Holding my infant son to soothe him at 3 a.m. today, I thought about how important the touch of another human is. It helps us feel safe and loved and cared about and connected. And not just when we’re teeny. The feel of my son’s chest rising and falling with his breath soothed me as well, in this grim time.
No wonder this social isolation feels so terrible. Without touch, we really feel alone.
Of course, once we’re past a certain age, sex enters the picture as a form of touch that has the power to make us feel amazing in all sorts of ways. Having sex gives many of us the feeling that we’re attractive, desired, even valuable. And those feelings are pretty awesome.
While this is true for people of all genders and sexual orientations, I often hear from my gay male therapy clients in particular how important sex is to their identity. This makes sense. We’re a group that is defined by and organized largely around our erotic and affectional preference. Much of gay culture encourages the message that to be a successful gay man, we should be sexually desirable, open to sex, and have frequent conquests. I’d also posit that many gay men have grown up feeling defective because of their sexual attractions. Sex and its companion feeling of being desired can soothe this wound.
So my heart has been going out to some of my gay male therapy clients this week as I listen to their descriptions of how they’re struggling not to have sex in the current coronavirus situation. “I have to keep hooking up or I won’t feel good about myself,” one man told me. “I’ve had sex a few times this past week, but only with guys I know and they didn’t have any symptoms,” said another. “Hooking up is what I do for fun,” said a third. “I don’t know what else to do in my free time.”
Well, now is the time to learn. It is not worth impairing our health or losing our lives for sex.
Taking a risk with your health is not actually a route to feeling good about yourself or improving self-esteem. Sadly, it is likely to reinforce the belief that you aren’t worth much.
What to do instead? It is for each of us to discover what else we care about, to look for what intrinsic value we have other than our attractiveness as sexual partners, to find additional ways to connect with others and to respect ourselves.
And just as we have had to struggle against the larger society telling us who we should be and how we should act, some of us may want to challenge ourselves to transcend the expectation that as gay men we “should” always be interested in and ready for a hookup.
Expectations and shoulds can be restrictive. When we decide for ourselves how we want to behave, we have a lot more power over our own lives.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m certainly not “sex-negative.” I’m just concerned that many of us are now putting our lives at risk to keep hooking up.
My bottom line: This awful crisis is giving us an opportunity to keep our pants zipped and discover some other ways of taking care of ourselves that don’t endanger our health and our lives. And when we behave in ways that are respectful of ourselves, our self-respect increases.
Hoping all of us get through this!
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay individuals and couples. Reach him via michaelradkowsky.com.