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Monday 08 November 2010


Being gay today: urges on the edges

Posted in: Community
By Jacqui Stanford - 16th August 2010

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Douglas Jenkin
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Ben Barratt-Boyes
In part two of our series looking at 'being gay today' Douglas Jenkin and Ben Barratt-Boyes from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation delve into the sexual culture of men who have sex with men, particularly those who live around the edges of the vibrant openly-gay 'scene'.

Douglas Jenkin harks back to his research into the pre-reform years as a base point for our discussion on whether MSM sexual culture has changed over the years.

"In the 60s people met at parties. There were parties arranged within the community and were only known to community people. So everyone would turn up at a party, or if you were at a bar then everyone would say 'there's a party on at such and such' and everybody would go there after the bar closed."

Jenkin points out that was a social rather than sexual network, with sexual networks more likely to be "beats", or areas men frequented.

Barratt-Boyes believes a lot of the behaviour of men who have sex with men remains the same, citing cruising as an example – something that remains in existence even though there are saunas, cruise clubs and websites for men to hook up.

"A lot of it, from my experience – and I can only talk about it for myself – is the adrenaline that's involved in cruising and the idea of actually possibly being caught."

He believes there are two groups in that - guys who don't know where else to go and hear about cruising spots on chat lines or website, and guys who are closeted.

Barratt-Boyes says there are men who choose to go online because they don't want to put a face to their profile. "There's a bit of anonymity so that they can cruise ... then they can arrange to catch up on varying levels depending on how comfortable they are."

Jenkin says the internet is just virtual cruising. "It's the same thing. You can be anybody and make up a name and identity. It's exactly the same." He says cruising is about the thrill. "It's all based on your instincts; it's an animal thing and great fun... it's really exciting, because you're like something in the jungle."


 

Cruising from the closet

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Jenkin says men who cruise in public places are less likely to identify with being gay. "A lot of urban gay culture is white middle class, so there's also an aspect as to what people can afford and where they live. Like if you live a long way out of the city you have to get a long way into the city to go to venues. And you probably have somewhere closer."

"You don't have to identify gay to have sex with men. I can remember specifically an occasion that I heard about in Wellington a long time ago where some guys were hanging around a notorious beat, it was a toilet, and a guy came in while his girlfriend was waiting outside. They fooled around with him and played around for ten minutes and she said 'hurry up, what are you doing?' and he just left. It's not unusual. Because he's just playing both sides of the fence just for fun. Just to play."

Jenkin says although we now have the like of civil unions, not everyone has progressed at the same time. "There will always be men who don't want to come out. There'll always be bisexual men who are really comfortable with the half and half life, the secret life, and they will never come out."

He says such men want to enjoy the sexual aspects of same-sex behaviour, but also get social approval from their heterosexual side.

Barratt-Boyes agrees, saying we tend to compartmentalise things too much. "They might not actually be gay, they might be happy with their wife or girlfriend, but they love the adrenaline that comes with a random root."

Jenkin says the broad generalisation he makes about such men, from his experience and the literature he's read, is that they tend to refer to their relationships with women as long term, warm and stabilising while sex with men is hot and spontaneous.

"They're looking for something else. A lot of men's sexual behaviour is a little bit of escape from their dreary lives," he says. "Some people's idea of happiness is other people's idea of hell."

Jenkin says the urban saunas have traditionally been busy between 12pm-2pm and 4pm-6pm, full of businessmen who are having a lunch break or are on their way home. "I remember some guy having sex with some guy, then leaving the cubicle and yelling out 'see you later boys I'm off to the wife and children' as a running gag, because he was going to have his sex on the way home and he was going to go home and be his respectable self. And there are these dual selves that people manage perfectly well and have for a long, long time."

Barratt-Boyes says it has nothing to do with society, but has to do with people's choices. "It wouldn't matter if it was totally accepted. People would still choose to, in my opinion, disclose only a limited amount about themselves. Because it all boils down to personal choice and how comfortable you are with yourself and where you are in your journey."

Jenkin says prior to 1860 the terms 'homosexuality' and 'heterosexuality' didn't even exist, but there has always been sexuality. "Human sexuality is a very fluid thing and the idea of gay, bi and straight is quite a modern invention."


 

Finding a place

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Barratt-Boyes doesn't believe different groups, like leather and cruisers, are about being fashionable, but more about gay men finding a behaviour they relate to.

He talks about watching a fisting group at an Auckland cruise club, as part of research for his job. "I've always been curious about it. And I thought, if I'm going to comment on resources for it I should know what I was talking about."

He says he was blown away by the intimacy, trust and intensity of the room which was like nothing he's seen in a video. "I can kind of appreciate that with some guys who love the extreme intimacy of this practice would be attracted to it because there is a camaraderie in the room that was very intense, that gave me a completely different perspective."

Barratt-Boyes says although he was there to observe and not to take part, the group was really accepting of his presence, which he finds is often the case as long as you are respectful.

Jenkin says with scenes, such as the leather and bear world, there are people you could call 'weekenders' who dress down in the weekend, then go back to wearing suits and ties during the week. "And no-one judges them because we know they're weekenders, you can spot a weekender a mile off."

"Their leather's too shiny aye?" Barratt-Boyes jokes, to which Jenkin retorts "too clean". However the older of the pair says "but you know, we don't say 'go away you're a weekender', everyone accepts everybody else, but there is a slight difference between people who are more into the lifestyle and the weekenders. But we're all just still together and nobody worries about it," he says. "People are very tolerant of people's foibles and frailties."


 

Need, supply and demand

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When I question the pair about why gay men seem to be streets ahead in terms of sexual openness and exploration, Barratt-Boyes replies that he thinks it's about need, demand and supply. "For gay guys there is a need to be forward thinking. It's a survival instinct."

He believes many gay men have strong sexual drives and need open access to sex, which is a little harder for men who are at the more private end of the scale. "You have to get inventive about it. Your intuition perks up a bit. You start being more receptive to possible meetings, from just cruising the street or whatever. It's more about a necessity than it is for a woman maybe."

Barratt-Boyes has a theory that the public perception of the 'norm' is not actually the case in reality, with what is considered the 'underworld' actually being the norm. "But everyone has this facade that 'this is the norm', but it's actually not. With gay culture people just seem to talk about it more, it's more acceptable to talk about it."

Jenkin expands on the idea, saying we live in a culture that is 'erotophobic'. "People will only accept the eroticism of daily life up to a certain point, and then they don't like it."

He says when he was younger and people had the Monday morning discussion about what they'd done on the weekend, "people would say I went out 'sexing', and that was exactly the same as like 'I went to the pictures' or "I went skiing'. But what you did on the weekend was you went sexing – you constantly went looking for sex."

"And most people still pretend they're not doing it. And so that's why in workshops over the years I've always made a joke, even with mixed audiences, of saying 'so you spend three hours on Saturday night getting ready to go out not to meet someone?' and they all burst out laughing. They know they're lying to themselves. They're going to pick someone up!"

Barratt-Boyes says the actual reality is very different from what people would like others to think, or what society wants us to think is actually happening.

Jenkin agrees, saying it's perfectly natural to want to pick someone up. "It's a basic need, like air and water and food. It's totally good. It's healthy. It's natural."

That's plenty of food for thought, so the final statement from the pair? "Wrap it up". They are talking about wearing condoms of course, not the conversation. But we wrapped that up anyway."


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Jacqui Stanford - 16th August 2010