Bill Weintraub

This brief op-ed first appeared in the online zine on February 16, 2002.

Sex and Politics:

Do Gay Men Have To Be Promiscuous?

In a recent column, safer-sex educator James Murray related how angry a reader became when James wrote about the potential dangers from oral sex. James, the reader declared, was guilty of "fear-mongering and shaming of gay sex."

I've heard such accusations before from gay men anxious to protect a source of pleasure, and they reminded me of the extent to which so many gay men believe that not merely sex with another man, but sex with lots of other men, is key to their identity. Try to take away my promiscuity, they say, and you're being homophobic.

Yet like so many of our ideas about sex, the notion that all gay men are promiscuous is cultural, political, and relative.

We can see that cultural element quite clearly when we look at the ancient Greeks in their heyday, the period between the defeat of the Persians in 480 BCE and the death of Alexander the Great in 323.

Among the Greeks there was an expectation that men would be erotically and very passionately involved with other men. But there was also an expectation that they would be what we would call "monogamous" -- that is, both physically and emotionally loyal to the one person they loved.

What's remarkable (at least from our point of view) is that, by and large, it appears that they were. We have numerous accounts of same-sex love affairs, but very few mention infidelity. And when it does occur, it's punished rather dramatically.

For example, an Athenian tyrant attempted to coerce one of a pair of young lovers into having sex with him -- and was slain by them for his efforts. Similarly, Philip II of Macedon -- Alexander the Great's father -- was killed by a jilted boyfriend.

Of course that doesn't mean that Greek men weren't promiscuous in other ways. There were slaves and female prostitutes and even courtesans.

But in their same-sex love affairs, it seems, they were scrupulously faithful.

And there are numerous cross-cultural and historical examples like this one, which tell us that just as sexual practices vary among cultures, so do expectations of loyalty and promiscuity.

Why then do present-day gay men believe that promiscuity is so central to who they are?

As is true of the emphasis on anal sex in contemporary gay culture, the answer is historical and ideological.

The gay movement and the community it created emerged from what was arguably the worst period of repression and persecution of the "sexually deviant" the world has ever known.

Of course "sodomites," "passing women" and others had been ill-treated for at least a thousand years prior to our own era, but in the 20th century, the new science of psychiatry, whose teachings permeated cultures worldwide, combined with totalitarianism, restrictions on freedom in the few liberal democracies, colonialism, and religious hatred of homosexuals to produce a global orgy of censorship, beatings, incarcerations, forced medical treatments, and murders both individual and mass of LGBT people.

That persecution, so widespread in its extent, and reaching into almost country and every social class, had an exceptionally destructive effect on those gay people and communities that managed to survive.

But, starting in 1945, a series of revolts shook the established order: anti-colonialism; the civil rights, women's, and anti-war movements; the student uprising; and the counter-culture. These movements questioned every aspect of the repressive past, and provided both the ideological underpinnings for, and, in some cases, the actual leaders of, the modern LGBT community.

And so Gay Lib and the gay rights movement which emerged in the 1970s were deeply distrustful of authority.

In particular, gay men and lesbians had come to hate, with good reason, those who argued for any restrictions on sexual freedom.

And because medicine itself had been used against us, gays were suspicious of establishment doctors as well.

So instead of following the traditional, hetero, monogamous model, gay men invented a new one, it which it was both our right and our duty to have sex with as many of our fellows as possible.

An idea that was heartily endorsed by businesspeople who saw in Gay Liberation the chance to make money by opening bath-houses and backroom bars, and by gay male doctors who believed there was no such thing as an untreatable STD.

And when AIDS appeared, most gay men felt and feared that to surrender our promiscuity would be to surrender to the same forces that had attempted to destroy us for literally hundreds of years.

And so, defiantly, promiscuity became even more firmly entrenched in gay male culture.

That doesn't mean that my generation of gay men invented promiscuity. But it does mean that we formulated an ideology of promiscuity and made it core to our culture.

As an openly gay and sexually active man, I witnessed that promiscuity for 30 years, the first ten of which happened to coincide with what gay writer Brad Gooch later termed "The Golden Age of Promiscuity."

But the truth is that it wasn't golden. Even if you were young and relatively pretty, what began in fun soon came to feel compulsive and filled with rejection. And in those ten years epidemics engulfed the community one after the other, starting with crabs, then scabies, then syphilis and gonorrhea, then herpes, then intestinal parasites and hepatitis, and finally HIV.

So the list of ills went from amusing to annoying to scary to dangerous to deadly -- in less than a decade.

Some of us were less affected by these diseases than others -- because we weren't as promiscuous, or because the ways we liked to have sex didn't expose us to the diseases, or both.

For that reason we were sometimes called prudes. But I think it's fair to say, in retrospect, that we were simply prudent.

What was remarkable was the degree to which other gay men weren't. They'd get sick, they'd get treated (hopefully), and they'd go back out and hurl themselves into the whirl of backroom bars and bath-houses and frenetic, anonymous sex, much of it violating the most basic rules of hygiene, lessons learned early in childhood.

It's not simply that it felt good. Don't let people tell you that. It's that too many gay men thought they had to do it in order to be gay - because that's what their culture was telling them.

And that the rest of us, for the most part, simply didn't understand the danger.

When, for example, I saw men troop past our little Fire Island apartment on moonless nights to go have sex in the darkness, I thought it was unwise.

But I didn't see what was coming.

Larry Kramer did. In 1979 he wrote a book called Faggots, which attacked among other things gay men's disregard for each other's health. And that same year Gay Lib pioneer and philosopher Arthur Evans warned that "a great wave of death is about to break over the community."

Both were labeled erotophobes and traitors to gay culture.

But both were right.

And the gay male community was soon engulfed by one of the worst epidemics the world has ever known.

Years later, after the deaths of my lover and all of our friends, I joined an HIV-negative support group. Not that I needed support to stay negative -- I just needed some company.

One night the discussion turned to oral sex. The day before there'd been a tumultuous public meeting in our town to discuss a recent study that said that there was some risk from oral. The community was frightened, appalled and infuriated -- now they want to take oral away from us too, men said.

An acquaintance of mine spoke at that meeting. He'd sero-converted through oral sex alone, and he wanted others to learn from his experience.

When I brought up his name in my HIV-negative support group, there were cries of outrage. "He's lying," they said to me. "But I know him," I responded. "He has no reason to lie."

No one would believe me. "You don't know him that well," they said. "You don't know everything he's done."

There was no way I could answer them, so I left the group. They were nice guys, but they were in such strident denial about sex and disease that I no longer felt we shared a common ground.

I love sex, and I know that I'm lucky that the way I like to have sex is a lot less risky than others. But I also understand there are limits to medicine that have nothing to do with homophobia.

And that there are demands we make upon ourselves as gay men that have too little to do with pleasure, and too much to do with culture and ideology.

So I salute James Murray for continuing to fight to save gay men's lives. But I suggest to him, as I have to other safer-sex educators, that it's not enough to look at individual risk factors.

One has to look at the entire culture. For so long as gay men believe that they are defined by promiscuity and anal sex, they will continue to put themselves in mortal danger.

Bill Weintraub


Please note that "Do Gay Men Have to be Promiscuous?" is the second article of a trilogy on gay male sexual mores. The other two are

Part 1: Is Gay Sex Trying Too Hard to be Straight?; and

Part 3: Risk Reduction or Cultural Change?

Parts 1 and 2 were published; Part 3 has not been.

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