Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Cognitive Dissonance

Dan Savage's latest column is an interesting study in contradiction.  It consists of two letters, both from gay men dealing with "kinks" (i.e., light sadomasochism) in their relationships.

The first man has found a good but apparently vanilla boyfriend whom he's afraid of scaring away if he asks to introduce his "need to engage in power exchange with someone."  Meanwhile, keeping his desires bottled up is stressing him out seriously.

Dan is supportive: "Your kinks are an intrinsic aspect of your sexuality and repressing them—not having any way to explore or express them—does take an emotional toll."  So far so good.

The second man has "a new boyfriend who just opened up to me about his kinks."
What’s interesting to me, Dan, is how often this happens. My boyfriend is easily the fourth guy I’ve dated in the last few years who laid down the exact same kink cards: wants to be tied up, wants to be called names, wants to be hurt. I’m learning to tie knots and getting better at calling him names when we have sex, and I actually really enjoying spanking him. But I was talking with a friend—our straight lady mutual (with the boyfriend’s okay!)—and she told me she’s never had a straight guy open up to her about wanting to be tied up and abused. Are gay guys just kinkier?
Dan takes a different tack in response.
I have a theory…

When we’re boys… before we’re ready to come out… we’re suddenly attracted to other boys. And that’s something we usually feel pretty panicked about. It would be nice if that first same-sex crush was something a boy could experience without feelings of dread or terror, TOP, but that’s not how it works for most of us. We’re keenly aware that should the object of our desire realize it—if the boy we’re attracted to realizes what we’re feeling, if we give ourselves away with a stray look—the odds of that boy reacting badly or even violently are high. Even if you think the boy might not react violently, even if you suspect the boy you’re crushing on might be gay himself, the stakes are too high to risk making any sort of move. So we stew with feelings of lust and fear.

Sexual desire can make anyone feel fearful and powerless—we’re literally powerless to control these feelings (while we can and must control how we act on these feelings)—but desire and fear are stirred together for us gay boys to much greater degree than they are for straight boys. We fear being found out, we fear being called names, we fear being outed, we fear being physically hurt. And the person we fear most is the person we have a crush on. A significant number of gay guys wind up imprinting on that heady and very confusing mix of desire and fear. The erotic imaginations of guys like your boyfriend seize on those fears and eroticize them. And then, in adulthood, your boyfriend want to re-experience those feelings, that heady mix of desire and fear, with a loving partner he trusts. The gay boy who feared being hurt by the person he was attracted to becomes the gay man who wants to be hurt—in a limited, controlled, consensual, and safe way—by the man he’s with.
Here Dan explains what appear to be essentially the same kink he described as "intrinsic" to the first guy's sexuality as an extrinsic, contingent result of the fears gay boys grow up with.  His theory isn't implausible, and he's far from the only person to theorize masochism like this, but although I don't have a better explanation, I don't buy it.  For one thing, I think masochism is much more common among heterosexual males than either Dan or his questioner recognize: usually it's expressed without getting genital.  The hierarchical games of dominance and submission between males that play an important role in patriarchy are sadomasochistic at core, even if no one has an orgasm.  (A number of theorist-practitioners of gay male S/M have claimed that genital sex plays less of a role in their erotic lives than the theater of dominance and submission, the cosplay, and so on.)  Expressing these roles through fucking and sucking is very difficult to negotiate between straight males, for the same reason that gay men find it necessary to closet themselves.  The straight female friend the questioner had discussed this with claimed she'd never encountered a man who asked her to dominate him.  That may well be, but it doesn't guarantee that none of them wanted her to. and they had good reason to be afraid to ask.  Some women are happy to play the dominatrix, but many others freak out over even a little kinkiness.  I bet Dan will get some letters about this from straight male and female readers alike.

But I digress.  The point for me is that Dan equivocated in the same column between claiming kinks as "intrinsic" and "explaining" them in the very same suspect way that homosexuality used to be "explained."  If kinks aren't inborn, that means they're acquired or (gasp) learned, and maybe they can be unlearned as well.  I don't think Dan intends or wants to say anything like this, but it follows from his armchair psychologizing.  Physician, explain thyself!

P.S.  This is the 2500th post of this blog.  No biggie, but a milestone nevertheless.