Part one of an essay that will appear permanently in the Essays section of this blog.
The fantasy years began when I was around twelve. After I started going to big boys’ school, I soon realised I was gay, as I began to develop crushes on various male teachers and classmates. I thought about them intensely in the evenings at home. It wasn’t just sex that I wanted – I didn’t even know what sex was at that age, having led shall we say a sheltered life – I wanted them to hug and kiss me, to live with me and take care of me forever. I suppose I was looking for a knight in shining armour to rescue me. I knew these boys and these men were wholly unobtainable, but that didn’t strike me as a bad thing at the time. Indeed, it made them more attractive. Having feelings for them was subversive and, as I grew older, the sordidness of it became sexy. I specifically wanted the most off limits, masculine, heterosexual man to come out to me and sweep me from my feet.
Being seen as ‘different’ in a Catholic school environment in the 90’s could make life difficult. Being recognised as gay could be fatal. As a naturally shy child, and a previous victim of playground bullying, I was already good at hiding controversial aspects of my character to the point where I could forget they existed. In secondary school the rules equating homosexuality with everything that was bad were firmly established from the beginning, and I learnt to hide more and more of myself as my sexuality became an increasingly salient part of my psyche. People saw me as anti-social, reclusive, cold even, and this itself gave them ammunition to pick on me. But for me, it was far preferable being ostracised for perceived aloofness than it would have been for being gay.
My secret inner life, forbidden as it was from ever finding expression in the world, took up more and more space in my consciousness. By the age of eighteen, I was having long and dramatic love affairs with men whose names I’d never know, men I’d seen in the street or on the bus, all in my head. I could become profoundly attached to them. When I got to University, having the freedom to be myself suddenly thrust on me didn’t make things better. I fell in love with a neighbour, Andy, on our first night in student accommodation. More than any man I’d known before, he seemed perfectly suited to the role of rescuer. He was tall, strong, handsome, kind, funny, intelligent. He was also an eighteen year old male, which in itself meant he wasn’t always going to be the perfect fantasy boyfriend. In the space of a few months as I got to know him his inherent human imperfections became increasingly obvious, especially after I decided to tell him about my feelings for him. He was no longer a constantly charming and affectionate friend; he became moody and withdrawn around me. I tried to press his buttons, score points off him in the communal kitchen by making jokes about his perfect appearance. I tried to start fights. Anything to make him feel the hurt I was feeling.
When we moved out of the shared accommodation after a year the intensity of my feelings for him waned, and I naively thought that would be the last time I’d ever behave so inappropriately with someone. I realised the inherent paradox in loving someone I couldn’t have, and from then on I had a new awareness of the dangers involved with it. But knowledge wasn’t necessarily going to stop me. Unrequited love was dramatic and interesting – Hollywood films and TV shows glamourised it all the time, after all.
The question is: did spending my teenage years living in fantasy program me to exclusively want men that I couldn’t have? Did it make me destined for permanent disappointment and rejection? And what could I have done differently to avoid that fate?
According to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, sex and love addiction involves becoming emotionally attached to someone without knowing them. Love is confused with neediness, physical and sexual attraction, the need to rescue or be rescued. There is a feeling of emptiness and aloneness, and a continual search for ‘love’ despite fear of intimacy. Romantic and sexual obsessions and fantasies become seriously distracting and immobilising. Responsibility for oneself is avoided through attachment to people who are emotionally unavailable. And to avoid vulnerability and hurt, there may be a complete retreat from all intimate involvement, sexual anorexia thus being mistaken for healthy behaviour. Magical qualities are assigned to the person being fantasised about, who then gets blamed for not always being perfect in reality.
I joined the LGBT society at University in an attempt to be realistic about my need for contact with other like minded people. Soon I was going out to gay clubs and discovering an entirely new world, where I was exposed to real sexual possibilities for the first time. I met Glen, a nightclub manager who was about ten years older than me and appeared very interested in me. I invited him back to my room for a chat and before I knew it, I was losing my virginity. Nineteen years of age, I had no idea what to do other than lay there and let him finish the job. When I met Glen I guess I’d found him somewhat physically attractive, but he was no Andy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that as he abruptly pulled my trousers down.
In complete privacy I never had any trouble getting hard and reaching climax with the help of my fantasies, but in company I couldn’t even get semi-hard. Wanting to get it over with, I let Glen turn me over and penetrate me. It wasn’t until later that I remembered I’d had unprotected sex and the implications of this. Asking Glen to use a condom hadn’t even occurred to me, I’d been so keen to please him and not appear awkward.
In the next few years I encountered a series of similar experiences with men who happened to make advances on me. I never made an advance or expressed a desire to date anyone. All I had to do was hang out in the university town’s gay club and wait to be approached. Doing anything else would have been too difficult, left me too exposed to rejection. I was always drunk at these times. Alcohol became the easy route to sex for me. I could go into an alcoholic blackout and not even have to deal with the mechanics of the encounter.
Nicolas found me in Revenge nightclub in Brighton on a Saturday night. I was down there on a weekend trip with my University friends, who I’d lost in an alcoholic haze much earlier that night. I have no memory of being chatted up or persuaded to go back to Nicolas’ hotel room. I woke up there at around six in the morning with this tall, dark Italian man on top of me. He kept telling me how much he liked me, how lucky we were to have found each other, as he forcefully kissed and tried to penetrate me. I found the excessive physical attention creepy – I had after all only just met him, though he had met me hours before in the nightclub. I studied him to see if I could make myself like him, but there was nothing that would draw me to him in the light of day. Too polite to extricate myself from the situation, I ended up spending the day with him. We went for breakfast, talked about our future relationship and how exciting it was going to be. I learnt the names of his cats and the road that he lived on. I didn’t want to spend any more time with him, and I was getting texts from my Uni friends asking me where I was, but I couldn’t leave him. He’d paid for breakfast and now wanted spend the rest of the day sunbathing on the beach. In the middle of England’s hottest summer on record I had to suffer silently with my hangover and my despair.
Afternoon and evening rolled hesitantly in. I hadn’t said very much for some hours and Nicolas had noticed. He started asking me if I really liked him or if it was a game. When I couldn’t answer convincingly he bristled. Soon I was a cheap, dirty whore who’d taken him for a ride. I ran away with my dignity in tatters, all the way to the train station and onto a train bound for home. I was out of danger, but the embarrassment and horror came with me.
A year later I was groped by a man twice my age in one of the local bars. I was a regular face on the local gay scene by then. I knew pretty much everyone and thought I was pretty popular. I’d slept with a good proportion of these people over the years, though I had never had what I’d consider real sex since the first time with Glen. I can’t say exactly what happened during the blackouts, but the times I could remember I was simply kissing and cuddling a lot before going to sleep. It must have seemed nice at the time but the mornings often brought a familiar disappointment with them: I’ve done it again. The people I’d ended up with formed a random menagerie of characters. Some very young, some very old, most of them pleasant enough, none of whom I fancied.
The guy who was groping me was named Richard. He was about thirty years my senior and he ran a trendy gay friendly bar in the centre of town along with his partner David. They were A listers on the local scene – everyone knew them and wanted to be friends with them. To have one of them fondling my rear seemed like an achievement. In an alcoholic fog I went home with them that night and experienced my first ever threesome. David was rough and domineering in bed while Richard, the one who’d shown the initial interest, was gentle and affectionate. When I woke the next morning it was just Richard there; he told me David had gone off to work in a huff, presumably because I’d shown more interest in his boyfriend than I should have done.
I fell out with both of them a week later during a strange and violent fight in their kitchen. David had accused me of threatening him with a knife, which I couldn’t remember doing. It seemed like a betrayal when Richard backed David up, telling me I had done everything that David was accusing me of. David was furious and wanted me out of the house forever. Richard seemed disappointed in me and I couldn’t take it. I ran out, never to spend the night with them again. I’d had a few bottles of wine and I spent the night crying into my pillow, wondering whether I really had done it or not.
This wasn’t how my life was supposed to go. I was becoming a person I didn’t recognise. Threesomes with men old enough to be my father hadn’t figured in my teenage fantasies. They just seemed to happen. Life had become a succession of strange and sometimes disturbing events that I had no control over. Alcoholic blackouts were a connecting theme, but I wasn’t yet ready to examine that. That remained a long way off.
Despite the torrid end to my friendship with David and Richard I saw their interest in me, and that of a lot of men, as a sign of my personal attractiveness. Having spent my teens thinking I’d die an unloved virgin, the attention that I was getting these days seemed to confirm that I had something going for me. I started to buy tighter, more daring clothes, dyed my hair a fashionable blond, put make up on sometimes. It was like a direct challenge to the poor self image I’d always had. I was saying “hey, look at me, I can be as striking as I want to be.” From time to time I’d catch myself in the mirror and accidentally think I looked ridiculous – the dye hadn’t really made my hair blond, more of an unnatural shade of orange; the tight ripped jeans made me stand out a mile as gay (I’d have been killed for wearing such garments at school). I brushed over the negative internal commentary as quickly as I could and continued on my way.
Towards the end of my time at University I formed an intense crush on a fellow LGBT club member called Steve. Though being gay would have made Steve technically available to me, he was confirmed as unavailable almost as soon as I met him just by being gorgeous. He was not like the men I usually slept with. He was young, funny, extremely intelligent. One wouldn’t have known he was gay – in fact for a while some of the LGBT regulars thought he was secretly straight. He was practically everything that Andy had been two years before. Within a couple of months he was snapped up by another group member, and their relationship played out like a Hollywood romance. They were the ideal postcard couple: good looking, healthy, great career prospects, and they clearly adored each other. I couldn’t stand it. I railed against them as I had railed against Andy, by picking drunken fights, sending nasty text messages, the lot. In fact this time it seemed worse than Andy because they were gay – deep down I knew I should have been able to ask Steve out before he was taken, and maybe things would have worked out differently. But I mentally put him out of reach the first time I met him, and a familiar pattern was able to play out.
I thought this should have stopped happening to me long ago. I thought having an exciting sex life should have cured me of these deranged infatuations. I spent a year in mental agony, all the while falling into bed with more and more strangers, coming out of stranger and more disturbing blackouts. At some point I’d have to admit that nothing had changed since my teenage years: I still hated myself, I still could only love the most unobtainable men. None of the sex I was having was particularly enjoyable or fulfilling. Most of the time I could only just lie there and let things be done to me. I had no moves, I didn’t know what I liked doing. Climaxing with someone wasn’t even a remote possibility. On one occasion a guy even went as far as to point out that I was quite cold in bed. As a reminder of the taunts I had endured at school for being ‘cold’ and awkward, it hurt a lot.
My needs weren’t important. The important thing in bed was what the other guy liked doing. This new knowledge created a sense of hollowness inside that was possibly worse than any I’d ever experienced – so I avoided knowledge as best I could, with the help of greater quantities of alcohol.
University ended and I came home to London, broke from years of overspending and not terribly hopeful about getting a job. I put off thinking about it by throwing myself into the London scene, a bigger and more anonymous version of the scene at University. My social activities continued much as they had before. I went to bars and clubs three or four times a week, ignoring the increased prices so I could continue to get as drunk as I wanted. I barely noticed that I didn’t have any real friends here. I met guys in bars who became temporary friends to drink and party with, before disappearing into the night, never to be seen again. Blackouts took me to unpredictable places; I got to know the tube map as I ended up in far flung quarters in the outer zones with men whose names I didn’t know half the time.
In 2006, something changed. I joined one of the new gay social networking sites and I met P, who unexpectedly became my first boyfriend. We dated for a few months before it became clear I couldn’t stay faithful. We separated amicably and became friends. Things could easily have gone back to how they were before I met him, but they didn’t. I had a tempering influence in my life now. P seemed to care about me for some reason, even though I had treated him badly. I became friends with his friends, and a permanent group formed around us. I started to see the same faces regularly, and I couldn’t get away with drinking to oblivion all the time any more.
Alcohol still had a grip on me and, away from the safety net of home, I could still fall into disaster. A friend of a friend called Rob had won two tickets for a week’s holiday in Canada through some competition, and in a drunken blur asked me if I wanted to go with him. I’d met him a couple of times before, both times intoxicated. The chance to fly and visit a foreign country for the first time quickly outweighed any doubts I had about going away with a stranger. P expressed concerns which I abruptly dismissed straight away. I didn’t need telling what to do, I could look after myself thank you very much.
In Canada I looked forward to seeing the sights, exploring the streets, taking lots of pictures. But I looked forward to finding the gay pubs more. Over a drink on the first night, Rob told me that he was in love with me. We kissed for a while, but something told me I didn’t want to sleep with him. In fact, all of a sudden I didn’t like him that much. The next day, we managed to fall out during a drunken argument over something exceedingly trivial. The rest of the week was full of awkward silence broken by occasional conversations about the weather or what to do that day.
By the end of the week I felt trapped in Canada and I couldn’t wait to come home. The eight hour flight back to London was heart wrenching. I got the impression I had broken Rob’s heart, which made me furious with him. I wanted to tell him to stop blaming his feelings on me, that none of it was my fault, I never chose any of this. Of course I couldn’t say anything. We got home and didn’t see each other again.