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Homo Erotics

Gay Men and Sex, Dating and Romance

June 2001

Article: Homo Erotics: Gay Men and Sex, Dating and Romance

  • Nothing has had more of an impact upon gay men's sexuality and relationships with friends and lovers than HIV/AIDS. In the early days of the epidemic, the urgency, rage, and despair caused by AIDS were at the peak of their intensity, and often resulted in many gay men withdrawing from the dating and relationship realms. Today HIV/AIDS continues to have enormous influence on the lives and psyches of gay men. But the nature of that influence has undergone a seismic change. In the early years of the AIDS crisis, gay men were routinely traumatized, regardless of whether or not they were infected. Repeatedly we found ourselves caught up in life threatening emergencies as we and our friends discovered we were infected, became ill, needed to be cared for, and, for some, ultimately died.

  • Concurrently, the celebratory sexual culture of the halcyon days before the epidemic was being attacked and transformed. For the past several years, gay men's sexual energy has been on the rebound. The ebbing of the community-wide crisis mentality has provided the ability to explore once again a host of issues related to sexuality, despite the fact that HIV is an inescapable premise shaping all sexual exchanges.

  • Just as there is no "typical" gay man, there is no one "normal" way to behave sexually. Each person must work to integrate his unique needs for sex, romance and passion in a way that is authentic and at the same time-sensitive to the needs of the people around him. This is true whether or not a man is infected with HIV or unsure of his sero status.


Casual Sex vs. Husband Hunting

A complex, satisfying and rich relationship is usually based on multiple factors, for example mutual fondness and sexual attraction, shared or complementary interests and values, having fun, and curiosity about each other and what each does with his life. A man who says he wants to find a husband may behave in ways that sabotage any potential for long-term intimacy. He may have sex with someone he happens upon under the mistaken impression that he is auditioning his next potential future husband. The intensity of initial sexual intoxication may mislead him as to his true feelings about the guy. Many men I discuss this with describe making a clear distinction between "fast-food" sex and dating with an eye towards finding a partner. They defensively accuse me of suggesting that if they stop having casual sex, they will magically find a husband. For gay men, a big challenge is to learn to have our sexual expression linked to feelings of being connected to another man socially and emotionally. I am not saying that a person needs to be in love in order to be sexual, but rather that it is virtually impossible to have sex and not have a lot of feelings stirred up, even if it is only the excitement of having a fantasy fulfilled.

Don't get me wrong; I don't believe there is anything wrong with casual sex, or that a strong shared sexual passion may not ultimately turn out to be a good a place to begin exploring the possibility of a long-term partnership. It's just that my clinical and personal experiences have shown that when someone is separating sex from their needs for intimacy in one area of their life, they usually have a difficult time integrating the two components in others. There are many reasons why having sex with a stranger gets in the way of single men meeting someone with whom they might share their lives more fully. Sex can anesthetize feelings of loneliness, boredom and sadness. By experiencing those feelings, anyone will be better able to recognize when a nonsexual connection with a new man in his life begins to address those deeper needs. If you are hoping to meet someone who will be a companion, or friend, as well as a lover, you will need to base the relationship on a lot more than the fact that the two of you throw each other's hormones into an uproar.

If you are on the prowl and are giving off hungry or desperate vibrations, the kind of man you will attract will likely be in a similar state. Yet, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that some very wonderful relationships have begun between people who did have sex upon first meeting. When neither is feeling desperate about needing or wanting a relationship, there is a greater likelihood that an encounter that becomes sexual, whether through a serendipitous meeting or on a first date, can evolve into something more.

Where to Look for a Mate

Bars, baths, chat rooms, sex clubs and discos are about the worst places to meet a potential mate. Most people who are in one of these venues are there either to dance and hang out with their friends or to try and pick someone up. In addition many people hanging out in a bar, club or sex party have probably had something to drink or are high on some kind of "recreational chemical." People drink or take drugs because it makes them feel more relaxed. Yet meeting a potential spouse while one or both of you are under the influence can certainly diminish your ability to make good choices.

It's a lot easier to meet potential partners when you're engaged in an activity that you enjoy. Thus the gym, gay athletic, social or political events, gay trips or community organizations provide you with the opportunity to meet someone with whom you share at least some interests. For instance if you like scuba diving, hiking, playing volleyball, writing poetry, politics, or two-step dancing, many cities have organizations for lesbians and gay men that are built around these specific interests. Doing volunteer work at any lesbian or gay community social service organization is another good way to meet potential dates. Caring people who are willing to give of themselves by providing community service are much better prospects as potential husbands than people who are only consumed with themselves and their own interests.

If you are HIV-positive or have AIDS, organizations such as Body Positive and GMHC sponsor events that can facilitate people living with HIV/AIDS meeting each other for friendship, mutual support and dating. Volunteering at an AIDS service organization is another place where you are liable to meet people who will be able to deal with your health status. Increasingly, people living with HIV are placing classified advertisements that state up front what their health status is. I met my current partner when he put an ad in one of the gay magazines headlined "Buff, Positive and Hopeful."

First Impressions

For men interested in partnering, it is crucial to figure out if a particular man is available for more than sex. Thus it's necessary to spend a lot of time talking early on. Learning certain basic things about a person (like where he lives, where he's from, what kind of work he does, what kind of things he enjoys recreationally, and what kinds of dreams he has) can immediately provide clues about whether this is someone you want to know better. Many men have met someone in a sexual situation, gone home without having done much talking, and had good sex. Afterwards they discovered that "Mr. Hot Sex" is someone with whom they have nothing in common, someone whom they are happy to be rid of after breakfast (or before).

Before jumping into bed with a new man, spend some time talking to him and ask yourself some questions. Does he encourage you to talk about yourself, or is every word out of his mouth "me-me-me?" Do you feel comfortable opening up to him and becoming increasingly vulnerable? If so, this is probably because he responds to you with sensitivity and empathy. Never forget that he may share your own awkwardness about dating, and concerns about health, body image, and other personal matters. Pay attention to whether or not he talks about personal issues in a way that results in your beginning to care about him and become curious about who he is and what makes him tick (in areas beyond the sexual). Getting to know another person and feeling safe with him is how genuine intimacy begins to develop. Intimacy is linked to trust. Trust doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. Trust and intimacy have to be earned.

Taking it Slowly

Postponing a first sexual encounter with someone you've just met makes it possible to determine beforehand whether or not he responds to you in nonsexual ways. Does he initiate phone calls or dates? Does he return your calls promptly? It's never fun or easy having someone we like not be interested in us. Having sex with someone you don't know has the potential for putting you out on a limb emotionally, especially if you are feeling needy or vulnerable. If a man you like doesn't feel the same way and wants to stop seeing you, this is going to be a lot more painful if you have already had sex, since making love has the potential to make you feel more vulnerable. On the other hand when you have sex with someone who shares a similar intensity of feeling, the sex becomes a way of bonding and expressing a growing sense of closeness. This is sex as a statement of intimacy and in fact, can be most exciting and satisfying.

One thing that makes courtship difficult for gay men is that we lack the kinds of markers that delineate the various phases of a relationship. Heterosexuals date, go steady, get engaged, and then get married. By contrast, the developmental phases and landmarks of our relationships are not formalized. Thus when two men reach the stage that is the equivalent of "going steady," sometimes they confuse this with being lovers. It is useful to discuss what the terms "boyfriend," "lover," and "partner" mean in order to make sure that you and someone you are going out with are on the same page.

Dating and Health Status

Having sex with a stranger while seeking a long-term partner is still more complicated when you have HIV/AIDS. If you are infected or are a widower who is only recently re-entering the dating arena, it is completely understandable that you might hesitate before sharing this with someone you have just met.

Several HIV-positive people have confided that they do not want to deal with telling people about being seropositive or having AIDS and risking rejection. So when they want sex they go to a sex club and play safe or go online or out, meet someone, and have conservative and very safe sex. This raises the issue of when is the appropriate time to tell prospective sex partners that you have been exposed to HIV or have "it?" Some people feel that as long as they do not do anything to place either themselves or their partners at risk of spreading HIV, they do not have to discuss HIV. On the other hand, if you don't share your health status, have safer sex, and begin to date someone, it only gets more difficult to tell him any of these things as the relationship progresses. In addition, he may feel hurt, betrayed or distrustful if he learns about your health status after he has begun to become emotionally and sexually involved.

If you are HIV-negative and the HIV status of your sexual or romantic partners is important to you, then it is your responsibility to ask a new man in your life whether he is HIV-positive. Please remember that it would be extremely unwise to place yourself at sexual risk simply because someone, especially someone you have just met for the purposes of having sex, tells you that he is not infected with HIV. As reprehensible as lying about being infected with HIV is, there are people who do it!

Precisely because of the ever-present risk of rejection, many people with HIV decide not to have sex with anyone they just meet. They go out on a few dates that do not end up in bed. This way they decide if they like and trust the other person enough to disclose their HIV status to him. Some will choose not to continue dating a person who has HIV, and will be greatly relieved that the two of you never went to bed. This can be disappointing or even painful, but not nearly as painful as being rejected once you had sex and your feelings as well as your hormones are stirred up.

Complicating the picture is that what is considered safer sex is not absolute, especially the gray areas about oral sex. Two people often have different notions about what is safer and what they are willing to do. A story told to me by a friend with AIDS who dated someone several weeks before telling him about his diagnosis illustrates these complexities. My friend said he and his boyfriend had been having what he considered safer sex, including oral sex, without either of them ejaculating in the other's mouth. After telling his beau that he had AIDS, the boyfriend replied very angrily that he wouldn't have gone down on him without a condom if he had known he had AIDS. "You let me suck on your dick all those times without telling me you had AIDS?" his boyfriend asked, hurt and bewildered. Ultimately, this was the reason they stopped seeing each other. My friend said he felt badly, but not guilty, because the other man had never once raised the issue of whether or not either was infected.

AIDS has definitely influenced the process of coupling for gay men. Some men, including seronegative widowers who have already lost a lover to AIDS, won't date an HIV-infected person. There is rancor by some about the political incorrectness of this kind of "AIDS apartheid." As a seropositive man this doesn't make me angry; I can understand those feelings and respect them. This is an issue about people's feelings and limits, not about political correctness.

Many don't see HIV status as a barrier to forming new relationships. Being seropositive or even having AIDS doesn't necessarily mean the end of one's chances for beginning a relationship. Obviously, HIV can complicate things and make the process of meeting people and dating more difficult. In conversations with people who have HIV, I've heard many different desires expressed regarding the kind of person being sought as a lover. There are men who only want to go out with others who are seropositive, feeling that this will make things less difficult. Others are interested exclusively in uninfected men. Some have told me that they limit themselves only to widowers because such men have a track record of a successful relationship.

Safer Sex

There are numerous challenges in learning how to become and remain sexually healthy as a gay man. (For an excellent book that deals comprehensively with gay men's sexual health from a predominantly medical perspective see The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex by Dr. Stephen Goldstone.) When most people think of gay men's sexual health the first thing that springs to mind is preventing AIDS. The knowledge that HIV is sexually transmitted has now been a constant in gay men's lives for two decades. The concept of safer sex must be expanded beyond learning how to avoid contracting or transmitting sexually transmitted diseases, (STDs), of which HIV is only one.

Another component of safer sex is about learning how to choose partners wisely so as not to put yourself in any physical or emotional danger. Today almost every gay man has the information he needs to protect himself from either getting or spreading HIV. Yet there are reports that rates of unprotected sex are on the rise after having plateaued for many years. This is especially true for young gay men of color. When those of us who designed the first generation of AIDS prevention programs expected men to always use a condom every time they had anal intercourse, we were being unrealistic and psychologically naive. There are a wide variety of reasons why men do not protect themselves and their sexual partners from spreading HIV, perhaps as many different reasons as there are men who take sexual risks. The reasons also vary for the same person from one encounter to the next. The motivations for a man to place himself or another at risk for HIV are deeply entwined with his view of himself and his idiosyncratic emotional and psychological make up. Internalized homophobia can exacerbate an individual's already low self-esteem and be intimately and unconsciously connected to his view of himself as not being worth enough to protect from becoming infected or even possibly reinfected with a different strain of HIV.

Among some gay men, engaging in high risk sex is a symptom of depression. Other men's homophobia is so strong that they feel no moral or ethical obligation to avoid infecting the men (or women) they have sex with. There are men who feel that the quality, intimacy and intensity of sexual interactions are so improved by skin-to-skin contact that the increased momentary pleasure of anal sex without a condom is worth the risk of contracting HIV and shortening their lives.

I have heard younger gay men say they equate being sexually active with inevitably becoming infected with HIV, since to them being gay means being HIV-positive. Thus they rationalize not practicing safer sex. Much high risk sex is engaged in while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Men in committed relationships sometimes choose not to have protected sex with their partner whether they are both infected, uninfected or of mixed HIV antibody status citing the increased intimacy of fully experiencing each other sexually. On the Internet there is a proliferation of sites for "bare back,"or unprotected anal sex. Also contributing to complacency about safer sex are misconceptions that since the onset of combination therapies getting HIV is "no big deal" and that HIV treatment regimens are easy.

Having unprotected sex is very complicated and highly fraught. If two men know that they are both uninfected and are monogamous there is obviously little risk. Yet an unfortunate reality is that not all men are truthful about their HIV status. Further complicating things is the possibility that people may have become infected since their most recent HIV test. It is essential that no one become apathetic about the need for safer sex or the dire consequences of engaging in unprotected sex.

A Look at "Gym Culture"

No discussion of contemporary gay men's sexuality and culture can avoid the issue of body image. It is simplistic to equate the current fashion to go to the gym, sculpt one's body, build muscles and remain lean with so called "body fascism," a term used by gay social critics. There are numerous complexities involved with the focus many gay men have on body building. In the 70s, most gay men were slim. There were a few very well built and muscled men, but they were a distinct minority.

As AIDS ravaged the gay men's community, people with HIV wasted away and all too frequently looked gravely ill. It is no coincidence that the increased interest in pumping up by gay men began during the early days of the health crisis. There were and remain important health reasons for infected and ill people to exercise, as it helps maintain lean body mass. In an effort to stem AIDS-related weight loss and wasting for people living with HIV, physicians began to prescribe steroids, testosterone, and human growth hormone. The onset of combination antiviral drugs brought countless people with AIDS back from the brink of death. Weight training in combination with the above-mentioned drugs changed the way many people with AIDS looked. Some who had once been very gaunt developed into imposing hunks.

For a lot of uninfected gay men going to the gym, keeping fit and pumped remains one way of using their bodies and physical vitality to announce to the world that they are not ill. It also made them more physically attractive and sexually desirable. One way of coping with the internal attacks of the virus and the external oppression of unsympathetic and overtly hostile politicians was to work out and get "pumped." Here is one way tangible way gay men can regain control of their bodies and feel powerful in at least part of their lives.

Today numbers of men inject themselves with anabolic steroids, gain a degree of muscle impossible without this chemical assistance, and become huge. In such cases we should be aware of the cultural pressures that have led to such practices becoming a misguided and exaggerated variant of a healthy way of coping. Feminism has deconstructed the stereotypical notion that all beautiful, well-built women are "mindless bimbos." Similarly, it is important for us to challenge the pervasive view that "pumped" masculine men are dumb, insensitive, coarse and incapable of empathy. Yet many of us continue to read the hyper-masculinized look as synonymous with emotionally unavailability.

Like many gay men, I was a skinny, awkward kid who was never strong or athletic. Regular exercise, lifting weights, being muscular, strong and fit all make me feel sexier, and are important emotionally as well as physically. As a person living with HIV for over twenty years, the fact that each day I can do strenuous aerobic exercise and lift weights is another reminder that I am not ill. Going to the gym is also a way I care for myself, remain centered and counter stress.

Gay men have now appropriated body building and this way of looking masculine and virile. This is not the first time gay men have taken on traditional masculine images or styles as their own. The clone look of the 1970s celebrated hyper-masculinity. The same is true for the leather scene that made the Tom-of-Finland biker image another gay look. Even today the stereotype exists that gay men look or are less masculine than heterosexual men simply for being homosexual.

Thus, seeking to claim certain styles or images traditionally associated with heterosexual masculinity is tremendously empowering and helps shatter stereotypes regarding what a gay man should or does look like. After all, "gender fuck" and drag have been accomplishing the same kind of stereotype bashing, though from the opposite direction. Such is the power today of the "cult of the body" that many gay men fear the normal process of aging, on the grounds that no one will want them if they are not body-beautiful with all their hair and an ever-ready attitude about sex. Yet plenty of older men who have love handles and lack six-pack abs or a full head of hair manage to connect with other men for sexual adventures, romances, and long term partnerships.

There is a rich and elaborate sexual landscape that all gay men can explore. It can be overwhelming in its variety and complexity. Each of us must come to terms with his sexual needs in his own way. But this process begins with an awareness that sexual statements of any kind inevitably engage our feelings. Acceptance of this reality is the gateway to a rich, fully realized sexual life. The best definition I know of good sex is that it leaves you feeling good about yourself, good about the person(s) you had it with, and good about what you did.

Michael Shernoff, M.S.W. is a psychotherapist in Manhattan who co-authored pioneering sex-positive AIDS prevention workshops for gay men. He can be reached through his website at

Back to the June 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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