Has Manhunt Destroyed Gay Culture?

8.4.2008

By Michael Joseph Gross

Looking for Mr. Right,' countless Manhunt profiles claim, but until he comes along, they're open to playing with Mr. Right Now. Online cruising has its place in gay society: Access to a satisfying number of Mr. Right Nows is part of the pleasure and the privilege of moving to the big city to be gay.

Beyond a certain point, though, perpetually settling for Mr. Right Now becomes a failure of hope. When you came out, you did it because you wanted something. Part of what you wanted was sex, but part of what you hoped for was the possibility of being loved as your true self. And when, as often happens while cruising online, we diminish the hopes that drew us out of the closet, we reduce sexy to a purely physical act.

When we do these things we lie to ourselves -- and worse, we tell the same lies that our enemies tell about us. The fundamentalist canard about loving the sinner but hating the sin draws a nonsensical distinction between person and act. Cruising online, by encouraging us to separate sex from the rest of our lives, does exactly the same thing. These are falsehoods about human nature and about the place of love in our lives, and they undermine the belief that sex can be anything more than a pastime.

As a normative way of socializing for gay men, online cruising is a disaster. We need to recognize its effects -- including its tendency to isolate us, encourage objectification, and diminish our sense of life's nonsexual possibilities -- as disasters. We need to recognize that too many of us, too much of the time, are cruising online because it is easier and feels safer than thinking about the love we are missing and the power we do not have. Too many of us, too much of the time, are cruising online because it's easier and feels safer than mustering the courage, patience, discipline, and imagination required to help ourselves and each other become the men that, in our strongest moments, we want to be.

Gary Cohan, a physician who treats half of A-list gay Hollywood, says we have to start thinking in a deliberate way about what normal social interaction consists of. 'For a long time,' Cohan says, 'it has been considered normal to be on the Net. We need to start thinking, That's not normal.'

We need to put our heads together and try to figure out what we want normative social life to look like. Whatever the answer turns out to be, it will involve creating social structures that serve and gratify our desire to have sex with each other and also promote and support the possibility of developing and sustaining intimate relationships. Gay men came close to the goal of building such a society when they were hit with the plague of AIDS. That generation learned the rewards of sacrifice and of setting limits on the place of sex in our culture. But to those of us who were children or teenagers during the epidemic, AIDS made coming out so scary that we preferred to avoid getting too involved in our gay forefathers' world.

And along came the Internet, a tool that let us build gay lives without having to get very involved with older people -- not that, if we'd wanted to, there were a whole lot of them still living. Now, though, it seems our avoidance has created a different kind of society, more isolating, more brutal, and weaker. We still don't know how to have enduring relationships. We still don't have examples. We still don't have mentors. We still don't have courtship rituals. We are still getting HIV.

We celebrate the fact that we're out to the straight world, even though the only thing that means, in many cases, is that they know we're gay.

When we logged on, I don't think most of us realized we were creating new secret lives. I don't think we knew what we were getting into. But we got into it. For most of us, this is not working. And if it's not working for you, then it's time to get off.

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