In the September, 2008 issue of Out magazine Los Angeles journalist Michael Joseph Gross offers a lengthy and thoughtful “cost benefit analysis” of our online “quest to get laid.” It’s getting a lot of attention and is remarkable for its honesty and insight.
Gross begins by acknowledging that “Online cruising has its place in gay society: Access to a satisfying number of Mr. Right Nows is part of the pleasure and the privilege of moving to the big city to be gay…If you are a single gay man in search of a mate, and if you are at times prone to discouragement, you probably have friends who reassure you that someday you will find a man who’ll cherish every part of you — even your weaknesses, even your flaws….Who knows? You might even find a boyfriend there. If it’s true — and everybody says it’s true — that sex is the gay handshake, then one of these days maybe you’ll hit the jackpot.”
As a man who met my own husband online, I’d be the last to laugh at such hopes. Still, Gross argues, for all too many gay men, there’s a corrosive downside to online cruising. A steady diet of it, he believes, tends to foster a deep suspicion about oneself that too many of us already have in abundance, “the secret fear that, if we were truly known, we would never be loved.”
How does that happen? “For gay men seeking sex, as for all kinds of shoppers, the Internet removed constraints of space and time on access to the market — and at the same time offered an unprecedented range of products to choose from. Yet cruising, unlike shopping, requires a buyer to also make himself a seller. And selling yourself online, unlike selling yourself in the meat markets of bars and clubs, requires you to create a sexy image that stands separate from your physical self. You must create, in other words, a pornographic version of yourself, a thing that represents you but is not you….” When we go online, says novelist Andrew Holleran, “‘we enter a world that amounts to ‘the nightmare that gay people always have just underneath the surface, the fear that, I’m just my dick. I’m just my body. I’m just my age. It reduces everybody to statistics. You’re presuming that nobody will love you for yourself, if you’re offering yourself as just a bunch of statistics.'”
In this way, Gross argues, online cruising actually takes us further away from the intimacy, connectedness, and sense of belonging that we hoped to find there. His conclusions:
“… perpetually settling for Mr. Right Now becomes a failure of hope. When you came out, you did it because you wanted something. Part of what you wanted was sex, but part of what you hoped for was the possibility of being loved as your true self. And when, as often happens while cruising online, we diminish the hopes that drew us out of the closet, we reduce sexy to a purely physical act.
“When we do these things we lie to ourselves — and worse, we tell the same lies that our enemies tell about us. The fundamentalist canard about loving the sinner but hating the sin draws a nonsensical distinction between person and act. Cruising online, by encouraging us to separate sex from the rest of our lives, does exactly the same thing. These are falsehoods about human nature and about the place of love in our lives, and they undermine the belief that sex can be anything more than a pastime.
“As a normative way of socializing for gay men, online cruising is a disaster. We need to recognize its effects — including its tendency to isolate us, encourage objectification, and diminish our sense of life’s nonsexual possibilities — as disasters. We need to recognize that too many of us, too much of the time, are cruising online because it is easier and feels safer than thinking about the love we are missing and the power we do not have. “
I quote at length from this article because it’s an unusually frank discussion of issues which many gay men talk about with me in the privacy of the therapy hour, but which are rarely aired publicly, especially in gay mainstream magazines such as Out. At the same time, Gross’ critique is not really new: other writers before him, including Larry Kramer, Gabriel Rotello, and Michelangelo Signorile, offered similar critiques and tried to stimulate public examination of our sexual norms. Unfortunately, too often they were shouted down with ad hominem attacks: that they were homophobic, anti-sexual, hostile to freedom, traitorous, etc. Maybe Gross will be dismissed in the same way. On the other hand, as a people we are now more confident and aware of our power than at any previous time in our history. Perhaps we have matured enough that we now have the courage to be publicly self-reflective and self-critical in examining our own culture. We’ll see. The concerns he raises certainly merit serious discussion.