July-August 2003: Animal Magnetism

Published in: July-August 2003 issue.


Sexual attraction has ever been the stuff of popular songs and other cultural artifacts, where it is variously mysterious or heart-breaking or the ultimate fulfillment of one’s destiny. But it is always complicated. Needless to say, these artifacts take for granted that the attraction is of the heterosexual kind, and they speak to the fundamental paradox of heterosexual relations, that vast divide separating men and women and the wonder of ever bridging it. Indeed popular culture inhabits a bifurcated world of Maleness and Femaleness, of Martians and Venusians, two beings so different in their sexual goals and emotional needs that it’s a wonder they ever get together for casual sex, much less a long-term relationship.

Gay men and lesbians would seem to have solved this fundamental problem of the human condition. One could speak of gay men’s notorious ability to hook up sexually with little fanfare, but it’s truly striking how readily two men or two women can slip into each other’s lives for various sorts of relationships. If lesbians drive up in a moving van on the second date, gay men are not far behind. And there’s nothing like a long-term lesbian or gay male pair for sheer unspoken harmony—at times almost a fusion of identities that a two-sex couple could never achieve.

So if gay and lesbian relationships are exempt from the basic paradox of straight relations, this should make them simpler, easier to maintain, right? Well, no; homo relations have complications all their own. For starters, one cannot help but notice how many gay and lesbian pairings involve a large age gap or a difference in race or nationality or class. Even the gender dualism re-emerges, especially in lesbian relations, where “butch” and “femme” roles seem to recapitulate straight sex roles.

Here’s a complication: Let’s assume it’s true that most gay men have a strongly feminine side. It seems equally true that most are attracted to rather virile men. Everyone’s in search of the butch idol! But there are only so many truly manly men in the world—so to become objects of desire (not just admirers) gay men spend hours working on their bodies at the gym, the very thing they hated doing as kids. I suspect the same dynamic operates for lesbians, as suggested by a study of personal ads (see Smith and Shannon’s article) in which many more lesbians were seeking a “femme” than a “butch” partner.

In an interview, Edmund White comments on the gay male obsession with beauty, and how impossible it is for anyone to feel that he’s attained this ideal. This pursuit is doubly self-defeating since, in White’s view, beauty resides not in perfection but in the departures from it that make a person distinctive, even odd. Alan Helms expresses a similar sentiment in discussing gay pornography, which he sees as following a thirty-year trajectory from the spontaneous and sexy to the scripted and robotic. Another contributor, Jason Weidemann, delved into the production of a kind of porn by setting up a webcam that allowed Internet browsers to look in, perchance to pay, as he performed for them. What he found was that maintaining the appearance of spontaneity was indeed paramount to keeping their interest, even though the performance was in fact quite contrived.

Questions of appearance and reality are a recurring theme in sexual attraction, gay and lesbian style. Not to be forgotten is that most basic problem of establishing whether the object of desire is in fact gay (or otherwise available). Until recently there was a whole subculture of signals for concealing or disclosing this information. But even today, as Andrew Holleran reminds us, one can fix one’s gaze upon, say, an extravagantly beautiful youth, imagine what sort of young man he is both in and out of bed, engage in a whole meditation on the paradoxes of beauty, only to let him get away without ever finding out. The worship of beauty is perhaps our answer to the heterosexuals’ unbridgeable divide, where that which is truly sexy, truly desired, is what’s always slipping away.