what a man can learn from getting hit on by men
An essay published by Nerve. Read the full story here or click below.
One: Don’t Skip Courtship
A man, we’ll call him Vincent, turned to me in the Barnes & Noble on Fifty-fourth Street. Late forties, a deep tan, silver hair greased straight back. He held out his iPhone and asked if I knew how to get to Greenwich, Connecticut, explained he was from Brazil and had a business meeting.
I helped him as best I could—which amounted to giving the cross streets for Grand Central—and then fell into the basic conversation one has with someone from out of town. After a few minutes, he asked my name, claiming he wanted to read something I’d written. Our talk didn’t last much longer, but later that afternoon he connected with me through a social network.
A few days later, I saw him again. Same bookstore café, around the same time. I asked if he made it to Greenwich, and then, in intervals between reading the newspaper, we discussed soccer and the economy. After one of the lulls, he looked up from his work and asked if I’d like to spend a week with him at his home in São Paulo.
The question made me nervous. I thanked him but explained that my recent marriage and honeymoon had taken all my vacation days. He returned to his stack of papers, and I returned to the headlines. Soon after, he left, but not before letting me know the offer stood.
There is no way I can know the extent of Vincent’s intentions. Perhaps Brazilian and American cultures are different. Perhaps in Brazil straight men ask each other on international sleepovers all the time. But the ambiguity behind his offer, the leap from five-minute conversation to crashing at his place, struck me as strange—even if, on some scale, it’s a frequent move men make.
Enter a Manhattan bar in May and there’s a good chance you’ll witness some guy—some pinstriped financier playing game-show host to the world—invite a woman he just met to his share in the Hamptons.
One’s mind can jump-cut to the moment she boards the Jitney. Sundress, Longchamp weekender, cell phone tucked between her shoulder and ear as she asks her friend,
—Should I be doing this?
The answer is no. Because a man should never make that kind of invite in the first place.
The root of this behavior is cowardice. No one likes the vulnerability that comes with taking an interest in another. No one likes to offer themselves up for rejection. And so we hedge our bets, hiding behind a vague gesture. Come visit me in Brazil. Come out to my share in the Hamptons. Come hear my band play. Regardless the size of the invite, the idea is to manufacture an ambiguous condition in which, with a few drinks and the inertia of the night, one can end up in bed without ever having to state his intentions or make any real investment.
So often this works, which is less a sign of its validity as it is a reason why so many people are single.
Courtship exists so that two people can learn each other over time and escalate their commitment through a set of gradual stages. Without these steps, without any tangible investment in the relationship, people are given the license to act irresponsibly. And when given the license, they often take it.
Two: Never Rely on Explicit Pictures
At one of the offices where I worked, I fell into a conversation with a colleague about magazines. It started with the obvious—GQ, Esquire—and then veered to artier fare: Monocle, V, Fantastic Man, Purple. He said he had some things he thought I’d like, and the next day he handed me a small stack of magazines the size of literary quarterlies, all of them filled with guy-on-guy porn. Just handed them over in full view of the rest of the office. Even a mere shuffling of the covers provided a significant glimpse of stroked boners.
His message was obvious, but the way he delivered it touched on something more interesting and complex: Whether it’s a magazine passed between colleagues or a provocative self-portrait texted late at night, sexual imagery has become a common prop in our social interactions.
Perhaps it is a by-product of how television and the Internet have made us all more visual, but a more convincing explanation is that it gives people a way to talk without actually having to talk.
Because, yeah, conversations can be awkward and uncomfortable. Expressing interest in someone involves submitting to their judgment. And when the response isn’t favorable, it can be harsh. At worst, it can feel like they’re saying,
—As a person, you have no value to me. I’d rather watch reruns of Whitney than look at your face.
Sending someone a picture of yourself, however—working with a medium that is tactile and separate—creates enough distance for a person to believe they can step away from the mess it might cause. In the case of porn, it offers oneself as a mere set of preferences. With the self-portrait, it is just an object, a collection of lines and parts, rather than a complete individual. This is to say, being rejected sexually seems to have become easier to handle than being rejected as a person.
But that’s insane. Because, in truth, expressing interest always reflects back on the person, and simply telling someone you like them has far fewer pitfalls than the blurry JPEG that can be forwarded ad infinitum.
Three: If You Don’t Want to be Friends, Don’t Pretend to be Friends
A fellow writer—let’s call him Nelson—once got in touch, complimented my work, asked to get a drink. He was older, accomplished, at a stage in which his encouragement meant something.
Over the course of the year, we met several times to drink bourbon and discuss books. Each time he would bring me things to read. He introduced me to the work of Barry Hannah, Don DeLillo. It seemed like I’d stumbled upon a much-needed mentor.
But over time, silences emerged in which Nelson assumed a certain posture, one of someone waiting, one of someone whose patience was on the wane. The tang of resentment began to work its way into his tone. And after a couple more meetings, I realized his generosity came with the expectation that I reciprocate in a specific way. I ignored it, hoping the value of our interactions would prevail.
Then one night, a phone call, his speech slurry: He suggested a trip out to Lake George. When I refused, he called me ungrateful. The curtain was pulled back. I would need to do more than just write, he said, if I ever wanted to get anywhere.
The sense of betrayal was acute. A valuable friendship had been nothing more than a slow-played manipulation, and in the following days I reviewed the signs I should have never overlooked. I felt weak and foolish and angry at my lack of scrutiny. And then angry at how much I let it bother me. This seemed like the stuff of a Lifetime movie, like the stuff women deal with on a daily basis, year after year, as they move forward in a landscape of leering elders. But it was new to me.
Four: Accept the Reality of the Situation
During a late night at the Mercer bar, after a second hug that lingered too long, a friend of a friend—we’ll call him Connor—asked,
—Are you sure you’re not gay?
I assured him I wasn’t, but a few minutes later, he stopped me mid-sentence to ask again,
—Really, though. Are you sure?
—How do you know?
—I just…I know.
—If you gave me, like, five minutes with your asshole, I’m sure you’d like it.
Although requesting a one-on-one with someone’s rectum might seem extreme, by degrees Connor’s gambit struck me as altogether common. When one’s interest is rebuffed, one invents ways to rationalize it. Rather than lacking interest, the person must be confused about their sexuality, or shy. There must be some other issue. Some game being played. Some reason beyond the most apparent truth. And so the pursuit continues, and everyone’s time gets wasted.
Ask a person out once. If they say no, just let it go. Move on. Because even though life is confusing, the average person has a much better idea of who they are and what they want than you do. It’s important to respect that.
Five: Be Funny
My wife and I were walking home from a party and passed a gay bar on Fifty-eighth Street. At the foot of its steps stood a well-dressed black man smoking a cigarette. When we got within range, he fondled his genitalia and said,
We smiled out of surprise, taken by the playful stretch and swerve of his syllables.
As we passed him, he continued.
—And I make deliveries.
Over the course of the next block, the elevator ride to our floor, the following week, my wife and I took turns repeating the line, trying to re-create the jabbing paw that began the first word—paw-tay—and the linger of the last, which, if spelled, would have at least seven Ss. Duh-liv-ah-raysssssss.
The man’s gesture was less of a come-on and more of an expression of who he was. There was no desperation. No fear. No hidden trick. Just a here-I-am quality that we both admired.
Even now, a year later, one of us will smile and repeat the line.
Six: What We All Deal With
My father tells a story about the first time he was hit on by a man. It was the late sixties and he was backpacking. Sometimes the details change. Sometimes it was sixty-six, other times sixty-seven. Sometimes he was hitchhiking, other times traveling by train. But the ending is always the there:
—I punched him square between the eyes and ran like hell.
Forty-five years ago, his role was limited to a simpler set of expectations, and any situation that deviated from how he was supposed to interact with the world was considered a threat.
But now, on any given night, we volley from one role to another based on who we are with and what purpose they believe we can serve. That means there’s more to assimilate. It can be awkward and sometimes upsetting, but it also makes us more sophisticated in our understanding.
Each of the occasions I’ve mentioned left me with a chance to ask, Is this what women deal with? Is this what we all deal with?
The answer’s yes. Because as a culture, the conditions of our genders and orientations and races are blurring and leveling in a way that causes us to share the same experiences. To ignore that—to believe that other people don’t have to deal with the same things you do—is to ignore our culture’s natural progress. It is to ignore the chance to expand our understanding and compassion, and, most important, the chance to be more decent to one another. And I’ve heard that being a decent person can actually yield some pretty serious party favors.