Friday, July 1, 2011

Awkward Desire: Patrick

Some would say that "awkward" is too mild a word and would use "unprofessional", "inappropriate", "bad", "immoral", or "sick" as ways to describe feeling sexually attracted to someone in a context where acting on that desire would be inappropriate, harmful or destructive; contexts, for example, in which you're a close relative of the person, in a position of professional responsibility for them or where there's a perceived vulnerability in the person you desire. Simply acknowledging that someone in such an inappropriate category as a sexual partner is attractive or sexy is usually seen as more of an intellectual judgment and, thus, not subject to strong disapproval, though there are some who recoil even from an uninterested appraisal. It is in acknowledging that you actually feel an attraction or sexual desire that condemnation, even horror, is more likely to be elicited; strange, because the existence of such attraction, even in its most taboo manifestation of parent and child, is the stuff of mythology and the grist of much psychoanalysis. The existence of such desire should hardly be news or shocking to an educated, western individual; yet it is.

I first heard of Patrick through my sons during their early years together at the fine arts core, elementary school. It seemed there had always been problems in his family; the mother was a health-care professional and the father a business man; a German immigrant, who reputedly had a penchant for womanizing and drinking. Patrick was their only child and even in his youngest years there seems to have been difficulties with their parenting of him. In the school he was regarded as very intellegent, though there were problems with his behaviour, especially outside of the school environment. I vaguely remember there was some interchange between Patrick's mother and one of the mothers in our collective concerning the struggles she was having trying to control Patrick. I also remember, again, vaguely, hearing that his father attempted using corporeal punishment to get him to obey; to no avail.

Patrick was grown-up, or more accurately, acted grown-up, far beyond his chronological years. His exploits were often talked about by other students and his reputation was that he was largely free from parental authority. The boys first introduced me to Patrick when he had accompanied them to our house after school one day. He lived in the district next to ours; known as the McGill Ghetto, because it bordered the University. It was striking how much more worldly-wise he seemed than they and how oriented he was towards adults. Intellegent, he certainly was; he had long, blond hair; a regard with his bright, blue-green eyes that was both quick and observant; an engaging, sometimes, sardonic grin. I felt he was on to the relationship between me and Will almost instantly; the boys may have mentioned to him we were a gay couple, but I doubt it. To them Patrick was a source of both fascination and concern: the older he grew, the more he lived the life of a wild boy.

While still in elementary school he was alleged to spend most of his days and some of his nights in the lanes of the Ghetto. The boys reported sometimes going with him to vacant flats where he would be spending his nights. It was also in elementary school that he began to smoke and, I believe, deal dope; somehow he always had money for food and smokes. At some point during his adolescence his parents split up; not long after it seems his mother totally gave up on him and cut off contact. His father had rented an apartment, according to Patrick as a place to bring back women, and permitted Patrick to sleep there, but it didn't seem to regard it as his home. He was a boy whom you might have considered reporting to youth protection; however, there was no such law when he was very young. Even later, when there was a protection regime and I was one of its agents, although I sometimes considered reporting him, I never did. For me youth protection was a last resort: you could never be sure youths like Patrick would emerge from the system any better than when they went into it.

In placing a street kid under youth protection the most that you could be relatively sure of accomplishing was that they would be safer, but I didn't really see Patrick being at risk. As an older child and adolescent Patrick seemed to cope with the situation of largely looking after himself quite well: he managed to stay in school and do well; aspiring to be a lawyer; he always appeared clean and dressed appropriately; to my knowledge, he never went hungry; with the exception of dealing, he wasn't, so far as I know, involved in criminal activities; he seemed as happy as any teenager would consent to be. He did receive some, rudimentary, support from his father. An important part of Patrick's resourcefulness was his ability to insert himself into the families of friends for food and, occasionally, shelter. He managed to accomplish that without making himself a nuisance through maintaining a network of friends and families within which he was, at least speaking of our family, welcomed.

After elementary school, Patrick went to Westmount High School along with my sons and most of his friends from elementary school. Westmount High was was just two blocks for our home at that point in time. As a teenager he had grown tall, kept the blond hair he had as a child, only cut shorter, had broad shoulders with a narrow waist and hips. He was very attractive. I found him very attractive. Although his behaviour, at least around peers, would clearly indicate he was mainly of the heterosexual persuasion, Patrick had an approach to men, which you get to spot when you work with some street kids, especially those who have survived partly by hustling or male prostitution, of being warmly engaging; establishing and holding more direct eye-contact than is usual for men with other men; being coyly seductive. Sometimes Patrick would sit and watch as I did my exercises and once slid down his jeans to ask me about a rash on his lower abdomen, which he feared might be an STD. Neither Patrick nor I ever made a sexual advance to the other, but there was clearly a complicity in our awareness of the sexual energy that passed between us.

Which brings me to the subject of awkward desire: desire which, if acted upon, would lead to destructive or inappropriate sexual behaviour. In conversation with many gay men, especially those in the education, health care and social service fields, such desire is often accompanied by guilt and shame. Finding a student, client or patient sexually attractive or desirable engages fears of being unprofessional, immoral, sick, perverted. I think the wrong-headed, but pervasive, association between homosexuality and pederasty feeds those fears. In addition to the shame and guilt, there is often anger that some of their heterosexual peers speak openly of students or clients to whom they feel attracted and, in the case of college age students, often pursued the objects of their desire. At the same time, there's a fear, probably accurate, that should they, as gay men, so much as share that they find a male student or client attractive or desirable, they'd be regarded as pederasts and sanctioned far more heavily than their heterosexual peers.

My approach with men carrying such guilt is that there is nothing wrong or inappropriate about those sexual desires in and of themselves; they are simply a given; part of their inner landscape; that is why we speak of "finding", "discovering" and "realizing" we have such an attraction.  The categories of wrong or inappropriate only being relevant to our response to those desires. I regard those who are horrified at the very existence of sexual desires in situations where it would be inappropriate to act on them, those who would claim never to have experienced such desires, as either remarkably asexual, self-deceptive or hypocritical; maybe a combination of all three. Teachers since Socrates have been especially attentive to students they find attractive; that's one reason why research has consistently shown beautiful people tend to do better in school in any culture. It's normal for fathers and mothers to find their children's adolescent dates attractive or sexy, though women have been acculturated to less frequently acknowledge that fact. Lolita-like attractions for nubile adolescent girls by mature, heterosexual, men are hardly unusual; most of us have heard joking reference made to those attractions when the boys get together for a beer or two; the same feelings by gay men toward nubile, young men are just as normal.

Finding someone hot, sexy and desirable is not the same thing as wanting to have sex with them; wanting to have sex with someone is a movement beyond desire toward imagining having sex with the person; would usually involve fantasizing about what sexual acts one wanted to have with them. We do not usually speak of "finding" or "discovering" that we want to have sex with someone. Those acts of imagining are subsequent to feeling someone is sexually desirable; they are responses to that feeling and not to be confused with the feeling itself. I can acknowledge having found Patrick desirable, sexy, without ever having wanted to have sex with him; the same is true in relation to students or clients I might have found attractive. Not wanting to have sex with Patrick was based on the perception that such a choice would have destructive consequences: for myself in relation to my sons, who were his friends; for Patrick, who may have felt my principle interest in him was only sexual; for myself, as I could not respect myself taking advantage of a vulnerable kid.

It should be possible to acknowledge sexual attraction to someone in a context where acting on that attraction would be inappropriate without guilt or shame; in fact, I think such acknowledgment is a sign of honesty and a healthy attitude toward sexuality. What is the point at which moral or professional discourse becomes relevant to such attraction?  One of my clients,  who was a social worker, related that his supervisor told him it was normal to sometimes feel sexually attracted to his young clients, but if he ever got an erection in such a context, he would be crossing the line into unprofessional conduct. Last I heard, getting an erection is notoriously not a voluntary act, no more so than having a desire. I don't think someone should be held responsible for either.

Moral and professional discourse becomes applicable through the response to the desire; through choosing to nourish the desire by imagining or fantasizing fulfilling it; for example, through masturbating while imagining the client or student. While it is true that no one is hurt by that particular act, it is also true in my opinion that masturbating nourishes the desire in a way that risks moving it toward attempted realization. Personally, I would advise someone who doesn't want a particular desire to lead to action to refrain from fantasizing about the fulfillment of that desire; however, I know there are other professionals and some research indicating such fantasizing may mitigate against choosing to act on the desire. Whatever opinion might be held related to nourishing such a desire, acting on it in a context where such behaviour will most likely be destructive is an act for which a person is reasonably held accountable. As I stated in my posting on pedophilia, while believing society has a right to sanctiion pedophiles who act on their desires for sex with young children, simply having those desires is just a fact in relation to which moral or legal discourse is irrelevant. Nevertheless, it does make sense to remark that in most cultures for a person to find his sexual desires are exclusively oriented toward young children is unfortunate and problematic for him, however he chooses to respond to those desires.

Several years after my sons had left Montreal, I began running into Patrick on the street outside my office and we would and talk together. He had gotten tougher; had adopted a sort of threatening swagger; told me he always carried a weapon. Though there were flashes of flirtatiousness and little boy charm, I found any attraction toward him was put to flight by his calculated toughness. In his mid-twenties he disappeared for a time and when I next saw him he related that he had just been released from prison; I believe for stabbing someone in a fight over drug turf. I assumed that he must have found prison-life especially difficult, given his appearance and age, but Patrick assured me with his customary braggadocio that it wasn't that bad. He related that he was taken on as the boy of an older prisoner, who protected him from the others and whom he still regarded as a friend now that they both were out. Nevertheless, he had an even tougher edge and a wariness that his smile didn't conceal.

One of the times we met, I gave him my business card and offered to try to hook him up with support through a branch of the John Howard Society that was part of our agency. I was surprised when his father was the one who called and asked to see me. He was an affable, nervous, large man, with a complexion that suggested a heavy drinker. He lived just two blocks from my office; one reason I assumed for my running into Patrick with such frequency. With considerable sadness and upset he told me that he had stomach cancer and had been given only a year to live. He was unemployed and being supported by a woman with whom he had lived for several years. What he most wanted to talk about was Patrick. He had continued to give his son money when he claimed to be in dire need; occasionally invited him home for dinner and let him sleep on the couch. Allegedly, Patrick stole from both him and his woman friend and had recently stolen her jewelry; she insisted that Patrick never be invited to their home again or she would end their relationship.

While clearly having concern for Patrick, it was understandable he felt his own survival came first. I think he wanted to feel less guilty about making the choice between his own needs and cutting off the relationship with his son; a choice it was my impression he had begun making years previously in his own favor. Most of his anger was directed toward his former wife, whom he blamed for having washed her hands of her son and leaving him with sole responsibility. Had I been speaking with him or his son professionally, there were several directions I could have taken to offer help; but I hadn't received that mandate from either of them; they both preferred to live on the margins; not to be part of the "system". As it was, I simply related that I understood his choice was a very difficult one; that it was important for him to look after his own needs in his vulnerable situation; that he could continue to meet with Patrick in restaurants to assure he had a decent meal a few times a week; that he could continue to bail out Patrick when he needed the money; realizing those requests were never likely to end and would not likely result in any change to Patrick's life style.

Subsequent to that conversation, I ran into Patrick's father several times on the street and he related that his contacts with his son were following the pattern I suggested; however, I no longer encountered Patrick on the street outside my office. The result of my meeting with his father may not have been that for which he had hoped. No longer running into Patrick supported what I had suspected: that our meetings had not been totally accidental; after all, nearly all occurred on the same block outside my office, as I was on my customary, lunch-time, stroll. The last time I saw Patrick was several years later. I was leaving a bar in the Gay Village early in the morning when someone sitting on the stairs of a restaurant spoke to me. At first I had no idea who he was; he was scruffily dressed; front teeth were missing; he had the pasty complexion of a street or a sick person; given his experience and the decade it was, he could easily have had AIDS. The encounter was extremely awkward for both of us: I had been drinking; he was stoned; he had obviously twigged on my shock at seeing his condition. We exchanged a few words; Patrick asked about my sons; I asked, rather pointlessly, how he was doing; he flashed me a version of what used to be his engaging smile. I walked on home and have never seen or heard of him since.

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