3 min

Culture made me do it

Sometimes I think the best way to lower the incidence of HIV transmission would be to stop talking about anal sex. No more talk of anal sex, condoms, lube, water-based this or that. Ditch the lot.

Over more than 20 years of AIDS such talk has undoubtedly saved lives but it’s also had the unintended consequence of promoting anal sex. Not so much safe or unsafe sex as fucking in general, and more fucking means more chances not to use a condom.

Is this what they call blowback? I’m sure AIDS educators meant well, but what they’ve unintentionally promoted is a whole new sexual culture. One where anal sex is mandatory.

It wasn’t always this way. Before AIDS some people had anal sex and some people didn’t. In fact, up until even a few years ago, I would have said it divided about 50/50. For some guys anal sex was crucial; if they didn’t have it, they felt like they hadn’t had sex. For everyone else it was, “Umm, maybe, sometimes, not really, who cares?”

Sky Gilbert once wrote an Eye column on this very subject. Not all gay men have anal sex, he pointed out. I couldn’t agree more.

I myself have led a long and rather full sexual life without too much resort to bum-work. Here and there, now and then, sure, why not? But not on a regular basis. It’s not a big part of my repertoire. I’m too lazy. I don’t want to change the sheets.

But these days you don’t have much choice. Now you can’t talk to somebody in a bar or a bathhouse without somebody asking if you’re a top or a bottom, the implication being that somebody’s going to get poked tonight.

I don’t really think that people are inherently more interested in fucking than they used to be but clearly a lot of people feel they ought to be, and it’s the expectation that interests me. Clearly some part of the top/bottom phenomenon is culturally constructed. A lot of people wouldn’t want anal sex if they weren’t told that they ought to. The culture tells them to.

In other words their desire, or at least the direction of their desire, is in part culturally constructed. Neither genes nor individuals are making the choices here, the culture is.

I was distressed last year to find an article called “Gay by Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity” in Mother Jones magazine. Hadn’t we had enough of this “choice” stuff already? Surely everyone agrees that gayness is pretty much hard-wired.

As it turned out the article wasn’t as bad as the headline implied. Mostly a mildly tongue-in-cheek report on the ex-gay/reparative therapy movement, it considered the basis of gay rights and the different ways in which they could be defended (biology proving a poor buttress). But it also introduced some interesting material on change and the extent to which the individual is in charge. Some people, it noted, mostly women, are fairly fluid in their sexual orientation — they float back and forth across the gay/straight boundary — but nobody is exactly in control of the process.

The capacity for change is not the same as the ability to change at will, or choice, said one psychologist quoted in the article. “Trying to change your attractions doesn’t work very well, but you can change the structure of your social life, and that might lead to changes in the feelings you experience.” In other words if you’re a woman and you want to be attracted to other women, hang around women. But note, first of all, the “might.”

That sounds about right to me. We have some control over our circumstances but not much over our inner direction.

I knew I was gay from a very early age. I knew I was attracted to other guys but not exactly what I wanted to do with them. I knew that I wanted to touch other guys, but not much more. The idea that an ass could be attractive, for instance — so attractive that you might even want to lick it — that bit of information was learned. I could even tell you when and from whom.

So many of the things we assume are natural — just part of our personal makeup — are, in fact, constructed, picked up as we go along. Created by the environment, parents, friends. (Would anyone ever think to phone someone in the same room — “Hi, where are you?” — if somebody hadn’t told them it was cool?)

It’s funny, our attitude to cultural construction. We want a bit but not too much. We’ve embraced the Foucaultian idea that gay identity might be culturally constructed, but avoided the rather more dangerous idea that gay desire itself might be informed by the circumstances in which it arises.

Personally I don’t know what portion of my gayness was or is culturally constructed. I think I’m just going to enjoy it while I can. Before the culture changes.