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I’m Proud to Be a Gay ‘Slut’

The LGBT community has reclaimed the word, making it one of admiration and approval.

01.09.16 5:13 AM ET

Gay men aren’t having nearly as much sex as you might think they’re having.

In a 2012 survey of its users, the popular dating website OkCupid (which is owned by IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company) found that its gay male users had enjoyed roughly the same number of sexual partners as everyone else. If just 1 percent of heterosexual males self-reported that they’d engaged in intercourse with 20 or more partners in their lifetime, the share of gays was just a hair higher—at 2 percent. (That’s hardly enough to be statistically significant.)

A later study actually found that gay men reported having fewer partners than their straight counterparts. Whereas the average heterosexual male claimed to have had sex with five partners, gays had just four.

But despite these statistics, myths about the scourge of promiscuous gay men keep going strong—unfettered by a thing like reality. Last week, I wrote a piece about the high rate of open marriages in the gay community, and rather than coming to terms with the fact that same-sex and heterosexual relationships might have their own separate boundaries and expectations, many readers saw it as a confirmation of the oldest canard to ever canard: Gays just cannot keep it in their pants.

The comments aren’t worth repeating—because if you’re a queer man, you’ve likely heard them all your life.

These ideas have long been at the center of conservative opposition to marriage equality: If gay men can’t behave themselves, why should they have the same rights as everyone else?

Troy Mader—a Republican representative for Wyoming’s House of Representatives—once even suggested that promiscuity was a leading cause of gay suicide. While it’s important to assert that these right-wing notions of what it means to be queer are pernicious and harmful, we shouldn’t run from the question of sex itself: Some folks do engage in many types of sexual activity with many different people. When we pretend that gay promiscuity doesn’t exist, we continue to weaponize sex for a community that for too long has read that three-letter word as a death sentence.

In 1997, Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt published The Ethical Slut—which has, in the two decades since, become the seminal polyamory bible. But the greater message of Easton and Liszt’s book is to destigmatize mutually consenting, healthy play between “good, giving, and game” partners (a phrase later coined by sex writer and columnist Dan Savage).

During an interview with Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory in 2012, Easton posited gays an ideal community when it came to sex: “In the wondrously explorative ’70s, I learned that gay men use the word ‘slut’ as a term of admiration and approval, as in ‘What did you do at that party? Oh, you slut!’”

But gay men have their own complicated relationship with promiscuity and slut shaming—one born of the AIDS panic of the 1980s. As Peter Conrad writes in The Sociology of Health and Illness, populations disproportionately at risk for illness have always been subjected to stigma—from cholera to the bubonic plague.

However, because HIV is spread through sexual contact, the target is as much behavior as it is homosexuality, particularly within the community itself. When Truvada—a potentially life-saving blue pill that reduces the transmission of HIV up to 90 percent—debuted on the market, those who took it were branded as “Truvada whores.” AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein referred to the pill as a “party drug.”

Even while there are more options for safer sex and preventative treatment than ever before, HIV rates have continued to rise among millennial gay men, according to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control. Research shows this is particularly true for black and Latino MSMS (men who have sex with men). At a time when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared the end of the AIDS epidemic is in sight (PDF)—vowing to eradicate HIV in his state by 2020—how could this be possible? At face value, it seems like a frustrating paradox.

But it’s hardly a mystery why that would be the case. The lingering shame around gay sexuality—including a lack of education around healthy sex—keeps many from seeking these crucial resources, or even wearing a condom.

In an earlier study from 2011, the CDC found that LGB teenagers were more likely than their heterosexual peers to be partaking in risky, unprotected sex. The organization argued that these phenomena are due to a dearth of “safe, supportive environments” for queer youth—who might not have affirming communities or parents willing to have the sex talk with them. They’re often forced to figure it out on their own.

That lack of sex positivity—or education geared specifically toward queer bodies—will continue to be a problem when young people leave the home and attempt to find themselves in a community that struggles with acknowledging the realities of sex.

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Last August, Noah Michelson, executive editor of Gay Voices, wrote a piece about the simple fact that he’s a queer man who loves sex (an acknowledgment that shouldn’t be all that controversial) but the response from other gays was often quite negative. “[P]eople are saying that I’m a pervert, and that I’m ruining it for all of us,” he said in an interview with the site. “And it’s immature to act that way, and that’s how a teenager would act.”

His article acknowledged what we rarely recognize: Sure, gays are having about as much intercourse as everyone else but how we form community around sex is quite different. Public sex spaces—including underground bars and porn theaters—are deeply ingrained into the history of the community, an important meeting ground for men to explore themselves and others bodies.

Today, those spaces are disappearing across the country, replaced by the privacy of technology; surveys show that 80 percent of queer men meet their partners on hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff. But that doesn’t mean our need for sexual liberation has decreased. If stigma is continuing to kill people at high rates, it’s arguably more important than ever.

If gays have long been taught that our desires are predatory or the reason we can’t have nice things, it’s natural that we would have internalized a great deal of what Freud termed schwanzangst—our own fear of penises. But the simplest way to eradicate that very angst is to embrace the promiscuity we’ve been running from for so long.

As long as you’re being safe, what’s so wrong with being a “slut”—or even the belle of the ball at the local orgy? Last night, I visited a gay bathhouse for the first time while on vacation, and when I woke up this morning, I was the same person I was before—just as worthy of love, respect, and human rights.

For decades, the gay community has championed the notion of “pride,” throwing yearly parades to remind America that 30 years after HIV seemed like the end of a community, we’re still here. But fighting for pride in complicated, beautiful sexualities is just as important.