Relationships

Peer Review

One perfect butt was eureka for my sexuality. Figuring out men would require further study.

A shimmering man's butt in boxer briefs.
Animation by Slate. Photo by YouraPechkin/Getty Images.

Spark Notes is a recurring series about the lightbulb moments in sexual development.

I didn’t notice that I was gay until my first year of high school, when I received a powerful vision. It revealed itself in the cafeteria, which was cavernous, ugly, and full of golden light. I looked up from my math homework to see a male classmate—let’s call him “Ed”—standing at the far end of the room, fatefully sagging his jeans. There was his butt, in red plaid boxers, a perfect butt, and before I could stop it, before I could think about quadratics or Auschwitz, my body let me know exactly how I felt.

To be clear, I had no personal investment in Ed. In this moment, he was not, to me, an individual but a butt—as his low-slung swagger had deliberately encouraged. That must have been part of the thrill. At our extremely unsexy, science-focused magnet school, he was a babe—an arts student, even, a painter!—and he knew it.

I knew there was reasoning to be done. I identified at the time as an insufferable atheist, and the belief I held most strongly was that the truth could be reached by scientific means. Was I perhaps bisexual? Over the course of a few evenings, I conducted some thought experiments and handily came to the conclusion that I was totally gay.

Once the equation was solved, I recognized that I would have to tell people, including my parents. They had gay friends, a couple I had known and liked since childhood, and the gayness had never been a big deal. (We all liked to tell a story about how when I was really little and learned they were a couple, I asked who wore the wedding dress.) I don’t remember feeling any concern about coming out, or any excitement about this new dimension of my life.

Which was nuts. The evidence had been accumulating for years. My earliest sexual fantasies were exclusively about guys and invariably brought on searing shame. In response, I had forced myself to visualize women while masturbating, at least occasionally, and kept a mental tally of the gender split, like the VIDA count but for sexual repression. All of this effort kept my spurts of lust from coalescing into anything so threatening as a sense of identity.

I managed to maintain the denial even as my fantasies lurched further queerward, even as I was Googling “gay porn.” What I did by myself at night was nobody’s business but mine, no matter what images it involved. Like listening to music or reading books—activities that I was starting to savor in a similarly narcissistic way, for jolts of aesthetic pleasure—wanking was a one-man job. The first time I did it, I was naked on the carpet reading “Song of Myself.”

But then suddenly in that cafeteria there shined around me a butt from heaven. Who was it? Not some figment of my imagination, but the butt of Ed from North Arlington. I hadn’t conjured it up: I had a boner because of a live man. So I began to seek out other ones, to replicate my findings.

Using Facebook, I homed in on the half-dozen guys at my school who had publicly designated themselves “interested in men” (Ed was not among them) and became deeply infatuated with “Tom.”

Like me, Tom was an atheist. Unlike me, he was a LaVeyan Satanist and owned mustard-yellow skinny jeans. He looked very gentle, and bohemian, too. Sometimes he wore an earring. It made sense—intuitively, logically—for us to be together, and so I set up a meeting to talk with him, intending to come out.

As I ventured into the unknown, I began to keep a sort of lab journal.

October 9, 2007: I came out to my parents.

December 4, 2007: I came out to Tom at the foot of the staircase between the chemistry wing and construction. “What I was trying to tell you last week—and I failed spectacularly—is that”—I craned my neck back and pushed my head against the wall—“I’m gay.”

Tom was indeed very gentle, and we were both lonely as hell. My fantasies expanded beyond perfect butts to encompass intimate companionship: I wanted to lie in a meadow with him and appreciate Rachmaninoff. When I asked to meet again, saying I had something important to tell him (“Congratulations! Reason dictates that we are an ideal match”), he took me to the basement of the school, to a dark room full of lightbulb-rimmed vanity mirrors installed at weird angles to each other. He switched one on, sat on the counter, and pulled out his math homework. I stared at the floor.

February 12, 2008: I told Tom how I feel about him. He does not feel the same way.

This isn’t recorded, but I remember asking him for reasons, repeatedly, over AOL Instant Messenger. I accepted his demurral, but I needed an explanation. Where had I gone wrong in my calculations? He just wanted to apologize. It hurt because it didn’t make any sense.

I spent a lot of time gathering data in the year after the butt, seeking revelations and explanations on AIM. Post-Tom, I got close to “Jason,” a guy in my math class. He smiled a lot, had grown up in a somewhat conservative Christian family, and was obviously in knots about his sexuality. He came out to me as bisexual, rescinded it, came out to me again. The relationship continued along these lines: I would urge him to come to terms, and he would use me as a chalkboard to sort himself out, hypothesizing and erasing as necessary.

It wasn’t good. At some point after Tom turned me down, I told Jason I wanted to have sex with him. He said yes, then no, then held my hand, then forgot—months of this. Whether selective amnesia, gaslighting, or both, the nonsense of it left me shredded. Meanwhile, I refused to believe that he was in fact attracted to women. It was an experiment riddled with false assumptions and unaccounted variables, bad all around.

My journal entry for July 29, 2008, takes up 2¾ fully justified single-spaced pages.

I had my first sexual experience today, with Jason. Jason arrived at 4 p.m. First, at home, I touched his ass and he touched my crotch. We walked to Zack’s pool. At Zack’s pool, I made contact with him while swimming. While changing, he accidentally opened the door and saw me naked.

Well, he’d told me it was “accidental.” I, horny about him for months, very nonaccidentally took him to the basement and put on Sleeper, which we watched intently, eyes forward, while strangling each other’s dicks. “Neither of us could come,” I wrote. We tried to kiss—so we could say we’d pulled something off—but I bailed: “I had to pee, as I had had to for several hours.”

The experience left me dizzy and sick to my stomach. But still, I grasped for significance:

Regret does not help anything—though I will not suppress my emotions, however useless they may be in a practical sense—so I will view this as an extraordinary learning experience. As I told Jason on the couch with the lights off before we went upstairs, there is now “more information in me.”

Whatever I thought I had learned, it took its leave from me immediately, as did my ability to get an erection. (On the third day, I rose.) Eventually, there would be other Jasons—guys who experimented on me, and on whom I experimented, too. But in the immediate aftermath of the first one, I had little appetite for “science.” My researches into gay desire had only left me with more questions. Hadn’t I been objective in my pursuits? Hadn’t I made sense of my sexuality as soon as I saw that butt? Hadn’t I accurately modeled what would happen with those boys?

Obviously not. Of course, that these were precisely the wrong questions would take years for me to see. I still chase somewhat vainly after motivations, reasons, explanations: all seductive, in their way. But now I know they’re not what gets me hard.