I am 28 years old and helping to fold a stranger’s laundry before we have sex.
I fold his towels. He puts the now-fresh sheets back on the bed. His bedroom door has a large poster of Hillary Clinton, and the walls are decorated with vinyl album covers from classic Broadway shows, like we’re at a gay Applebee’s:
Merrily We Roll Along, A Chorus Line, Wicked.
He’s in an open relationship, and I quickly learn his arrangement dictates that he can’t kiss other men. He doesn’t tell me this, but each time I move in to touch my lips to his, he abruptly jerks his head away. The rest of his body is fair game, but his mouth cannot, and does not, touch mine.
Lying there afterward, we discuss the Oscars. He complains that everyone is making fun of
La La Land. When I tell him that I still haven’t seen it, he tells me that it’s already a Great American Classic with a Strong Thematic Message. When I mention that I’ve heard people complain about how emotionally forced it feels, he scoffs.
“What do people want? It’s just a musical. Not everything has to be a genuine, heartfelt sob story.”
I think to myself, Then what’s the point?
He mentions that he has more work to do, and I take this as my cue to go. Half a block later I realize I left my sweater behind, but I don’t go back for it.
I’m 28 years old and I want to have a fuck-it year. Everything, including men, is making me miserable. A boy I had been dating for five months unapologetically ended things via text message. I find myself saying things like, “I’m too old for this. I’m going to be 30 soon. Who even cares?”
My brain barely registers the number of digitized bodies I see on any given day. Each torso is interchangeable, every face indistinguishable. And what does a Tumblr full of identical bare-bottomed men holding bouquets of flowers in picturesque fields even say about our lives, our wants, or our needs?
We’re here! We’re queer! We’ve settled in large urban centers and idealize a return to a more agrarian way of life!
A friend wants to set me up with an acquaintance of his but I say no, I want to focus on me. What I want.
And what I want is to get tied up.
I am nine years old and watching the 1997 movie
MouseHunt, starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, with my family on a Saturday afternoon. The movie is about two brothers who are attempting to sell their family’s estate—consisting of a run-down mansion and a dilapidated string factory—but are impeded by a crafty mouse determined to stay.
Having fallen on hard times, the brothers cannot pay their workers, leaving the pair to run the factory alone. During his first shift, Lars, the brother played by Lee Evans, accidentally feeds a stray thread from the hem of his jacket into the large spooling machinery, which proceeds to slowly strip the clothing off his body.
I watch as Lee Evans tries in vain to free himself. The fibers of his suit jacket pull his arms wide, like he’s being drawn and quartered. His pant leg is ripped to his upper thigh, his collared shirt whittled down to a crop top. My face feels white-hot, like a light bulb. I am convinced that everyone in this darkened movie theater, and ultimately everyone in the known world, can see how embarrassed I am.
I am 24 years old, and the movie
MouseHunt has been added to Netflix. I watch it feeling just as I had when I was nine. I cannot believe this was ever considered children’s entertainment. I immediately send it to a friend and he, too, is shocked that this is in a movie for children.
In a later scene, Evans runs through the empty factory holding the spools of yarn that had once been his clothing in front of his exposed body. When startled to find an ex-girlfriend lying in repose on his desk, he drops the spools, his nakedness suggested just offscreen.
I tell my friend that this scene is my “root,” a term coined to explain a pivotal moment in one’s life that confirms their homosexuality. In telling him this, I feel embarrassed all over again, not by how the scene makes me feel but rather what it depicts: a man being tied up.
I am 28 years old and I’m taking my clothes off in the studio of my dom. This dom supplements his burgeoning art career with pay from clients who book sessions of his time. He is a Nice Guy, which is not what I expect from someone who works as a dom. His uniform of tall black boots and a pressed collared shirt seem more appropriate, though.
It’s a warm summer’s day, and the thick black curtains that partition the studio sway. It feels pleasant just to stand there in my underwear. New York City is a place that doesn’t often let you find pleasure in getting dominated. It’s just a way of life here.
The dom blindfolds me and begins to tie me up. He tells me that if I ever get anxious from being unable to move, I should tell him. But of course I don’t. My body is here willingly. I have admitted to myself that this is something I want, and there is no use in trying to refute it now. The secret is out.
I am 29 years old and my boyfriend asks me if I miss being on the apps. The answer is, emphatically,
no. I do not miss fishing for human intimacy. Nor do I miss the periods of inexplicable sexual droughts and the insecurity that goes with them. The drudgery of repeatedly logging on and looking to find someone new. Ceaselessly hoping that someone will eventually want what you want too.
There is a certain aesthetic branding to app-based casual sex that never felt compatible with the actual experiences I had on the apps: Grindr with its anonymous mask, Scruff with its distressed horror-movie typeface. The Jack’d font looks like it’s for a caffeinated sports drink. Hornet’s logo is an actual hornet. That mix of sexual aggression and ambivalence is marketed as the “gay lifestyle.”
In the safe, digitized space of an app, people speak aggressively about their throbbing desires but quickly regain their modesty in person. It’s embarrassing to have wants, especially as a man. Even standing stark naked in the home of a stranger, you never want to come across as too needy. And yet when men were forthright about what they wanted, the sex was the most pleasurable.
On the apps, I felt connected to some nebulous web of male desire, entering the homes of strangers and getting to peek behind the curtain of someone’s exterior life. The sexual enjoyment itself often seemed moot. I felt like an explorer, bartering sexual interactions for human intimacy.
I am 27 years old. I enter the unlocked door of an apartment to find an older man lying flat on his back, blindfolded and naked on a large sleigh bed with a padded headboard. The movie
Hocus Pocus is playing loudly in the living room. His Christmas tree is still up. It’s February. There is a small black terrier in a kennel that’s been hidden beneath a handmade quilt, as if the dog were actually a loud parrot.
The man’s only stipulation, which he vocalized before I walked into the apartment, is that I do not talk while we have sex.
After we’re done, his demeanor changes, and he is suddenly affable and warm. He tells me about his previous life taking care of his dying mother in South Carolina. The plans he has for the prewar decorative molding in his apartment. The shelving he’ll install in the kitchen. The amount of money he saved bringing frozen food with him on his move to NYC.
When I leave, it starts to snow.
The dom puts me through a sampling of different bondage techniques. I wait as he methodically knots the rope that ties my legs and my torso and my arms to a wooden IKEA chair.
As a soundtrack, he plays pulsing house music, both to set the tone and to muffle any noise either of us make. Blindfolded, without having something to look at, I feel the room throbbing to the beat. In that moment I recognize that this is the appeal of bondage. The dom knows that you want this. Denying you the satisfaction of having that want acknowledged only makes it more pleasurable. It’s all foreplay without any expectation of follow-through.
I can feel my brain soften as it experiences each sensation move through me physically. My body speaks for me, admitting its eagerness. There’s no space left to rationalize what I’m feeling. For an hour, I just exist.
When it’s over, we make small talk. My body vibrates along the lines where each rope had bitten into my flesh. I drink cold filtered tap water from a mini fridge. I get dressed and rejoin the oblivious world.
We live increasingly digitized lives, lives that are lamented over in think pieces by older generations for their isolation and detachment. For queers, the internet has always been a space to live out a life we often don’t get to have off-line. It makes sense, then, that in our rush to fill the internet with affirming images of ourselves, we create an ever-echoing chamber of our desires.
As a sexually active gay man in his 20s, I have sent an incalculable number of dick pics to men around the world. Through the camera on my phone, I’ve seen my body from nearly every angle imaginable. These pictures will now outlive my physical form as data, quietly humming away as ones and zeros in a server farm somewhere. They are ultimately meaningless, though, stripped of their personal context amid a sea of similarly fleshy parts.
We can catalog every inch of our naked bodies digitally, but the images will never be anything more than sent nudes. The internet often confuses nakedness and nudity, while simultaneously censoring both. Nakedness is revealed to us, the body’s intentions unapologetic and unmistakable; nudity is 30,000 likes on someone’s Facetuned sponsored Instagram content advertising MeUndies. Nakedness is lying in a stranger’s bed and complaining that Taylor Swift’s “comeback” is trying too hard, then being sent home with homemade pita bread. Nudity is posting a vague, pseudo-inspirational quote beneath a selfie of yourself drinking coffee in a well-lit, succulent-filled apartment, your butt visible in a carefully placed mirror. It’s important to recognize that difference.
When we move past the shame we’ve inherited about our bodies, we find that there is a lot to be learned from our own nakedness and the nakedness of others. As we try to curb modern anxiety from a comfortable distance, there’s something undeniably important about staying embarrassed, and therefore conscious, of our own humanity.
I visit the dom two more times.
With each visit, I walk in, undress, and push my way through the black curtains to let him have his way with me. My sub orientation has already taken place, and I’m well-versed in what happens next.
Despite my enjoyment in being there, I can feel my body grow awkward. I am as physically open as I can possibly be, but I start to disengage from the lack of intimacy. My mind wanders. I may be blindfolded and tied to a column in the center of the studio, but I think,
What are we? Then I remind myself, He is your dom. I fantasize about tying him up, breaking character in our make-believe power play. I wonder what his day was like, unable to ask with a ball gag in my mouth.
There’s no small talk as I dress myself after our session. The job has been done. I have felt what I wanted to feel. I have expressed my wants, and yet there are new wants that can’t be met here. It’s a realization I’ve had while lying in the beds of numerous other men. I want more and can’t help it. And with that, I stop seeing the dom.
I go on a date with the acquaintance my friend had mentioned and promptly fall in love. My fuck-it year lasts about a month. I get drunk at parties and tell close friends about my experience. Sprawled out on a pile of coats in one host’s bedroom, my chest pressed against the back of my new boyfriend’s reclining body, I casually mention my experience with the dom. Everyone shrieks: “You did what?! When?!”
They say, “Tell us everything.” And I do.
Whatever shame I had about engaging in casual sex doesn’t carry over to getting tied to a chair in my underwear. How mortifying it felt to take my phone out in public and message someone back on the apps. What would have happened if I had admitted to those around me that I just wanted someone to ask me about my day? Or meet my mom? Or tell me that they believed in me?
With the dom, I was honest about what I wanted at the time. I named a need and had it, for a while, fulfilled.
I am 29 and I’ve just bought a perfect burnt-orange light table from a woman on Craigslist. She’s moving to Toronto to be with her wife after years of living apart.
I unintentionally make my boyfriend feel bad by not asking for his help at first, despite knowing that this light table is too big to get home in anything smaller than a pickup truck, which he owns.
I blame my sudden nervousness about asking for help on the men I’ve dated in the past: men who abruptly dumped me after I invited them to weddings or birthday parties or any number of boyfriend-specific social functions. I talk about a history of making myself small in relationships, in an effort to stabilize them, by never asking for too much.
“But this isn’t one of those situations,” he says. “You’re my boyfriend! This is what we do for each other.”
Not asking for help in moving this light table is not about those other men. Maintaining a nakedness, both emotionally and physically, is a never-ending process, one that I failed to recognize in my current relationship.
Would it have been easier to tell him I needed his help in person? There’s no way of knowing. This is how we communicate now. Our digital selves are here to stay. It’s important to remember that even anonymous bot accounts have real people behind them somewhere, even if those digital people are not who they say they are. Only you can vocalize your wants and needs and desires, those inner workings of your individual beating heart.
With the light table safely in tow, my boyfriend and I hold hands over the center console of the pickup as he effortlessly moves the truck through Brooklyn. For just a moment, we can be everything we’re supposed to be as intimate humans. Uninterrupted, unquestioning, in existence. Together.