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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