“Libidinal Pathology”

Any writer who wants to tackle touchy subjects in this day and age will be subjected to constant and often colorful insults, attacks, smears, ad hominems and general abuse. I’m used to it and don’t whine. And so I am resigned to the fact that any post or essay I might write will be condemned at some point (whatever its subject) because of my support for the Iraq War (despite countless mea culpas, including a whole e-book), or for the sentence in 2001 about a potential “fifth column” (for which I have also apologized), or for asking for some minimal documentation of the story of Sarah Palin’s astonishing fifth pregnancy (for which I see no reason to apologize), or for doubting that gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity can be entirely explained by social constructionism. And look, this is fair enough. I had my say; people also get to have theirs’ about what I wrote. Just because you’ve apologized for something doesn’t mean others have to accept it.

But one meme that crops up eternally whenever the left side of the spectrum wants to take a whack is my alleged sexual hypocrisy from as far back as 2001. A recent Gawker piece – after ticking off the usual accusations that I’m a racist, a misogynist, etc. – prompted the following reader comment:

Anyone remember when he was criticizing gay men for their “libidinal pathology” while posting ads for himself on a bareback sex site?

I do!

Except I wasn’t. That phrase – which appeared in countless articles asserting my hypocrisy – comes from Love Undetectable. It’s used in a section on circuit “rave” parties in the gay male world, and the debate they provoked in the 1990s. Here’s the full context of that phrase, and you can judge for yourself whether I was “criticizing gay men for their ‘libidinal pathology'”:

Slowly the proliferation of these events became impossible to ignore, and the secrecy that once shrouded them turned into an increasingly raucous debate on the front pages of newspapers across the country. Despite representing a tiny sub-subculture, and dwarfed, for example, by the explosion of gay religion and spirituality in the same period, the parties seemed to symbolize something larger: the question of whether, as AIDS receded, gay men were prepared to choose further integration, or were poised to leap into another spasm of libidinal pathology.

I am not criticizing gay men for “libidinal pathology” at a circuit party. I am describing a “raucous debate” about the possibility of them signifying the revival of such a thing. My own actual answer to that question was the following:

What these events really were about, whatever their critics have claimed, was not sex … what replaced sex was the idea of sex; and what replaced promiscuity was the idea of promiscuity, masked by the ecstatic high of drug-enhanced drug-music.

It also makes little sense for me to be slamming circuit parties for “libidinal pathology,” when I am describing my attendance at one – and not as a reporter but as a participant. In fact, the section is a celebration in part of unabashed gay sexuality:

What would the guardians of reality think, I remember asking myself, if they could see this now, see this display of unapologetic masculinity and understand that it was homosexual … [I]t was hard not to be struck, as I was the first time I saw it, by a genuine, brazen act of cultural defiance, a spectacle designed not only to exclude but to reclaim a gender, the ultimate response to a heterosexual order that denies gay men the masculinity that is also their own.

As to circuit parties as a whole, I have long gone to them, and, as you can see if you actually read what I wrote, celebrated them as one way I found liberation in a dark time. I met my husband at that very same party a decade later. I went to one last year. Yes, in that essay, I was trying to understand them in the AIDS era and to explain them to an outside world – and I was prepared to address some of the issues around them, including the very issue of promiscuity itself that hovered around the AIDS question. But the notion that this proves I was a sexual Puritan is ridiculous. A reviewer even lamented that in the book, “Sullivan drones on and on about his sexual encounters.” Well which is it: am I boring you with an account of my own promiscuity or condemning others for it?

Another sentence was routinely hauled out to condemn me for hypocrisy and pops up from time to time. Here is Richard Goldstein’s phrase of accusation:

[Sullivan] considers gay marriage the only healthy alternative to “a life of meaningless promiscuity followed by eternal damnation.”

Again, go check the original context. It’s from the same book. It comes from a section where I am impugning the idea of “hate the sin, love the sinner” and the failure of the churches to offer moral direction of any kind to gay men, leaving us for millennia vulnerable to, yes, sexual pathologies born out of desperation or the need for relief from the contradictions of our lives. Here’s the full passage:

If you teach people that something as deep inside them as their very personality is either a source of unimaginable shame or unmentionable sin, and if you tell them that their only ethical direction is either the suppression of that self in a life of suffering, or a life of meaningless promiscuity followed by eternal damnation, then it is perhaps not surprising that their moral and sexual behavior becomes wildly dichotic; that it veers from compulsive activity to shame and withdrawal; or that it becomes anesthetized by drugs or alcohol or fatally distorted by the false, crude ideology of easy prophets.

It’s clear from this passage that I am actually criticizing those who hold the belief that Goldstein and countless others ascribed … to me! You can watch the debate at the New School in 2002 where I directly confronted Goldstein about this … and he had nothing to say in his own defense, as the very lefty crowd discovered to their shock and mounting anger. I could go on. In the same book, I wrote explicitly about my own first experience of sex without rubbers with another survivor of HIV and a good friend. So in a book published in 1998, I recount details about my many sexual encounters and also unprotected sex with another man with HIV … and yet three years later I am a hypocrite for doing exactly the same things.

To be sure, the essay was about finding a way between no sexual boundaries and more humane ones for gay men. It does contain an implicit critique of compulsive sex – but in the context of my own experience of it. It revealed things about the gay subculture that are not usually told to heterosexuals or a general reader. It’s a raw book, written in a much more fraught time for the gay community. But it was also a memoir that placed myself in the middle of that struggle – and not above or outside it. And yes, I used terms like “hairy-backed homos” which critics took to be condemnatory – when it was anything but (as any Dishhead surely knows by now)! And, yes, arguing for marriage equality was also about ending the psychic wounds that led so many gay men into such painful places for so long. My only criticism of promiscuity per se was Randy Shilts’: when the AIDS epidemic first showed up and there was resistance to shutting down bathhouses. And Randy got slut-shamed as I was for taking what now seems like an honorable, brave and prescient stand.

Then the alleged irresponsibility. We know for certain that one of the most effective ways of curtailing HIV transmission is what we now call sero-sorting – i.e. HIV-positive men having sex only with other HIV-positive men. I was an early proponent and practitioner of it – as an informed act of responsibility. For this act of responsibility, I was hauled out to be condemned and humiliated and accused of rank hypocrisy.

This is a very old story but also a very old lie. It rests on misrepresentations of what I wrote and what I believe. Every now and again, since it is a lie that won’t die, it is perhaps necessary to remind people of this.

(Sidebar image by Marc Love)