Friday, February 11, 2011

Sex: It's Important. Even in Denial.

I recently read an article in the New York Times, written by a well known psychiatrist, questioning the therapeutic value of self-knowledge.  He described how some of his clients, having come to understand how they developed their problems, felt worse, rather than better.  What interested me most about the article was the supposition that a person can definitively know how they came to be who they are.  In addition, as a sometimes narrative therapist I would suggest that if a client arrived at an understanding of his life that made him feel worse, it would be productive to help the client construct a different narrative.

It is an indication of the power of the narrative I constructed of my sexual self that I would make a transition from being relatively untroubled about my active sexual life with adolescent peers to the decision to no longer act on same sex attractions.  As I indicated in my last posting, there were core beliefs that I'd picked up in my rather furtive research at the town library and from such authoritative sources as the Reader's Digest that influenced that transition.  One was that homosexual behaviour was common, even normal,  during adolescence and was often just a stage of sexual development.  So, not to worry.  Just move on.  And so I did, from the age of seventeen to thirty-one not having a single gay experience.

That life-choice was also influenced by another factor.  As an adolescent on the verge of being an adult in the late fifties I wasn't aware of any adult options with which I could identify other than being a heterosexual.  I'd never heard anything about bisexuality being possible as a life-style.   As for homosexuality, there were people thought of as being homosexual, Liberace being the most obvious example, but he didn't serve as a role model for me.  It wasn't only that the societal portrayal of homosexuals as sick, effeminate and unhappy didn't inspire aspirations of belonging, it was also that none of those adjectives applied to how I either saw or wanted to see myself, which was as a healthy, normal boy who was attracted to boys and girls.  I had no access to stories in my culture that told of an adult, gay life style that would be applicable to me.  It's not possible to make a choice when you have no idea what that choice would be.

In the process of constructing a narrative of your life, which I would argue is an unavoidable project in which we are all continually involved as we try to make sense of our lives, some elements of our experience are necessarily left out or recede into the background.   They remain unstoried with no attention or place given to them in the narrative of who we are.  What was highlighted in my narrative was the fact that I had always had a girlfriend with whom I was sexually active in terms of kissing and heavy petting,  that I was attracted to girls and sometimes even had sexual dreams involving them.  What was left in the background was that my attraction to boys was considerably more intense and I had very little interest in intense sexual involvement with girls.

As most of you probably know,  Kinsey utilized a scale from zero to six with zero being exclusively heterosexual and six exclusively homosexual.  Most men in his studies fell between zero and six on that scale, which is to say that they were neither exclusively gay nor straight if one took into account not only behaviour but also fantasies, dreams and felt attractions.  I had picked up in my rather furtive library researches that Freud and some other, more popular analytic writers on mental health believed people were innately bisexual as well.  As I look back on my life now I would probably place myself as a four or five on the Kinsey Scale,  but as an emerging adult I would probably have told myself I was a two or three.  The impetus of my own self narrative was such that even knowing about the scale,  I never bothered considering where I would place myself on it.

Those of us involved in the gay liberation movement had little tolerance for guys claiming to be bisexual.  You don't rally people to the barricades based on greys  (the color of truth as Oscar Wilde said), but on blacks and whites.  Accordingly, we would have seen the sexual identity at which I had arrived as a young man as an exercise in self deception and/or dishonesty.  I think today we are more open toward and more aware of the variety and fluidity of sexual identifications which people can assume with honesty and self-awareness.  Hence, the preference for the designation "queer", rather than GLBT.There was a recent survey of men having sex with men in New York City. which indicated a level of participation in male on male sex consistent with the Kinsey Report, but most of those men self identified as straight and, more interestingly, that identification held true even when most of their sexual behaviour was with men.   Of course, there were no doubt some amongst those men having sex with men who were dissembling and consciously avoiding the shame of acknowledging that knew themselves to be gay.  However, I would contend that the power of narrative is such that many were reporting what they felt was an honest identification as heterosexual, despite the fact that their behaviour was at odds with that identification.  In my case, my own behaviour had become consistent with thinking of myself as a young adult, with the potential of feeling attractions toward men and women, who had passed through an adolescent, homosexual stage and was now emerging into a mature, heterosexual adult.

I imagine you've already guessed that in this post sex will be present through it's absence.  If that's disappointing, I'll try to make it up later.  Looking back at my days at the College of William and Mary in Virginia I realize there were many opportunities. Among the first things I did in my first year were to join a fraternity and get a girl friend, in that order.  Fraternities were the centre of social life on campus, the only place you could drink, as the legal age was twenty-one, and functioned as supper clubs in absence of a college cafeteria.  The brothers of my fraternity were of the student government type, in fact my big brother was the student body president and I felt proud of that.  As with most fraternities there was hazing of pledges; not so severe in my fraternity, more so in those catering to athletes and red necks.  Our hazing consisted of drunken parties where the pledges were permitted to wear only togas, had to wait on the brothers. while crawling on their knees, and bend over, lift their togas and submit to being paddled when they were deemed to be disrespectful.  While other fraternities put pledges through explicit sexual acts, ours indulged in a more restrained homoeroticism.

As a pledge and, subsequently, a brother I was comfortable enough with my bisexual-but-don't-act-on-the-same-sex-component identity to acknowledge that I liked having glimpses of the bodies of guys I found attractive when their togas would come apart, fall off or be lifted for paddling.  Socrates remarks in one of Plato's dialogues that he enjoyed catching a glimpse of Alcibiades' body when his toga parted, so I was in good company. Initially I was concerned about getting an erection during my own pledging, as some pledges did, but my control was such that it never happened.  What an amazing feat for a teenager!

In my second year of college I began to feel increasingly alienated from fraternity life; a discomfort which focused partially on the practice of hazing.  My own fears that I would show a sexual interest to my self and others in paddling pledges joined with a burgeoning moral sense that it was wrong; that for most pledges it involved intimidation and coercion. It would be difficult to tease out to what extent my rejection of paddling was based on a moral stance against hazing and to what extent it was by a fear of my own sexual impulses. It is an interesting illustration of moral judgment functioning as a defense against sexual desire, whatever the independent validity of that judgment may have been. At any rate, I made a point of refusing to participate in the physical aspects of hazing.  Toward the beginning of that year I choose as a pledge and candidate to be my little brother someone who I certainly would have chosen as a sexual partner just two years before.  Pete resembled Johnny from high school, but was tall and more lithe; devoted to me, as was expected of a pledge.  When a pledge was chosen he was given a rough, blank paddle and had the responsibility of finishing it off and decorating it to their big brother's satisfaction.  As was the custom, after he presented his paddle to me to approve and be the first to sign, he turned around, lowered his pants and bent over, waiting to be paddled.  I refused.  He was clearly perplexed and disappointed.  I would imagine he experienced my refusal as rejection.

At the end of my second year at college, as with every year, there was a final meeting of the fraternity brothers on the last day of the term.  At that meeting the graduating brothers would give a last paddling to the newly initiated brothers and could paddle as well any less senior brothers they choose.  I was not appreciated by some of the seniors because of my increasing disaffiliation and opposition to hazing.   I was certain to be chosen by several of them for serious abuse.  When the time came for the paddling to happen, I slipped out of the meeting room and turned off the main electricity switch.  I was one of three people who had lived for a time in the fraternity house and who knew where the switch was located.  In the confusion after the lights went out I took off along with most of the new brothers who were just about to be paddled by the seniors.  I knew I would be punished if I were caught, so I spent the night sleeping in a classroom and at one point heard some of my inebriated brothers pass by the building looking for me.  Happily, almost everyone was leaving for home the next day, so I figured I'd be safe in the morning, but that was the end of my days as a Sigma Pi.  Pete and I never spoke after my rather dramatic departure, however each year he was the only one to continue sending his own, newly chosen little brother to me to have his paddle signed and in the process offering himself to be paddled.  I realized Pete's gesture was made at a considerable risk to his own status in the fraternity and I never knew whether he intended it as a sign of respect, an initiative toward connection or a taunt to see if I would give to his pledge what I had denied to him.


  1. I am totally gripped by these narratives. Like a Dicken's serial novel, I'll await the next instalment with baited breathe (what is "baited" breathe?)

    Ironically, it wasn't until I reached my fifties, that I really understood that we can indeed write our own narratives. Until then, my story was written fresh with every new person or new experience I found myself involved in.

    Great posts; I see a movie here :)

  2. Thanks, Ray. I think baited breath is alluring breath, but I'm not sure either.