“We’re just fuckbuddies, John; it’s casual. You know, friends with benefits.”—that’s what my 19-year-old student said to me, with the endearing confidence of a kid who’s just gone to the corner store by himself for the first time. Two weeks later he was crying in my office. Heartbroken. Devastated. He’d been dumped. I’ve seen the same thing a thousand times. And there’s a simple reason for it: sex is love’s fast-forward button. If you’re normal, you’re going to fall in love with the person you’re sleeping with, or they’re going to fall in love with you, sooner or later, whether you like it or not.
My guess is that it takes, on average, about a year for genuine intimacy and closeness to develop between new friends, unless the two of you share some sort of extreme experience (e.g., getting kidnapped together at gun-point by terrorists, getting trapped in an elevator for hours during an earthquake, fighting side-by-side in the trenches of a faraway war, talking on ecstasy for ten hours straight at a Baltimore rave, etc.). By contrast, if you’re sleeping with the same person, you can attain the same level of intimacy in less than two weeks!
The feelings we develop for someone we’re sleeping with are real and powerful and intense, as is the attachment, the craving, and the newfound neediness. One day you wake up and realize, perhaps to your horror, that your connection to this person has, seemingly overnight, come to constitute a kind of natural fact, like gravity, climate change, tropical hurricanes, and the Montreal winter. And, like all natural facts, it can’t be explained away by simplistic Sex-and-the-City sophistry. Oxytocin is one hell of a drug. We forget this at our peril.
It was the summer of 1990, I was fifteen, and I was in love. We’d been together for about a year. Our friend Kay hatched an ingenious plan, the teenage equivalent of a Ponzi scheme really. Everybody told their parents that they were going to a friend’s cottage (TRUE). Everybody said parents would be there (FALSE). The Arthur Andersen worthy ways in which we pulled off this scam would have made the smartest guys in the room at Enron beam with pride. But I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that ten of us, all underage, piled into a rickety old van and made our way down to a cottage on Lake Lovering, an hour and a half south of Montreal, where we’d be alone for four days (FOUR DAYS!) without any adult supervision.
Of course what followed was a comedy of errors. First we got lost. A trip that should have taken an hour and a half took almost six hours. Then we ran out of gas just as we pulled into the driveway. Turns out, one of those flashing lights was the gas light. We arrived at the cottage a little before midnight. Exhausted. Hungry. Pissed Off. Badly in need of a good night’s sleep. But that would not come, not for awhile, because of the fleas.
Kay’s mom’s best friend had, we later on discovered, stayed at the cottage the previous weekend with her three, big, flea-infested dogs. She and her dogs had, at some point, gone back to Montreal. But most of the fleas stayed. And they were starving. The fleas started biting soon after we walked into the cottage with our bags and gear. Most of us were bleeding and crazed before long. Took us an hour to find some Raid. Another hour or two to kill them all. That first night was terrible. Didn’t get to sleep until three or four in the morning.
The following morning we realized that we hadn’t brought nearly enough food. We realized, as well, that we’d forgotten to pick up some beer (a shocking oversight, all things considered). Had to get gas too. We knew we were going to have to walk into town. But Kay assured us that it wasn’t far. Maybe an hour. Turns out, it was more like two. It was an altogether gendered division of labor: the girls stayed at the cottage to clean up whilst the guys trekked into town to get supplies. Took us about two hours to get there and—since we were now heavy-laden with food, gas, and cases of two-four—about three hours to get back.
The girls had gone wild while we were gone. First they helped themselves to Kay’s mom’s private stash of wine coolers. Then they decided to go skinny dipping in Lake Lovering. We arrived, shirtless and sweaty, upon a scene straight out of Homer. It was paradise: laughing mermaids frolicking in the midday sun. My girlfriend and I did it later on that day. It was her first time. My first time too. And we were so in love. So in love on Lake Lovering.
But then everything went to shit. Our parents found out where we were (somehow). On Sunday, a posse of pissed-off parental lawmakers piled into a Pontiac, got on the highway, and made their way south: to bring justice to the Eastern Townships. We didn’t see them coming. Didn’t hear them coming either. Because we were blasting our music. Because we were wasted. Because we were dancing around outside, frolicking in the sunshine half-naked in a place outside of time, a place that felt like heaven.
The parents arrived, fuming and furious, upon a decadent scene straight out of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. They quickly transformed it into a dreadful scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno. I remember thinking: this is it: this is the worst moment of my life. But it wasn’t. Not even close. The bad memories faded long ago. All I remember now is the play of the sun on the water, the laughter of the mermaids, and the smell of my girlfriend’s perfume. It was beautiful: Estée Lauder’s Beautiful.
“It gets me out of the house.” That’s what my friend’s grandmother said when they teased her about her obsession with Bingo Night. The woman’s dedication was undeniable. The proof was all up there on her fridge calendar, like some diabolical Master Plan. Every bingo night in the city. Cataloged and accounted for. Complete with directions and estimated travel times.
May 15th @ 7:30 p.m. (basement of St. George’s)
There’s strength in numbers but peace in solitude. Hence the paradox of social life Freud ably described in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930): we need the strength in numbers that comes with social life, but, at one and the same time, social life makes demands upon us that often make us miserable.
A species composed of rugged individualists who really didn’t need each other would have gone extinct long ago. We’re not particularly strong or fast. Like bees and ants, our strength is derived from our amazing ability to work together. But why bother when people can be so annoying? Because we need them. This leads me to suspect that evolution selected for human neediness. Among other things, this explains the voracious nature of human sexuality.
Unlike tigers, bears, and salamanders, who only have sex during the mating season, we have sex all year round. What’s more, we have a great deal of sex that’s clearly not going to result in pregnancy (e.g., gay sex, straight sex after menopause, etc.). This suggests to me that sex’s primary purpose has long since transcended procreation. Sex renders us needy and draws us to others; it makes us far less self-contained than we might otherwise be. In other words, sex gets us out of the house. Love takes us out of ourselves and into the world. It makes hunters of us all. The greatest loves of our lives are like spoils we bring home from the field of battle.
Montreal was in the middle of an HIV epidemic when I was a kid: AIDS was no longer an exclusively gay problem. What’s more, teen pregnancy was on the rise in the province and sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydiae were growing resistant to the antibiotics used to treat them. It was a public health disaster and the provincial government treated it as such. They embarked upon an amazingly ambitious program of sexual education aimed at elementary schools not high schools. The idea was to get to the kids in Grade 5 and Grade 6: well before puberty, well before they became sexually active. And it worked: STI rates plummeted in the 1990s, as did rates of teen pregnancy.
My friends and I were the guinea pigs. We were in Grade 5 when the new Sex Ed program was first implemented. Did we giggle a whole lot? You better believe it. Did some parents freak out? You better believe it. But the schools stuck to their guns. And I’m so glad they did! Imagine how much senseless human suffering these wise bureaucrats and courageous educators prevented. Seriously, it boggles the mind. They should be sainted.
We learned that sex is risky. And we learned that sex has consequences. But they failed to mention that some of those risks and consequences are emotional. We learned a whole lot about sex but practically nothing about love. They taught us how to deal with a broken condom. But they didn’t teach us how to deal with a broken heart. Don’t get me wrong though, I get it: they had to sanitize and medicalize Sex Ed to make it palatable and respectable. But this decision had consequences. Not all of them good. Look at the soulless way in which Sex Ed is taught in our schools today: we seem to have taken the “human” out of human sexuality.
She’s a lady, named Sadie, who used to be shady. Loves whiskey, me, and the CBC. Hates hockey, brie, and misogyny. She’s a bourgeoisie, from NDG, who got a silly degree—a PhD, in History, or Philosophy—at the Tinder age of 33.
She fell for a florist, named Doris, a Taurus, who sings in the chorus, talks like she ate a thesaurus, and knows her way around a clitoris.
“Hey, Hamer, if a Sadie falls for a florist, and no one’s there to tweet about it, does it make a sound? Am I whoring around? Will this lead to an ultrasound?”
Oh Sadie, Sadie, I’m glad to say: y’all were married last May, had twins today.
Those who talk about “gay marriage” talk a whole lot about sex but have precious little to say about love. This strikes me as odd because marriage, as I understand it, isn’t primarily (or even mostly) about sex; it’s about love, commitment, and friendship. It’s about fostering the growth of loving families and tightly-knit communities. It was Freud who popularized the idea that love is an illusion and it’s really all about sex. And our culture has been soaking in this idea for a century.
What I love about the Platonic view of marriage is that it (implicitly) rejects this reductionist, and, thus far, unproven argument. I subscribe to an older and nobler vision of sexual orientation—one which sees sexuality as a means to an end: the end being love and friendship of an especially profound kind.
Your sexual orientation leads you to love. But once you find love, that love grows and flowers to such a degree that it largely transcends sexuality. Though I fully understand why we’re going to have to live with the concept of “gay marriage” for the next little while, I must confess that I’m looking forward to its linguistic retirement. After all, there’s nothing particularly “gay” about gay marriage. One day, in the not-so-distant future, the phrase “gay marriage” is going to sound as silly and superfluous as “straight marriage” or “woman doctor”. I look forward to that day.
There are two kinds of homophobic men in the 21st-century West: (1) Hard-Core Homophobes, who have a serious hate-on for gay guys for some reason (e.g., their religion taught them to hate gays, they’re gay themselves and can’t face up to it, they were sexually abused as kids, etc.). Homophobes of this stamp are, thank God, in the minority at the moment (no more, I’d wager, than 10%). Far more common is the second type: (2) Born-This-Way Homophobes. At bottom, these guys are just grossed out by the thought of man-on-man action. This is, if you think about it, quite understandable. After all, at least initially, kids in our culture are grossed out by the thought of anyone having sex. I’ll never forget the look of shock and awe on my son’s face when I sat him down and had The Talk™. He was horrified. But, in time, like most kids, he got over it.
There are at least two reasons why most kids eventually get over their initial disgust vis-à-vis straight sex: (1) Most kids are straight (i.e., most of them are, by nature, heterosexual). So, sooner or later, they’re fantasizing about and/or engaging in straight sex. (2) Most of the representations of sex and sexuality in our popular culture are straightforwardly heterosexual. So, regardless of their sexuality, most kids get used to the idea of straight sex—because they’re bombarded with it! They don’t, as a general rule, get used to the idea of gay sex. But they can get used to it. With remarkable ease. For instance, I know a guy who was “cured” just by watching that great TV series Spartacus; I know another who got over his homophobia in prison; and I know yet another who got over his weirdness vis-à-vis homosexuality soon after his son came out. These examples, and others, have led me to conclude that homophobia isn’t the massive, intractable social problem many seem to think it is. Being grossed out by all forms of adult sexuality is the default-setting for children in our culture. As such, most of the homophobic men you know were, in a sense, “born this way”. But they don’t have to stay that way.
Of all the sad specimens I meet in this broken and burning world, few evoke more spontaneous sympathy than those heterosexual folk who are, it seems, prisoners of their own sexuality. I’m talking about the straight women who clearly can’t stand men. And I’m talking about the heterosexual guys who really, in their heart of hearts, don’t like the company of women. Some of these guys are downright misogynists. But in my experience most aren’t. Women are simply a mystery to them, a mystery they’re not interested in solving. Gender is for them a kind of tall garden wall, a barrier made of solid stone, which keeps them from seeing women as people. These guys are happiest when they’re hanging out with “the guys”.
Wouldn’t they be happier if they could get a little man-on-man action at the end of the night? I think so. Incidentally, I’ve yet to meet a gay man who hates men. And I’ve never even heard of a lesbian who hates women (with the possible exception of Camille Paglia). Regardless, it’s now common to speak of gender dysphoria (e.g., being a woman trapped in a man’s body). But perhaps we need to start talking about an equally tragic condition: sexuality dysphoria (e.g., being a heterosexual douche who simultaneously desires women and can’t stand them, the kind of guy who wants women but can’t seem to relate to them as human beings).
He’s a self-made millionaire, a grey-haired man in his early 50s. She’s 28 and drop-dead gorgeous. We watch them, and judge them, as they get out of the red Ferrari and walk into the trendy restaurant on boulevard Saint-Laurent—you know, the one on the east side of the street, just north of Sherbrooke. Those of us who judge the rich guy do so because we think he’s a creepy lecher who should be with someone his own age. For god’s sake, look at her! She could be his daughter!
Whatever we make of the rich guy, and his intentions, our judgement of the bombshell on his arm is invariably harsher. It’s harsher, in part, because anyone with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old knows that using people is wrong. We all know—spontaneously, without analyzing—that Kant was on to something when he said that we should never treat another human being like an instrument, like a means to an end. We look at the rich guy and something within us wants to cry out: “You fool, you stupid fool! Can’t you see what’s going on here? She’s only with you for the money!” But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if she loves him, really loves him, and not for his money, but for who he is?
What if he tried dating the blue-blooded daughters of the North American elite? What if these Ivy-League-educated trust-fund gals found all of his talk about business and bling boring? What if they found his intense preoccupation with status graceless, gauche, and gross? What if they found his obsession with money thoroughly unattractive? And what if he found their company and conversation equally nettlesome? What if all they wanted to talk about—over fair-trade coffee at Starbucks—was books, boring books, and documentaries, tedious documentaries, about suffering, suffering in faraway places he can’t pronounce? What if they went on and on—till he thought he was going to bleed out through the eyes—about that fucking long weekend they spent in the Third World volunteering for an NGO?
What if the golddigger on his arm is the first woman he’s met who really appreciates all of the sacrifices he’s had to make to get to where he is? What if she’s the first woman he’s met who loves money and status as much as he does? What if their relationship is actually based on a solid foundation of shared values, profound respect, and mutual understanding (they’re both golddiggers, after all)? What if they’re in love—really in love? My guess is that they almost always are. And that’s a beautiful thing, really it is. Because everyone needs to find love in this broken and burning world. And yet so few of us do. So when we see two people who have momentarily found love, “what we do,” writes Tony Hoagland, “is natural: we take our burned hands out of our pockets, and clap.”
Our educated élite often reminds me of Matthias Schlitte, the German arm wrestler with the massive right arm and the puny left arm. Some of our intellectual muscles have been trained intensively whilst others have been left to atrophy. Our educational system is good at teaching us how to attack intelligently. We learn well how to rip apart, how to tear down, how to dissect: how to find flaws, fallacies, and foolishness in pretty much anything. But our educational system never really teaches us how to praise intelligently. One of the consequences of this lopsided education is that many of us—especially the well-educated—sound smart when we hate and stupid when we love. If we hated the movie, we know how to articulate why in a reasonably elegant fashion. But if we loved it, we invariably fall back upon empty rhetoric and meaningless clichés.
To combat this problem in my own small way, I teach the students in my “Love and Friendship” class how to write a really good love letter. They think it’s going to be easy. And they’re almost all wrong. Most discover that writing a really good love letter is hard—just as hard, incidentally, as writing a really good letter of recommendation. Because you’ve got to avoid general statements and be as specific as possible. And you’ve got to get every single one of those little details right. Because writing a love letter is like casting a spell: a spell that can be broken by the smallest misstep.
If you go on and on about those beautiful brown eyes in a love letter addressed to your green-eyed girlfriend, you can kiss that budding romance goodbye. Likewise, if you go on and on about that magical night on Rye Beach in a love letter addressed to a boyfriend who’s never been to New Hampshire, you better start looking for a new boyfriend. For instance, in Murphy’s Romance (1985), Sally Field’s sleazy ex-husband manages to screw up his attempt at winning her back from the get-go with this clueless comment:
Emma: “What the hell are you doing here?”
Bobby: “Guess I just missed gazing into those beautiful blue eyes of yours.”
Emma: “They’re brown, Bobby.”
There’s great truth to be found in romantic comedies. And this exchange is a case in point. Love and specificity go hand in hand, and people who say they love everyone probably don’t love anyone well. As the philosopher Mark Vernon puts it in The Meaning of Friendship (2010), “those who say they love everyone equally, and no one in particular, are often deeply unpleasant people to know. They love only in the abstract, which in a way is no love.”
Bluebirds have been struck down by her Lutheran singing voice, but when she speaks, ah, when she speaks, it’s music. The words, the sounds, and the silences flow seamlessly, gracefully, hypnotically. What I’m hearing, she tells me, is the embarrassing remnant of an old speech impediment, a source of childhood shame, which a speech therapist, who came highly recommended, failed fully to fix. But I beg to differ, because I hear poetry in her singsong speech. She speaks in cursive writing.
I was all bent of shape. Or so says the diary. It was January 12, 2000. My new girlfriend and I had recently consolidated our book collections—viz., moved-in together. I was perusing her sweet contributions to the stacks when I stumbled upon an inscription she’d written to an ex-boyfriend. (Incidentally, the douche had returned the book after the breakup: a clear violation of breakup etiquette: keep or destroy, never return). Regardless, in her eloquent, paragraph-long inscription, she employed a beautiful turn of phrase which she’d once used in an early love letter to me! I was mortified! Heartbroken! Pissed! Felt like I’d been dealt a shabby hand of recycled Valentine’s Day sentiments. Felt like I’d been played.
But that wore off pretty quick. Outrage soon gave way to embarrassment, and I started to feel pretty stupid. She is who she is, I reasoned, and this turn of phrase is, at bottom, as much a part of her as her accent. It’s unreasonable of me to expect her to reinvent herself every time she gets into a new relationship. How could I have possibly come to see that as a reasonable expectation? How could I possibly be so lame? She can recycle good material as much as she wants to, I concluded, so long as she uses her lines on one dude at a time.
That’s when I realized, much to my chagrin, that I was a fashion victim, an intellectual fashion victim, of two broad cultural currents: Late Capitalism, with its obsessive focus on intellectual property, and 1960s-era Romanticism, with its obsessive focus on authenticity and originality. When I discovered my new girlfriend’s inscription in an ex-boyfriend’s ex-book, two turbulent tributaries—capitalism and romanticism—emptied themselves into the river of my mind, creating much white water, a fishy smell, and a will-o’-the-wisp that terrified me for a moment or two. Till I saw him for what he was.
Thus speaks the man in love: autárkeia, self-sufficiency, the philosopher’s ideal, has exited stage left—along with my libran keel. Take my free will, for I wish to be your predestined fool. Slavery to you, my dear, shall henceforth for me be the rule. I cannot feign nonchalance, or Castiglione cool.
Let truth be told: a knowing look from your gentle eyes, and I am intoxicated with the strength of Samson. But a trivial slight from those very same green tyrants, shears me of my former boldness, and puts my stomach in knots.
Oh Epictetus, wipe that disapproving look off your face! Stern Stoic, surrender to Aphrodite, and join the human race. You thought the poets hedonists and simpletons. But they saw something, something you and Buddha missed: a losing game it is, fleeing from fear and desire, for if you win, what have you won?
I watched a grown woman teach her boyfriend how to ride a bike today. They were in their thirties. It may be the most beautiful thing I’ll see this month. The two of them giggling incessantly, very much in love, his wobbly wheels crunching through the autumn leaves.
Intimacy is what happens when the present kisses the future; when self-forgetting falls in love with self-consciousness; when you lose yourself in the moment and find yourself in the future; when you know you’re creating a cherished memory while you’re creating a cherished memory; when you can gaze into the stars, in her blue-sky eyes, and say “I love you x much.”
Intimate memories are the gifts the present bestows upon the future: homemade gifts, covered in fingerprints and kisses.
I’ve often been struck by how utterly unattractive most models are in person. I think it’s because they don’t move well. There’s a stiffness about their movements and facial expressions that’s antithetical to grace. It’s also antithetical to sexiness. Sexy people are sexy, more often than not, because they’re graceful, because they move well. Gracefulness can’t be captured photographically because it’s a function of movement.
Graceful movements are slow, smooth, flowing, calm, and predictable. By contrast, graceless movements are jerky, erratic, twitchy, fast, and unpredictable. Young children and animals gravitate towards the graceful. But they consistently shy away from the graceless. In What the Dog Saw (2009), Malcolm Gladwell maintains that Cesar Millan’s preternatural facility with dogs is to some extent a function of his graceful, dancer-like movements.
There once was a guy named Harry Reid, spent half his life as a centipede, cursed for a sacrilegious deed, cursed by a witch because he peed. The tree was tall, the tree was grand, most sacred tree in all the land. But Harry didn’t know, and he really had to go.
There once was a gal named Sally Mead, who fell in love with a centipede. She was an odd duck, a real rare breed, who was only in the forest freed. She hated tweed and loved to read, shunned parties and smoked far too much weed.
The Kush was great, the Kush was grand, dankest weed in all the land. So when the bug became a man, Sally was like, “Ha! I get it, I understan’; ain’t foolin’ me, Mr. Indica Man!” But when the bug began to cite Rousseau, ’twas like lunch with Bill Burrough. They were last seen, if you really must know, holding hands, in love, at a wedding expo.
Then the quarterback turned to his best friend, on the 405 bus, and said: “Why do you flame so fucking much whenever we go out?”
“Gotta fly the fag-flag, man: you know, put yourself out there. If you wanna get some action, you gotta look like you’re interested in action.”
Then the best friend turned to the quarterback, on the 405 bus, and said: “Why do you act like such a fucking bro whenever we go out?”
“Gotta fly the fuck-flag, man: you know, put yourself out there. If you wanna get some action, you gotta look like you’re interested in action.”
Working with young people doesn’t keep you young, nor does it make you feel old; it just reminds you of how little we change. All this talk about the evolution of the species, and yet look at us, look at them. Looking pretty for the bees. Just a couple of flowers, waiting for a butterfly named Love, to float down from heaven, and discover them into eternal life.
“Do you believe in The Rapture?” said the distressed Baptist mom, from Alabama, at her daughter’s gay wedding. I remember liking her. Guess that was her awkward attempt at an icebreaker. Or was it a shibboleth? A warm smile spread across my face as I dreamily recalled that magical moment when DeSweetie spotted Jenny on the dance floor in 1722. “Rapture” was playing.
“Yes, ma’am. I think I do.”
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)