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Gay Men, Vulnerability & Relationship

Not too long ago, as I was driving home from a meeting, a friend called and asked me to come over. When I got to his place, he seemed upset, but gratified to see me. He had just had a job interview for an opening which had seemed promising. But, his prospective employer had not been very accommodating. Noting that this once-promising opportunity evaporated, he expressed concern that his job search could lead to naught.

In telling me the story, not merely venting about the difficult interview, but also expressing his anxieties about the job search, my friend acknowledged his own vulnerability, something which all too many of us seem to reserve for our conversations with our therapists. Afraid to let any chinks appear in our masculine façades, we don’t want to let others see our pain, our fears, our anxiety.

I have often wondered why some gay men (just like our straight counterparts) project this image of masculine toughness as if we fear any indication of vulnerability might make us appear weak or too “feminine” and so make us less attractive to others. But, when my friend told me his story, it only drew me closer to him. I saw him as a more complex human being, sensitive, alert to his feelings.

I find the men who come across as too icy, too tough as far less attractive than those men who manifest a little bit of vulnerability underneath their masculine exterior. Yet, all too often, I see gay men who, after offering a hint of vulnerability, instantly close up.

I wonder sometimes if that’s the reason so many of us cut ourselves off from the guys with whom we “hook up.” Acknowledging that we find someone attractive, that we desire him, indicates a certain vulnerability to his beauty. (Perhaps, we don’t like giving him that power.) Yet, after we have (for lack of better term on a blog open to the public) found our pleasure with him, too many of us cut ourselves off from the man who just moments previously we had so desired. Is it that we are afraid to acknowledge his power over us, to acknowledge our own vulnerability?

Instead of seeing sex as a means of connection, that desire represents (in part) a longing to bond with another human being, we dress it up so as not to let on that we feel alone. We see it as just sex, serving only our own pleasure. And not perhaps an indication that we are dependant upon others for certain things in life.

Beneath the rough veneer of our projected masculinity, each of us has his own weaknesses (as well as his strengths). We shouldn’t be afraid to let others see both aspects of ourselves. For those who cannot appreciate our weaknesses cannot see us as we truly are — and cannot be there for us in our hours of greatest need.

Because my friend was open to me about his job search anxieties, he found some companionship in his hour of need. His opening up didn’t only benefit him. It helped me as well. I felt closer to him than I had when he had first called, inviting me over. I felt our friendship deepening, strengthening and was honored that this man has enough respect for me to seek out my support when he felt vulnerable.

My friend is not the only gay man to acknowledge his moments of vulnerability to others. Many of us do open up (or attempt to) when we feel vulnerable. And I think those of us who do are among those who truly recognize the value of human relationships.

Relationships are key to human happiness. Indeed, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber believed God was found in human relationships.

We have a greater possibility of developing such enriching, sustaining relationships when we acknowledge our own vulnerability, our own need for human affection, for human contact at times of crisis, times of change and at other moments in our lives, even those of greatest joy and accomplishment.

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25 Comments

  1. Sometimes sex is just sex. After all, it isn’t like most of us can ever get married, so needs must be met.

    Continuum: the self alone (but not necessarily lonely) to married. If one isn’t working towards marriage, as socially and culturally prescribed, because that option is not available, what incentive is there to develop the full skills of intimacy required by the ideal marriage. Often, gay men might not be intimate with their sexual partner(s), but that doesn’t mean that gay men are not immersed in circles and networks of friends that provide intimacy and sustenance and affection. Over time, gay men have charted out other kinds of relationships, marriage having been forbidden.

    By the way, straight people are no different in terms of much of what you said. And they have marriages. They could often learn a thing or two about indulging in intimacy with wider circles of friends and loved ones from gay men. Some have.

    Comment by sean — January 23, 2007 @ 5:01 pm - January 23, 2007

  2. Sean, please note that with the parenthetical in the 3rd paragraph, I am suggesting this problem is not limited to gay men, but may indeed be more a problem of our gender than our orientation.

    But, as a gay man, I wonder specifically about the issue in our own community.

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — January 23, 2007 @ 5:06 pm - January 23, 2007

  3. Sometimes sex is just sex. After all, it isn’t like most of us can ever get married, so needs must be met.

    What a pathetic, yet classic or all-too-common, rationalization that is!

    Comment by Calarato — January 23, 2007 @ 5:13 pm - January 23, 2007

  4. I think it’s a gender thing. Me and my brother are the same way. We show when we are happy, angry and sometimes a little sad (rarely). We keep it bottled up and express it in other ways, not always the most healthy ways. He’s straight

    Comment by ousslander — January 23, 2007 @ 5:16 pm - January 23, 2007

  5. Just because the state doesn’t recognize our unions doesn’t mean we can’t try to connect to those whom we desire.

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — January 23, 2007 @ 5:34 pm - January 23, 2007

  6. Sometimes sex is just sex, but most often, gay men are using sex as a drug, to fill the empty void we feel. But we all know that sex, drugs, food, shopping, etc., does not fill that void. It feels great in that one fleeting moment, but soon thereafter, we feel empty again. Being vulnerable is acknowledging that we do have needs for intimacy and that quick “no name” hookups only make us feel more empty. I personally do want to get married and believe in a commited monogamous relationship. It is not for everyone but a right for every person regardless of sexual orientation. It has nothing to do with government, religion, etc… just an expression of love.
    In regards to the article, I think some men are not looking for intimacy in sex because they are simply not capable. Like attracts like in this universe, so maybe if one guy is seeking just sex and is “intimacy challenged”, then he will only attract someone who is matching his energy. One doesn’t go to a sex club or bath house for love and intimacy.
    I think the article has merit in pointing out that intimacy and being vulnerable can lead to a real connection and relationship with everyone… including a relationship with our own selves. And this can lead to a better sexual connection if that is what you practice.

    Comment by Russell K — January 23, 2007 @ 5:55 pm - January 23, 2007

  7. Dan, you’ve touched on alot of points, all pertinent. Like your friend, I too am in the midst of a job search, finishing up a Computer Science degree and all after a decision to change directions. I, like most males, tie much of my identity to what I do for a living. Much of my self-worth is derived from my career, whether overall or the various jobs and duties I accomplish each day. To be in this kind of limbo is difficult and though I try to stay positive, it’s easy to doubt my choices and my ambitions and whether I am worthy of them. One of the most difficult lessons I’ve had to learn in the working world is recognizing when I need another’s help and to ask for it, admitting to another that I need it. It’s possible your friend is feeling/thinking similarly and as you’ve noted, it is admirable that he was honest enough to admit his anxiety. Perhaps much of the societal persona of the American male is thrust upon us, a pressure to achieve, achieve, achieve, thus creating a deathly fear of an inability to live up to such an expectation or perhaps even a lack of desire to or a questioning of its necessity. I suspect that our masculine facade is an exaggeration masking a deep-seated insecurity that we are not Rambo, not Bill Gates, not Stephen Hawking, and not David Beckham rolled into one. And perhaps for some gay men, this is emphasized both by the communities with which we’re associated and by the need for intimacy with another male that, more often than not (as you’ve written), celebrates masculinity by both seeking it and physically satisfying it.

    Yet, this is a narrow definition of both masculinity and sexuality and likely contributes to the promiscuity of which gay males are often (and rightly) accused. While I agree that admitting weakness is the beginning of strength, I believe that allowing society to define our gender as a grim shell as well as a definition that is all vulnerability, sensitivity, and complete understanding is a false choice.

    To wit, I’m going to venture over to the dark side and agree with Sean on this single point: I agree that sometimes sex is merely sexual gratification, should not necessarily be considered wrong, and should not automatically carry guilt. Casual sex is not weakness if it is honest and if perspectives by both participants can be maintained. The need for intimacy on many levels should be acknowledged and, if possible, met in a relationship that can meet it. However, some of the best sex I’ve had was casual and I suspect this is because there was no pressure for it to be anything more than that. However, I write this only because I have only had casual sex when single.

    Sean, some of the loneliest people I know are married. Your inability to legally marry is no excuse not to try to develop intimate relationships with those you love, if that is what you seek. I also question your definition of marriage if your definition includes your exhortation of ‘indulging in intimacy with wider circles of friends’. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to have a successfully committed relationship while engaging in physical intimacy with multiple partners.

    Comment by HardHobbit — January 23, 2007 @ 6:39 pm - January 23, 2007

  8. GPW: Great post.
    It’s funny that a message so simple, about connecting and emotions, is so necessary. A few points.
    Instead of seeing sex as a means of connection, that desire represents (in part) a longing to bond with another human being, we dress it up so as not to let on that we feel alone. We see it as just sex, serving only our own pleasure. And not perhaps an indication that we are dependant(sic) upon others for certain things in life.
    It’s important to remember that in many ways, sex can be just sex. For example, many gay men go through period of downright whore-dom when they come out. Damaging? Not necessarily, and as a response to X # of years in the closet, it’s better crystal or other diversions.
    Not every hook-up is a cry for help, or a cry to fill the void. Millions of men and women, gay and straight, enjoy one-night stands and friends with benefits without damage, before or after. Just because sex can be used as a filler (just like any other activity) doesn’t mean it always is. The trick is to get to know yourself and be aware when the activity has become its own rationale.

    Comment by torrentprime — January 23, 2007 @ 7:24 pm - January 23, 2007

  9. Casual sex is not weakness if it is honest…

    Yes-to-a-point. “It depends.”

    – Are any participants cheating on, i.e., helping to hurt, other human beings? If you don’t believe so: How would you know? Do you KNOW the other participant(s)?

    – Are any participants spreading a disease? Again, if you or they don’t believe so: how would you know? Have y’all made any effort to find out, or are y’all just conveniently self-deluded?

    – Are any participants seeking / intending moral degradation as such? Related: are any participants acting from sexual compulsion, i.e., already degraded because they have no self-control, and are thus more animal than human being?

    I write this only because I have only had casual sex when single.

    That’s something… and, ditto.

    Comment by Calarato — January 23, 2007 @ 8:01 pm - January 23, 2007

  10. I think it is a gender thing. Not sure if it is something that is more hardwired or something that is nurtured in, but I think women are far less reserved.

    And this opinion is of course an in general, given that there are always exceptions.

    Comment by just me — January 23, 2007 @ 9:01 pm - January 23, 2007

  11. Instead of seeing sex as a means of connection, that [the] desire represents (in part) a longing to bond with another human being, we dress it up so as not to let on that we feel alone. We see it as just sex, serving only our own pleasure. And not perhaps an indication that we are dependant upon others for certain things in life.

    Dan: Your overall point seems to be that gay men should open up to each other more as people. While your point that I’ve quoted seems to be that many (i.e., “we”) gay men don’t; that gay men have casual sex because they are too scared to go for a genuine human connection.

    I have mixed feelings about that point. You are all but saying, gay men are lame. That many are trapped in casual or anonymous sex as basically a schizoid coping mechanism. (Kids, look up “schizoid” before assuming you’d know what I meant there.) Part of me doesn’t like your saying that. On the other hand, another part of me finds it very likely true for a good many gay men. And I have no idea what to do about it, except to just keep trying to say what I may know about it. Still another part of me says, OK the point is true, but trivial: with some gay men, the real problem is their decision to “surrender to the animal”, i.e., to simply dispense with morality and human dignity altogether – and our culture supports them in that, to the detriment of all – and nothing you or I could say would ever have an impact.

    Not going anywhere with that; just reporting my mixed reactions.

    Comment by Calarato — January 23, 2007 @ 9:21 pm - January 23, 2007

  12. #9 Calarato:

    1. Yes, I imply that single people are in a position to most likely need casual sex, thus not hurting those existing within the understood boundaries of a commitment. In order for me to engage in casual sex, both of us must be single.

    2. My version of casual sex is not going to a bar or a park or an airport restroom. I would have to know the other person, something about their history, and something about their hygiene. I see hot guys all the time, so I’m rarely attracted to absolute strangers.

    3. Casual sex must be safe for me to enjoy it. Otherwise, I could not perform sex with another guy because I would be too worried. I have too much self-esteem to sacrifice my health and/or my life for an unsafe, brief encounter.

    4. I believe our need for sex is a true biological need that we are designed and born with. We are designed for reproduction, just as are all life forms. So, the need for sex is, as you write, animal. Of course, we have the ability to discern what is best for us and for our community and this often means abstaining from sexual activity. However, in my experience, I have been more accepting of my sexuality and thus myself by recognizing the sheer biology of the need and choosing to satisfy it rationally. Addressing a physical need through intellectual recognition and reconciliation with one’s own mores is the opposite of a compulsion.

    5. By definition, I cannot know a casual sex partner as I know myself. However, I can know him well enough to know him physically. My approach and attitude may not work for anyone else, but I have been physically satisfied without guilt and without a relationship. I know this is not worthy of praise, but neither is it worthy of contempt.

    6. I’m not a slut.

    Comment by HardHobbit — January 23, 2007 @ 11:02 pm - January 23, 2007

  13. Personally I don’t think that opening up to other people or showing one’s feelings are necessarily connected to being vulnerable. Vulnerability indicates a susceptablilty to being wounded or attacked. It is a strength to be open with others. But it also demands wisdom to know when to be open and when not to be. There are times and there are people to whom one should never appear vulverable. I, myself make sure to never appear vulvernable but that does not affect my ability to be open and/or carefree with my feelings when the situation calls for it. I think males have had the burden of being the strong one (put on them by both men AND women) and there are good historical reasons for this as well as social and biological ones. Perhaps we have confused being open with our emotions with vulnerability but if you’ve ever watched a funeral of police or fireman who have gathered to pay tribute to a fallen comrade, and looked at their faces, just because they are not openly weeping, not does take away from the grief in their faces.

    Comment by Jim G — January 23, 2007 @ 11:16 pm - January 23, 2007

  14. Thoughtful post, Dan. I agree with some of the commenters that this is probably more refelctive of our gender generally than our orientation. I also think that perhaps we are inclined as gay men (broadly speaking, if you will all forgive the generalization) to be even more emotionally cut off in order to portray ourselves as more masculine, therefore doing our best to avoid the “sissy fag” stereotype. (HardHobbit, I believe you sort of alluded to this in #7 above.)

    Comment by Mike — January 24, 2007 @ 9:38 am - January 24, 2007

  15. I believe our need for sex is a true biological need that we are designed and born with. We are designed for reproduction, just as are all life forms.

    Yes-to-a-point. “It depends.”

    It’s clearly not a need of the same order as breathing, food, water… or even – as Dan sort of points out in his article – the need for basic social contact and companionship (not to say love). Honorable, healthy straight people go without sex all the time.

    Don’t get me wrong – I love sex. And because I love it, I am honest enough to admit that it is just a desire – that is, a “want” – not a “need”. A desire I have been lucky, i.e. blessed, to fulfill.

    BTW, we are biologically “designed” for many things. Just a few examples: Honesty. Rationality. Athletic performance. Music. Do people do all of those? No. So, being biologically “designed” for something does not work as an argument for calling it a “biological need”.

    Comment by Calarato — January 24, 2007 @ 10:57 am - January 24, 2007

  16. (#15 footnote: Clearly I use “need” in the sense of “objective requirement”. Human beings objectively require vitamin C, physical safety, etc. Sexual activity is, again, a SUBjective value / want / goal / desire; one that is chosen. Further: “Sexual orientation” is a poor phrase because it mis-leads by over-emphasizing sexual activity. “Romantic gender orientation” would be less deceiving. Romantic gender ORIENTATION is not chosen, at least for most men; while sexual action or BEHAVIOR is always chosen, no matter how some may want to deny it. Sexual DESIRE occupies the gray area between; it arises spontaneously, but can be set aside in the short run, and modified partially in the long run.)

    Comment by Calarato — January 24, 2007 @ 2:17 pm - January 24, 2007

  17. #15 As I stated, we also have the ability to discern and to abstain. I meant to make it clear that behavior is voluntary. Sexual activity is not necessary for survival (as are breathing, digestion, etc.), but I maintain that it is a physical need. The penis is capable of ejaculation without external stimuli (wet dreams) and although this process may be strongly influenced by the subconscious, I suppose the opposite is also true. Of course this is no rationale for engaging in irrational, conscious behavior, lowering ourselves to the level of animals (which is a poor comparison because animals do not operate with the same level of consciousness and deliberation — for them, sex is largely involuntary).

    Comment by HardHobbit — January 24, 2007 @ 2:35 pm - January 24, 2007

  18. #8 above — “Not every hook-up is a cry for help, or a cry to fill the void. Millions of men and women, gay and straight, enjoy one-night stands and friends with benefits without damage, before or after. Just because sex can be used as a filler (just like any other activity) doesn’t mean it always is. The trick is to get to know yourself and be aware when the activity has become its own rationale.”

    Exactly! That’s exactly how I feel about it. I would love to find Mr. Right, but until then, sometimes, Mr. Right Now satisfies those urges and does fill the void. If we become friends (with benefits), great, but if not, it doesn’t bother me in the least.

    Great post, GPW, I also think our emotional expression (or lack thereof) is gender-hardwired.

    Comment by ndtovent — January 24, 2007 @ 3:46 pm - January 24, 2007

  19. Dan, excellent post. I have a lot of thoughts, and many of them have been addressed.

    For most boys growing up, it has been the norm to keep things to themselves, do not show emotion, and not show any vulnerability. Gay children, in most cases, have one more thing to hide. So it’s no surprise as adults, that most gay men still keep things to themselves. In terms of sex, I’ve seen this manifest itself in several ways. Some end up having lots of casual sex. Of these, some do this until Mr. Right comes along, while others feel that they don’t “deserve” to be in a meaningful relationship like their straight counterparts. Some become sexually repressed under a guise of some phony idealism. Some feel that they have to be a hard-ass masculine robot and insist that all men, gay and straight, behave like them.

    As to whether sex is a biological need, or how important it is relative to other needs, it can be, to put it bluntly, taken care of without a partner very easily. And, of course, it wouldn’t involve any chance of someone else seeing their vulnerability. So there must be something else besides the sex act itself, and that is the human connection that comes with sex. Of course, once the deed is done, many can turn off the need of human connection and be on their way. So it’s no wonder that many of those who just engage in casual sex feel the void, and can only fix it on a temporary basis.

    As for gay people not being able to marry, I think that there is something to the lack of this right and some of the behavior. No, I’m not excusing it. As adults, we all know that it is possible to have a meaningful relationship even if we can never be married. But it is one of those things, among others, that is ingrained in us growing up, and it can be hard to just give that up. I recommend though for those in that situation to stop playing the victim, and do what you need to do to get over it. In a different way, I see that for some straight people as well. Some of them get married only because they grew up believing it. And many of them end up marrying Mr. or Mrs. Not Even Close to Being Right. Thankfully, I do this changing, as straight people are waiting longer to get married. So I see marriage stronger today, and would only get stronger once gay people have that right.

    Comment by Pat — January 26, 2007 @ 9:30 am - January 26, 2007

  20. Dan, thank you for your thoughtful words. Indeed, being vulnerable would seem easy and would be accomplished more often if it carried no price tag. That is, revealing a weak part of yourself to your friend is also exposing it to yourself, often your harshest critic. Inevitably we close off quickly so no one will see the weak misguided and seemingly overly emotional shame-ridden me. The defenses mounted barely let you share an Authentic part of You. Alan Blum, Ph.D., has thoughtfully and poignantly detailed the “walk of shame” of many gay men he has worked with over the years. Check his book The Velvet Rage out for some profound insight into the icy veneer, casual sex, and cutting ourselves off that you mentioned in your post.

    Comment by Bruce — February 1, 2007 @ 8:51 pm - February 1, 2007

  21. Correction to comment #20: The author of The Velvet Rage is Alan Downs, Ph.D., not Alan Blum, Ph.D. as I stated in the prior post.

    Comment by Bruce — February 3, 2007 @ 1:03 pm - February 3, 2007

  22. “…are using sex as a drug, to fill the empty void we feel. But we all know that sex, drugs, food, shopping, etc., does not fill that void. It feels great in that one fleeting moment, but soon thereafter, we feel empty again.” by Russell K — January 23

    Good point indeed. Appreciate this comment.

    AJay

    Comment by AJay — July 20, 2007 @ 5:14 pm - July 20, 2007

  23. The writer of the article brought the main point of why many people fail in relationships, gay or striaght to a level of understanding and insight I have never read or heard articulated before. Vulnerbility is a risky emotion that has to be treated with respect.
    If you do not appreciate the intimacy someone shares with you push them away because it is sometimes too soon or uncomfortable to be around. Only when the intimacy is recipricated do we have a real relationship.
    I wish people took a liitle more care in how to break off relationships. The fact is no matter how hard you try some people can’t “fit” in your life and it is how we walk away that matters. People are not disposable objects like empty Starbucks cups. Let’s try to listen and take off our iPOD’s, otherwise how can someone know you?

    Comment by Don Norte — October 5, 2007 @ 2:42 pm - October 5, 2007

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