Monday, August 18, 2008

Manhunt: a week in the politics of and a refusal to be a victim, a rejection of the desire to blame.

(A warning: sometimes I ramble on forever. This is one of those times.)

Sometimes I write simply as an attempt to put my finger on some little nagging feeling that won't stop bugging me. This is one of those times.

Last week, it was pointed out that one of the founders of Manhunt gave the maximun allowed personal donation to john mccain. This seemed to set off a weird little shit-storm that has been interesting to watch. That first little note on Towleroad about him being a republican and supporting mccain spread like wildfire. I like Towleroad, but really don't go there that often, so if word-of-mouth hadn't kicked in, I probably wouldn't have been aware of it at all. As it stands, every one of my gay friends that I have spoken to this week had already heard the news. These are pretty plugged in folks, but none the less, I overheard multiple conversations about it and this bit of news seems to have struck a cord in a way that I haven't seen in a while.

Who cares about a bunch of faggots griping about politics? Apparently, the shareholders at Manhunt. This isn't a mom-and-pop operation, but apparently this caused enough of a backlash that the co-founder and chairman of the board of the second stickiest site on the internet that rakes in around 30 million/year (not counting ad revenue) was asked step down! Really though, that isn't all that surprising. Our political clout as gay men and women comes from our economic clout. Asshole republicans might still enjoy bashing us to try and get a few extra votes, but corporate entities think twice about really pissing us off. By and large, we are vindictive consumers and we have enough cash to reject a company who rejects us. We aren't going to shut someone down, but a gay boycott can put a dent that hurts in a company's profit margin. Coors has been fighting for 20+ years to get back a chunk of the gay market. The religious right likes to scream and wave their hands around and call boycotts, but they just don't seem to vote with their dollars quite like we do. Just ask .McDonald's.

So I can't say that I was surprised to hear person after person voicing their decision to cancel their Manhunt account. All things being fair, I'll say that the response of the shareholders and the statement by the other cofounder Larry Basile seemed to readily acknowledge how toxic support of our enemies is in the gay community, so I'll give them a little nod of appreciation. Granted, I'll also not renew my subscription and amongst the people I've talked to or heard discussing it, the general gist seemed to be that this wasn't enough to get them back on board anytime soon. I'll guess that this moral stand is all the firmer because however effective Manhunt is, it is also irritating (all online searching becomes irritating after a while), so having a little bit of an excuse to stay away is all many people need.

All this discussion of Manhunt was made all the more potent and volatile by a recent article on by Michael Gross titled "Has Manhunt Destroyed Gay Culture?" Ok, I'll forgive the lofty hyperbole in the title, after all, I like hyperbole. And I'll agree that the article is interesting and damn if this article wasn't perfectly timed for maximum impact. How ever congradulatory I might be towards it's targeting and timing, my feelings about it are the ones that I've come here to sort out in text. Despite finding the article interesting, something in it really irritated the fuck out of me.

Let's leave aside for a second any of the back politics of Manhunt discussed earlier. Like I said, for me, it kind of came out at a draw and this article makes no claims about any intentional attempts by manhunt to steer gay politics other than using ad space to rally its members to fight attempts to require proof of age for people to post naked pictures online. Actually, I'd argue that Manhunt is successful precisely because it stays so on task. It is easy to use and has a minimum of bells and whistles, and changes to its user interface are rare and minimal. So this isn't about intentional attempts by Manhunt trying to destroy gay culture but rather what consequences are we seeing because of how we utilize it.

Says Mr. Gross about how we're using the internet:

"'Post-gay' social life grew mixed, and the physical drive that defines us as gay -- the drive to have sex with each other -- increasingly found vent online. This aspect of our lives became more private, and even secret, than ever. In 1993, 2.3% of gay men found their first male sexual partner online. In 2003 the number was 61.2%. (These figures come from the United Kingdom, and there’s been no parallel study in the United States, but sociologists believe the findings here would be similar.)"

and how our community is changing in response to this:

"'The implications of that trend are enormous,' says Jeffrey Klausner of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. 'It means that gay men who were once socialized in brick-and-mortar establishments, surrounded by other people, are now being socialized online.' Gay men still go out as well, but our nightlife habits are very different than they were 12 years ago. Jeffrey Parsons, professor of psychology at New York’s Hunter College, says his unpublished research confirms the common sense that 'when guys go to bars, they’re going to be with their friends, not to meet new people.'"

These statements I don't really disagree with (I'll not split hairs about it not being our physical drives so much as our emotional ones which define us as gay), but I do think they are mistaking the symptoms for the cause. Bars have shifted somewhat away from being cruisy hook-up spots towards places to go with and meet friends not because all the people wanting to get laid have run off to the internets to hid their ho-bagness but rather because being gay is more widely accepted and can more easily be integrated into a person's public social identity and so isn't as often restricted to being simply indicative of who you sleep with. That I sleep with men isn't what I'm communicating when I tell someone I'm gay these days. To some people that may be all they see, but more and more we are able to expand what it means to include how we interact with the world. It isn't just about fucking, though I'm sure I'm going to contradict myself about this in a moment. My point is that it wasn't the creation of Manhunt or any other online cruising site that destroyed the cruisiness of gay bars.

The visibilty of gay people in popular culture and politics has had a multitude of benefits for us, but with that visibility and acceptance into the community at large has left us more at the mercy of public opinion and in the irritating position of having to either assimilate and find ways to project an adoption of roles acceptable to the wider community or hide our gayness or at least the less palpable habits more deeply. This fuels Manhunt more than Manhunt facilitates its progression. We find ourselves having to accept these roles or more aggressively challenge them.

For those of us in major urban centers with large gay populations, we aren't as pressured to accomodate as those in smaller communities might be. I can surround myself with mostly gay friends and still be social with straight friends, and most of both groups think little of blending together. It is no big deal to take a straight friend to a gay bar. And our demographic seems more than comfortable with discussing sex and dating in pretty blunt and open terms. Even still, there are things about gay culture that I'm likely to either gloss over or not describe terribly graphically, but this isn't out of shame so much as manners. You don't bring up things which you think might make someone else uncomfortable.

This isn't significantly different than some of what is said in the Out article, but I hope that there is a difference in tone. His tone in the article seemed to be reinforcing gay shame, to validate the idea that these things are inherently shameful. This tone is enhanced by making the contradictory claim that while the sex has been disappearing from gay clubs and public places, Manhunt is causing more anonymous and unsafe sex.

Bullshit. I'll argue that casual, anonymous sex is more difficult to find now than it has been at any other time in the last 40 years. I'm stretching since that goes back further than my personal sexual experience, but I've spent enough time talking to the old guys I can find in whatever gay bar I've ever been to to at least have an anecdotal feel for gay life in this period. And the significant changes that have driven to less public cruising and sex are 1) public awareness via pop culture leading to closer scrutiny and sometimes public backlash (as with most public rest areas in South Carolina being closed in reaction to a few conservative public officials being upset by the depiction of SC as a hotbed of gay sex in There's Something About Mary), 2) attempts to clean up public areas and enforce smaller crimes to discourage larger crimes in communities, as described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point (so, glory holes and bathroom graffitti get covered over, the health department shuts down cruisy theaters, more police patrol parks), 3)a loss of much a generation above us and particularly those who participated most actively in cruising prior to the identification of how to protect ourselves during sex, and perhaps most significantly, 4)the afore mentioned awareness of the general public of the ubiquity of gay people and less willful ignorance amongst the public, so cruisy behavior is more likely to be identified as such so the chances of getting caught are higher for those folks still in the closet. Going to a gaybar is more fraught with danger of being caught (even if perhaps the danger of being assaulted is somewhat less) for the closeted individual as people are more likely to be aware of gay bars or hangouts in their communities, these days you might even to run into girls from the office out dancing at the gay club.

You've got to be pretty ready to be known of as gay if you are going to participate in any kind of gay community things. It is no longer just between you and the people you sleep with or see at the bar. This was driven home to me when I visited home during college and ran into several girls I went to highschool with out at the gay bar some 50 miles away from my house. They were just out dancing, but suddenly, ready or not(I was ready), I was outed to everyone my age who I had known in rural Alabama (not that they hadn't thought I was gay all along...). These weren't fag hags or there with their gay best friends; going to a gay bar no longer involves an initiation or chaperone.

This isn't a complaint.

But this drives the movement of more illicit behaviour, particularly for those less comfortable with their sexuality, out of bars and public cruising spots and onto the internet. Manhunt didn't create this phenomena even if it does facilitate it remarkably well.

Hidden in this question, "Has Manhunt destroyed gay culture?" is the suggestion that gay culture has been destroyed and if it has been, there is a desire to have a scapegoat to blame. What exactly are we suggesting has been destroyed? The gay community is more visible than ever; we have more widespread acceptance, legal protection, and political clout. What has been destroyed? What is the damage, exactly, inflicted by Manhunt or people spending more time online? As said earlier, in some places, gay bars are struggling to maintain clientel, but again I argue that the retreat from gay bars is in response to outside pressure and bars no longer being the only place that gay folks can find others like them more than people abandoning bars because they can now find fellows to fuck online.

So where have we gone wrong? Says Mr. Gross:

"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."

I don't buy that cruising online 'encourages' us to separate sex from the rest of our life; it can allow us to make this separation, but ultimately it is a tool and we choose how we use it. If we put up non representative profiles of ourselves online, WE have done that, not someone else, not Manhunt, not gay culture at large.

This irritates the fuck out of me when people so often take the ability to do something as an endorsement to do it. I'll agree that we as a community need to encourage and support certain boundaries. We should fight like cats and dogs to get decent sex ed back in schools, and we should work back to stigmatizing casual barebacking or at least keep bugging people to know their status and ask the same of their partners before participating in risky behavior, but we've also got to be real about personal responsibility in all this. This article seemed to want too much to have someone outside of ourselves doing the objectifying, the time wasting, the separation; and sadly enough, it isn't a website or anyone else. We each individually are going on these sites and looking for what we want. We make our representations ourselves and we post those dick pics. And if that is what you are wanting to do, do it. Enjoy it and fuck anyone who tells you to be ashamed about it. If you are ashamed and feel dirty about it, that's you. That is your baggage, not the website's. Don't do it if it makes you feel bad, but don't wish it all away to preserve you from the dark temptations. The sad truth is that on some level, we are all in real life something of the person we pretend to be online. If you have an online profile asking for hot sex now, that is part of who you are and what you desire, not something the devil or Manhunt made you do. Sure we can lie online about who we are, but what lies are told say something about who we are.

This was a defense of the article that friends made when I said it irritated me; they agreed with this statement that cruising online causes "us to separate sex from the rest of our lives". And? I'm not going about whether severing your sexual self from you personal identity can be traumatizing; that is exactly why the closet is so damaging: disowning pieces of yourself while deifying and mythologizing a carefully maintained exterior is how monsters are made. What I would argue is that online cruising isn't any more inherently dehumanizing than old school cruising in person; if anything, it demands more disclosure and accurate representation. Sure, if your online profile is a cock shot or a headless torso, it feeds into objectification of our bodies, but is this some how more objectifying that a dick stuck through a glory hole or under a bathroom stall?

Why do I keep coming back to anonymous public cruising? Because that is the real world niche that Manhunt is there to fill online. It is a built as a place for online cruising; it is there to facilitate finding someone to fuck, not someone to marry. Ignore that plenty of people search through it more for amusement or just to see who they can recognise or as a way to connect with other gay people when they more to a new town. Simply by force of size and ubiquity it has become something of a community center, but it was built to be a cruising ground.

It is the tone in the article that plays to the assumption that what we do, what we desire how we attempt to realize those desires is inherently shameful that I feel is so damaging. It is an extension of best-little-boy-in-the-world syndrome: if I'm good enough, if I show them that I'm just like they are, then they'll accept me. Fuck no! I'm not just like everyone else; I'm not interested in normal; I'm not waiting for the normal people, the real people to accept me or my desires. I'm also not interested in pretending like the 'normal' people are particularly normal.

Am I saying that no one should have to think about how their behavior affects their life or those around them? Hell no, but we also shouldn't be taking our cues on how to measure our worth from the standards set by our enemies. I'm fine with the thesis that online cruising can be an enormous time waster that the time could be better spent doing other things or that how we divide and sublimate portions of our identities can have detrimental affects, but I'm not interested in the complaint that big, bad Manhunt has created this new phenomena of dangerous anonymous sex that is destroying our once vibrant gay culture. It positions us as both victim and predator, helpless against this scourge and yet also the amoral sex fiends feeding off one another. If only it hadn't done this to us, if only we weren't such sluts and whores. If anything, it is this accomodationist guilt-trip attitude that prevents our progress in political arena's that Mr. Gross's friend suggests jokingly that we might have been able to accomplish if only we didn't "spend so many hours of so many days online, doing things that make us feel ashamed of ourselves.” We are going to accomplish these things when we quit spending so much time feeling ashamed of the things we do and instead of demonizing and repressing urges find constructive ways of channeling them and accepting ourselves. Part of this is looking long and hard at how promiscuous we are (and aren't) and what we will do with what we find, but this is an inward journey and a conversation with each other, not something to pretend has been thrust upon us. As we accept ourselves and our desires and our identities, we seem to be more able to find satisfaction and peace, and even, as I'm finding now, more enjoyment from a domestic existence and partnership, but this isn't the only way and it isn't a place I ever would have gotten if I still felt guilty for and controlled by my desires.

So let's ask the questions about what stands in the way of accomplishing our desired political goals. Let's ask ourselves what we want out of things like Manhunt and if we are getting it and if not, how we could. Let's talk about how our time is wasted or well spent. Let's talk about why gay bars are struggling (or in other cases, thriving) and how to counter it. But can we please get a little more real and dig a little deeper. We need discussions and analysis, not snake oil treatments and someone to blame.

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