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The Gay Scene: "The Biggest Suicide Cult in History"! Say What Now?

May 7, 2013

This article originally appeared on PositiveLite.com, Canada's Online HIV Magazine.

It's morning, I open my eyes
And everything's still the same
I turn to the guy who stayed last night
And ask him, "What's your name?"

-- "So Many Men, So Little Time," Miquel Brown, 1983

I must admit, when I read this title quote by the much-lauded British performance artist and TV personality David Hoyle, I thought it must be something from a late eighties politician, and one not exactly gay-friendly. In fact, the very gay David Hoyle said it in 2007, on the day before World AIDS Day and on the flyer for a night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London, was added the following text:

All over Vauxhall they are fucking without condoms. All over Vauxhall they are dancing till Tuesday morning. All over Vauxhall they are taking G, K, C, V and E [that's GHB, ketamine, cocaine, Viagra and ecstasy]. All over Vauxhall they are dying.

Depending on your viewpoint, this was either in your face, plain speaking by a prophet with street cred; or the outburst of a gay artist, exhausted and frustrated by the hedonism of the scene in which he performs.

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Let me try to put this in context. The numbers of new HIV infections in the UK have remained more or less the same between 2001 and 2011, despite awareness and sexual health education having reached practically all young people. So somehow, the message which is understood by everybody is not being translated into action between the sheets. Despite the current youth culture being brought up with the mantra that safer sex saves lives, HIV cases are just as high as 15 years ago and are being fueled by rampant alcoholism and drug abuse within the gay scene itself.

Now I can't judge; I was young too once but sex, drugs and alcohol are a powerful cocktail and the potential for harm is self-evident on the gay scene. In Britain particularly, there is a cultural expectation amongst young people, both straight and gay, to get wasted on either drink, drugs or both. Sex is the climax to the evening but by that time, rational thought is by definition diminished.

There has been a spate of drug-induced deaths in gay saunas and clubs recently but even this hasn't deterred people from giving in to peer pressure and the weight of gay social expectation. More stories are appearing of horrible situations where a partner who has been on GHB, suddenly dies straight after sex. Apart from that and despite the lurid publicity many young people also seem to agree with the following from Time Out:

Several younger gay men I've spoken to in the past few months have argued that HIV is no big deal. They've heard about combination therapy, they've seen the ads with muscular men climbing mountains and they've jumped to the conclusion that life on antiretrovirals is one long picnic. There are even the fatalistic few for whom contracting HIV is seen as some sort of rite of passage, or a stepping stone toward having lots of unprotected sex without having to think about the consequences.

On the other side of the coin, Hoyle's sentiment from 2007 is echoed in a recent article by Matthew Todd in the Guardian, titled "The Roots of Gay Shame." He says, "If you didn't think you were worth caring about in the first place, why would you care if you caught HIV?"

The rise in HIV infections among older guys shows that the problem is not confined to the "live hard, die young" generation. In the older age groups, the causes may lie more in a rejuvenated sex life thanks to erection enhancers than the gay scene in which even the fittest older guy struggles to keep up. The risk-taking, though, is proportionately as high. Maybe the older you are, the stronger the feeling that you've dodged the bullet so far, why should it change now? My HIV specialist shakes his head, bemused at the sheer lack of logic regarding new infections in the 45+ groups. After all, it's not as if they've not seen what can happen and no age group is better educated. So what's going on in the gay psyche -- both young and old -- that shuts out reason at crucial moments?

Was David Hoyle right? Are we part of a massive, subconscious suicide cult? Do we really have an uncontrollable problem that nobody's talking about? We can surely assume that if it is happening in UK cities, other urban conurbations across the world will be similarly affected.

It may not be helpful to take the moral high ground either. Many people will be quick to jump on the "serves 'em right" bandwagon and people living with long-term HIV may also wag stern fingers but it can't be as simplistic as that. Maybe it's good that LGBT insiders like David Hoyle are criticizing behavior from within the scene, however much it sounds like he's betraying his own by speaking to the world at large. However, he's not alone. All sorts of people from club owners to social workers are quietly bemoaning the consequences of unbridled hedonism and asking for it to be talked about at least. The point is that it's not done to be a whistle blower in any social group but in this case something is clearly going on within the scene and could threaten resistance to the virus if it gets out of hand.

To my mind, however tempting it may be to come over as "outraged from Amsterdam," this isn't a cut-and-dry moral issue. Very few people actively set out to catch the virus and there's never been so much information available on every social platform. So why is a substantial group of LGBT people rushing lemming-like off the cliff despite knowing a hundred reasons not to?

I've got to disclaim here: many people go out socially, have a few drinks, meet someone and have safe sex with them -- everything in moderation. Not everybody is socially reckless and having unsafe sex; the virus would be out of control if that were true. So I'm not talking about those who follow the "rules" and live fulfilled and happy lives but the rise of a hedonistic culture which leads to a carpe diem attitude and if they get something, too bad. Enough people are spreading the virus to keep the statistics at a stable high. It's almost as if for every ten converts to safe sex, ten "refuseniks" emerge to take their place and then the stats never improve.

It surely has to be a social issue, with a very strong sexual component attached. You're bought up in a society that still discourages homosexuality and encourages normality. You discover you're gay and are immediately confronted with dilemmas over what to do about it. You may have a tough time with your family and at school and via school peer pressure, may take to distractions like drugs, alcohol and smoking even before you hit the gay scene. Heterosexual youth culture sees getting wasted as a rite of passage and then, with hormones raging, you take your first tentative steps onto the gay scene, where your insecurities are quickly masked by the availability of everything in the candy store. You then learn how to mask rational thought with excessive drink and party drugs and before you know it, your trousers are round your ankles, without a condom in sight.

So that's maybe how it starts but god knows there are enough social messages and pressures to make you think twice. So why do so many ignore them and willfully seek out yet more thrills without brakes? Even "normal" STDs like gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis don't stop them in their tracks: antibiotics for a few days and then back on the scene but it's only a matter of time for many before the law of averages kicks in and hepatitis and HIV take their disease dossiers to the next level. Even then (and here lies the great unspoken problem) people aren't deterred by disease; as long as it doesn't kill them, they carry on regardless. Why do they do that? Very few people can be sanctimonious about it; most people with HIV have slipped up somewhere (and not just once) and rejected reasonable behavior. So what drives us to indulge in irresponsible behavior; irresponsible for ourselves and irresponsible for others?

Maybe we underestimate what my ex-partner used to call "the power of the cock," and the nature of the sexual act itself. We all know that there's a point of no return with sex and especially sex with strangers. You're condom-aware throughout the encounter until the point where you're going to do it or not and then desire, lust and your sex-drive determine your decision making and sometimes, the sexual urge is just too strong. We're built that way by nature; remember the original idea was to beat off the competition and procreate like bunnies to extend your own section of the gene pool. It's one of the most powerful human autonomic reactions and very difficult to resist "in the moment." If you have to break off to put a condom on, not only do you lose the moment and a part of the excitement but you have to have enough willpower to overcome "the power of the cock." For many, the very act of putting a condom on is enough to lose them their erection and nobody likes that. So although we know we should and must, it's not easy and your mind has to be at its most rational to do it every time. Put yourself in the situation where you're on recreational drugs to get you through the night, possibly drunk as a skunk and you've exchanged "the look" with a hottie heading for the darkroom. All you want to do at that point is have sex; the urge can be irresistibly strong, especially if fueled by GHB and the rest. It takes a strong mind to unwrap both condom and lube packets and roll it on, with every chance that your bee has buzzed off to another flower. Morally we all know it's wrong but it happens and the blame has to be shared between the person himself and the social pressures around him. It's maybe those social pressures -- the drink, the drugs and the social mores -- that allow sexual impulse to overcome rational thought but it's just as likely to be your own biological urges.

I think that maybe if we're being realistic we will never achieve 100% safe sex behavior and maybe we should be satisfied if the current HIV new infection statistics for each country remain stable. Aiming for the total eradication of HIV transmission, as the HIV organizations trumpeted last year, can only come as a result of a cure or a vaccine because people's behavior isn't going to change, however much you confront them with the facts.

This sort of thinking is of course blasphemous in the eyes of health organizations and socially conscious HIV groups. We feel we have to strive for the elimination of HIV but considering social behavior in certain groups across the world, I'm personally not sure if we can by trying to change behavior alone. Moralists can preach that we need to return to taking personal responsibility for our actions but take a step into a modern gay club and you can count on the fingers of one hand how many eyes that stare at you aren't glazed, or hyperactive. Party drugs rule! Pragmatism and not preaching is what we need.

David Hoyle and others see it differently. They believe that there's something much deeper behind it all. It's claimed that the apparent lemming-like behavior among our youth groups stems from shame and self-loathing, rather than outside influences like drugs, drink and hormones. It sounds like a very old-fashioned concept, stemming from the days when staying in the closet was more the norm than the exception. LGBT society was bombarded with messages that it should be ashamed of itself and its behavior was disgusting to decent, god-fearing folks. It's not something that you would expect to hear in these days of gay marriage and Gaga birth certificates that prove we were born that way. So what do they mean when they link HIV infection to shame and loathing on the gay scene?

The theory goes that internalized shame leads to compulsive behavior and this is applied to LGBT people in the following ways:

Children are brought up to believe that sex and sexual relationships are wrong and sinful and gay sex sends you immediately down to Satan's sin bin.

When they're old enough to make relationships, society barks at them from every corner like rabid dogs that any relationship they might make has no value and actually causes a breakdown of society.

They learn that some people hate them enough to make their lives a misery of social network sites, or even attack them physically on the street.

They see cases of teenagers killing themselves out of horror at what they've become.

So it's believed that people turn to compulsive behaviors to either compensate for, or hide from their real selves. People become addicted to drink, drugs, smoking, porn, promiscuous sex, etc. This then leads to situations such as those on the gay scene, where safety is found in numbers and solace in collective substance abuse and sex. These feelings then become so embedded, you hardly know they are there. Becoming infected with HIV becomes a sort of culmination of the lifestyle and when it's too late to turn back, people get a sort of perverse pleasure in the fact that they were right all along and their shame and guilt has led to this "deserved" punishment.

The British and gay pop singer Will Young claimed recently that his own shame at being gay led to dysfunctional relationships and an addiction to porn. Now Will Young seems like an okay guy and someone fairly typical of his generation but is his claim purely personal or representative of many? On the face of it, you would think that most of the sorts of behavior that go on in many areas of the "scene" are hardly symptomatic of shame and guilt. It looks to be more the result of a sort of arrogance and fuck you attitude which young people have had since time immemorial. Add to that the feeling that you're immortal when you're young and you have to ask whether guilt plays any part at all, never mind a subconscious collective suicide wish!

That's the theory and although I may have described it far too simplistically it sums up what many people believe. Although I'm sure that many people carry guilt around with them like a Prada purse and some of them become compulsively obsessive, it by no means explains the problem, except as a sort of moral judgement based on amateur psychology. Why can't we accept that young straight or gay people these days are just out for a good time because with the pressure that society brings to get a job and have more "stuff" than the next man everybody needs an escape?

Possibly the only difference between gay and straight twenty-somethings is that three letter acronym HIV. It's such a loaded term that the pressure from society that it's evil and morally reprehensible leads to what all youngsters have always done: they do the opposite! When their own "elders" preach the plague years and bitter experience and every gay site on the planet tells them to avoid HIV by all means possible, of course a percentage are going to rebel and do their own thing. After all, they're immortal, right?

Maybe we need a more pragmatic approach to unsafe sex; accept it will happen and aim research at newer and more direct forms of prevention (effective antiviral lubes for instance). Ease up on attacking the morals of those who indulge in reckless behavior and concentrate on creating barriers to the virus, while at the same time taking active steps to change people's recreational stimulant use. Stop treating HIV prevention as a moral issue maybe and concentrate on killing the virus.

It's no good lecturing young people that they don't know what they're getting themselves into because a significant proportion will get themselves into it whatever you do. At the same time, I'd wager there isn't an LGBT person on the planet who hasn't felt guilty, or ashamed, or angry at some point at the cards they've been dealt but by no means have all of them ended up with HIV through reckless living as a result.

The title of this article is a brilliant sound bite but in my opinion not very strongly grounded in the truth. I'm beginning to believe that the best policy is to mop up afterwards, do our best to give unbiased advice and a safe environment and go for the throats of drug dealers and exploiters just interested in making a buck. It may sound heretical to many but we're all aiming for the same result; it's just the approaches that are open to debate.

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This article was provided by TheBody.com.
 

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Janos (Budapest) Sat., Jun. 1, 2013 at 5:38 am EDT
Reading the comments and articles, I find it amazing how, as we gay men, we don't even question the aspect of how much shame and stigma has been put on condomless sex. It's clear that not using a condom might get you an infection, but there are a myriad of activities (drinking, smoking, overating, etc...) which will lead to diseases and death. I'm not saying that we should all drop the condom, but maybe it would be time to stop having such a black and white view of condom vs no condom sex.
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Comment by: Ken (New South Wales Australia) Sat., Jun. 1, 2013 at 3:36 am EDT
Great article. Couldnít agree more.
And I so know that the self loathing because of societal attitudes etc etc argument is gonna get a lot of energy Ė
Iím saving your article on my desktop so I can send it as a counterbalance to the psycho-babble that will no doubt ensue.

Iím not totally dismissing the idea, but itís only part of the equation as you so rightly point out.
Aaaaah, the description of the Vauxhall etc etc echoes, Iím sure, Sydney clubs Ė Iím unable to stay up that late anymore, and canít cope with the drug after effects,
But it sure made me nostalgicÖÖ.
So how could I expect young people to be more responsible than I was??????
Nice to read your article!!
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Comment by: Huang (Bangkok) Sat., Jun. 1, 2013 at 3:34 am EDT
Thanks Dave R. Your article made me reflect in my own life and behaviors.
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Comment by: Nic (Anahuac) Sat., Jun. 1, 2013 at 3:32 am EDT
Hello David!

Just read your blog about the gay scene and enjoyed it very much.

I am one of those "older" gay men that contracted HIV in his 40's.
I have no one to blame but myself because in my 20's, all around
me were friends dying of AIDS, and I've been to many workshops,
meetings,AIDS Task Force, and support groups with friends to deal
with this issue. I knew exactly how to avoid it and what I needed
to do. For me though, and something that I didn't see clearly
stated in your blog but you did hint at it, for me it was: "when the pain is greater than the fear".
In other words, the pain of hurting on an emotional, psychological level was so great that I took the chance. And now I am paying for it heavily by serocoverting
and having to take meds.
I hope to see more of your writing/blogs.
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Comment by: ossie (venice fl) Fri., May. 31, 2013 at 11:10 am EDT
enjoy life to thefulest!
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Comment by: Robert W. (Tucson, AZ) Mon., May. 27, 2013 at 9:49 am EDT
All sex (other than rape) is a choice you make. Why not simply stop? It is not required to live and most of us have discovered that sex without love is pretty meaningless. We are not animals, we are thinking human beings. Start acting like one.
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Comment by: pedro (berlin) Mon., Jun. 17, 2013 at 3:36 pm EDT
couldn't agree more, though it is already too late for me, i feel the same way, i am sick of meaningless, empty, loveless sex (condom or not)... i just quit it... only handjobs until the grave.


Comment by: RORY K. (london UK) Sat., May. 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm EDT
Interesting thoughts. And many Psychologists would agree. Solution though? Mopping up ain't good enough. Education? Role Models? Blame Religion? Endorse a liberal form of religion where morality is back on the agenda?
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Comment by: rigo (Salsipuedes, Mexico) Fri., May. 24, 2013 at 9:35 pm EDT
there is quite a bit of madness in mankind everywhere anytime: from parents that have children automatically knowing they are bringing babies to an impossible world: dictators, soldiers, presidents, kings, popes and terrorists killing and plundering anywhere it is possible. Zillions of cows and chickens slaughtered every second for human meals. Why gays doing wild sex be different? Lets face it: we are all wild.
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Comment by: kirk h. (springfield mo) Fri., May. 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm EDT
most days i would like to end the pain. it is hard to think that i have to live like this for another 20 30 years
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Comment by: pedro (berlin) Mon., Jun. 17, 2013 at 3:38 pm EDT
im feeling exactlz the same way nowadays... i feel the only thing that keeps me alive is boring routine and lazyness to take the final decision


Comment by: Nathan (London) Fri., May. 24, 2013 at 11:27 am EDT
Then, since 2008 we have had another equally serious pressure: societal anxiety over the economic situation....'impoverishment; poverty kills, it leads to risk taking. For example there are many guys who can afford a basic subscription to a web site or use it's free features, they may be in low paid work or not in work at all, insecurely housed, they are part of the so called 'precariat'. They take risks because they have made a semi rational decision based on the limited options available to them in a society were social mobility is low and opportunities fewer. Gross inequalities in wealth make things worse, they make society more 'predatory' and create a similar attitude to war time: 'live for today'.
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Comment by: Nathan (London) Fri., May. 24, 2013 at 11:27 am EDT
What I didn't see was any mention of the sexualisation of society in general. Easy access to sex via the internet, which is a cheap and viable extension of the scene for many guys who cannot afford or choose not to go on the scene. Then there is increasing cultural diversity brought about by mass immigration of guys who come to the west so they can be Gay but carry with them many conservative hang up's....they don't want to go to gay bars but they do want to bareback with on line hook up's and that goes for guys who are born in the west but from conservative immigrant communities.
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Comment by: Nathan (London) Fri., May. 24, 2013 at 11:20 am EDT
What an interesting article and there is much I would agree on. Some thoughts: As one enters middle age it becomes a lot easier to get a perspective of the 'scene' in a way that is often not possible when one is young. My late father said to me when I was in my early 20's and loving the scene and the sex: 'When you're young your dick does the thinking for you, after 40 your brain will take over'. Sex and the lure of a good time are irresistible to many but not to the majority of Gay men who are not on the scene and never were, or only flirt with it, they do this for many reasons. We cannot blame the scene, it exists because we want it to, it is what we have made it, drugs are not 'pushed' on anyone, guys seek them out, as they always did, what has happened is not new except that the scale of things has increased exponentially and this is to do with a more liberal society (though this is changing, slowly but perceptibly) and people having more disposable income though that is also changing.
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Comment by: KDS (New York, NY) Thu., May. 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm EDT
It is indeed simplistic to think that all people of any stripe are motivated by the same factors. However, this doesn't need to mean mutual exclusivity either. Shame (and objectification while we're at it) have to be factored into the mix. I don't use "objectification" here just to point fingers at the promiscuous. It is just as true of those who would pass moral judgment. What we're most in need of is a human approach that recognizes our existence and worth. Without that, this will continue.
Reply to this comment


Comment by: Mark S. (Atlanta, GA.) Thu., May. 23, 2013 at 6:07 pm EDT
I'm not to sure that Those who have had HIV/AIDS for a long time were trying to catch this infection, we just did not know at the time it was so passible. I sit here 30 years after being told that I had G.R.I.D.S and had six months to live, laughing at the doctors that told me, The date I was told was April 28, 1983 & here I am in 2013 just having my 50th birthday, having 30 years with HIV/AIDS and 10 years on meds, What bothers me is that the young people of today just don't care, babies having babies, boys on the low-down and not being true to themselves, men in prison still doing what they do passing this infection between each other and they wives or girlfriends without telling those that they are suppost to love they are HIV+, I have seen many friends pass-away in my life do to the fact that they were scared of the stigma that they would given. This is the 21st century, are we not better than our past, can we not overcome all the bull we are being handed, I know most people are not as strong as myself or have seen as much as I have in my life, but we can still do something about all this hate that is still out there, kids bullying others for the smallest reasons and the adults doing the same too. This country was built on "EVERY MAN IS CREATED EQUAL" What happened to those words ??? we are still a young nation to the rest of the world. why are we so behind. The public will be just that "the public" if we cleaned our own backyard then others or what they said would not hurt as bad as it does. Harvey Milk, Sir Elton John, Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor, just to speak about some of our greatest Leaders of our time. They have something to say, Past or Present we need to listen, I am proud to be gay, HIV+, 50 years old and to have lived 30 years with this infection, LIFE IS SO MUCH FUN TO LET SOMETHING LIKE THIS TAKE IT AWAY. we are who we are, hold your head high, walk with pride, for our life is still worth living live it like there is no tomorrow.
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Comment by: SeerClearly (Denver, CO) Thu., May. 23, 2013 at 5:46 pm EDT
I can't deny the effects of shame on people's behavior: my own spiritual path has had me digging deeply into that and realizing that shame underlies almost all of what we feel. However, I think the article is too simplistic and doesn't deal with a fundamental issue here: safe sex is not the same as unsafe sex and that people have other reasons for choosing unsafe sex than self-hatred or self-abandonment. Personally, I'm one of those aging gay men who became poz in my 40s. I don't know how or from whom, despite having very few partners and both participating in safe sex AND seroselecting. My partners at the time are all still HIV negative. However, what I can say is that I was attracted to poz guys because they were more in the moment, more alive, more present - all I have since learned are developments that come from facing one's mortality. This brings me to my conclusion: many don't like safe sex because to them, it represents repression, contraction, limitition, and self-denial. I certainly don't do it unless the moment calls for it, or if I'm with an HIV-negative partner. I also don't believe the scare tactics of the medical community around poz-to-poz transmission after digging into the politics around HIV medicine and seeing that much of it is money or power-motivated rather than truth-seeking. In some ways, choosing unsafe sex IS the rebellion the article speaks of, but it's a rebellion against the self-denial that all of us had to conquer as we came out. Perhaps unsafe sex is even an unavoidable part of the gay psyche, completely unattached to the shame the article speaks about. In any case, the problem of transmission won't be solved entirely by forcing people to face shame (which psychologically, simply results in blame, which is projected shame.) And blame is diseampowering. The solution will be better medicine, and potentially re-thinking the stigma of HIV, which is worse than the reality.
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Comment by: John-Manuel Andriote (Norwich, CT) Thu., May. 23, 2013 at 5:28 pm EDT
There is absolutely something deeper-seated in gay men that drives unhealthy, self-destructive behavior. It's called self-shame, aka internalized homopbhobia. It drives greater drug abuse, HIV risk behavior and other indications of an underlying shortage of self-efficacy. Men who care about themselves and look forward to their future don't engage in behavior they know can kill them--at a minimum they think twice, and they aren't likely to be drugged up to the point of complete disinhibition. Behavioral scientists are looking at the need to build and support gay men's resilience as a bullwark againt the harmful behaviors that can undermine and even destroy us. I have a book in the works on this subject--and wrote about it in The Atlantic here: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/02/the-power-of-choosing-resilience/273245/#
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Comment by: Melinda (Florida) Thu., May. 23, 2013 at 4:21 pm EDT
Sounds like self loathing to me.Who the hell would put their lives at risk just for the sake of "the feel"unprotected sex....Please protect yourselves people.
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Comment by: Texas Star (Austin, TX) Thu., May. 23, 2013 at 4:09 pm EDT
Great article, but maybe we should stop analyzing the "why" and concentrate on the "why not." We were all young once, full of life and invincible. Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda - I hear it everyday. To deny today's youth with that pleasure and experience is unrealistic. Like the article states "we all need an escape." Especially when we are young exploring/ discovering ourself, feelings and our reason for being, all at the same time that we are fighting to climb the ladder and the accompanying stress. The article says that "Possibly the only difference between gay and straight twenty-somethings, is that three letter acronym HIV." I am disturbed by that remark. HIV does not discriminate and doesn't care if it's a vagina or ass that it's being carried through. Lets just hold on to hope that a vaccine or other preventative cure will be developed in our lifetime. Let's not steal "youth" and wondering/discovering from anyone. That's what shapes us and makes us the individuals that we are. All unique and all beautiful in our own ways.
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Comment by: Gus Cairns (London, UK) Thu., May. 9, 2013 at 3:24 am EDT
Great piece, nicely balanced. I'm retweeting and F/B'ing it.
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Comment by: Okie (Oklahoma USA) Tue., May. 7, 2013 at 10:54 pm EDT
Brilliantly articulated. The truth for many of us is that we are subconsciously motivated by deep shame. It goes beyond logic or education or all the "pride" we espouse. Many of us are battling shadowy voices and long hidden self-loathing that beats and rages at us behind semi-forgotten bricked up walls.
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Comment by: Gus Cairns (London UK) Thu., May. 9, 2013 at 3:27 am EDT
Erm, I'm not sure we've read the same piece, Okie. Dave is saying that it's simplistic to say that all young gay people are motivated by shame: "Why can't we accept that young straight or gay people these days are just out for a good time because with the pressure that society brings to get a job and have more "stuff" than the next man everybody needs an escape?"


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