National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 47: The 1970’s Vortex Of Sexual Addiction, Pt. 2

Assessing modern gay culture, consider that two important components from Stonewall forward were the result of external factors.

The first was the explosion of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” 1960s counterculture in America that shifted – like a gigantic earthquake shifting a tetonic plate of the planet’s crust – the national ethos, among other things plunging the emerging gay liberation movement into a toxic sea of unbridled and counterculture-mandated sexual excess. This did not arise from within gay culture, but overwhelmed it from without.

The second was what happened as a result: in major urban centers indulgence in relentless, impersonal and casual sex, often multiple times daily, quickly led not only to a loss of sensibility for genuine romance and love, but to a loss of control. I submit it was due to a ferocious clinical addiction to the potent narcotic of sex, itself.
It explains the compulsive behavior of that decade, and its persistence to this day, if on a more limited scale. But addiction, a medical condition, is not inherent to being gay, so to the degree it impacts our culture, it comes from without.

Beyond my own experience and references to addictive casual sex in Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer From the Dance” (1978) in my previous installment, gay writer Edmund White made multiple references to addiction in his autobiographical works. In his “My Lives” (2006), he wrote about being caught “in the grip of a compulsion that didn’t have much to do with pleasure.”

He wrote, “I was too addicted to its sexual rewards to renounce this system,” referencing the 1970s gay scene’s “new esthetic, which I dubbed the Pleasure Machine (that was) frank, hedonistic and devoid of irony,” in his “States of Desire: Travels in Gay America” (1980).

(Christopher Isherwood felt that book was “deeply disturbing” as a literary tour because it “used the predicament of the homosexual minority to demonstrate what is very wrong with the social health of the country.”)

In his “City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s” (2009), White wrote about an addictive force compelling him in the dark holds of long-haul trucks parked under the piers on the Lower West Side beside the Hudson River, and in the dark abandoned piers, themselves.

In the backs of trucks or in the piers, he wrote, “I simply couldn’t make myself go home. Even after a satisfying encounter with one man or ten I still wanted to hang around to see what the next ten minutes would bring. What it brought was the morning light.” He then confessed, “Not that there was much happiness in a life of pleasure.”

Tennessee Williams, the most famous openly-homosexual American of all, also wrote about the addictive nature of frequent, impersonal sex. In his “Small Craft Warnings” (1972), the first openly homosexual character in one of his major plays, Quentin, says, “There’s a coarseness, a deadening coarseness, in the experience of most homosexuals. The experiences are quick, and hard, and brutal, and the pattern of them is practically unchanging. Their act of love is like the jabbing of a hypodermic needle to which they’re addicted but which is more and more empty of real interest and surprise. This lack of variation and surprise in their ‘love life’ spreads into other areas of sensibility…”

Thus, Williams, the compassionate truth-teller, the often promiscuous homosexual, was no fan of casual gay sex because of its addictive nature.

The combined external factors of the counterculture and addiction led to AIDS through the formation what public health experts call “core groups,” environments in which human immune capacities are compromised, as Gabriel Rotello documented in “Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men” (1998) and Ronald Bayer in “Private Acts, Social Consequences: AIDS and the Politics of Public Health” (1989).

The explosion of sexually-transmitted diseases in such “core groups” and their damage to the immune systems of their hosts almost guaranteed that a dormant, inactive virus like HIV would awaken and flourish. And so it did.

Although imposed from without, homosexuals caved in to the pressures of counterculture excess and its addictive, fatal consequence, such that undoing the persisting influence of those factors in homosexual culture today will require enormous effort. It may take generations. So, while my contributions are addressed to readers today, so they are also to homosexuals yet unborn, and it is theirs whose judgments I value most.

White, in a 1991 third edition afterward to “States of Desire,” conceded that all the 1970s “self-centered pleasure seeking…was a betrayal of an earlier philosophy that had linked homosexual rights with feminism and socialism,” a passing, partially adequate reference to what I and my “Effeminist” gay activist colleagues were fighting for at that time.

We lost that fight. We were crushed. The “pleasure-seekers” won. Now its 40 years and 400,000 horrible deaths later.

To be continued.