Friday, February 23, 2007

Gaydar, or “The Thrill is Gone”

The death last week of Gary Frisch, the founder of the UK based on line gay dating service, “Gaydar,” and the outpouring of expressions of mourning from the gay community (topped only by that occasioned by the death of Lady Diana), has suggested an evaluation of the on line dating phenomenon. As an article in the Guardian on Frisch’s death states, on line dating has produced radical changes in the lives of perhaps millions of individual gay men and a radical change in our sense of community. Some of the benefits of on line dating are obvious; others are less so, but nonetheless important. Its drawbacks and dangers, however, while quite serious, are somewhat less readily apparent; moreover, it could be argued quite convincingly that when the pluses and minuses of on line dating are weighed together, we ultimately come out on the negative side.

One of the most obvious benefits of gay on line dating is that it facilitates contact between gay men living in small towns and cities with no gay facilities where they otherwise could meet. The guy in Moosejaw doesn’t have to wait until he can get to the big city to enjoy the company of another man; he can get in his car and drive a mere 50 or so miles to Slippery Rock to meet a guy he’s met on the net that evening. Of course, the guy might not be as sexy as he appeared in the dating service photo, or he may not even show up for the rendez- vous, but at least our horny lad from Moosejaw has a chance, even a good chance, to get his rocks off.

Even for guys in big cities, on line dating holds very definite advantages over the bars/ baths/ parks/ docks/ trucks, etc. It certainly is cheaper than the bars and baths, and safer--- at least in reference to marauding homophobic bands--- than the parks, docks, and trucks. Of course, in reference to safety, it is important to meet the guy you contacted on the net in a neutral place, a bar or a café, so you can chat with him in person for a few minutes; that will give you at least some chance of determining if you would be going home with a thief or a homicidal maniac. Actually, you are probably less likely to meet up with someone dangerous on the net, since it’s possible to leave an electronic trail of your contact. At least the smarter potential trouble- makers know that they can be traced.

But perhaps even more important than on line dating’s helping to overcome the practical problems of physical isolation, it helps to overcome the problems of emotional isolation. Many men of the pre- electronic generation complain that for years they thought that they, and the local hairdresser, were the only gay men in the world. Now, with large dating services such as Gaydar, the closeted, withdrawn, even the totally inexperienced gay man can see that even his kinkiest tastes and fantasies are shared by hundreds, if not thousands of men, some who live in his own neighborhood and are hot to meet him. Gaydar may not really help you to meet Mr. Right, or even dependably get your rocks off whenever you want, but with gay dating services, combined with gay blogging, no gay man need ever again to feel the sense of isolation that some of us felt before the development of electronic communication.

Those of you who have read my post on the pleasures and perils of gay blogging know that I am concerned with the complications relating to “keeping it real” caused by electronic communication. To be fair, however, some of the problems in this context are not exclusive to on line dating. There were problems in this regard even in the bar and bath scene; many of us remember the mind fuckers in the bars who would engage us in heady, sexy conversation for hours and then disappear into the night when it came time for any action; or the cock teasers in the baths who would cruse everyone but never connect with anyone. They probably are on the net now, engaging you in sexy dialogue, making appointments, and then breaking them, or never even showing up--- essentially the same problem we had in bars and baths, and perhaps even with the same neurotic people.

Of course, the electronic dating services are the mind fuckers’ paradise, with possibilities way beyond what is possible in a bar or bath. Not really wanting to connect physically or emotionally with anyone, a mind fucker can invent a sexy persona that may or may not be at all similar to himself. Sometimes he even posts a fake picture. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to live out one’s fantasies and to imagine someone else excited by them, but this is essentially a game at someone else’s expense and without the other person’s consent.

As one becomes a bit more practiced in the manipulation of electronic dating, he also becomes more skillful in identifying the mind fuckers and out and outright frauds. “Keeping it real,” however, is a problem even in cases where the parties involved try to be sincere and truthful in their presentation of themselves.

The projection of oneself through just words and a few photographs is, in most cases, very difficult for the person not to control subconsciously. When we meet someone in an actual social context, in a bar, through friends, or even in a bathhouse or in a park, we project ourselves by what we say about ourselves spontaneously (in contrast to the contrived verbal presentations in our Gaydar adds), which is only partially under our control, and our body language, facial expression, etc., which are sometimes even less under our control. Our interlocutor has a fighting chance to see us, understand us, and react emotionally; we, in turn, must react spontaneously to him.

Contrast this type of interchange with that taking place between even the most sincere, frank, and honest people on the net. The verbal presentations are almost always carefully calculated, as are the responses. They are just as likely to correspond more to what the sender wants to be than what he actually is, and they are calculated to produce a specific, desired reaction. The photos, even if they are of the person involved, are also calculated to project the image of the sender wants to project. We are sending essentially the image of what we want to be, even when we are trying to be honest. All of this misrepresentation can occur without any conscious lying on anyone’s part.

The projection of this level of unreality can lead to something much worse than a disappointing evening. We all fall in love not with a 100% authentic person, but with a combination of that person and our projections of our own needs onto the other person. It supposedly takes about two years in most cases, for most of the vestiges of that projection to wear off. In relationships that work, the partners then proceed to love each other more or less “authentically.”

In relationships that begin on the net, a guy can very easily fall in love not only with his own projection, but also with the image that his partner is projecting, which may have more to do with what he wants to be than with what he is. This is also possible in actual encounters, but the likelihood is much greater with relationships that begin on the net. While there is a level of “unreality” to most love affairs, that level is much more complex and difficult to unravel when a meeting and the development of the relationship takes place electronically.

It has also been quipped that sites such as Gaydar have broken up more relationships than they have brought together. This is true not only because on line dating makes extra marital liaisons more available; it presents you with a selection of potential paramours that even the greatest lover on earth couldn’t consistently, successfully compete with. In the development of your relationship, you and your partner have stripped away your illusions about each other and about yourselves, but the on line paramours are open to all your, and their projections. Even if their photos aren’t air- brushed or professionally posed and lighted, most photos try to show their subject at what he feels is his sexiest. Simply stated, reality will have a hard time competing with fantasy. Even if you don’t contact or try to make a liason with one of the sexy guys on the net, cruising around the site and taking in the highly charged, over simplified sexuality the guys there project presents a real risk of diminishing your partner just a bit in your eyes. Unlike your partner, the guys on the net don’t leave the top off of the toothpaste tube. Not much good can come of this.

Don’t get me wrong. Far be it for me to diminish the role of fantasy in our lives! If sex is the spice of life, sexual fantasy is the hot pepper. But with sites such as Gaydar, the fantasy is created by supposedly real men out there, who also claim to be, or sometimes actually are, available, thus blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Lots of couples in stable relationships spice up their sex lives by looking at pornography together or going together to a place with a sexually charged atmosphere. But the fantasies generated by such events are clearly fantasies, appreciated and enjoyed as such. They are quite different from the fantasies generated by sites such as Gaydar, which claim to be real and realizable.

These problems would be of diminished importance if on line dating could coexist comfortably with the more traditional ways of meeting and making contact with potential sexual partners. But as many of us have experienced, and as the Guardian article brings out, on line dating has resulted in the radical contraction of the more traditional contact possibilities. In many cities gay bars have closed down and open air cruising areas have disappeared; they can’t compete with the comfort and ease, not to mention the economic advantages, offered by the on line sites. Gay human relations, as are all human relations, are difficult enough, in and of themselves, to keep from flying off into a whirlwind of fantasies and projections. Now that we are forced, more and more, to make contact through the abstracted world of Gaydar and its like, our hope of really being able to connect with people, not just as tricks or lovers, but even as friends, seems to be fading.

This gradual transfer of our emotional lives to the virtual, electronic world not only threatens to rob our lives of substance, it also takes away much of the thrill of encounter. Less and less frequently will we be able to experience the heart stopping excitement of a glance from a sexy stranger across a crowded room, or bathe in the warmth of his smile. When I met my partner (It was at a gay beach), we talked for about two hours, the intellectual, emotional and sexual excitement building by the minute. That, my friends, just doesn’t happen on the internet.

What to do? I don’t really know. But it’s quite clear that there’s no going back. Somehow we’ll have to find a way to rebuild our ability to connect with each other in a thrilling and substantial way in the context of, or perhaps despite, electronic communication.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Perils, and pleasures, of gay blogging

Now that I’ve been blogging and reading other gay men’s blogs for about six months, I’ve begun to form some ideas about blogging, especially gay blogging, both for myself and towards what seems to have developed as a significant cultural phenomenon. The discussion I would like to open here pertains, however, to those gay blogs concentrating primarily on ideas, feelings and experiences relating to gay life. I am not interested here in those gay blogs dealing primarily in pictures of beautiful men or sexy stories; such blogs differ from straight blogs of the same type only in their sexual orientation. There’s nothing wrong with them; they’re just not very interesting for my purposes here.

Blogging allows me to discuss ideas about gay life in a broader forum than my own, personal life affords me. I put out an idea or an observation and, at least theoretically, I can get direct reactions and feedback from an unlimited spectrum of opinion. In my personal life I have a fairly large circle of friends I can discuss these issues with, but this spectrum is ultimately still comparatively narrow and pre- selected; they are, after all, my friends. Also, their reaction is frequently influenced by their relationship to me. None of these factors limit the blogosphere.

I generally limit myself to discussion of gay issues. While I enjoy commenting in other people’s blogs on any number of topics, I restrict my own blog to gay matters, since in that specific field I find feedback from this very broad spectrum particularly valuable. While there are several other areas of interest I could blog about, my professional and private life provides a sufficiently large forum to discuss these issues and therefore, I don't really need to blog about them. For a discussion of gay issues, however, blogging provides me with a unique opportunity.

Also, quite frankly, since I am not a professional commentator of gay issues, I can be somewhat free and adventuresome with what I say on these matters; I have no professional responsibilities in this area. Even though blogs supposedly afford a certain anonymity (more about this later), and my professional reputation would probably not be at stake, I still would not permit myself the pleasures of intellectual speculation in a field where I feel professionally responsible.

I feel fairly comfortable with these intellectual limitations I have placed on by blog. The emotional and existential realm, on the other hand, perhaps requires some further explanation. My blog may seem to some denizens of the gay blogosphere somewhat impersonal, distant, and, if you will, tight- assed. In comparason to most other gay blogs, even thoise devoted to ideas, I don't really present much of myself. Of course, even in discussing ideas, you reveal your emotional make up and even aspects of your existential reality at almost every turn; but I seldom make such revelations directly. I don’t discuss my personal life directly, and I make references to incidents from my own background only it they serve to illustrate an idea I want to get across.

I don’t discuss the details of my relationship with my partner since I regard intimacy to be, as I’ve said in other places, an essential ingredient in the mortar that holds our relationship together. I try not to be too judgmental or doctrinaire on this matter, guys, but I really can’t understand people, gay or straight, who discuss details of their relationships in a public forum. Certainly, problems in a relationship can be so painful that a guy feels he has to let loose and open up to someone. But if those problems become so acute, and the two partners are so incapable of negotiating them with each other, that a violation of the intimacy that binds the relationship seems necessary, then perhaps the guys involved need to reevaluate their relationship.

Also, from a practical point of view, what happens when your partner discovers your blog and sees what you’re telling total strangers about him? I can’t imagine that it would help matters much between you. Or perhaps you don’t want it to, and it’s a way of telling him off without having to confront him directly. Sorry, but certain judgmental terms such as “cowardly” come to mind.

Equally baffling are those people who habitually comment on such intensely personal blogs. We all have a certain tendency toward voyeurism--- I’m certainly no exception. Sometimes such comments stem from a sincere desire to help by giving a soul in obvious anguish a bit of support or a perspective on the issue that may help him resolve the issue. Most frequently, however, such habitual commentators view the blog as an alternative to a television soap opera. These people should think about getting a life for themselves.

I admit that the value I place on intimacy in a relationship may be related to my living in continental Europe. Americans and Brits seem to be much more willing to blurr the line between their public and private lives. The sex lives of American and British political and other public figures are considered fodder for public consumption and the public seems to have no problem in making the parties pay politically for perceived transgressions (Bill Clinton, Lady Diana- Prince Charles).

On the European continent, on the other hand, people tend to respond with shock when someone transgresses the line between the private and the public. This week, for example, the wife of the ex Prime Minister of Italy published a letter in a major newspaper demanding a public apology from her husband for having flirted openly with some starlets; the letter clearly intimated that the ex PM had been somewhat less than an ideal husband. The only group that supported the wife was the feminists; most other Italians, both friends and enemies of the PM even agreed that he is sleaze, but they generally condemned the wife’s letter as outrageous. You don’t wash dirty linen in public.

Of course, none of this applies to blogs discussing other types of personal topics in which intimacy isn’t an issue: passionately held political or social positions, problems at work, decisions concerning decorating, even questions of style and clothing. There is nothing problematical about seeking a broader forum for those issues than what everyday life affords.

But this brings us to what I consider the major peril of blogging: Blogger friends. Why should this be a peril, you may ask? It is inevitable, if you’re a regular blogger, that you develop a feeling of closeness, even affection for some of your regular blogger contacts. Even in a rather theme- oriented blog such as mine, there are commentators whose contact I really treasure; such relationships are assuredly even more intense in the more personalized type of blog. This is one of the pleasant, even beautiful aspects of blogging.

But the danger is that these blogger relationships become as important, even more important to you than your actual friendships and social contacts. Real life is complicated and messy. Friendships, if they matter at all, involve responsibilities and can frequently have real consequences, some good, some bad, some mixed, in your life. Blogging friendships, on the other hand, are easy and if uncomfortable, can be discarded without trouble or consequence. They involve no real responsibility.

Worse: If you’re skillful, you can put together a circle of blogger friends who consistently tell you exactly what you want to hear. They become almost like the imaginary friends some of us had as children. I know people who have retreated almost entirely from actual social life into their world of virtual friends. Even if we don’t allow our retreat into a blogger reality to develop to this extent, there is an inevitable struggle between our blogger, and our “real” life.

This is why I try to remain “on topic” in my blog. It would have been fun, for example, to get some of your opinions concerning the decoration of our newly acquired Paris apartment. But for me, at least, it’s hard enough to keep my blog in its place in my life. Bringing purely personal issues into my blog would, for me, only compound the problem.

And then there’s the problem of anonymity. Briefly put, guys, it’s an illusion. You must take it for granted that eventually family, friends, spouses, lovers, ex- lovers, enemies, enemies’ lawyers, etc. will wander into your blog. Google has made this even more likely. Most of us give enough information in our blogs that identification by people from our real life is quite easy. “Discovery” happens so often that I must assume that people who put self incriminating or embarrassing information in their blogs, under the assumed protection of anonymity, are ultimately dishonest and really want to be discovered.

None of this means that I have the least intention of stopping blogging. As long as I can keep my blog on the level of a discussion of gay issues, I’m confident that it will continue to be, as it has been for these last six months, an (at least for me) satisfying intellectual and personal experience.