Toronto
3 min

Ambiguous intentions

I don’t usually do request columns but the guy in the showers was insistent. People would relate to his story, he said. Besides, you don’t say no to a naked man.

The showers at the Y aren’t the best place to talk. For one thing, there’s the sheer weirdness of talking to another naked guy. For another, there’s the acoustics. The sound bounces off the white tile walls and flies about the room, distorting anything anyone might try to say.

But I think I got the gist of his complaint. “More and more,” he said, “I just crave intimate sex, something friendly and slow.” Not necessarily love, he was quick to add, though he wasn’t ruling it out, but something with at least a hint of connection. “People are so into fast-food sex. They’ll suck your dick at Steamworks but won’t look at you in Woody’s.”

Then he got into everyone’s favourite bugaboo, guys who don’t phone back. He came out in 1999, he said, and in that time people have stopped dating.

This is all true — emotionally, if not factually — and everyone, I’m sure, can sympathize with his plight. The Internet has only made things worse. Now sex isn’t just fast, it’s freeze-dried, reduced to a set of implausible statistics.

But what are you going to do? This is the world we’ve created. This is the flip side of the sexual revolution.

Once upon a time there were rules governing sexual behaviour. Everyone knew those rules and, while many of them exhibited a flagrant disregard for human reality, they did provide a certain structure and security. People knew how they were supposed to behave and how they were supposed to treat their partners. Casual sex was a no-no and there was no way you could sleep with someone and then never call. Not that slutty gay men ever paid much attention, but I think everyone had a sense that there was some larger goal guiding behaviour.

Now there are no rules and we’re all probably healthier for it, but we’re also a lot more confused. Everyone is operating with a different code of conduct. This is fine, up to a point. It’s probably even a step forward. It allows different people to satisfy their very different needs in different ways. The problem is that you never know where the other person is coming from.

One person wants to chat, the other wants to fuck. One’s hoping for something more, the other for something distinctly less — like getting out of there as quickly as an orgasm will allow.

Sometimes the context telegraphs the intent, but not always. Here, too, personal interpretation comes into play. Lots of people regard the baths as the preeminent dispenser of fast-food sex. For me, lately at least, it’s become the place where I’m most likely to meet hot, friendly, pleasant, datable guys.

Wherever you meet, though, you’re still up against the problem of mismatched intentions. Leonore Tiefer, a feminist sex therapist and author of Sex Is Not A Natural Act once said in Ms Magazine that, “You can use sex in all kinds of ways for any human motive. Solace, nurturance, celebration. And people do. They just don’t think of it that way.”

To which list you could also add stress relief, anxiety reduction, ego boosting, amusement, anger and getting back at the boyfriend who cheated on you two days after pledging monogamy. People do indeed use sex for all kinds of different reasons. The problem is that we don’t flag those reasons, leaving new partners with the default assumption that we’re just trying to connect.

Lots of people aren’t, of course, but the idea that all sex should end in relationship or romance is a powerful one and it lingers on in all kinds of bizarre guises, like the always popular weirdness of the gay telephone exchange. Gay men often give out phone numbers when they have absolutely no interest in ever seeing you again. In fact, it’s often a brush off, especially when done in the bars. These guys are probably just trying to convince themselves that they’re a little more upright and respectable than they actually are — not one to slut around in a one-night stand — and the only person they’re really fooling is themselves, but gosh it can create a lot of confusion. I once spent two weeks chasing a guy who suggested we get together again — his suggestion, not mine — only to find that he meant exactly the opposite.

Bottom line: meeting a compatible somebody is a crapshoot. People do meet and in the strangest of situations — the baths and drunken late night conversations on the cruise lines are but two recent examples that come to mind. But with the freedom to meet whoever and whenever comes the freedom to be hurt and isolated.

All I can suggest is that you go with the flow and wait and see what shows up. You could ask people their intentions, but they don’t know themselves.