Wednesday, September 19, 2012

(A)Shame(d)?


Honesty can be painful. It can be embarrassing. It can be freeing. It can shed light on the dark inner workings of one’s soul.

I’m going to open the honesty door and reveal a truth that from most I keep hidden. Fear of societal judgement causes me to hide this truth, but here it is: I watch pornography. Shocking, I know. Hey, I’m a single, gay man. It’s part of my normal.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t masturbate to pornography. I don’t deny myself the carnal pleasure of watching two, three, more men engage in sexual activity. Sometimes I try to limit my intake, but that never works. I’ve tried to cut it out cold turkey, but without fail I fall off that wagon; I succumb to the only sexual outlet I seem to be able to count on these days - Porn: men fucking with wild abandon, sexual activity for pleasure, no consequences, beautiful bodies fulfilling a fantasy that doesn’t exist in the real world. 

Here’s an example: I’m walking down the street. I make eye contact with a hot guy. He looks at me as we pass. I wait the requisite three-seconds, if my patience holds out, and turn to look again, hoping he too has turned to catch another glimpse. More often than not he doesn’t turn. There’s no impending sexual explosion; no sex in the alley or inside a beautiful, Manhattan hotel room with fantastic views. When I stop to question why the person didn’t turn to look at me like I turned to look back at him I then realize I’m not living in a pornographic scenario. Duh! Combining your “sexy” smile with that smoldering, come hither look that you practice in the mirror might make the soufflé rise, but doesn’t mean anyone is going to eat it. 

When I finally got around to watching the film Shame I quickly saw that there was more to it than the gorgeous-bodied-and-not-afraid-to-show-it-off Michael Fassbender. Those piercing eyes. The smile that works as a smirk or a full blast of teeth. That penis that makes one covet. It’s a film in whose central character I could see myself due to his inability to connect or be vulnerable.

Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a seemingly intelligent man; a man of means; a man who happens to be strikingly handsome; a man with the inability to open his heart to love someone, or himself. Brandon funnels all his self loathing into getting off. He needs to have sex or some sort of sexual experience. During sex is when he’s at his best, when he most loves himself. During sex is when he doesn’t have to think about anything, least of all how disappointed he is in his life. His outlets for sexual activity range from watching porn (he cums, he turns it off), to video chatting on websites (he cums, he closes the laptop), to the purchase of escorts (he cums, they go). There is no connection. There is no intimacy. There is no vulnerability. For a fleeting moment the flowing blood and tingling nerves replace everything in his life and transport him to a place where debt, work, family and yes, his self loathing doesn’t exist. 

I am so familiar with this scenario. Okay, so I know sex is connecting; it can be intimate and there’s certainly vulnerability, but you’re not really letting anyone in. It’s physical intimacy; it’s physical vulnerability. It’s not emotional. With a sex-only life, one never has to get to know another person. Words that are exchanged include: are you negative? when was the last time you were tested? top or bottom? what do you like to do? yeah, baby! i’m cumming! bye.

When I do find someone that shows the slightest bit of interest in me, I usually end up chasing him away because I don’t know how to interact with him. My desire for a sexual connection is so strong, so desperate sometimes, that I pursue it like a needy child. It’s no surprise that he then avoids me as if his life depended on it. I know how to be sexual. I know how to use the sex outlets Adam4Adam and Grindr - showing my pics to potential partners, allowing the pics to do all the work - I don’t seem to know how to just flirt, talk, be me. It’s never been more evident to me that I don’t know how to flirt with a potential mate than when I’m flirting with a gay-friendly straight man or gay man who’s in a relationship. There’s no possibility for rejection and I can flirt with no consequences. In those moments, I’m just being me - comfortable, at ease, flirty me. I’ve begun to question why I can’t be me in a situation that might gain me something incredible in my life. Question: What am I so afraid of? Answer: I’m intimidated by men who might actually be interested in me. 

I watched Brandon struggle and suffer with his addiction to sex in stunned silence. At one moment I realized I wasn’t moving. I was so still that I felt it, if that makes sense. My mouth was even slightly agape. This must be what Blanche Devereaux feels like when she’s, “... stunned, just stunned! Stunned is the only way to describe how, stunned I am!” You see, while watching Shame I saw myself. No, I don’t go out in search of (and consistently achieve) sex like the character in the movie. I don’t pay for escorts. I don’t Skype or FaceTime sexually. But I need to get off just like Brandon. My desire overwhelms me sometimes. Brandon’s life is unfulfilled. There is such sadness. Sex does not make a life; it enhances life, but can’t be all there is to life. I am unfulfilled. Frequently it’s out of pure boredom that I masturbate. I wish for a sex partner, a life partner, something, but how much of myself am I willing to give? Mostly I just aim for the release and the goodbye.

Staying on the topic of boredom, I’ve recognized lately I get bored with porn. Seriously, I’m watching two beautiful men have sex, maybe even wishing one of them was here with me, and I get bored. It’s not exciting enough. I press pause, open a new tab on my computer and go in search of something hotter, dirtier, kinkier. Something that will help me get off one more time. 

According to the article “Sacrificing Sex for Porn” by Alexandra Katehakis, published May 15, 2012, in The Huffington Post, “Pornography usage is all about being alone and isolated, it’s voyeuristic by definition, and about a constant search for surprise, novelty, and even shock at times.” Who am I? How will this affect me the next time I’m with an actual breathing human being? 

Tom Matlack recently posted a blog via The Good Men Project, that I reposted here on my own blog, called “25 Things I Want My Sons To Know.” Number 5 says, “There’s nothing wrong with looking at porn, but having sex with someone you care about is a thousand times more fun.” I question my own ability to get out of the porn scenes that run through my head and have fun with a flesh and blood person. Katehakis goes on to say in her Huffington article, “Use enough porn and, like the alcoholic over time, you’ll go numb to feeling pleasure in everyday life.” What is this doing to me? What am I doing to myself?

I can connect. I’ve done it before. Trying to connect can be so frustrating though. “Courting another for the sake of seeking sexual contact requires human interaction, touch, smell, gazing into someone’s eyes, and making yourself vulnerable. Who needs that?!”  Again Katehakis puts my thoughts into words. I’m so much more charming and sexy in my head than what often comes out of my mouth. It’s so much easier to find that 20 minute clip and just get off. Wait. Did I say easier? The search for right clip can be endless. Don’t even get me started on the amount of time wasted trying to find that right clip. I sometimes wonder what I could have accomplished with all that time. No use crying over spilled orgasm.

Desire and sex are twins that can control our lives. Part of the problem I have in my own life, apart from realizing that I don’t live in a porn scenario, is that I proclaim to want someone, to want intimacy with a person, but if I’m honest, I don’t know if I know how to be emotionally intimate anymore. I think there was a time when I did. The truth is I understand better the immediate gratification of the hook up more so than the emotional satisfaction of a caring relationship; the coming together for nothing more than pleasure and the going home. It’s my uncomfortable comfort zone. I’ve never really gotten past the emptiness that it causes me though. I think Brandon felt the same way. He was empty. His life was full of nothing but sex and the next opportunity to cum. When those opportunities didn’t present themselves, he created them - at work locked in the bathroom stall, at home when his sister (I’ll get to her) was finally out of the apartment, or the rock bottom moment when he went into a gay bar and followed a man to a dirty back room and allowed him to suck his dick. That is rock bottom. A heterosexual man in need of sex so desperately that he allows a man to suck his dick just to get off. The look of disgust mingled with pleasure that filled Brandon’s face was brilliantly conveyed by Michael Fassbender. It was heartbreaking. If I’m going for honest, it was hot and heartbreaking. It might have even been a little disturbing.

Now for Brandon’s sister. Sissy Sullivan. Sad, desperate Sissy Sullivan. She ended up in Brandon’s apartment because of trauma with her boyfriend. She seemed to be left with no where else to go; no other family to turn to. One could only wish for her anyone other than Brandon. She throws his world into chaos. In his mind his life is pristine, in order. Her life is vagabond. She has no stability. His way of dealing with life is sex. With her at his home he can’t have sex. Turmoil and frustration ensue. She is just as damaged as Brandon, but in a different way. Sissy wants to be loved - by the man who’s breaking up with her via phone, by her brother who is more annoyed than happy to see her. She’s full of sadness. She’s lost. She’s desperate for human connection just like her brother, but they act out in different ways. He’s a sex addict. She’s a cutter. That’s one fucked up family tree. Stacked on top of one another in the City that never sleeps. I recognize this frustration. I recognize myself in both of these characters. I recognize my desires. I recognize my longings. I recognize my breaking point. I recognize myself.

Brandon had a moment of clarity in the film where he threw away all of his pornographic material: all magazines, all videos, vibrator, even his computer. Tied it all up in a black trash bag and put it out on the street in New York City. The lady with her buggy looking for tin cans that night was going to get more than she bargained for by opening that trash bag. I’ve done that - thrown away all porno magazines and videos before in an effort to cut it from my life. In an effort to force myself to try to meet people. And wouldn’t you know that’s what Brandon tried. He attempted a real date with wine, dinner and...small talk. 

What a challenge. It was awkward. Maybe even a little intimidating. He didn’t know how to connect on that kind of emotional level and just be himself and let someone in. That scene held the most intimate conversation in the film and may have been its most uncomfortable to watch. Brandon doesn’t know how to be himself. Maybe he doesn’t know who he is. He’s uncomfortable. He can’t open up.

His small talk included a statement about people in restaurants, who’ve been together for years, being boring, how conversations don’t happen anymore. He doesn’t know how to sit in comfortable silence with a partner. I understand that. I tend to always feel like I should be trying to make conversation. It’s an impulse. If we’re uncomfortable we want to fill the silence. The only time I don’t feel this way is when I’m with one, or both, of my best friends of 20 years. We can be silent together and there’s nothing uncomfortable about it. Of course I’m not sleeping with, or trying to sleep with, either of them. 

I’ve only had one relationship with a lover in my life and it lasted seven months. Brandon’s longest relationship was four months. I could feel how uncomfortable he was, but I knew that if he was naked with the woman he would be in his element; the only place he’s in control and feels comfortable and knows what to do. The end of the date was awkward. What do you do when sex is not an option? A few days later he approached the woman from the date at work and they went to a hotel for a lunchtime rendezvous. In the moment of purest, truest intimacy the girl stopped kissing him and looked into his eyes while caressing his cheek. He took pause and tried to be present in her moment of intimacy and to give himself over to it. He couldn’t. He tried to move the situation into the direction from which he gains his power and couldn’t get erect. His power was as fizzled as Samson’s strength after Delilah had a servant cut off his hair. The moment was too personal, too intimate. In a moment of weakness he’d let her in. Now, because of fear, or any other reason you can name, he couldn’t have sex her. 

If I’m attracted to someone sexually I never think about having coffee or a drink or dinner with him. I think about how to get him naked. If he doesn’t want to go there with me, I take offense. Truth! Brutal honesty from the shallowest part of my personality. I get offended that my body is not the object of his desire. He should be offended at me for looking at him as merely a piece of meat. I wanted Brandon’s date to work out. I wanted him to be able to have sex with her at their lunchtime encounter. I must admit though, I wasn’t surprised by the ultimate outcome. 

As much as I may talk of finding someone in which to share my life, proper or sexual, there is nothing like the feeling I get when it’s just me alone with my computer and the images of guys going at it with wild abandon. I didn’t realize that the dopamine in our brains that gets released when watching pornography can literally rewire our brains. We can become stimulated by merely opening our laptops especially when we’re opening it to begin our porn search. Do you know that our frontal cortex can actually change so drastically from chronic porn use that we become unable to get erect for actual sex? “Your brain is numb to real-life sexual encounters due to overstimulation by pornographic images, so it can barely send signals to your penis to stand up,” says Katehakis. I had no idea. Katehakis goes on to give a thought provoking analogy to describe what happens to us. “If you put [a] frog in boiling water, it hops out. If you put it in cool water and slowly turn up the heat, it will never feel its demise.” Am I not even feeling my demise, my separation, my isolation?

Intimacy issues, vulnerability concerns, frontal cortex problems. Good Lord! Only a gorgeous Tom Ford tux is going to hide this mess.

I’m too scared to experience most of my sexual desires for myself so I hide and relieve my tensions in the privacy of my room where no one can judge me for being too vanilla or too aggressive or too shy or too kinky. In this privacy I can be who I want to be without sharing me with another person; without letting another person help me evolve, explore and develop the me that explodes in secrecy.

“Of all sexual actions, masturbation remains the most difficult one to discuss openly,” says Mels van Driel in his May 31, 2012, article “Facts and Fantasies About Masturbation” published in The Huffington Post. “When it is good it is a strictly personal experience, which many people have learned quite wrongly is dirty, sinful, shameful or even unhealthy. It is, however, the most common human sexual expression and is perfectly normal.”

So I come to end of this piece and I’m left with questions. Should I be ashamed? Am I disgusting? Am I a cynical New Yorker who can’t allow himself to commit to anyone because someone better might be just around the corner, but when no one better is, gets angry at what he doesn’t have? Should I be ashamed that sex is constantly on my mind? Am I a normal (define normal) man? Should I be ashamed that I masturbate often? Should I be ashamed that I use pornography? That last question is the one I pose to myself most often. I still have no answer.

Honesty can be painful. It can be embarrassing. It can be freeing. It can shed light on the dark inner workings of one’s soul.

shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.