Last summer, I had a Damascene moment in London's Soho Square. As my eyes wandered the lengths of intertwined couples' bodies as they lay kissing in the grass, my peripheral vision softening to the mass of comfortable, happy gay men, my heart pounded as it sank. Why? Because I'm a gay man in my late twenties who has never had any kind of intimate relationship. I'm not just talking fucking here – I've never even squeezed another man's hand. I am a complete virgin.
I'm quite up and down about the reality of the situation. There are moments where I think, 'I don't care, I'll happily die a virgin,' and find fulfilment elsewhere. But the base, primal need for human intimacy, at other times, leaves me crying.
Obviously, it all stems from a lack of confidence. From fear. I am from a very conservative Indian family where relationships – let alone sexuality – were seldom discussed. I remember watching TV growing up and, at the slightest whiff of two people engaging in even the most innocuous act of intimacy – a kiss, a doe-eyed look that might lead to kiss – the channel would be changed huffily by my parents. If it was a gay kiss, their disgust would be voiced with some volume.
What does that do to a young man who knows he's gay and is starved of any kind of visual reference points – or any conversation – for how he's feeling and what he's thinking about? In my case, it renders an already fragile self-esteem non-existent. It makes you believe that sexual activity is something restricted to heterosexual marriage. It makes you flee the suburbs for London at a rate of knots.
The exuberance of London liberated me. I found my feet in the gay scene and was, for a few years, dazzled. Over time, though, I became jaded by the superficiality of it all. The obsession with body image, the cliquey-ness and the various whispers of substance abuse on the scene became very claustrophobic. Also, my geeky, Asian image tends to only attract much older, white and generally rough-looking men. Fine. But it was when I started to receive address coordinates on Grindr for quickie meet-up sessions while "the boyf is out" that it all became a bit much.
Yes, that's what hook-up apps are for, but I couldn't help but feel demoralised by such casualness. I found myself further disconnecting from the entire idea of intimacy.
What does a young man do when he knows he's gay but is starved of any kind of visual reference points – or any conversation – for how he's feeling and what he's thinking about?
During those formative years when the idea of sex with another man suddenly became a tangible reality, I also grew scared shitless of catching an STI. The fear of catching chlamydia, gonorrhoea or HIV scared the fuck out of me. But I was completely clueless about it all – I'd had no education about the risks of gay sex, or, more importantly, how to do it and enjoy it safely. I knew what went where, and what I fantasised about, but without any kind of information from school (I wish so much that I'd learned some of the basics there), TV, friends or – god forbid – my parents, I was in the dark and too scared to look into it, or ask, for fear of looking stupid. Only, I did make myself look stupid on occasion.
Once, I developed an itchy rash and legged it to a Soho sexual health clinic, convinced that I'd somehow picked up HIV – without having ever had sex. The nurse must have thought I was nuts when she reassured me that sexually inactive people were very unlikely to contract any kind of STI. I left the clinic feeling ridiculous and shamefully ignorant.
My fear of sex and the potential disease that could come with it had made me delusional, though. I was holding back from experimenting with casual encounters in fear that it could compromise my health, but had let the fear escalate to the point where I thought I'd contracted something just by being in close proximity to other gay men in a bar or club. If that sounds insane to you, believe me, it feels more insane writing it.
The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that casual sex isn't what I want. As a young(ish) gay man living in London, that's what's expected of me. But I want the right person in bed with me. Yes, the idea of "right" is wildly subjective. No one is "right". You work together to find "right" with someone, if it feels good. But when your formative ideas of relationships and romance pretty much came from Disney movies, it doesn't set you up so well. When it came to learning about my sexual preferences, there was nothing. I had no reference points whatsoever, save the ones in my head. No bedroom TV. No iPhone. No internet. No porn.
I discovered gay porn later on, obviously, but found that all the glistening, trim bodies made sex feel more unobtainable to me. Yes, it was exciting to see what I'd imagined for so long acted out by real people, but it created completely unrealistic preferences that only made the idea of sex more frightening. Basically, my desire and fear of sex is equally ferocious. With time, I've come to accept that I've allowed unrealistic expectations to escalate to the point where only "Mr Perfect" will do. But of course, "Mr Perfect" is a fallacy, a construction that I've created to try to dilute my fear or create an excuse for still being a virgin at what feels like a very late age.
I do have hope. As time goes on and I can be more reflective of how things have ended up this way, I can understand my fears and allow the idea of a less-than-perfect scenario to enter my mind. I have faith that things can change and that, with someone patient, losing my virginity will become far less significant. That I'll be able to enjoy a happy, fulfilling sex life.
I just hope and pray that, for boys (and girls) like me growing up in the kind of family I did, that greater awareness and education surrounding gay sex and relationships is written into school curricula. Because I can guarantee that, without it, there'll be a lot of fearful, clueless young LGBT people out there – particularly from ethnic minority groups – who might end up like me: sure of what they want, but terrified of what it entails. It doesn't matter how far technology advances – we need human conversations about human matters. I'm a walking advert for why.
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