Anonymous Sex: Freedom or Isolation

For the passed five years, I've been conducting 'relationship training' workshops primarily for the heterosexual. The objective of these workshops is to teach principles and skills for building, healthy intimate relationships. When, a year or so ago, a lesbian colleague approached me about extending these workshops to the gay population, I felt ready to venture into what was for me uncharted territory.

During a gay men's workshop, in which eight men participated, the issue of anonymous sex became a focal point. Several men expressed concern about whether or not engaging in anonymous sex is in keeping with their ultimate purpose to develop intimate relationships. Some described their experience of anonymous sex as liberating, self-affirming, balancing and satisfying and who felt that their lives had been enhanced by it. Others expressed a 'love-hate' relationship with anonymous sex and were seeking guidance specifically in this area.

There was a consensus in the group that anonymous sex only furthered a sense of worthlessness and alienation that was there to begin with. While anonymous sex works to the extent it provides physical contact and orgasm(s), it is, in the end, unsatisfying because the need for emotional contact and intimacy doesn't get met. The sex is ready available, pleasurable, 'takes the edge off,' etc, but they having nothing to show for it when it's over. It doesn't get them what they ultimately want: a relationship that combines sex and intimacy. They either don't know that that is what they want, or that they don't know what it is because they never had the experience.

When exploring how they got involved with anonymous sex in the first place, they traced their experience back to the many years they had lived their lives in shame and secrecy about their sexuality, as well to the 'normalization' and glorification of anonymous sex within the gay community. Having sex with anyone they choose, anywhere, as often as they wish was a way they celebrated their sexuality and freedom.

Since liberation was a unifying principle of the Gay movement, exercising their freedom

in this way served to invoke pride and strengthen their identity. It became apparent that many people who practice anonymous sex tend to over-emphasize sexual freedom at the expense of other values of equal or greater importance, i.e. the quality of relationships and the ability to be intimate.

We talked about the danger of equating anonymous sex with freedom because anonymous it has other implications. Freedom lies more in our ability to experience our desires without necessarily acting on them, assess the situation and act in one's own best interests. It's our ability to choose to act that makes us free. Freedom implies responsibility, making choices and considering the consequences of our actions in terms of how they effect oneself and one's relationships. When anonymous sex becomes an integral part of ones lifestyle just because one is 'free' to make it so, the definition of freedom has become distorted, as if it exists in a vacuum.

Those who practiced anonymous sex were acting on impulse and because sex was so easy to get and felt great. No one asked himself, 'Does it matter if I know or care about this person? Do I feel better about myself afterwards? Do I feel more connected to other people? Do I feel more worthless and isolated?' In order to understand the role anonymous sex has in one's life, these questions need to be discussed with sex partners, friends and therapists, otherwise they won't get answered.

Anonymous sex may be more about need than about freedom. I once heard a man say, 'Gay men have stronger libidos. We go down at the drop of a zipper.' Whether gay men have greater sex drives is not the issue. While he was making a valid point about how basic our sexual needs are, we also have emotional needs that are at least as powerful, if not more powerful. These men were completely oblivious to and out of touch with how powerful their unmet emotional needs are. At any rate, there is no doubting that the level of pain is the highest, and the need to relieve the pain the greatest when both, emotional and sexual needs are denied.

As the men in the group opened up about their sexual experiences, it became apparent that many of them have become budding sex addicts, as sex served so many purposes. Joe: 'I look for sex when I feel like who'd want me. Then I get into a sexual situation, I'm suddenly wanted.'

Tom: 'I use anonymous sex as a means to get validation, having a connection. It's when my self esteem is low that I'm most apt to act out sexually. Today is a good example. As I was driving up the freeway, I was noticing the rest stops, checking how many guys were pulling off to see if there could be any action. When I'm isolating from my friends, going to the park is an answer. It's the only way I can make a connection with another human being 'when I'm feeling badly about myself. The only one I'll let into my space is someone with whom I can have anonymous sex. At one time, it was nothing for me to go off at lunch time a couple of hours and have two or three orgasms with two or three

different guys. Then on my way home, stop and do it again.'

Bill: 'When I'm exhausted, it's a struggle not to get sex. All the thinking in the world is not going to keep me from doing it. I wish I could convince and stop myself. Once the idea pops into my mind' Jack 'I was motivated by excitement, deviance. I was totally alienated from society. I was far too sensitive to engage in anonymous sex on an on-going basis. It was too humiliating and hurtful. I always felt worse afterwards. The lengths I had gone to get sex that was not a meaningful relationship did nothing but kill time. It was never as good as my fantasies.'

For many men and women who practice anonymous sex, it is a vicious cycle. Their freedom is, at best, bittersweet because they're still in pain, emotionally hungry and isolated. Inevitably, their loneliness and hunger will seep back up to the surface, which only increases the likelihood they will, once again, use sex to fill the void. But, are they free? Can a person who is starving 'choose' to eat? Does he concern himself with what he is eating? As long as it relieves his pain, anything that even remotely resembles food will suffice.

In order to achieve freedom and emotional fulfillment, we must be able to distinguish between the two and pursue both. Fulfillment is largely a function of the quality of our relationships. There is simply no way around it. When intimacy is needed, nothing else will do. The greatest challenge is to learn to establish a relationship before having sex, and gain the experience and skills that make intimacy possible.

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