I “married” my college sweetheart at the University of Chicago when I was 19, and we were together for 20 years until HIV took him from me 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve had two intense relationships that lasted several years apiece.
But about six years ago, I subscribed to AOL, with its virtual supermarket of sexual chat rooms, and I’ve had the wildest, most varied sex that surpassed any of my fantasies. I had never had sex with a famous porn star until I went online. Courtesy of AOL, Gay.com, PlanetOut and a few other gay Web sites, I’ve met and mated with buffed hunks who had been avoiding making eye contact with me for the past two decades–first at the Athletic Club, then Gold’s, and now my current place to pump, Crunch. I even met my boxing coach online, who gives me free lessons in return for my weight-training him. I’ve found studs on the Internet who, after coming over for the quick fix of sex, would fix my chronically ailing computer for free.
But amid this garden of erotic delights and pro bono computer support, I gradually began to notice something that first perplexed me, then depressed me: I couldn’t find a boyfriend to save my (love) life.
All the hustlers, porn stars and amateur hunks I had, in AOL parlance, “hooked up” with, only wanted to see me once–twice if I was very, very lucky. My first paranoid thought was that I must be dreadful in bed, but then how did I explain the 20-year relationship with my college sweetheart and the other two long-term relationships that followed until AOL hijacked my love life to heaven and hell?
Dr. Brian Miller, a clinical psychologist in West Hollywood with a large gay clientele, offered some comfort when I asked him this question in a phone interview. “It has nothing to do with you. The fact that there are people who are into recreational sex, numbers, variety and not into coupling says nothing about you. God Himself could come along and they wouldn’t want to couple with him. They are probably really confirmed ‘sports sex’ people. Online is a very difficult place to look for love.”
It was a relief to hear that it wasn’t just me–until Miller went on to describe the typical Internet sex surfer, who may also be me: “A lot of people who search for partners on the Internet may have poor body image or poor social skills or feel maladroit socially. The Internet gives them a place where they can feel more confident. But when it comes down to it, and you have to meet a person and talk with him, the areas in which they feel most deficient are displayed, and they can’t ‘close the deal.’ They can’t go from recreational dating to coupling.”
The Internet, it seems, has facilitated “dating” while undercutting mating. I put “dating” in quotes because a less euphemistic term for AOL connections would be “fuck and run.” With few exceptions, almost all my “dates” flee immediately after they orgasm, whether or not I have. It still makes me insecure about my desirability. In saner moments, I realize that the person I’ve just had the most intimate kind of connection with is still a stranger, and why should my hookup stick around for pillow talk with an absolute stranger he probably has nothing in common with other than that great unifier and leveler: terminal horniness?
I discussed Internet dating with some of my AOL buddies, and their experiences online resembled mine. As one friend said, “It’s easier to get laid than it is to get someone to go out to dinner with you.” Another buddy described the phenomenon as the “cum and go” show.
Tim, 34, a singer in Nashville, has known the heaven and hell of Internet hookups and notes how ephemeral, if hot, they are. His AOL profile (a brief description of the subscriber’s physical traits, hobbies, career, sexual proclivities, etc.) says: “Not really into the ‘hook-up’ thing.” But Tim admits he has done the hook-up thing. “AOL seems to make all those fantasies of quick, porno-like [connections] more of a reality. So guys seem to start craving sex that rarely leads to anything more. I eventually realized how cold casual sex leaves me.”
Nevertheless, despite all evidence and experiences to the contrary, Tim remains optimistic about finding Mr. Right. “I’m still a firm believer in the ability of two men to be monogamous and long-term.” So, has he met any candidates who might qualify? “None whatsoever.”
More than a century ago, Freud asked, “What does a woman really want?” Today, amid the sexual buffet provided by the Internet, from one-time encounters to LTRs (cyberspeak for long-term relationships), the question is now more than ever relevant for gay men as well. What does a gay man want? Quickie sex with a chorus line of gorgeous men or a relationship that endures? Has the instant sexual gratification provided by chat rooms ironically made it easier to hook Mr. Right-Now, but near impossible to reel in Mr. Right?
A writer friend of mine once described the Internet as a “pernicious gay bar on your desktop.” He was lamenting the fact that the easy sex available online was keeping him from writing his sitcom scripts. But it’s not just writers who are frustrated by what seems on the face of it a terrific thing–sex on demand, 24 hours a day, courtesy of cyberspace.
Before Internet meeting and dating became popular, about the only way for gay men to find a sexual partner was to go to a bar and stand around until 2 a.m., waiting for prospective “tricks” to make up their minds. I feel as though I wasted 20 years of my life hanging out in shabby bars–sometimes until 4 a.m. when some establishments introduced “after-hours” closing times–in pursuit of companionship for the night–or predawn. By the time I finally cajoled someone into going home with me at that late hour, he was usually too drunk or tweaking, and I was too tired to enjoy the brief sexual liaison that had taken hours of bar time to set up.
Since I signed on to AOL, I haven’t set foot in a gay bar and I stopped cruising at the gym. With the anonymity provided by Internet solicitations, rejection is easier, as is approaching even the most attractive guys, because at the first whiff of attitude (the prevailing eau de cologne at the gym and bars, it seems), you can hit one merciful computer key and banish the attitude queen to Cyberia.
AOL chat rooms have supplied me with a steady stream of sexual partners. I usually finish my writing for the day around 1 p.m., then log on to AOL. Then, depending on how lubricious I’m feeling, I can meet a sexual partner within minutes and invite him over for a quick, uh, date. In the old days, casual sexual encounters were called “tricks,” which was also the term prostitutes used for clients, but today the moral-neutral term “hookup” prevails.
I read an article that said men’s testosterone levels peak around noon. And sure enough, when I log on to AOL around one in the afternoon, there are these incredibly horny guys cooped up in offices willing to drop by for an extended “lunch” break. The head of legal affairs at a major corporation once contacted me online at around 4 p.m. and asked if he could come over. Every lawyer I know works 12-hour days, so I said, “Don’t you have to work?” He said he could take a break. And sure enough, in the middle of the workday, the top legal eagle came over for a half-hour of whoopee, then returned to his office.)
Larry, a 37-year-old advertising executive in suburban Chicago, is burned out on Internet chat rooms. Larry has given up on finding a long-term relationship because he had one for nine years and feels he’ll never find “the man of my dreams” again. But this hasn’t soured him on the service provided by chat rooms. “I’ve met many wonderful guys online. Hey, it’s possible with a little care and searching; and the quality of one-night stands has risen to terrific levels.”
The friendships Larry has made online have more than compensated, he feels, for his inability to find a romantic partner. “I don’t miss it [a long-term relationship]. My circle of friends has increased so dramatically, thanks to the Internet.” And in Larry’s experience, these friends can become more than friends, but so far he’s not planning on turning them into lovers.
Lou, 37, a flight attendant based in Central California, loves the sexual smorgasbord provided by gay chat rooms. “It sure is a lot easier to meet guys than it used to be. You can see a picture of them, which tells you a lot.” Even so, Lou is looking for Mr. Right, and so far he hasn’t found him online. “It still is a gamble, and I happen to be choosy,” he says.
While he’s looking for a partner, Lou is not averse to enjoying the search. “In general, most guys just want to get off. I believe [dating] has gotten a whole lot more impersonal. You used to work at it more. Meeting men out at bars. Making eye contact. Flirting. Talking. Now, it’s like shopping in a catalogue. It’s kind of sad in a way.”
Lou, like me, finds the instant gratification of AOL and other chat rooms both addicting and frustrating, but he doesn’t think the Internet has condemned him to an eternity of singlehood. “I believe that if I am a nice guy looking for a mate, then there is a chance there are also other nice guys looking as well.”
When I complain to James, a 40-something composer of music for “harpsichord and piano-forte” per his AOL profile, that I keep meeting bimbos online, he says dryly, “You need a better filter system, bud.”
James lives in a rural area of New York’s Hudson Valley, and he uses his autobiographical sketch on AOL as “bait.” Under hobbies in his profile, he lists “Austen, James (William and Henry), Watteau, Baroque and Classical music, Bach, Mozart, Couperin, Rameau, Haydn and Beethoven.” He says that he’s “looking for peers, or better yet, superiors … and I know you’re out there!”
But even James admits to becoming a “dawg” at times–dawg being an Internet euphemism for omnivorous sex beast. “You can get a lot of info about guys from their profiles and work that way. Of course, when you get a great picture, you let down some of the criteria and hook up. Never forgo an opportunity for joy is what I always say.”
James is grateful to AOL even as he wades through the bimbos who don’t know Jane Austen from Aston-Martin or Marvell from Marvel Comics. He recently broke up with his lover of 19 years, and he’s not ready for another LTR at the moment. In the meantime, he says, living in the boondocks as he does, AOL “facilitates meetings and allows you to see who is out there on the next farm.”
While researching this article–where else but online?–I bumped into Alex, a colleague I have known for almost 20 years. When I told him the thesis of my article, he enthusiastically agreed with it based on his own online hunt for sex. When we first met while working together as reporters for a national magazine, he was 24 and so drop-dead gorgeous that he had put himself through an Ivy League graduate school by moonlighting as a fashion model.
Now 39 and a top executive at a major TV network, Alex says, “You can weed through people very easily, which is great, but at the same time it makes people disposable commodities rather than what they really are, which is human beings you can interact with and get to know. Instead, the Internet objectifies people.
“At clubs you may find two or three guys you’re attracted to. Online, in one night you can access countless guys,” Alex says. “At the bars you put on your best face to be attractive, but you’re not looking at their hard dick immediately like you are online.” Alex no longer looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model from his days at Yale, but he remains a head-turner. He just keeps turning the wrong heads. He can’t turn any of his hookups into husbands because most of them already are–someone else’s husband. While many Internet users may be willing to settle for Mr. Right-Now after despairing of finding Mr. Right, Alex keeps attracting Mr. Wrong in the form of Mr. Married. “I’m not looking to have sex with married guys, but if they’re really hot, I have my weak moments.”
There is an upside to the fact that Alex attracts closeted married men. Unlike almost everyone else I interviewed who complained about no second meeting from Internet mating, Alex gets plenty of repeat business. “I’ve met some real regulars who call me over and over for repeats. Once a married [closeted] man finds a fun partner on the side, it’s safer for him to stay in that situation rather than to keep finding someone new.”
As a TV programmer, Alex works 12-hour days, and the last thing he wants to do when he gets home at 8 or 9 p.m. is go out to a club in search of a mate for the night. “There’s not a lot of time left for me to get laid,” he says. When he returns home, Alex logs on to AOL, then walks away from the computer and goes about his business and waits for the ‘BING!’”–the siren-like harp note announcing an Instant Message and a potential hookup for the evening.
While I and many of my friends and acquaintances have found gay online chat rooms much more efficient and less exhausting than standing around in crowded gay bars, Miller doesn’t believe the Internet has changed the dating scene profoundly. “I’ve been observing the scene for 25 years, and I don’t see any change [in the availability of Mr. Right]. It’s always been difficult to find love. We are really ambivalent about being coupled, and that ambivalence gets played out in the complex game of dating and courtship. Some people find that frustrating, others energizing.”
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