Toronto
3 min

The last taboo

The funniest thing about the saga of John Browne has to be the idea that he felt he had to pay for it. What was the matter with him? Did he miss the sexual revolution?

Maybe the 59-year-old former head of British Petroleum was a little naive. Apparently he lived with his mother until his mid-50s. But surely someone let him in on the secret: you don’t have to pay for sex anymore and haven’t had to since about the 1960s; people are giving it away left, right and centre.

Details of the high-flying oil executive’s rather cheesy love life appeared last month after a former boy-toy 30 years his junior threatened to go public with his life, loves and alleged indiscretions. Browne fought publication all the way to the House Of Lords but lost after fibbing to a judge. He resigned from his post as chief executive of British Petroleum shortly thereafter, forfeiting something like $35 million in pensions and other benefits.

Pundits all over the country babbled about ethics, honesty and closetry, but the most telling thing about the whole story was Browne’s little white lie.

He didn’t lie about being gay or his four-year relationship with what one British paper dubbed a “Canadian male prostitute.” (The 27-year-old boy-toy reportedly went to high school in Etobicoke and spent four years with another sugar daddy in a penthouse north of Toronto.) He lied about how they met, telling the court that they’d met in the park, when in fact their chosen cupid was an on-line escort agency called Suitedandbooted.com. In other words he lied about being a john.

Prostitution used to play a much bigger role in gay life. In fact, for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were few other options. If middle- and upper-class gay men had relationships, they probably had them with their social inferiors and they probably expected to pay. Christopher Isherwood hung out with German rent boys in 1930s Berlin and Marcel Proust owned part of an all-male brothel in early 20th-century Paris.

Commercial sex was such a big part of Edmund White’s formative years that there’s an entire chapter of his memoir titled “My Hustlers.” There weren’t a lot of gay guys around in the 1950s in the American midwest, he explains, and hustlers were an agreeable way of expanding the local sexual economy.

As late as the early 1980s, gayness was still synonymous, in some quarters at least, with prostitution. One of the reasons that police raided the Toronto baths in 1981 was that they conflated free and commercial gayness. According to the groundbreaking 1982 documentary Track Two, police thought the hustler’s stroll, known as Track Two, were one and the same as the larger community.

With the coming of gay lib, though, commercial sex started to lose its tang and by the 1970s it was just camp enough to furnish Carole Pope and Kevin Staples with the name of a band, Rough Trade.

These days you rarely hear of hustlers. It’s not that they don’t exist. Indeed, Rentboy.com usually lists around 30 local chappies willing to attend to your needs. (Naive lad that I am, I was deeply disillusioned to find one of my current bar faves peddling his perky blond butt on-line for $200 a crack.)

It’s just that prostitution is not part of the gay self-image. So when you come across a story like the Browne saga it’s definitely a blast from a slightly tired past.

If, as Marx said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, the Browne story is the Oscar Wilde trial replayed as farce. Like Wilde, Browne went to court to protect his reputation and, like Wilde, he was brought low by the very establishment he had once courted. The difference, of course, is that Wilde wound up in jail and Browne wound up on the front pages.

His ex’s confessions seemed even more dated. Published in the British paper The Mail On Sunday, they were one long leaden list of clichéd consumerism — $6,000 wines, first-class air travel and celebrity sightings (Tony Blair, oooh!). It was all just too Belle Epoque, like a whorehouse outfitted in red velvet or a seduction engineered with oysters and champagne. Reading the rent boy’s confessions, I had uncomfortable visions of a mustachioed Omar Sharif seducing a giggly Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, a film set in the 1920s.

Every year millions of fags pay gazillions of dollars for sex. But not directly. We pay for retouched photos and Internet connections and tight T-shirts and gym memberships and cover charges. But we never ever pay directly for sex, or not in any way we’re willing to admit.

As the feminist sex therapist Leonore Tiefer once said, sex in our society has become synonymous with success. So of course nobody likes to admit they can’t get it. That’s probably why paying for it is the last taboo.