These men were lucky

This article appeared in the magazine Salon in 2002. It is concerned with the question of whether sexual contact between boys and men must always be harmful. The author, David Tuller, did his own research and reproduces the statements of men with whom he spoke in the article.

Source: Salon, July 22nd, 2002

Minor report


However, adolescence — let’s say starting at 12 or 13 for some boys, at 14 or 15 for a great many more — is a different matter entirely. Gay men compare coming-out stories like kids today trade Pokémon cards, and over the years I’ve heard many tales of teenage escapades with older men, of sex with an uncle, sex with a married neighbor, sex with an unknown man driving a shiny Chevrolet, sex with a teacher. Sex in a park at night, sex in a train station toilet, sex in a stranger’s home. Sometimes the sex was great, sometimes awful. Sometimes the experience was tender, sometimes rough, sometimes somewhere in between. Most of the time the kids wanted it, like I did; they were just a bit braver, or more desperate.

Or maybe they were simply too horny to stop themselves. Edmund White, the noted gay writer, recounts with relish how he started cruising grown men from the age of 13 or 14 at beaches and public toilets in Chicago. “I was very oversexed, absolutely driven wild by desire,” he says. “I would pick up men, and then they would abandon me as quickly as possible because they were worried that I was jail bait. The first one was a handsome architect, who actually had children older than me. I was absolutely fascinated by him, and I seduced him. I followed him to his car, walked right up to him and started talking to him. My mother was away and I said, ‘Come back to my apartment.’ And it was terrific.”

“It was terrific.” Even relaying those words — though they represent White’s honest appraisal of what he experienced — makes me feel uneasy. I am not immune to the zeitgeist or to expressions of social disapproval, and I have felt a little queasy when I’ve told people I’m writing about sex between adolescent boys and men. The words “child molester” and “child abuse” hold the same power to disturb and repulse me as they do most people — as is intended by those who wield the terms indiscriminately to refer to any sexual contact between anyone under the age of 18 and anyone older.


The subject remains so charged that more than one academic I called to discuss the issue — men who hold fairly libertarian views on the matter — declined to do so on the record. Even men who willingly discussed their positive intergenerational experiences as adolescents requested that I use the kind of personal non-identifications — “Tony, a graphic designer” — that pepper Cosmopolitan articles about how to improve your orgasms or determine if your boyfriend is cheating on you.

For Frank, a healthcare professional in his 50s, the relationship he pursued as a 15-year-old with a family friend in his early 20s served as an important introduction to the idea that men could care for each other. “It was clear that it certainly felt good to both of us,” he says today. “In some way it was a real lifesaver, because it made me feel that love and affection and closeness and sex would be possible in my life. We both knew that we had to hide what we were doing — that it was not going to be like Johnny and Sally going on a date. But when we were together, it was like a little oasis where we could be ourselves. Had I not had that experience, I would have gone that many more years without experiencing myself the way God made me, which is gay.”

Another man, a 38-year-old small-business owner from Denver, fondly recalls the two-year relationship he had with his boss at the pancake house where he worked as a waiter. He was 15 when they had sex for the first time, he says, and it was the fulfillment of something he’d desired for years. “It was frightening and invigorating and I felt clumsy and awkward,” he says. “But he was playful and fun and very gentle. I never felt coerced. As foreign as it was to me I was very open to it. Afterwards, I felt good, like I’d experienced something I’d wanted to for a long time.”

His boyfriend, who was 29 when the relationship began, also helped alleviate the isolation he’d always felt by introducing him to a gay social circle and helping him begin a modeling career. “In high school, I had this haunting feeling that I was different, so it was really liberating to find people who were gay,” he says. “It was like, ‘OK, I’m gay, I love it.’ I wasn’t an awkward, out-of-place kid anymore. I felt appreciated for being gay, instead of being an outcast and made fun of. Suddenly I had this new self-confidence. I didn’t have to hate myself for being gay.”

These men were lucky; they met someone who took their feelings seriously. Many more, of course, have had experiences similar to Edmund White’s — they meet someone whose primary interest is sex, not romance or love. John, an aircraft maintenance worker, had his first experience when he was 13 with a man of about 30 for whom he was performing yard work. The man, who was wearing a Speedo, invited him inside and showed him books with photos of men wrestling. “He started rubbing my crotch, and I was both nervous and really excited by it,” he recalls. “But as soon as he put his mouth around my dick, I shot, and then he jacked off and I swear I’ve never seen anyone come so much. I was just amazed. I jerked off about that forever.”

John saw him once more at the clothing store where the man worked, and they had sex in one of the changing rooms. After that, they lost touch. And while John, who is now in his 40s, enjoyed the experience, he says he wished the man had talked to him more about what they were doing. “I was amazingly turned on by it, but I remember thinking a year or two later that I would have preferred some level of intellectual conversation, where he’d say something like, ‘Some guys do it with guys, some do it with girls.’ Just something to give me a context to put it all in. I wish he’d taken a more aggressive role in doing that in the moments he had me as a captive audience.”

Still, the experience didn’t exactly prevent John from pursuing other sexual contacts. For the next few years, he, like White, aggressively sought out significantly older guys. “I never felt used,” he says. “I really wanted it, and except for the first time I always felt like the aggressor. I’m not a child psychologist and I don’t mean to extrapolate my own experiences to anything else, but I do feel like American society has gone crazy over this whole childhood sex trauma stuff.”

It would be easy to dismiss these examples as carefully selected and completely unrepresentative, or as the memories and opinions of disturbed men who don’t even realize how abused they’ve been. And certainly it’s true that you can’t always trust what people claim about themselves, even if they believe what they’re saying. But since I’ve heard the same sorts of comments from so many men over the years, it’s not really possible for me to doubt their testimony. Not that it’s invariably a positive experience; it would be as ridiculous to argue that as it is to maintain that it always causes horrific trauma.