BY LESTER BRATHWAITE

Sex has never been a particularly pleasant experience for me. It’s a fundamental part of being a gay man, of being a human being, but the “fun” part has always eluded me. Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoyed the bumping of proverbial uglies (I am a romantic at heart, after all) but the lead-up before and the fallout thereafter eclipsed that enjoyment. The hunt is exhausting. The encounter is fleeting. The loneliness seeps in. And then it begins anew. Like all addictions, there’s a cycle.

For me, the process of hooking up has become an addiction. An addiction fueled by insecurity that comes with being a gay man. The insecurity that you’re not masculine enough when masculinity is demanded of you—absolutely demanded—as a matter of course from other gay men. “Masc musc” whimpers many a profile. Masculine. Muscular. Abs prominently on display. Face obscured or head completely decapitated. This is the faceless face of hooking up in the 21st century.

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This emphasis on anonymity and masculinity further engenders internal homophobia in the gay male community. Nevermind what sex between two (or more) men actually entails, we’re taught from a young age to embrace that which is manly and shun that which could be perceived as its antithesis. Femininity is weakness, is undesirable, is a boner-killer if there ever was one. From the ludicrously inflated pecs of Tom of Finland to the sculpted torsos on Grindr, gay men have always prized the hyper masculine, but this exaltation of all things manly forces those of us who don’t necessarily fit within those rigid gender constructs to make one of two choices: rebel or conform. I’ve tried both and I can say from experience: It takes a real man to be a queen.

I had my first flirtation with hookup culture back in high school—pre-Grindr, pre-Manhunt, maybe even pre-Craigslist—when XY (the now-defunct magazine for twinks and their admirers) had an online personals section. Then I was just coming into my own as gay and I bought my occasional copy of XY with more than a little shame. I’d sneak onto my friend’s computer, excited to find others like me. It was all so new, but even then I remembered being confronted with the reality of the internet’s sway on people’s attitudes and mores: “no blacks, no Asians, no fats, no fems.”

The inherent racism of gay male hookup culture masquerading as a “preference” akin to height or hair color is an issue I’ve struggled with since then—and have grown weary discussing—but it’s incidental to my argument here. Being online and having a world of men at your fingertips with a wall of anonymity between you and them makes us all awful people. It reinforces unreal body expectations, encourages the enumeration of ideal qualities/deal breakers, and contributes to the further disconnectedness of my already disconnected generation. I’ve spent countless hours, whether alone or in the company of friends I rudely ignored, staring intently at my phone, slavishly yet listlessly flipping through the same profiles, wasting my time and poking holes in my self-esteem for what? Sex? Maybe. Love? Hardly. Validation? Probably.

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All addictions have their respective highs. Guys telling me how sexy I was, or how cute I was, or what a great body I had made me feel good about myself. I worked out to be attractive to other men. Working out also made me feel good about myself, but that esteem was tied to the approval of others. I could stare in the mirror for hours on end—artfully posing to achieve that perfect profile pic—but if no one told me I was attractive, why would I have reason to believe it? My ego as inflated as the pecs of the bikers and sailors in Tom of Finland’s iconic drawings, I drowned in my own reflection. And I perpetuated the cycle of unreal expectations and ideals. Homosexuality is acknowledged narcissism and guys tend to seek out others like themselves. So I tried to be like the guys I wanted to attract. I can work out obsessively; I can take shirtless, faceless selfies of myself and plaster them across the internet; I can pretend to be masculine, but I can’t be something I’m not. I can’t be white, I can’t be the masculine ideal others want me to be, I can’t live my life by rigid standards to which I never subscribed.

It’s all a game and I tried to play by the rules. I tried to be myself at first, or rather, to represent myself as truthfully as I could. Even the truth requires the proper lighting and the omission of certain facts. With the proliferation of hookup apps and websites like Adam4Adam and Manhunt, I had about six profiles running concurrently that featured my face along with the obligatory shirtless pics and a playful description of me. I got some attention, but not from the caliber of guys I felt I deserved. My looks, as validated by the very men I was rejecting, gave me license to be more selective. As I grew more selective, my profiles grew less playful. I erased my face. I added more shirtless pics and naked pics; I worked out harder; I left my descriptions blank so I would have nothing to blame for a guy not messaging me back, other than his own “preference.”

But it was never enough. Some guys can put aside their personal feelings with a studied yet cool sense of detachment; they can allegedly just have fun and not take this silly thing too seriously. But I’m not one of them. I take everything too seriously. I would wait with bated breath for a response from a guy and if it didn’t come I would wonder what was wrong with me. Was it something I said or didn’t say? Am I not muscular enough? Am I not masculine enough? Am I too black? Not black enough? Guys that I would strike up a casual conversation with immediately became potential boyfriends. We would either meet and have sex and I’d never see him again or we’d casually text until one or both of us lost interest. Some times, we’d meet and I’d face my rejection in-person. Were we to meet in another, less sexually-charged way, things would probably be different. Giving all the goods off the bat, however, takes the surprise and spontaneity out of meeting new people.

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But these apps and sites have rendered me completely unable to interact with guys in any other way because they cater to my insecurity. My insecurity about talking to guys. My insecurity about coming off too effeminate or too needy. My insecurity about attracting someone without using my body. It’s one thing to be rejected based on a picture and a headline, but to be rejected based on something more substantial like personality is a soul-crusher. I broke myself down and I beat myself up and I compromised my values and what I believed in in order to satisfy my all-consuming sexual desire. I recognized that this desire was just a desire to be less lonely, which explains why I would often get attached to someone so quickly and so easily.

For instance, I chatted on the phone for an hour with one guy I met on Adam4Adam. After the fact, I sent him a few texts to which he didn’t respond right away. That prompted me to send him a long message on Adam, apologizing if I had scared him away. I’m not a phone person in general and an hourlong conversation is otherwise unheard of with me, except on very rare occasions with very dear friends. Meanwhile, the object of my misguided affection had no idea what I was talking about. He was busy and had intended to respond to my texts, but for me, a steady stream of second-guesses immediately came flooding into my head.

I hung out twice with another guy I met off the app Jack’d. The second time he slept over and we cuddled all night. The following morning was perfect. He was in my arms, the sun filtered in through my apartment windows, illuminating our naked, intertwined bodies. I recorded the moment in my head because I knew it would never last and that I would likely not experience it again any time soon. I didn’t hear from him for a while after that most perfect morning. I sent him a text to the end that I assumed he had lost interest. He replied that he was simply busy so I added—perhaps with the intent of pushing him away before I was inevitably hurt—that I was “kinda crazy” and that I “kinda liked” him. I never heard from him again.

Then finally, I had enough. A guy that went to my gym messaged me on Scruff, yet another app in my casual sex arsenal. We had seen each other in the gym before and had obviously checked each other out, but as is often the case, it was easier to talk through our mutual online profiles. No one likes being rejected and that additional buffer makes the rejection less painful. Or so it would seem. When I saw him in the gym again he completely ignored me. And that’s when I nearly burned my gym down to the goddamn ground. I got so mad. So enraged. But why? Why was I letting this get to me again? It wasn’t the first time this had happened. I had been on both sides of that equation. The ignored and the ignorer. But that was the last straw.

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I had grown tired of putting myself through all these waves of doubt and insecurity over what some guy with a few pictures and a handful of sentences (if not just a headless torso with nothing else) may or may not think of me—if he thought of me at all. I want to have more respect for myself. To stop sending naked pics of myself to strangers in hopes that they’ll like me based not on who I am but what I look like and what I could potentially do to their eagerly awaiting assholes. To stop attributing my value to my body and its ability to attract. I want to have relationships away from my screen. So I quit.

I deleted all of my sex profiles.

Some addictions you have to quit cold turkey. That’s not to say I won’t be back. I’ve deleted my profiles before, only to come crawling back, promising myself that things would be different. But I fall into the same trap every time. The cycle of self-loathing and self-compromise. So I’m quitting, for now, indefinitely. I need to work on myself and my insecurities rather than hiding them or magnifying them in digital form, or trying to banish them all together through sex with the hottest men I could find. If they liked me, I could like myself. I’m not even into S&M but playing the casual NSA hookup game is the most masochistic thing I could have possibly done to myself.

Now it’s up to me to attempt to make real connections in the real world. Because through this process I realized the most important thing—that all those apps and sites aren’t real. I always attempted to see the headless torsos as real people, but they’re just the versions of the people they want to be. That’s why the connection online and in-person is often lost in translation: you can’t carry on a relationship—strings attached or not—with someone who doesn’t exist.

This article was originally featured on Huffington Post Gay Voices and republished with permission. You can find the original hereLester Brathwaite is a writer, noted wit, bon vivant, sassbot and an obsessive observer of pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @lesfabian.

Photo via twicepix/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)