The “Sebastian-Sodomite Complex”

In his column over at The Huffington Post, “The Real Reason Why So Many Gay Men Are Single,” Mike Alvear, co-host of HBO’s The Sex Inspectors, complains:

Like a lot of gay men, I seem to be stuck doing guys I don’t want to date, and dating guys I don’t want to do.

… [A]s much as I liked [one guy] sexually, I didn’t feel any other connection.  And thus, I was hurled into the basic gay dating dilemma: Do you have sex with someone you’re physically but not emotionally attracted to?  The answer, of course, is yes.  Oh, God, yes….  He eventually broke it off, as he should have.  I wasn’t the bad guy but I wasn’t doing him any good either.

… Then there’s the other side: the guys you want to date but not do.  They’re the worst.  Because they make you realize what a nutcase you are.  Like this guy, “Ted.”  I loved everything about him except his body.  I tried to do the chick thing—you know, have sex with a guy even though you’re not physically attracted to them because they’re kind and smart and loving and that’s what you want in a man so what’s a few minutes of Ugh-ness.  Well, it didn’t take….  I guess that’s the main difference between men and women.  For men, intimacy is a consequence of sex; for women it’s a pre-requisite….  Too bad we can’t call up biological electricians and have them re-wire us.

This pessimistic assessment of male sexuality—“men are beasts,” and men who do with men are the worst beasts of all—is striking, especially insofar as it is made not by a religious conservative critic of homosexuality, but by a prominent member of the liberal entertainment industry.   I do not know whether Alvear’s generalization is in fact justified, or whether, if justified, it may or may not have some basis in evolutionary biology.  But Alvear’s perception does correspond to something real enough in modern gay mentality. 

I call it the “Sebastian-sodomite complex.”  That is, our version of the infamous “Madonna-whore complex.”  S. Sebastian as lofty an ideal as the Mother of God; sodomite as ugly a word as whore.  The pessimistic thesis: love and sex do not, and perhaps cannot, go together.

“Saint Sebastians”: Partisans of Love Without Sex

One approach to Orthodoxy: Fr. Seraphim Rose

Positioned at one extreme—a more-distant extreme than anything Alvear probably imagines—is the closeted, self-hating ascetic.  His is a rôle I know well, because I used to play it.  One summer I lived in an Orthodox monastery; I read the works of the ex-gay, and apocalyptically unbalanced, holy man, Fr. Seraphim Rose; and in confession I scrupulously revealed the slightest fault, including wet dreams.  Back at Catholic Georgetown, meanwhile, I got it into my head to perform, under cover of night, an ascetic feat straight out of the Italian Counter-Reformation: the self-abasement of the strascino, the trailing of one’s tongue along the church floor, right up to the altar.  I even worked for a fairly viciously anti-gay evangelical think tank and lobby group.  And all of this I did for the love of God and man, or rather for what I imagined such love to be.  I was an extreme partisan of love without sex.

Strange as this may seem both to self-accepting gays and to secular liberals, there are quite a few gay people out there who do the things I did, and who do far worse.  Fr. Seraphim Rose is but one, particularly alarming example.  But any observer who spends much time hanging out in any of the hierarchical churches will recognize the type, from the man in red Prada shoes on down.  Such people are all Saint Sebastians—men hypnotized by the concept of the beautiful martyrdom, their skin bristling with arrows, their mentalities eager to suppose, as Eve Tushnet describes them very compassionately, that “[t]he sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the sacrifices God wants” (my emphases).

A “reasonable and bloodless” asceticism, by contrast, is not self-hating, or necessarily closeted.  Quite the contrary.  When I finally found a priest who did not think that my homosexuality was necessarily any more sinful than someone else’s heterosexuality, it required humility from me—an actual sacrifice of some of my own self-regard—to perform the first penance he gave me, the regular recitation of Psalm 22, with its appallingly self-affirmative language: “The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing….  He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment: He hath converted my soul….  Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly is it!”

“Sodomites”: Partisans of Sex Without Love

A second approach to Orthodoxy: Michael Pihach

Positioned at the opposite extreme are the subjects of Alvear’s column.  These are the Anthony Blanches of the world.  As Alvear sums their decision-making up: “Oh, God, yes.”

Like lots of people, I can’t find it within myself to dislike the Anthony Blanches.  They are pretty.  They are charming.  One makes allowances for them all the time.  Some part of my unpurged psyche is probably a little envious of them.  And what young gay male wouldn’t be just a little envious, say, of Toronto’s gay Ukrainian journalist, Michael Pihach, who seems to be everywhere described as “delicious”?

Yet, the position of sex without love is poisonous.  Many people survive, and some (in cases of true monastic calling) flourish, in love without sex; but no one, in the end, survives sex without love, not with one’s personal integrity and educability intact, anyway.  Sex is, for most humans, a need; lust, on the other hand, is a brutal demon, irrespective of the gender of one’s sexual-object choice.  It demands to be fought with some courage, by the young most of all, and for the sake of their own integrity and education.  As Posner flatly states at the end of Allan Bennett’s History Boys: he does not touch the boys in his charge, which is “always a struggle.  But maybe that’s why I’m a good teacher.”

A Middle Way?

Pace Mike Alvear, I would like to think, more optimistically, that a middle way is indeed possible, that love and sex can go together, even for gay men. 

What I have termed the “Sebastian-sodomite complex” is no less powerful a stereotype than the Madonna-whore, and it will not die out from historically Christian cultures any more quickly than will the Madonna-whore.  But let’s at least think it is possible both to date and to do the same guy, and him only—and stop (in this instance) accusing our biology, or our social arrangements, when we really ought to be accusing our own ethical and aesthetic choices.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 1:17 pm  Comments (16)  
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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This one hurts. Thanks for posting it.

  2. I think one of the problems for young gay and lesbian people in this regard – combining sex and love – is that we often find ourselves in situations where combining love with ourselves is not even done. I never pursued the idea of relationships, much less sex or physical intimacy, in high school or college because of the intense pressure in the Church against this. I too had visited a monastery one summer, but had a very good experience when the abbot very lovingly lamented this on my part with me: “My dear son, did no one tell you that it is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all?” No, no one had told me that as a gay man, I could open my heart to another man. So even before sex and love, I think we have to deal with the issue of love plain and simple. Sex gives us the physical “release” and gratification, but without love it’s all just about us – often self-centred and utterly non-transcendent. I’ve read many Orthodox opinions against homosexual sex, critiquing it as being ultimately narcissistic and self-focussed, and THENCE the argument is made that love between two men or two women must needs be the same: not truly love, but “self-reinforcing narcissism.” I disagree with that opinion profoundly, but sadly few people in the Church look at homosexuality from the perspective of love, but only of biomechanics.

  3. Dear Northman,

    Thanks for this! I agree with you: for those of us who were formed by ecclesiastical culture, learning to love (ourselves, God, our neighbors), is often the more basic task. (And is that not always the case, really?) I did try, in my post, to give a sense of what that process is like for us, by contrasting the self-hatred which undergirded some of my previous religious devotion, with the self-acceptance which (I hope) now undergirds it.

    A clarification: my time in that monastery was not ill-spent. I did mention it here in a negative context, because there were negative things about what I was doing there. But there were many positive things as well. Most importantly, I learned, concretely, what a life structured around prayer could look like. For that I am very grateful, and for the monks who (very kindly) received me I have nothing but unalloyed affection.

    More on “narcissism” and “biomechanics” to follow in the future …


  4. “The love that dare not speak its name.”

    The consequence to silence on one’s sexuality is fear, misinformation and misunderstanding. If we couple that with the Church’s silence on issues of alternative sexualities then as a society we have a perfect storm for needless human suffering. So many young gay men and women reject the totality of the Church when coming out (throwing the baby out with bathwater, so to speak) that we have a, not only secular but actively anti-religious population of homosexuals. Those of us that stay within the Church, as much as we can are ostracized not only from our faith but also from the secular gay community. All the crutches of being a social creature have been removed from us. It is not surprising that gay youth continue to lead the demographics in suicidal and addictive behavior. The moral imperative in this situation is for all churches to increase their pastoral care in an honest and loving way. Sadly, the various churches interpretation of pastoral care to homosexuals falls into the simple idea of hate the sin but love the sinner. This is would be laughable if it were not so gut-wrenchingly painful. The Church must grapple with the idea of spiritually unitive versus pro-creative sexual congress. Until they do this the anecdotes described in the above post will continue ad infinitum.

    Thanks again for The Homodox Confessions, I wish I had it coming out.

  5. Hello Victor!

    Fascinating reflection, and thank you for more of your story. Do the Orthodox number the Psalms differently? “The Lord ruleth me…” is usually Ps. 23, not 22 (a Messianic Psalm).

    Now that I’ve found the comments button, I may be slightly dangerous. I shall try to behave myself. 🙂

  6. ithilien,
    You write, “The Church must grapple with the idea of spiritually unitive versus pro-creative sexual congress.” Is this a rhetorical imperative, or is there a reason why? I’ve been around for a while, and spent a lot of time in crowds where sexual congress being primarily for unitive purposes is taken for granted, but no one ever even tried to explain why it should be so. I must confess, for all the humanitarian consequences of this assumption, I’ve never been able to see the logic in it, and have been ridiculed whenever I’ve asked for an explaination.

  7. Dear Rob,

    My apologies for the delayed reply! Quickly: traditional Roman Catholic Psalters, like the Orthodox, follow the Greek numbering rather than the Hebrew. That difference accounts for the discrepancy. Additional confusions: the Orthodox accept a 151st psalm as canonical; and divide the Psalter for liturgical purposes into further sections called kathismata.


  8. Since Ithilien hasn’t responded, I thought I’d step up here.

    IMO, the church’s position that sex must be pro-creative raises a number of issues.

    First, it fails to address the situation of infertile heterosexual couples, either due to injury, chance, choice, or menopause. Now that more and more people are waiting to get married and have children, and people are living longer than ever, this is a serious issue.

    Second, it places an unhealthy emphasis on the production of children, often to the detriment of familial economic wellbeing.

    Third, it is incoherent in its acceptance of NFP and rejection of other forms of contraception. If you take action to reduce the chance of a pregnancy occurring, that is contraception, full stop. The only difference between NFP and a condom is success rate.

    Fourth, as I recall, non-pro-creative sex IS permissible after pro-creative sex, if the pro-creative part didn’t take long enough. ie. husband is allowed bring wife to climax non-pro-creatively if he came too quickly. Even oral sex is permissible in this case. JP2, Love and Responsibility.

    Fifth, and finally, one of the major arguments in favor of solely pro-creative sex is that because it is open to life, it is less selfish than non-pro-creative sex. This, I do not get, as it is perfectly possible to ignore the possibility of another little tike popping out and go at it purely for your own gratification. How does a bit of latex keep the couple from bonding?

    Hope this will spark some discussion!

  9. Hello again Victor,

    You said:

    But let’s at least think it is possible both to date and to do the same guy, and him only—and stop (in this instance) accusing our biology, or our social arrangements, when we really ought to be accusing our own ethical and aesthetic choices. (Emphasis mine)

    Given your argument here, do you see any ethical/ Christian space for plural, faithful relationships (polyfidelity)?

  10. One potential answer is to see “procreativity” in a broad sense–does this relationship at to the building of the Kingdom of God, the Church, and the human community?

    Despite the Church’s obsession with procreativity, we have also failed to grapple with the New Testament trajectories that dismantle the obligation to procreate. The logic, in fact, is Scriptural:

    1) Both barren women and eunuchs are included in covenant community and receive God’s approval–eunuchs, in fact, receive a “name better than sons and daughters” (Isaiah 53, NRSV). Jesus recognized, in Matthew, the existence of sexual outsiders.

    2) Jesus seemed disinterested at best in patriarchal marriage; some scholars, like Dale Martin, believe he was trying to destroy it.

    3) The primary metaphor for Christians becoming part of the people of God is adoption, not production of new bodies. Paul often ministered to sexual minorities of various kinds. Since the Messiah has been born, there is no need (as in second Temple Judaism) to have babies to save the world.

    4) Children are mentioned (only) twice, I believe, in relation to marriage in the NT–hardly the sweeping endorsement of family life that conservatives hope for.

    For these reasons, among others, the Church should reconsider its primary emphasis on openness to having babies and instead consider “procreative” all relationships that have an outer-looking orientation that mirrors the Church’s increasing commitment to the hospitality of Christ.

    In peace,

  11. Dear Rob,

    This is really a topic for an independent post or series of posts, and I hope to come to it in due course. For the moment, however, you are quite right to infer that I was, implicitly, excluding polyfidelity as a serious choice in the contemporary Church.

    Of course polygamy has a long history behind it, and perhaps it has better claim than monogamy to be called “natural.” Moreover, as ancient Judaism and modern as well as medieval Islam amply demonstrate, its practice is by no means incompatible with monotheism. Even with regard to Christianity, one can well imagine a context–say, the evangelization of a society where polygamy was traditional–where (in my opinion) the hierarchs ought to permit the practice to continue, out of a spirit of oeconomia or discretion.

    So I do not maintain that polyfidelity is “wrong” per se. But I am skeptical, both on practical grounds (how to maintain peace for the long haul inside a passionate relationship with multiple, competing members?), and on symbolic and liturgical grounds (are we not united to one husband or wife, as we are united to the one Lord or to the one Church?).

    I look forward to being persuaded otherwise … but in a new post! 😉


  12. Victor and Rob –

    I’m not sure of the situation in the Orthodox church, but in the Anglican Churches of Africa the decision was to allow (eg) African tribesmen with multiple wives from before conversion to retain the wives. While it was explicitly stated that no additional marriages were to be contracted after conversion, word on the street is that in practice it’s up to “pastoral decision”. This is one of the particular stumbling blocks in the whole gay discussion for Anglicans. That allowance was made – and taken advantage of and forgiven – even though no return allowance was forthcoming.

    Regarding the symbolic grounds… walk carefully for that “one man one woman = the Lord and his Church” thing is why they don’t like same-sex unions. The question is can polygamy or polyandry or any form of polyamory be a faithful icon of our Lord’s love for us? I don’t venture the answer, just a rephrase of the question.


  13. Dear Huw,

    Thanks for this. Here is what I do know on this topic, which is very little: S. Adalbert (Vojtěch) of Prague, at the end of the tenth century, and who parenthetically had done time at the mixed Greek and Latin monastery of SS. Alexius and Bonifacius in Rome, complained bitterly about the Christian Slavs’ continued practice of polygamy (amongst other faults). S. Cyril hadn’t been a fan of traditional Slavic family life either, and thought that the competing German missionaries were in fact too tolerant of it. Pope Nicholas’ Consulta to the Bulgarian khanate (which supplemented Patriarch Photius’ instruction on dogmatics) were similarly hardline (e.g., no sex during Lent). Obviously none of this amounts to a ringing endorsement of sensitively enculturating Christianity into a pagan context, but it’s interesting as negative evidence: if missionaries had not in fact been tolerating polygamy and consanguineous marriages, neither pope nor patriarch, nor Adalbert nor Cyril, would have complained.

    Regarding the scriptural analogy between human marriage and Christ’s relation to the Church: yes, I think we’re all aware of how it has been abused, not only to the detriment of homosexuals, but to the detriment of generations of faithful women also. That being granted, I see no reason to abandon the analogy altogether. In the first place, it is very beautiful. And in the second, why must we assume that it cannot be applied to homosexual unions as to heterosexual?

    Thanks again,

  14. Victor,

    I would be careful about clinging to an analogy because of its beauty; there are many beautiful analogies that are both incomplete and misleading, and, as I’ve said before in my discussions with Eiluned, it is important to distinguish between an analogy’s seductiveness and utility. For example, given Christ’s multiple natures, and the Church being a collective noun, one could argue that the analogy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit marrying all of humanity is in fact a ringing endorsement of polygamy.

    -Righteous Pagan

    (PS. I know the theology there is a mite suspect – “1 but 3 but 1 but 3…” – but I think the point about multiple interpretations is worth making)

  15. RP,

    I have argued in other contexts (perhaps a little more “tightly”?) that the nature of Christian “spousal mysticism,” the fact that YHWH is portrayed as having more than one lover at least twice in the Hebrew Bible, and the trinitarian nature of God in Christianity at least give some room to find plural or poly relationships iconic.

  16. Either U are for Sodomy or against it. What say U?

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