Monthly Archives: July 2011

It’s not pretty, folks, but you knew it was going to show up here sooner or later, right? I’m talking about — I really don’t like the word — the big M, solitary vice, M-A-S-T-U-R-B-A-T-I-O-N.

Whew, that wasn’t so hard! Back when I was a wee lad, I glommed onto the fact that you didn’t have to say the word itself in confession. You just say “an impure act” and he says “with someone else or by yourself?” and you say “by myself” and you take your Hail Marys and you go and you swear never ever to do it again, not even if you really want to.

Lather, rinse, and repeat.

I don’t even remember where I got the phrase “an impure act,” but he knew what I meant. A friend in seminary tells me they specifically train you in common Confessional Euphemisms, as in: “Bless me father for I have sinned, I gave my boyfriend a birthday present.” (“But that’s not a sin! You’re a very thoughtful young woman.”)

Sort of strange that it should be so embarrassing to say, because I doubt I know a man who hasn’t done it. It might be because sexual matters lie very close to our hearts. Or maybe because it’s such an obvious failure: for Christians, a failure of chastity; for secularists, a failure of getting an actual woman (or man) to do the job.

I notice that lately, the Powers That Be are trying to deweirdify the phenomenon. Not an entirely wrongheaded goal, though their reasons for it certainly are. The idea abroad, just watch any sitcom, is that masturbation is healthy, masturbation is fine, nice people masturbate all the time. Here’s Planned Parenthood on the topic:

There are a lot of myths out there that masturbation is dirty, dangerous, or something to be embarrassed about doing. But the truth is, masturbation is a safe and healthy way to have sex, and it’s here to stay.1

Pardon me while I guffaw. Someone is very confused about what “having sex” means. They’d like to call everything “having sex.” I’d reverse it — what they call having sex, viz. wrapping yourself up in plastic to keep from making actual contact with your beloved, I call masturbation.

Tom Wolfe, reporting from the inside the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is a college frat house, relates2 this scene, in a similar vein, in I Am Charlotte Simmons:

Ivy Peters…appeared in the doorway and said, ‘Anybody got porn?’…This was not an unusual request. Many boys spoke openly about how they masturbated at least once every day, as if this were some sort of prudent maintenance of the psychosexual system.

The idea, I know, is that now that we’re all finally free of the rigid, puritanical, body-hating3 Catholic Church, we can do what we like and not make a big deal about it.

Now, there is actually something to this idea — at least the “not making a big deal about it” part. I remember reading in Healing the Unaffirmed4 about a man who was only able to stop his compulsive masturbation after being told by his therapist that it wasn’t that bad. And a friend has told me that, in order to deal with his problem with masturbation, he had to recognize that his usual cycle of (1) jerk off (2) descend into emotional self-flagellation (3) go to confession, was a kind of addiction in itself, sort of a binge-and-purge. The cycle can be broken by not giving in to temptation, but it can also be broken by not giving into self-hatred.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a big deal, because all sin is a big deal; because our sexuality isn’t to be treated lightly; and because, even if you can’t get your head around it, you have to at least admit that the Catechism very clearly calls it “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.”

Be mindful that the enemy always tempts us twice: first to sin, and afterwards to despair. If we could see clearly, we’d know how shameful every sin is, not just the obviously icky ones. But if we could see that clearly, we’d also know how much God loves us, and how ready He is to leave our sins, big and small, behind in the confessional, 100% forgotten.

1 For more Planned Parenthood goodies in their own words, see here.
2 A work of fiction, yes, but the scene has a ring of truth. I can’t recommend the book, by the way: I love Tom Wolfe, but I found this one unconvincing, pornographic, and depressing.
3 Pardon me while I guffaw again. If Catholics hated sex, we’d treat it like the secularists do: as a commodity, or just another need: like eating, scratching yourself, or farting.
4 I don’t remember much else about this book, so possibly it wasn’t that great. It’s a case study of various people with what the authors refer to as Emotional Deprivation Disorder.

I remember what it was like, being terrifyingly, nightmarishly depressed. I remember one morning in college in particular. I was 19, and had just fallen for someone, call him M., harder than I’ve ever fallen for anyone before or since. I remember waking up, and feeling the freedom of that split second before you remember everything, before the heaviness settles down. I remember thinking: This can’t go on. And then feeling it go on.

It sounds melodramatic now. Certainly, it was. A little unrequited love, and here I’m walking around like the firing squad is arriving at dawn. A well-meaning friend, playing the comforter, told me I needed to just “get over this pseudo-obsession with M.” and move on.1

Score 10 for common sense and 0 for compassion. I couldn’t get over it. I knew M. didn’t have SSA, and I knew he would never be my boyfriend. But we could be friends! Not just any friends: epic friends, Biblical friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, David and Jonathan. You who’ve been there, you know what I mean. It was the dream of the Best Friend, my soul’s twin, who would understand everything, fill every hole in my heart.

It’s not that he wasn’t interested in me; it’s that he wasn’t obsessed with me. There was no reason we should have been friends, we were nothing alike, but I was ready to remake my whole personality, like what he liked and laugh at what he laughed at. Seeing him talking and laughing with other guys hurt me almost physically. Not knowing where he was for a night put me in a panic, because he might be secretly be becoming Best Friends with somebody else.

That was hell. Melodramatic or not, it’s the truth. I’ve never hurt worse, or for longer.

I wish I could tell you exactly how I got out. Every time I pray Psalm 86 in Compline, I think of that time:

I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart
and glorify your name for ever;
for your love to me has been great:
you have saved me from the depths of the grave.

At the time it felt like I was carrying the heaviest of it. I was the one who had to decide to let go of my David-and-Jonathan ideal, to acknowledge that no man (or woman!) could ever fit that God-shaped hole.2 I was the one who had to decide not to see him every chance I got; not to avoid him, but not to seek him out either. I had to let the friendship die. It never was one anyway.

But there was Father T alongside me, on the phone or in person, helping me not to give up, and there was Jesus in the chapel, with words of healing if I could stop my clamoring long enough to hear them.

So the hurt died down, day by day, until it was gone, and peace came. It didn’t come easy and it didn’t come quick, but it came. The year after that I met Sal. The only reason I knew how to be friends with him, without trying to make him my everything, without destroying myself, was what I had learned from M.

Will you believe me if I say I’m grateful for every second of it? The Lord heals, and sometimes only fire will do the trick.

1 Holy crap, folks, if that was pseudo-obsession I hope I never meet the real thing.
2 q.v. “Mofo“, from when U2 still made music that anybody cared about. Still a freaking great song, even if (Thank God) it isn’t me anymore.

Yes, maybe. Anyway that is the point pondered in Mark Shea’s recent and sort of Chestertonian post over at NCR. Excerpt:

The Church recognizes that sex is a sign, not the reality. It is sacramental, but it is never proposed as the sacrament of the altar…That’s not because sex is impure. It’s because sex is a raging fire that will burn out of control once you remove it from the only safe place it can be found: the fireplace of the marriage bed. Kept there, it is as pure as virginity.

In other news, Amy Winehouse is dead. I don’t know if she was a good woman or a bad woman, but she was certainly a wounded one — something I and many of y’all can identify with — and she made music that was beautiful and genuine. That is certainly something. Let’s pray for her.

Speaking of The Beautiful and The Wounded, do you all know Heather King? She is an “ex-lawyer, ex-drunk Catholic convert.” I keep meaning to read her memoirs, Parched and then Redeemed, but her blog is lovely. Excerpt from The Gestalt of Christ:

Christ never spoke with hubris and he never spoke with obfuscation. He spoke in such a way that we are invited to ponder the deepest mysteries of ourselves, our daily lives, and the people around us. I mean is not Christ the original, ÜBER koan, and everything he said and did a koan? He is utterly transparent and utterly unfathomable. He revealed himself fully and he also said “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” [John 16:12]. He was all secret and had no secrets.

Happy Sunday! It rained all over my frustrated attempts to fix my turn signals, but now the sun is shining and I’m off to a barbecue, sans bike.

I spent a good chunk of the morning and afternoon soaked in brake fluid, gear oil, and sweat. I wanted to tell you about that mainly because it makes me sound awesome. I’m not especially mechanically inclined, but I am fairly cheap, and I won’t deny that working on my motorcycle1 makes me feel like a stud.

No, actually it makes me feel like a petulant child about 80% of the time — please, please can’t you just work this time? Pretty please? — but the other 20% is great.

My neighbor, one of the frequent sunbathers I mentioned recently, happened by while I was working and introduced himself. Always nice to actually talk to a guy like that.2 I don’t mean because Golly gee, he’s talking to meeee!, but because any kind of human contact with The Envied tends to very quickly deflate the stories I sometimes tell myself about them. Later on I knocked on his door to ask for a quick hand with the job I was doing, so that makes a nice inroad to neighborliness.

Took the newly-functional bike to the Adoration chapel3 and then to Denny’s, where I sat for the next four hours doing some long-distance work for an old client from my freelancing days. Quickly came to the realization that I had no steam left for the bonfire I was invited to tonight.

Once I would have forced myself to go because (1) YOU HAVE TO BE SOCIAL and (2) WHAT ARE YOU, SCARED OF PEOPLE?, but between the physical and mental work of the day and the fact that I seem to have thrown my back out yet again, I just didn’t want to do anything besides go home and blog.

It’s much easier to be by yourself on a Saturday night if it’s by choice and not by accident. Otherwise the shadows start swarming: You have no friends, Nobody likes you anyway, You’re going to die alone surrounded by Taco Bell wrappers, etc., etc. None of those things are true, of course, but they sound true occasionally, if you give them an ear. The trick being never to give them an ear.

So, if you are alone tonight, cheers. If it’s by choice, good for you for not feeling like you have to do something just because you’re expected to. If it’s not, then you’re probably going to die alone, but maybe not for a few years yet!4 No, but seriously: don’t listen to the shadows. Just say some prayers and then go read a book, write a letter, call a friend, and try to remember that all of the fun times people look like they’re having on facebook account for about 1% of their weekends.

The other 99% are filled with Taco Bell and nameless angst.

1 See how I just worked that in like it weren’t nothin’? It’s a recent acquisition, my first bike, a little older than I am, and very wonderful all around, but it keeps breaking.
2 Where “like that” means “muscle-y and extremely good-looking.”
3 Who doesn’t think Catholics on bikes are doubly awesome?
4 Although you really should have a doctor take a look at that lump.

A reader recently asked what I think of reparative therapy — therapy aimed specifically at getting the gay out, so to speak.

I’m not too sure. I’m not a fan of the name, first of all. All therapy is reparative therapy, ‘cuz we’re all broken,1 so calling this kind reparative therapy is a little like saying: Yeah, but you’re a mess! You like dudes!

There’s also such a thing as too much self-improvement. For a long time, I focused so much on fixing my faults and idiosyncracies — I don’t mean the SSA, I mean other stuff — that I was wearing myself out, twisting myself into unnatural positions.2 I didn’t stop short, for example, at facing my fears: I’d do things like going to play basketball just because it scared the poop out of me, or trying to develop a friendship with a man just because he was kind the man who I find intimidating.

Facing your fears is good and necessary. I’ve faced a lot of them, and it has helped me live more freely. But it isn’t what life is about, and it is easy to get hung up on the process. You shouldn’t let fear stop you from playing basketball — unless you just plain don’t like basketball. You shouldn’t let fear stop you from finding a new friend — unless you don’t particularly like the guy. It can be a hard balance to find, and I’m still struggling with it.3

Now that I’ve got the disclaimers out of the way: there are therapists and organizations out there who have a balanced view of the issue. I think People Can Change is one of them.

They, and the healing weekend they run, focus on dealing with what they see as the root causes of SSA: isolation, father-hunger, shame, rejection. They are geared towards dealing with these things. Whether or not you believe that these issues play a part in the development of SSA,4 I don’t think anyone will say that dealing with them is unhealthy.

So, seriously, check them out!5 I don’t like everything about them, but take a look and see what resonates. Once I get around to adding a “recommended resources” section — hey, I have a full-time job, and this ain’t it — they’ll be first on the list.

1 There is a crack, a crack in everything; / That’s how the light gets in. — Leonard Cohen
2 Cut it out. Dirty mind.
3 I recently told my older brother that Sure, I’d come play basketball with him, but/because I’m kind of terrified of it. He said: You’ll have plenty of opportunities in life to deal with being terrified. No need to invent them. Then he asked if I’d like to come to dinner; his wife was making enchiladas. “Unless, of course,” he added, “you’re terrified of enchiladas.” See, this is what older brothers are for: wisdom and mockery, within a sentence of each other.
4 And whether or not the phrase “the development of SSA” makes sense to you at all. Cue, I suppose, Lady Gaga.
5 If you heard this in Strongbad’s voice, then can we be friends?

[The first of a proposed series.]

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.1

I was sixteen the first time I told anybody. I went to confession to Fr. T, who’s known our family for years. I don’t think I went in there planning to spill the beans, but it came out anyway: I’m gay. He said, Do you want to talk about it?

So we did, once every week or so over the next I-don’t-know-how-many years. I learned so much. I learned how angry I was, for one thing: so angry that I had no idea I was angry, like a fish doesn’t know it’s wet. Angry at God, at my father, at myself. I learned how hurt I was, too. Same deal there. Fr. T would ask me how I felt about something and I’d respond with some elaborate logical answer — not what he was asking. I think I still remember the first time I was able to say: fucking awful. It felt good to say.

Talking to Fr. T helped me learn that I could talk to other people, too. In college I learned to let down my guard a little bit, and opened up to a roommate about feeling lonely. I opened up to a couple of friends about my SSA, and then to my older brother. Eventually I was able to open up to the rest of my family.

The more you open up, the easier it is. The more times you experience the compassion and love of friends and family, the more possible it becomes to believe that there’s nothing inside you so shameful that someone won’t understand. Eventually you stop thinking about it as shameful at all.

You start to see yourself as your friends see you, and as God sees you: wounded and struggling, yes, but always beautiful, always worthwhile.

1 William Blake. The Poison Tree.

A couple of years ago I went to confession to Fr. B, an older priest with a slight New York accent, a pronounced shuffle, and a curmudgeonly demeanor. I explained — I hate the sins that take explaining — that I had put myself in a not-very-good situation. I was at the apartment of a friend, a man my age who also has SSA and who also has no intention of living as a gay man, though he’s not Christian. We were watching some stupid movie, I think it was Shoot ‘Em Up,1 and pretty soon, somehow, I was lying in his arms.

Oops. That was as far as it went, thank God, but this is what is definitely called an Occasion of Sin and Putting Yourself In It. I explained2 that we weren’t doing anything sexual, but were just helping each other to meet each other’s (legitimate!) needs for healthy physical contact.

Fr. B says: “Hm. Legitimate needs. Healthy physical contact. Maybe next time you want to try a firm handshake.”

I got the point, and in one sense he was dead on, but in another he was completely off the mark. Everyone — I don’t just mean men with SSA — needs physical contact, and sometimes a handshake doesn’t cut it. This is something it took me a long time to learn. When I was first working out what it meant to live with SSA, I used to take a completely hands-off approach: don’t look at other guys, don’t think about them, and above all don’t touch them.

But I was starving. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that my desire to touch, and be touched by, other men, wasn’t actually wrong. It was disordered insofar as it was sexual, but swearing off all physical contact is a quick route to a breakdown. A few more years of that mindset and I would’ve ended up at some truck stop off I-89 every other weekend.

Once I stopped thinking about physical contact as inherently sexual, and started understanding what a universal human need it is — does anybody think a five-year-old is creepy for hanging onto his dad? — a lot of the charge went out, in a good way. I started getting more comfortable with hugs, grips to the shoulder, casual and friendly touch. With my closer friends, I can go further: Sal is even more comfortable with this stuff than I am, and doesn’t think anything is strange about a thirty-second hug, especially if we haven’t seen each other for a long time.

Like everything else, it takes time to learn. There’s always the danger of making too much of a big deal about it, and of course the danger of fooling yourself, of not knowing where to draw the line. But we all need to be touched, no matter how old we are. To paraphrase Mark Twain: I could live for two months on a good hug.

Hey, I just remembered, even though a particular brother-in-law of mine might make endless fun of me for mentioning it: Art of Manliness has a great post about male friendship.

1 This in no way constitutes a recommendation of said film.
2 Pronounced “rationalized.”

I like arguing. The more I’m surrounded by liberals, the more conservative I start talking. The converse is also true. I don’t, for example, have any great love for the Novus Ordo Mass in particular, but surround me with traddies and you’d think I came straight from Steubenville.1

This isn’t a great character trait. I’d like to think it’s because I’m perfectly balanced on every issue, but it’s probably just because I want to look brave and outspoken. Or something. There is something about parties in particular that makes me want to say exactly the wrong thing, just because everyone is trying so hard to do the opposite.

This is especially true at liberal parties, where so many points of view are verboten. I remember a party last Hallowe’en where I met an Oberlin alumna dressed as Dorothy. The only thing I knew about Oberlin was something about rainbow couches and gender studies, so I proffered the diplomatic remark (I had had a few beers, certainly) that Oberlin was destroying western civilization.

For some reason this struck her as offensive, but she also took it in the spirit in which it was offered — namely, a kind of beery sparring. So we sparred, beerily, for a while. Eventually, ineluctably, we came to the twin topics of abortion and homosexuality.2 Turned out she was bisexual, so my views there didn’t give me any points in her book either. I actually think I kept my cool pretty well all through being called a closed-minded, sheeplike bigot.

At some point in the discussion I thought it would be a good idea to play my trump card: as in, You think I oppose gay marriage because I’m insensitive to gay people, Well, what would you say if I WAS ONE?

Well, it wasn’t a great idea. It did defuse the situation a bit. She seemed to stop regarding me as some kind of evil authoritarian swine and and start pitying me for a medievalist self-flagellator. Sigh. We got friendlier after that, but I wasn’t able to make her understand that my life is not one of constant, tortured internal conflict. Some people imagine that, if you’re not having sex at LEAST once a week, you must be in TERRIBLE pain (whether spiritual or just pelvic), and must have to supplement yourself with various, hm, practices.3

Anyway. We parted amicably enough, and saw each other once or twice more. I stopped hanging out with her when, after inviting me and her gay friend C. out to a movie, she admitted that she had been trying to play matchmaker. To rescue me from the prison of my celibacy. This, after hearing that I would regard a homosexual relationship as a betrayal of the things I believed in most deeply.

Sheesh. Thanks, Dorothy. Dude wasn’t my type anyway.4

I’d draw a point from all this, but I have to go get ready for Mass.

1 If this sentence made any sense to you at all, then we probably know each other. Or at least we are guaranteed to know some of the same people. We may even be related.
2 Why “twin”? To start with, because if someone dissents from the Church about one, chances are they will dissent about the other, too — but this is enough fodder for at least a whole nother post.
3 Heh — actually, “supplement” is exactly right: some people regard porn & masturbation the way a nutritionist regards vitamin pills.
4 But then, what is my type? Tall, dark, and chaste?

Pretty soon here I’m going to slip up. I’m @stevegershom on twitter, I’m steve.gershom on gmail, but I’ve got “real” accounts on both of those places, too. This has been happening to me in meatspace, too, and not just since I started blogging here. I was at a party recently where a couple of gay guys were reminiscing about their coming-out experiences, and I almost jumped in with, “Yeah, when I told my family…” — forgetting, for the moment, that most of the people there might have been a little surprised.1

This is definitely a good sign. There was a time, not very long ago, when the thought that anybody might find out about me was more or less terrifying. Now I practically assume everybody knows. Not because it’s obvious, but because I’m much more comfortable with it.

I was talking with my friend Emily once — I was a heavy smoker at the time2, and she’s a social smoker, and we loved talking over coffee and cigarettes on Sunday afternoons — and something about “deep, dark secrets” came up. I said something to the effect that everybody’s got some deep dark secret. She said, quite simply, “I don’t.” And then peered at me in this way she has, like she was just about to start laughing.3

I was a little embarrassed, I think. I had said it as if it were an obvious truth. But she meant what she said: I don’t believe she has anything dreadful hidden away. It’s not that she goes around revealing everything on her mind all the time, but she doesn’t have the same instinct for concealment that I do.

I forget if this story had a point. Oh yes, I was going to ask you, readers, now that I have readers: what do you think about the question of anonymity? Is there any point to keeping hidden? Are there any drawbacks to letting it all hang out?4 I’d especially like to hear from people with personal experience in the matter.

1 Or, you know, maybe not. As my sister said when admitting her not-too-shockedness at my revelation: “I grew up with you, you know?”
2 Alas, no more. I loved being a heavy smoker.
3 Which she then did. Again: just because I like men doesn’t mean I don’t find women mysterious.
4 Can’t seem to stop speaking in double entendres on this damn thing. Sometimes I think my mind is just as filthy as when I was 12.

Already I’m getting tired of this anonymity thing. I keep wanting to post on facebook to all my friends, about how excited I am about the new blog, about how many good conversations are likely to come from this. Also about how little prepared I feel to be anything like an authority on the subject, and how much prayer I need, not only about the daily, normal things that everybody deals with, but about this new project.

The truth is that I don’t fully understand the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. I understand that biologically, homosexuality doesn’t make any sense. I understand that the Church wouldn’t prohibit something unless it was really and truly bad for us. What I’m still working on understanding is the emotional aspect.

I know that, every time I’ve been in love with a man, it’s been from a place of woundedness. During high school and early college, the guys I fell for all seemed to have something I didn’t, and something I wanted very badly. They were confident, or good looking, or athletic, or they had a tenderness about them that I had never gotten from a man.

I wonder to what extent this sort of love-from-woundedness is intrinsic to homosexual relationships. I say “I wonder” because I don’t know. I do know that, the more secure and at ease I feel in a friendship with another man, the less likely I am to be attracted to him sexually or even romantically. I have a friend Sam who I’m very close to, at least in the sense that I feel totally at ease in his presence, totally free from the need to pretend to be anything I’m not. But I’ve never felt the slightest stirring of anything sexual when I’m with him.1

On the other hand, the guys I am attracted to are the ones who make me feel insecure — the ones I envy. As I grow in gratitude for my own life and acceptance of the gifts I do have, I envy other men less, and am less prone to falling for a man in this way.

I do wish those guys in my apartment complex would quit sunbathing outside my window, though. Geez.

1 In the interests of honesty, it is probably best to admit here that this may have something to do with the fact that Sam has a face like a horse and a body like a giraffe. He’s beautiful on the inside, though.