’s own kind, enjoying an experience, one can still keep free the part of one’s mind which dwells in Plato, or gardening, or the differential calculus.” Now that’s civilized, that’s balance.