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Scrolling Twitter the other day, I found myself confronted with a well-meaning rant from one of my younger straight male friends. In response to a since suspended account’s unveiling of the “new and improved Pedosexual flag and symbol!”, paired with some generic “love is love”-esque statement, he responded, “This s**t is so disgusting and invalidating. What the f**k!”
My initial instinct was to jump on board with him- I drafted a few versions of a tweet along the lines of “Just on behalf of the entire LGBT+ community, pedophiles have absolutely ZERO to do with us.” Upon more thorough consideration as my finger hovered above the Shout Into The Void button, I wasn’t sure that was entirely true.
“Pedosexual” advocacy groups in their modern conceptions consist almost entirely of communities of men trying to promote the acceptance of ephebophilia, or attraction to teenagers in their mid-to-late pubescent stages. Only a very rare (admittedly vocal) minority support the de-stigmatization of general pedophilia- the pedosexual community isn’t quite NAMBLA. Many of these groups cite the ancient practice of pederasty in support of their cause- older men of high esteem and culture apprenticing older teenage boys in their respective fields in exchange for consensual sexual favors. It was a very real practice in human history that lasted for generations- some of Plato’s most famous works and philosophies about love and connection spawned from it.
I wouldn’t consider my teenage sexual experiences to be particularly pederastic. I came out for the first time, lost my virginity, and had my first kiss, all within the same span of half an hour, at the age of fifteen. The guy I did it all with was just about to turn twenty-one. Pederasts taught philosophy and chivalry, my guy just taught me how to smoke weed. We met through mutual friends and clicked over our shared insecurities and anxieties around our hidden sexuality. (Not that mine was particularly easy to conceal. I’ve had the same posters of Britney Spears and a shirtless 50 Cent over my bed since I was five years old.)
We saw each other on and off for almost two years after that. When we were on, we went on dates, held hands, even went as far as to use buzzwords like “boyfriend” and “love.” I trusted him and felt a profound connection with him despite the glaring gap in our goals and priorities due to age. When we were off, I hooked up with a lot of his friends of similar ages, and even built up the courage to make a Grindr account. I was eighteen on the Internet for three years, and even though nothing about my baby fat, general lack of social skills or real-world knowledge projected the sense that I was legal, I was also a fifteen year old boy: well versed in the attitude and language of porn. I was seeking any sort of intimacy, and sex seemed to be the least difficult to navigate at the time. I’d never had any real romantic connection with anyone before- for all I knew, spending the night once a week and dropping the word “daddy” a few times could’ve been all there was to it.
As I got older, moved to the city and thus into a larger population of gay men my age, I found that I wasn’t alone. Almost every single gay male acquaintance or friend I’ve made has a story about sneaking out of the house as a teen in high school to meet up with a guy in his twenties, thirties, or sometimes even older. There are rarely any questions asked or eyebrows raised about it- the circumstances of the hookup can sometimes be gasp-worthy (He booked us a hotel! He spent a hundred dollars on dinner! He could club a seal with his d**k!), but age never seems to be a factor. Even when exchanging stories with gay guys a decade older than me, there’s never a flicker of surprise or concern when I detail a Grindr hookup where I didn’t find out he was thirty-nine and married with kids until after he came.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that there is no shot in hell that hookup stories like these would ever fly if teenaged girls were telling them to an adult, gay or not. I also thought about how the majority of the members of pedosexual advocacy groups are gay men- very few straight men are involved in these sorts of circles because of the public outcry that follows the mere mention of any relationship between an adult man and a young woman. Sometimes it disgusts, sometimes it titillates in a Lolita sort of way- in either case, those sorts of relationships are taboo. We don’t talk about them, because our culture has deemed them disgusting. As it follows, relationships between adult gay men and teenaged gay men are not as controversial, because our culture had already deemed gay men themselves disgusting.
If this seems to be too great a leap, consider the widespread acclaim and success of Showtime’s Shameless (a show that was initially marketed as a show that wouldn’t shy from realistic portrayal of the harsh realities of life in the Chicago projects, before eventually turning into the off the wall sitcom it is today) which in the very first episode portrayed a regular sexual relationship between fifteen year old Ian and his married boss Kash, who has two young children of his own. The show barely addresses the relationship beyond Ian’s brother Lip’s confusion at the fact that Ian is gay at all. The one time when Lip tries to take a swipe at Ian about Kash’s age (Lip takes aim at the fact that Kash bought Ian new shoes, implying that they were in exchange for sexual favors), Ian immediately gets defensive of his relationship: “I bought him stuff too. CD’s, tons of CD’s, books, all kinds of things. You know why? Because I like him and I want him to like the same things that I like.” One of my best friends came out partially inspired by Ian’s journey to self-acceptance on the show, and the fact that a character could have that amount of real world power makes it all the more frustrating that the writers of Shameless didn’t bother to address the ephebophilic behavior, and downright infuriating that its millions of regular viewers didn’t seem to need or want an explanation anyway.
Gay relationships spent years behind closed doors and even more time spent ignored. While the Reagan administration kept HIV/AIDS off its lips to save face, gay men across America were dying in their attempt to forge connections in the only way they knew how, and in the only way that was acceptable for men. Gay men were scapegoats in Reagan’s America- the emasculated American man was a disposable creature to watch limp and wither. Gay men filled the void of public rejection and misunderstanding with f*cking- raw, unprotected f*cking, the manliest thing to do. This can be seen in the sorts of things we find acceptable in our culture- when a teen boy has a sexual relationship with his older teacher, he’s “lucky.” When a teen girl has a sexual relationship with their older male teacher, it’s predatory, it’s rape. Men are groomed by American culture to assume that oversexed is the natural state of man- and gay men have been groomed to believe they’ll never be manly enough.
Every time I get to know a gay man my age, of any background, I am always impressed with their will to survive and their will to be happy: to be complete. It’s never too late for us. Our parents were the first generation with the opportunity to raise gay sons in a way that was welcoming, understanding, learning and compassionate, and some of our parents already got it mostly right.
Still, I find myself with equal parts fear and hope for the next generation of gay sons.
I do not fear other gay men, old or young. History has made it infinitely complicated for gay men to find connection that feels “normal” or right, and to write off the connections between adolescent gay men and older gay men as inexcusable and disgusting ignores the nuances of queer romance and sex, holding it to heteronormative standards. However, this isn’t to say that these connections are ideal. A mess has been made in our space, and young or old, we’re forced to navigate through it.
The fact of the matter is that a fraction of the population of teenage boys are gay, and an ever smaller portion can reckon with their sexuality in time to experiment with romantic connections while the stakes are still low. Those who can find themselves caught between two worlds. The adult gay world: sex, the physical, a competition of muscles; and the teenage one, where everyone around you seems to be getting to test the waters at an appropriate pace, both romantically and sexually.
When praying for a miracle becomes too painstaking, we grab at whatever we can to feel something.
I want the next generation of gay men to know more than sex. I want them to be raised to expect the rough road that growing up gay is, but to also know what they’re exploring when they explore. Sex negativity will not work when raising gay men- in queer spaces, it proliferates everything. Gay men cannot avoid it, by no fault of their own, and as such, they should have the right to be able to identify it.
When I experimented with older men as a teenager, I was not coerced. I was in full control of my actions- I reached out to guys. I brought myself to them. Everything I tried, I wanted to try. I just wish I had known what I’d really been trying.
Cuddled up in bed talking to someone who has been through what you’ve been through, who treats you like the only person in the world (if only for a night), who is patient with your body and takes the time to make you feel good, who stays up to talk with you about love and work and sex and the places you’ve been and the places you’ll go before letting you fall asleep in their arms to be greeted by dreams of warmth and empathy and safety: that can be deceiving. And the last thing a gay man needs is another trick.