Friday, February 25, 2011

Only Love

'...It is the affirming love of another man that is the most effective antidote to the "battered self-esteem" of most gay men in our society.  And it is the love of another over time that provides the greatest certainty and clarity about one's personal identity as a gay man.'

                   --from Becoming Gay: The Journey to Self-Acceptance, by Richard A. Isay, M. D., p. 9

I've just had an epiphany.  Reading and rereading the above quote, it occurs to me what I've referred to in previous posts as promiscuity in gay men may in fact be nothing more than an act of reaching out, not only for love but also to repair what Dr. Isay refers to as "battered self-esteem."  This is a breakthrough for me, because, admittedly, I've had a narrow view of promiscuity as it relates to gay men, bringing to it considerable moral judgement.    

That said, I think a distinction must be made between sex and love, which are not one and the same. Sex can certainly take place without love (and often does), but love doesn't necessarily lead to sex or rely on sex for its existence.  Sex is physical, while love is emotional--although I suppose both can contain a component of the other.  I think many people, gay and straight, often confuse sex for love and consider them interchangeably.  But those who've experienced true, meaningful, and enduring love know they are very different, very different indeed.

The fact remains that a good many gay men have sex with a good many other gay men.  But, in light of Isay's quote, I think the reason for that has to be expanded beyond what I've suggested before--namely, low self-esteem in gay men leads to bad choices, which often includes indulging in a lot of anonymous sex.

Could it be that in the absence of love, which is often frustratingly elusive and which, when found, takes time to develop and nurture, many gay men settle for the next best thing--the easiest thing, perhaps--which is sex?  Could it be that many gay men seek in sex what only love can really provide--namely, positive attention from other men, validation, and, as Dr. Isay suggests, an antidote to battered self-esteem?    

From my own perspective, I did not seek sex when I first met my partner, Chris.  In fact, on the night we met at a club, I went out of my way to ensure sex didn't happen between us.  I was determined Chris not get the wrong idea about me.  Instead, I took the chance that, if he was really interested in me, we'd be sure to get back together sooner or later.  So all we exchanged were our phone numbers and promises to give each other a call.  Then, at the bottom of Davie Street, he went his way and I went mine.

(As an aside, I arrived home safely a few minutes later, while Chris ended up getting mugged by a bunch of thugs trolling the West End in the wee hours--shoving him to the ground, kicking him in the face, and stealing his wallet.  The following day, Chris had a swollen lip and a few loose front teeth.  He was also in some pain.  I still kick myself for not inviting him over for the night, which he said he would have liked, even before the mugging, even if I'd wanted him to spend it on the sofa.)

Here's my point:  By the time I met Chris when I was in my early thirties, I'd already figured out my low self-esteem wasn't working for me.  I'd been unhappy for far too long not to know that.  As I've written in other posts, I'd taken several steps to regain my self-worth, including getting my jaw and teeth straightened (an act of true self-love considering, up to that point, I hadn't thought I was worth spending the money on).

But--and here's where Dr. Isay's point comes in--meeting Chris, having his consistent and devoted attention from day one, and starting to build something long-term with him all played a critical role in helping me to improve my self-esteem.  For the first time in my life, another man was genuinely interested in me, in a caring, compassionate, and loving way (beyond mere friendship, of course).  My father had never shown me that, another male relative had never shown me that, and anyone I'd been with previously, who I thought might be a potential life partner, had never shown me that.

Chris's presence in my life, where he was actively engaged in us over an increasingly long period of time, played a key role in helping me to see, for perhaps the first time, that I had more going for me than what I owned or how I performed at work--neither having anything to do with me as a human being. Chris opened my eyes to the fact I had enough going on as a person to keep him interested, and nothing made me happier when he confirmed, especially early on, that he "wasn't going anywhere." That is, that he planned to stick around.

I guess what I'm saying is, meeting Chris and falling in love with him accelerated the course I was already on to improve my self-esteem.  I remember during those early days, I still had the tendency to put myself down, to be hard on myself, particularly when I had done something I thought was stupid. Sometimes, Chris would stop me and ask,"Why do you say that about yourself?"  "Because I am stupid," I'd answer.  And Chris's response?  "No you're not.  It happened.  It has nothing to do with you."  And, of course, he was right.

When I was especially hard on myself, Chris would say, "If you were really that bad, do you think I'd still be with you?"  This forced me to see myself from his perspective, and I realized that not only had I insulted myself, but also I'd insulted him, for being with someone I thought wasn't worthy of him.  This happened only a few times before I realized I'd better get my act together, or I might risk losing the best thing that had ever happened to me.                

In many ways, Chris compensated for what I had never gotten elsewhere.  Increasingly, as trust and love built between us, his masculine presence substituted for the father who showed up in my life when I was a boy, but who never connected with me in a meaningful way.  That is, in his own way, Chris reparented me, through his love, giving me the attention and the validation I'd never gotten elsewhere. I've often thought that's, in part, what being homosexual is--seeking in one of the same sex that which one did not receive from anyone else of the same sex.    

So, when working on improving your self-esteem, don't discount the effect of love from another human being.  Don't settle for mere sex.  In the short term, you might think it will fix what ails you, but, in the long term, when the sex is over, you feel as empty as you did before, and the urge for yet another sexual fix overcomes you, you'll still have to face yourself in the mirror and realize sex will never provide you with what you really need.  Only love can do that.


  1. Nice post, Rick. I guess sex (or sexual attraction) is a bit like a drug, and never lasts, whereas love, if nurtured, can grow over time. Chris sounds like the perfect complement to your personality (and vice versa, i'm sure). It seems a long-term relationship can really help us to learn about ourselves, and grow as individuals. (Btw, what a terrible incident that Chris endured. I'm sure he was glad you were there for him at that time too.)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Doug.
    I don't think there's any comparison between sex and love. Knowing what I do about love, I'd choose it any time.
    I think Chris and I are well matched, although we are not alike in so many ways. As I've written before, we're both similar and dissimilar in all the most important ways that make us work as a couple. I'm sure you feel about Jesse that way, too.
    Yes, the mugging was not a good experience. It happened the very evening we met. I was just sick the following day when I found out about it, to learn I could have prevented it if I'd just asked him to stay the night. But that was not on my agenda, so I can't really take responsibility.
    By the way, several days after it happened, Chris got a phone call. Someone had located his wallet in a West End back alley. Of course, it had been stripped of most everything.
    Thanks again for your ongoing interest in what I have to say. I really appreciate your support.

  3. Thanks for your ongoing support, Heather. I really do appreciate it.