The bitter truth is always sex-related. Every confession has to be about sex, about desiring another person’s body, one that is in most cases forbidden to us, unaccessible. The ego finds its purest expression in the ultimate orgasm, one reached in the right circumstances, at the right time, and with the right person. Reaching orgasm with the right person is akin to winning, it’s the gold medal, the long-awaited promotion, and the fatherly pat on the back coming from a superior. Nothing grooms the ego the way an orgasm does. And nothing destroys the ego the way watching other people reach that orgasm does. It’s demeaning, and it’s socially frowned upon. People often mock the porn movie industry for its poor acting as if they watch porn for the acting. And what acting is there except for those initial scenes in which the pizza delivery guy knocks at a door only to be greeted by a damsel in distress? Or those scenes in which the good-looking twink sprains his ankle while descending an uneventful hill in order to be rescued by an equally good-looking daddy who also happens to be a doctor? Now, I really doubt it that porn actors, producers, directors, aim for an Oscar. And I really really doubt it that people watch porn in order to provide other porn connoisseurs with valuable criticism, and the general public with trustworthy ratings. That is probably why it so happens that when porn emerges as a topic during educated group discussions almost everyone deflects to talking about the quality of the acting. It’s as if there’s a switch in their mind that goes on when porn is mentioned. No, I go there for the acting, I couldn’t possibly go there for the sex and the orgasm, I’m a film critic, just like everybody else in this group, right? Such pathos in the performance, such exquisite makeup, and the lighting was just incredible.
And if everything is to happen for a reason in life then there must have been a good reason behind my brother’s discovery of my uncle’s porn stash (it wasn’t that well hidden after all, and my brother, three years older than me, has always had the talent of bringing dark secrets to the light of day). We would hide to have a look at all those pictures every once in a while marveling at the anatomy of such human endeavors. About nine years younger than my mother, my uncle must have been at that time in his early twenties and in his sexual prime. We knew about his girlfriends and then we knew of his dark secret. Other dark secrets emerged later on but I was too young to unravel them and understand their full significance.
You see, I used to play alone a lot, mostly because I could not keep up with the other kids of my age. I was chubby, nearing the dreadful childhood obesity, and people made fun of me. In order to avoid that I spent most of my time reading and dressing up. Yes, I guess you could say I was an early drag queen. I used to put on my mother’s dresses and high heeled shoes, and I would even sometimes put on makeup to make the dressing up complete. I would then watch myself in the mirror, sing, and pretend I was performing a musical in front of an imaginary audience (made of adults, of course, who marveled at such precocious talent). I learned songs by heart by listening to them obsessively. And so every once in a while, while rummaging through my mother’s dresses, it happened that I came upon unused towels (put there for safekeeping and intended for future use). Some of them were clean, and some of them were sticky in the middle as if they stained with a liquid that had dried in the meantime. When I confronted my mother about the sticky situation she dismissed it by saying that my uncle blew his nose in those towels. He just was too lazy to reach for a napkin or handkerchief. In my naïveté, I believed her. Years later, while thinking about my uncle’s hidden porn stash and the mysterious towels, I realized that my uncle did not, in fact, blow his nose in those towels. He did something completely different, still involving bodily fluids nonetheless. I trust you got the idea by now.
When my uncle moved away my grandfather hid the secret stash in one of his lockers, wrapped them in an old newspaper and placed them behind mounds of carpentry tools. But even these methods were of no match to my brother’s inquisitive mind. And so we resumed our contemplation of the wonders of the human anatomy. The most precious item of my uncle’s stash was a deck of playing cards on which men and women were represented fornicating in different positions. In my sick little mind I even went to the extent of actually imagining men smoking cigars and playing Texas hold ’em using those cards late into the night. I even remember imagining this happening at the house of a priest from a neighboring village who always made kinky jokes even when children were around.
I come from a very religious background. Born and raised in an orthodox family I knew very well what sin was. It was dancing and listening to music before Easter, Christmas, and after the death of a close family member. Touching yourself in certain areas of your body was a sin. Not going to church on a Sunday was considered a sin. Not saying your prayers before going to bed was a sin. Sitting down in church was a sin, even though your feet were killing you. Also, keep in mind that mine was a family in which we had to use two distinct towels to dry ourselves after a bath: one for the hair and the upper part of your body down to your bellybutton, and one for the rest. Using one to dry your entire body was a blasphemy. My earliest memory of religion, besides the religion classes that were taught by the village priest, is me refusing to go for the Easter confession. We had to go to church very early in the morning and I wanted five more minutes and my mother just didn’t want to hear about it. I had to go to confession, because who knows what sins I kept to myself. I distinctly remember the scene: my father brutally holding me in his arms and washing my face against my will, me pushing with my feet against the bathroom sink. I can distinctly recall the face I saw in the mirror that morning. It was red with anger and covered in mucus. But I had to go to church, there was no way around it.
When I say confession don’t think of those scenes from the movies, it was nothing like that. There was no booth in which you entered and spoke to the priest through a little window. Our priest sat on a chair at the back of the church (where the women were supposed to stay during service) with his back against the gruesome images of hell painted on the wall. Next to him there was always a small round table on which people would put money (yes, you had to give money to the priest every time you confessed your sins because in that way your sins were forgiven). You would then kneel at the priest’s feet, he would cover your head with his saintly garment, and then it was confession time. Have you been a good boy? Of course, father. Did you quarrel with your friends or family? No father, of course not. And that was about it. No sensible questions were asked, and the drill continued well into my teens and early adulthood. Once, while I was in college, I had confessed to my priest that I had been unsettled after taking a course in demonology at the university. His reply was that literature in general is preparing us for the return of Satan. I stopped going to confession afterwards. The priest had a bad breath anyway.
Yet, if my confessions were uneventful, my brother’s were definitely not. Apparently, once the priest had asked him whether he had engaged in premarital sex, and my brother, due to an excess of piety, had replied affirmatively. He did not get the wine and the bread after the confession. He had officially been declared impure by the church. The gesture infuriated me at the time though my brother couldn’t care less. But I also felt jealous in a way, because the priest had never asked me that. I had had no sexual adventures at that time but still, why wasn’t I being asked the uncomfortable question? Was there something in my manner that betrayed a lack of sexual drive? Nowadays, I often wonder what would my priest’s reaction be should he find out about my latest adventures in bed. Would I be banished from the church as well? Would I be shown again the images of hell and fire painted on the walls at the back of the church?
My brother held nothing back when it came to talking about his sex experience. I knew he cheated on his supposed girlfriends, the way I knew that my father cheated on my mother. I knew my father had been kicked out from the police force on an alleged accusation of rape, one that was later settled financially. And I knew my uncle had cheated on his wife on a couple of occasions with other women. Just like my brother, my uncle held nothing back. He used to watch porn on my computer and I knew about that not because he never deleted the browser’s history, but because I was there while he was watching it, guarding the door and letting him know when my grandmother was approaching. I was perfectly aware that my only male cousin cheated on his supposed girlfriends. Both my brother and my cousin have had exceptional ways of dating girls. And there I was, trapped in the very heart of the beehive.
Porn watching sessions occurred at my house because my brother was the only one in his group of friends who held a perfectly functional VCR and was the proud owner of a collection of porn videocassettes. They would come in groups to watch them while my grandparents were away sweating in the fields picking potatoes. They did not masturbate, they just made jokes about their “hammers” (i.e. boners). Yet, what struck me most about those videos was not the act itself but rather the rapidity with which the actors went from being pizza delivery guys to full-fledged casanovas complete with abs and erect penises. At the end of these sessions my brother’s friends would ask me to play some cartoons so as to quell the passion in their pants. And on went Disney’s Aladdin. Princess Jasmine was not their kind of woman I suppose, and Aladdin was my kind of man.
Occasionally, some of them would stay behind and talk about girls, and the way you distinguished them according to their pubic hair and other such features. They would even ask me about the girls in my class and I would simply tell them I couldn’t make any difference between them. They stared at me in disbelief and to fill the awkward silence that followed I would invent distinctions of my own. In the end they would let go of it conjuring the old excuse: I was just too shy to talk about the girls I liked or disliked. Your time will come, they would tell me, just wait and see.
I did wait, for a very long time, and saw a completely different picture.
Undoubtedly, watching porn can constitute a didactic experience, and it must have been like that for my uncle, my brother and his friends. Porn movies can incite a sort of preparedness into the body, they can help muffle that fear of the unexpected, of the unknown. But they must have also defined the roles that the men watching them were supposed to fill, well beyond their fantasies. They were expected to be ready, to jump swiftly from the role of the pizza delivery guy to the one of dominating men and, by extension, from the roles of husbands and boyfriends to the ones of adventurous men ready to free themselves of the constraints of marriage and relationships.
Gay men, on the other hand, have always felt free of the constraints of marriage and relationships. Developments in this field, such as the recognition of civil unions in certain parts of the world, are quite recent in our history. Our preferences have been for a very long time part and parcel of a criminal mindset. Think of prisoners in all-male prisons for instance. We’ve been placed in the category of evolutionary deviations, our search for sexual satisfaction the outcome of a systemic suffocation, a last resort when other means of obtaining it were forbidden to us. And because we have not had a system of social pressure in place with regards to marriage and relationships has certainly helped in turning us into exploitative sex machines. The only thing that seemed to stall our drive was disease. And part of our drive was and still is made of blind anger, the kind that leads one to despair and ultimately to self-loathing and self-destructiveness. The latter is always dynamic. To produce destruction an explosive device must undo itself, must refute the consolation that comes after victory is declared and peace is organized. To obtain social and political recognition a group must manifest itself, make itself seen, and we chose to make ourselves seen by transgressing at times at the price of our own destruction. What did Alexander Portnoy, the protagonist of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, do to finally let go of his inhibitions and fears (besides masturbating excessively)? “I am marked like a road map”, Portnoy confesses, “from head to toe with my repressions. You can travel the length and breadth of my body over superhighways of shame and inhibition and fear.”
When something is forbidden the mere fact of obtaining it becomes a pleasure in itself. And even only knowing that obtaining it constitutes the breaking of a certain rule makes that object even more desirable. There’s an almost irrational stubbornness when it comes to the things that the body needs and desires, and that stubbornness sometimes turns into anger and then into violence. People who give up smoking will sometimes dream of smoking. Those who are on a diet will dream of worry-free eating. Knowing that porn is socially frowned upon makes it even more desirable. And that’s the thing, conceptually the direct consumer cannot be blamed because the consumer cannot undo the fact that porn exists in the first place, just as somebody who despises Lady Gaga’s music cannot undo the fact that Lady Gaga’s music already exists. It’s out there, people do it, we know they do it because we do it as well. “I, for one,” says the protagonist of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, “am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word ‘murder’ made us mumble as much as the word ‘masturbation’.” And I think I agree with him.