Photograph: Gordon Herbert Short, "The champion beards on the HMAS Shropshire." From the collection of the Australian War Memorial.

In 2007, as the fall semester loomed, I had a massive depressive episode and was forced to take a semester off from Cornell. Earlier that year, I’d spent a few months in Beijing learning Chinese. While I was studying abroad I also learned that the lake at Tsinghua University was a great spot for cruising after dark. I learned this because I was a nineteen-year-old gay virgin determined to change before my third decade began. I hopped on the Great Firewall-approved search engine and searched for “where to fuck in Beijing.” I was trying, however awkwardly, to do the things I saw well-adjusted adults doing. Thankfully, the unerringly accurate Internet was right on in identifying a leafy stretch of lakeshore property as a prime locale for no-strings-attached boning down in the heart of BJ’s University District. Among the regulars were the fey, bossy Sichuanese queers who demanded that you wear two condoms (even if you told them that such a practice was actually more dangerous) and expelled you the moment they came—complete with cutesy, feminine yelps of pleasure. There were stocky young men, students maybe, who came from China’s northeastern heartland, with ruddy faces and thick lips. There was the guy I’ll call Wuming. He was a little older than the rest, but he more than made up for it in enthusiasm. Not a looker, but it was hard to see much of anything in the scurrying darkness anyway. On nights I spent prowling the Tsinghua campus, Wuming would approach me and ask, in a soft voice, Ni gan le ma? Have you fucked yet? He wanted me. He enjoyed what I could provide him. The feeling of a mutual, special connection was ineffable and transformative. Like alcohol and hashish, whose gentle hands helped massage and deescalate my naturally hyperactive and worried mind, sex was a way to feel good about myself without having to face all the reasons I felt bad about myself.

Back home in Washington State, I continued to use the Internet to find strangers for furtive fucking with the enthusiasm of a juvenile jackhammer. That summer I was either reading about the Cold War (John Lewis Gaddis is excellent escapism for political science majors), working for a family friend’s catering business, or fucking anyone who would have me. The escape of the thing, the essential joy, wasn’t really in the beauty of my partners (at the time I could imagine no scenario where a remotely attractive person would feel attracted to lumpy, short, misanthropic me). It wasn’t until I flew down to San Francisco that summer to visit a friend from my Chinese program that the emotional and intellectual consequences of the physical act of love became real. We went to a bar with my friend Charley’s best friend, Owen. We got drunk, and the foolproof confidence boost of ethanol led me to hit on Owen in a shameless way that is the hallmark of the melancholy inebriate. With a few bumps of the knee, Owen and I began a weeklong affair of fucking and drinking. One time we were balling in the Murphy bed on the ground floor of Charley’s family’s beach house on Half Moon Bay, and Owen asked if he could call me “Daddy.” I had an immediate and sharp response: Absolutely not. Creepy, I felt. So he called me “Baby,” which was somehow less gross.

I am apprehensive about ever holding the office of “dad,” and shy about reenacting the experience of relating to my father, role-playing being my father, engaging in sexual acts that would disgust him. At the same time, I can’t help but think there’s something deeper at work. What’s wrong with me that I only call my dad “Jeff,” and not “Dad”? And why am I so resistant to the idea of some harmless sex role-play? There is something about the parentification inherent in that moniker that I fear will transform me into a caretaker. When I was a child, and I lived with my single mom, she relied on me—a lot. I made many choices that were not mine to make. I don’t want to inhabit the ill-fitting loafers and polo shirts of a dad; I don’t want to assume the mantle of Daddy who will make everything alright. To be with some twink, with continents of bacne, screaming “Daddy! Daddy!” puts me most in mind of coming to the aid of a child.

* * *

When they are not being bitterly condemned by dispiritingly vast numbers of ignorant, hateful, useless Americans, gay sex and culture have traditionally been reified or used as comedic tropes. Talking about things like my reluctance to engage in power-based role-play brings us into the territory of prurient anthropology that so often muddies serious discussion of intimacy among gay people. I am not ashamed to be gay, and I am, to be sure, not a Neil-Patrick-Harris, assimilationist, domesticated homosexual. On the contrary, I am proud of the multiplicity of bizarre ways my people choose to express themselves and their love. Still, when a character with the ability to summon ghosts of the past such as Daddy is thrust upon me, it slices open deep veins of memory, and unintegrated, raw, and long-repressed feelings come pouring out. How do I tell someone, as I struggle to open the condom wrapper with my teeth, that my relationship to my father as a child was layered at best, and completely dysfunctional at status quo? This confrontation with the vast ocean of my past that lingers, haunting me with its unfinished business, now seems inevitable. But “integrating” these memoriesa psychotherapeutic term of art, which eloquently describes the negative consequences of raw emotions without providing a uniform prescription for ameliorating themdoes not come naturally. While I now know that I can never escape the past, confidently and productively engaging with it will require a long commitment to seeking insight at any price.

* * *

Maybe I should embrace the camp aspect of the “son” asking for more and harder fucking from his “daddy.” Maybe if I focus on my own pleasure, and on my partner’s pleasure, instead of endlessly ruminating on the semiotics of what gets him off, then I can put Daddy in a box where he means no more to me than any other mild kink. Instead of choosing to make “Daddy” forever and always associated with the weighty responsibilities of childrearing, perhaps I can selectively snip out its kinky puissance to fuel my fleeting, breathless encounters. This kind of mutual fantasizing and world-building not only helps keep the bottoms happy, it provides a stage on which the two of us can play out our interpersonal fears and expose our most vulnerable parts. With the right partner, fantasy and sexual deviance can be a form of productive psychotherapy.

Thinking of all the ways in which men I dated have put me off, or the tiny signifiers that disqualified them from ever again being graced with my presence, I see that I’ve put up many walls disguised as evidently incoherent moral strictures. Subtle differences of class, a doctrinaire demand that Judith Butler is a fluid writer—many things about a person that others would consider part and parcel for an honest relationship with a fellow human—have broken many promising romantic deals.

Sex can be an experience of temporal transcendence and personal fulfillment unsurpassed by anything else in this human slog. When I come at this aspect of a relationship with predetermined ideas about what is, and is not, healthy discourse in a pairing, then I have already sabotaged the possibility of true intimacy. Reckoning with this has sparked within me a desire to put my greatest effort in a relationship toward ignoring the trivial—and emphasizing skills like empathy, nurturance, and equanimity in the face of stress.

From this writing forward, the men who are saintly enough to have sex with me can call me by whatever name they like—Daddy, Your Highness, Maurice—and I’ll respond in kind. Experimentation refers not just to sexual positions, but to acting out diverse styles of emotional connection. As great sex can be transcendent, so too can love allow you to transcend the fortifications and great monuments of your preconceptions. But another person can only help you if you allow them to pick apart old dogmas, and to defoliate vast, dying forests of defensive stumps.

Speaking again of penetration and its impediments, I am reminded of the farcical scenario where my partner and I race against my deflating erection to have a worthwhile emotional connection. Some things are just inevitably awkward: on a given first date, or first encounter, I can think of little else but psychoanalyzing my prospective mate. I want to know the origin of their sexual deviance. What does it mean to them when they howl, “Oh, Daddy, don’t stop!”? Not caring to explore what makes a person’s boner tickle in terms of their childhood development is, in my opinion, sexual malpractice, and represents an inexcusable dearth of curiosity. “How is your relationship to your own father?” I want to ask the nubile twentysomething I’ve cajoled into my bed. I ask questions from the classical Freudian interview when I’ve somehow managed to lose interest in a blowjob, to have the thread of sexual release slip away from me and be replaced with unwanted thoughts of the most pitifully mundane quality.

“I see,” I reply to his explanation of his father’s distant but constant parenting style. [Sound of talking with cock in mouth, cf. patient trying to talk with dentist drill in mouth.] “Ah, so he was hardly ever at home? Hmm. So you never really knew him? It seems like calling me Daddy might be a way to call for a daddy who will actually be there when you need him.” And as night follows day, I notice that I’ve turned softer than Eric Trump’s chin.

To be a mere spectator to a partner’s sexual stimuli is grossly insufficient. One must be willing to participate and actively understand just what makes him so damn horny when he says the word “Daddy.” You must be willing to go on a journey of discovery with your partner. If my own pain and intense equivocation about “Daddy” are worthy of examination, then why not allow my partner the same courtesy?

Love, vulnerability, sodomy—these are the three pillars of happy gay life. Live a relationship not for yourself, nor for the purpose of purely supporting another, but as an experience that can lead to growth and insight for both of you. When you are prepared to consensually give of yourself, and take from your partner, try to succumb to the river of “Yes,” at least at first. Follow your yearnings. The worst that can unfold is you have to stop the music and admit you really don’t want to be fisted today, or ever. You have to engage your fears to find out just what you’re afraid of, and how much of it you can bear. The truth is the most powerful force for liberating minds and cocks—we must wield it bravely, and demand nothing less from others.

Andrew Rose

Andrew Rose is a student in NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. He tweets @signandsight and lives in Brooklyn.

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2 Comments on “The Unexamined Sex Life Is Not Worth Living

  1. I love the overall message of taking one’s sexual quirks as an occasion for self reflection. My only issue with this essay, is that to me it felt like the author saw himself as somehow at fault for not being into the same things his partner was into. It’s not a failure of self-reflection or self-actualization to create personal boundaries. In fact, just the opposite.

  2. Beautifully written. Sexuality is innocent and bizarre at the same time and I have stopped trying to over-analyze other people. Yolo they say, and in the moment of passion, that’s what I try to embrace.

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