Greetings from the (according to a website that I had never heard of before this week) most promiscuous city for gays in the United States.
Having lived here for six months, I confess I had not thought of our beautiful less-than-two-miles square haven of homosexuality in those terms.
But now, thanks to an entirely unscientific and vapid self-promotional study by a website for sugar daddies, the hoary(!) stereotype of WeHo's gay promiscuity has now gone viral. All the big sites picked up the "news" without comment. And to be frank, a bunch of people here, a bunch of fellow West Hollywood gays, laughed.
This should be a big week for gays in California. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to grant cert to the appellate court decision overturning Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Most court watchers expect the court to leave the case alone, which means that gay marriage will once again be legal in California, which also means that those of us who were married outside of California — and are now officially not married as soon as we claimed residence here, will see their unions recognized by the state.
So we have two things on the table: one is the force of history, which is simultaneously normalizing gay marriage across the country and within the gay community itself, and the other seems to be a force of... a lot of different things, or maybe just the biological imperative of males, which yields fleeting relationships and a totally different conception of fidelity and a whole bunch of stereotypes about gay people.
I find it interesting that a lot of gay men I know take it for granted that, all other things being equal, gays will have more sexual partners over the course of their lifetime than straights. I mean, it seems kinda valid: We're all post-modern of course and don't really believe that biology is destiny, but guy hormones and the history of forbidden love repressed by society and a sexually permissive environment that doesn't label men as "sluts" — well, maybe we just are more promiscuous. Truth is, though, that we tend not to see much beyond our own social circle.
Does "more" partners mean 6 instead of 4? Is that even much of a difference? Does it matter (or doesn't it matter) that so many young gays here are here because they were kicked out by their families and have no other place to go?
Within a city like West Hollywood, which is surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, where half the population identifies as gay, where for decades this part of town had indeed a haven for those cast out by the rest of society, where there are gay bars celebrating their 80th birthdays, where there are more go-go dancers per square mile than another other place in the country — maybe, yeah, the folks who live here tend to have a lot of sexual partners. And maybe they tend to resist the norming forces just a bit more than everywhere else. Here in West Hollywood, we gays are certainly a minority of the minority of the minority.
A small fraction of us (and by us, I'm just being collegial, not self-descriptive) have sex with a LOT of people; a larger fraction has several more sex partners (probably) than the equivalent cohort of straight guys.
But there are far MORE VERY promiscuous straight people than gay people, simply because there are 20 times more straight people in society than gay people. (Yes, I'll get to AIDS in a moment. Bear with me.)
So while there seems to be evidence that younger gays ARE more promiscuous than younger straight men, the social science doesn't really provide much either in the way of guidance about what it means or reference points to say what's normal or not. It is hard to know how to compare today's gay hook-up culture, mediated through social media, with the mostly straight Rock-n-Roll culture of the 1980s (cocaine! sex! sing! repeat!), or the 1970s (when it finally sort of became kinda OK some places to be openly gay), or the 1960s, or the brothels of Four Points in 19th century New York.
One reason is that it is impossible to study groups of gays and straights AS IF all other other things are equal. They haven't been.
Gay marriage is a recent invention. When I was in high school, I never assumed I would be able to get married anywhere. So as I looked at the world in front of me, and began to make choices about the types of relationships that I wanted, the monogamistic pressures of marriage were just not available to me. Young gays today have access to other gays (and thus more opportunities for sex) than any other age cohort of gays in history, but they also have access to, for the first time, long-term stable gay relationships that are given sanction by their government and society.
What does matter, however, is how sexual arrangements effect other people. And here, we come to pretty much the only evidence that anti-gay advocacy groups still have to argue that being gay is bad and dangerous. The rate of HIV infections among young gay men is still much higher, although the overall rate of infection — about 50,000 per year — seems to have stabilized. An advocacy group here in Los Angeles estimates that as many as 3 in six people infected with HIV don't know it. If they're gay and tend to have more sexual partners, then the disease will spread with less resistance, and that isn't a good thing. What is a good thing is how the gay community is dealing with this. It's kind of our problem — HIV rates among gays in cities — and in this (apparently) most promiscuous of cities, there are significant efforts to make HIV testing available to everyone, similar efforts to reduce the stigma of HIV testing, and even a quasi-conservative ethic of shaming those folks who are known to prefer sex without proper protection and who lie about actually getting tested. This is a good thing.
The HIV pandemic is not going to be solved by ignoring reality. But it certainly won't be solved by stigmatizing gays — black gay men, among whom HIV rates are the highest, face triple stigmatization, and, I would assume, significant cross-pressures that white gay men can't even conceive of.
Where will we end up? Will promiscuity define young gays forever? I don't think so.
But I also think that society will become more tolerant of what might be called dignified promiscuity: open relationships and marriages, where the negative externalities of promiscuity are dealt with at their source, and where safe sex is respected, even within an ethic that allows for a more interesting sex life. I'd guess that straights will be come more promiscuous and gays will become less promiscuous, and some middle ground will be carved out.
Sex isn't going away. Gays aren't going away. Marriage among gays will become much more common. There will be different types of gay role models than there are today. The ease with which men (and women) of all sexual orientations can find sex is increasing. People are getting married later in life, and fewer (percentage wise) straight people decide to get married at all.
Call West Hollywood promiscuous if you want. But recognize how little that word actually means, if you just give it some thought.