Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 16 December 2018

'We went from innocence to debauchery with nothing in between'

He came of age during our own era of free love, but Donal Lynch came to understand that sex really does have a higher purpose

Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger in '9 1/2 Weeks'
Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger in '9 1/2 Weeks'

Like most children having the birds and the bees explained to them four years too late, I struggled to keep a straight face. "It's something a man and a woman who love each other do", my mother patiently explained as I internally rolled my eyes.

In school our sex education was paired with the stay safe programme which had to be designed to prevent sex abuse without ever mentioning sex. Both were secondary in my own sex education to (believe it or not) dictionaries, National Geographic magazines, gory tabloid tell alls, and regular movies with sexy bits, like 9 1/2 Weeks. Gay stuff happened mainly in Channel 4 studios, particularly on Eurotrash with Antoine de Caunes and Jean Paul Gaultier, but to my adolescent eyes it looked like there were absolutely no gay people in real life. Even those that were there, appeared to be mirages: one of the most vivid memories of my adolescence was walking through the Square in Tallaght and seeing two men holding hands as they went up an escalator together. I couldn't believe how brazen it was so I hurried ahead of them to try to get a better look at the faces of these PDA renegades. When I turned to look I saw one of them was blind, the other one had been merely leading him along. It would be more than a decade from then, way into my twenties, before I saw real gay affection displayed in public in Ireland.

I came out when I was 19, not too young, not too old. One of my friends accused me of being "in fashion". It felt like the right time to do it. My years in the waiting room of life were over. The nineties here were like the sixties in other countries; sex was suddenly everywhere, condoms appeared in pub toilets, the Joy of Sex was discussed on the Late Late and the internet first came into popular use. In a sense this was a sexual boon - porn was suddenly available on tap - and it became a way to connect with other gay people. But as straight people would subsequently learn with the invention of Tinder, more choice doesn't equal more opportunity. The inherent anonymity of the online world fed into and reinforced the shame most of us had grown up with. On gay websites there was (and to an extent still is) a sea of what a friend of mine called Alices - anonymous torsos who seemed to have obeyed the edict of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: "off with his head!"

The internet didn't entirely kill the disco star, however. Old-fashioned meeting someone out at night still went on in those years. I pitied straight friends who had to put in hours of chatting up time ("spade work") while I could establish instant interest with the tractor beam-like glare known as cruising. The only difficult thing was actually forming a lasting relationship and not feeling suffocated in the process. While my straight friends one-by-one succumbed to suburbia, I always kept my options open.

Was there a connection between the two - the opportunity for sex and the paucity of long-term relationships - I sometimes wondered. An unspoken cliche about gay men is that they are more promiscuous than straight men, and there's probably a good degree of truth in that. There's loads of reasons for this - the fact that there are no women in the picture to act with sense, the fact that gay men, as a population, are still coping with the psychological aftermath of being outsiders, and the fact that society itself for so long only saw homosexuality in purely sexual terms. For myself I could also add: it was just easy, especially when I moved to America and enjoyed the huge novelty value of being Irish. There was no one to nag me into settling down because it wasn't clear what gay settling down looked like exactly. There were no rules, so I made my own. For me sex was recreation, a hobby, a release, a great guiding focus that took me out into the world. But it was also a great source of confusion, because the drive often seemed to run counter to what would really be best for me. It took me away from people, and away from guys who would be perfect for me and toward guys who were terrible, but whom I fancied. There is a line in one of Anne Enright's books in which the female character stares down at the male character in bed and says it must be really easy being a man, if your body tells you you want this, then you want it. He replies with words to the effect of "sometimes what you want and what your penis wants are two entirely different things". That's what my youth was like. The marriage referendum, a few years later, was supposed to change everything for the better but it felt like too little, too late. Now, for the first time, there was a socially sanctioned path to happily ever after but, for me anyway, the patterns and preferences had long since been hardwired in by that point. I was not alone. Even after the law was changed, gay men had more sex but got married far less than their straight counterparts. The explosion of apps in recent years has made sex easier than ever. Now there isn't even AIDS to worry about any more: a new generation will grow up with the option of PREP - the HIV prevention drug. We're liberated from biology and from morality but we're still lonely.

What will we tell young people now growing up with porn on their smartphones and demands for nudes in their inbox? How will we make it not sound like finger wagging? Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for us as a society will be salvaging those bits of the old orthodoxies that made sense. We know that the Catholic church, particularly, had a messed up, repressed view of sex but all religions insist that there is something sacred about sexuality. Perhaps it's the onset of middle age, but for me the greatest realisation of recent years has been understanding that there is something in this, that, while nobody will ever stop you doing exactly what you want, sexuality really does have a higher purpose than just recreation or release - it is about intimacy and closeness to another person too. We're free to eat everything on the menu and make ourselves sick, but with sex, as with food, it's better to save oneself for the banquet and for company that matters. And perhaps my mother, with her high-minded talk of love, was right all along.

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