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Sex With Sam

Bears, Pride, and the Liberating, Affirming Pleasure of Gay Sex

How a night out helped this writer contextualise some of the wounds caused by recent conflict in New Zealand's Pride movement.

by Samuel Te Kani
21 February 2019, 1:09am

Bear Week didn't hold any special relevance for me because I'm not in the tribe. It takes years and body-mass to be included in that camp, things I'm modestly short of (cough). From a distance, though, Bears are something I've esteemed with envy and desire. Envy, maybe, because a Bear circumvents the usual rigidity of body-norms gays can be viciously guilty of, arguing for the right of anyone not compulsively attending a gym or five-to-10 kilos underweight to feel desirable. It’s beautiful even. Bears have my respect and solidarity. And desire. Desire because, well, the generic Bear build is something that rubs me in all the right ways.

So obviously when the semi-regular underwear party was announced as a Bear-centric edition—somewhat squeamishly called UnderBear—I almost creamed.

I remember my first underwear party at Auckland's much-missed Urge Bar. I'd only recently moved to the city and had all the coquettish insecurities of a young gay boy used to modifying himself in the company of straights—not that I was aware of it, but hindsight illuminates all. I remember feeling a mixture of shame and excitement about wanting to go to an underwear party, simply because it was something totally beyond the register of my social circles at the time. So I went alone.

I remember shaking as I approached the bar. There was a heavy leather curtain and an alcove of corrugated iron that gave the entrance a kind of industrial-dungeon vibe that always made my dick twitch. I was given a wristband and a clothing bag by the grizzled attendant as he eyed my 22-year-old body with overt hunger. The kind of interaction I appreciate. The kind of open sizing up of each other that's both giddy sexual licence and scathing defence among gay guys, an openness to the other as a method of pleasure that's so easily reciprocated.

As I undressed and shoved my nervous-sweaty clothes into the bag, I felt like I was taking a dive into a lifestyle I'd heard existed but which I'd never thought to engage with, having still the lingering conservatisms of my Christian childhood standing in the way. Also, I guess I wasn't proud of my body and assumed only the truly cut and primped could comfortably attend such things. But I was wrong.

Inside the bar was a close homunculus of sweaty man-flesh, every size and hue of maleness fitted into a diverse array of budgie-smugglers and boxer-briefs, as well as a fair few adventurous patrons sporting open-arse jocks. It was probably then that I made the decision to actively combat my anxieties about my body, because here was a world so rich I couldn't believe I'd been letting something as piddling as low self-esteem stop me from entering. The sexual possibilities were too endless.

If anything, Auckland's UnderBear event was a similar rush. Arriving, I was practically salivating. Around me was hair and bulk and sweat, the scent woven alluringly with the usual bar smells of beer and durries. Even more pleasing is that the ‘Bear’ category, though 'of a type', is itself a roomy channel. It encompasses a wide margin of types, the tribe by no means limited to beards and bigness. Around me was every related configuration—some so different from the conventional Bear standard but somehow 'spiritually' identifiable as such, that I wondered if the category had recently undergone a renaissance.

And it struck me that between this particular event and the recent sticky conversations around Pride, something was charging the air with joy, where there'd been little before.

It was sex.

Now, I understand the importance of Pride as an event of celebration and visibility. Certainly its politics are central. But also, shouldn't sex be central? My grasp was that as well as being about being seen, Pride's ground of sexual identity was being eclipsed by representational politics, about who should and shouldn't be represented under the Rainbow moniker. And, wherever you stand in the argument, I'm of the opinion that institutions are less important than people. Furthermore, I think an immediate antidote to some of the vitriol those conversations aroused is exactly what UnderBear had to offer. Sex.

That said I jumped straight in, hitting the bar for the first in a rapid succession of numerous beers to take the edge off being next to naked in a room full of strangers. And as quickly as I'd downed four lagers, the contrast between a general underwear night and UnderBear arose headily. For starters, the attention I got wasn't purely sexual. In the hunger around me I could see something entirely social in the eye, like an induction. It was there for sure in every older guy who took the time to introduce themselves to me, mainly because I was a fresh face in an established community.

From this I gleaned some of the mechanics of the Cub-to-Bear relationship, getting a definite pedagogical vibe. If I have any adjacency with the Bear community at all, it's as a Cub, a younger—slimmer?—version of Bear. A Bear-to-be, unless I rework my diet. Having always assumed the Cub-Bear dynamic was another eroticisation of the Father-Son, Daddy-Boy dyad, it was refreshing to find fellowship beneath this assumption. What the Cub-Bear dynamic might actually do is allow older and younger generations of Bear to meet, affording cultural transmission in ways historically denied to gays as it traditionally operates along lines of reproduction. The word I wanted to use, ironically, was 'family'.

Was it always like this? Are Bears just nicer than most self-aware gay-tribes? Or was there an urgency for numbers? Was this niceness a symptom of a micro-community in flux, like a species facing extinction?

I prefer to think the alternative: these tribes—facing the challenges of losing physical space to culturally negligent development, and numbers to the convenience of gay-sex apps—are on a precipice of renewal, negotiating the obstacles of a changing urban landscape with inclusion and kindness. And perhaps, more importantly, sex.

Sam Te Kani is the host of VICE NZ's 'Sex With Sam' series. You can watch it here.