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‘Am I Too Romantic About True Love?’

Photo: Andres Ruggeri/Getty Images/EyeEm

Dear Polly,

I’m a 19-year-old gay guy, and I’m finding it impossible to reconcile my desire for a genuine connection with the hypersexualized world of gay culture. The most recent event that’s reflective of this conflict happened just last Tuesday.

I walked into a smoky bar in the city, which was largely empty except for an older lesbian woman (early thirties) and some men. I complimented her accent, and we got to talking. We talked about men and how the world works. Essentially, she told me that I had to stop being kind and sweet (and naïve), to hide away that part of myself because all men want is sex, and they will try to use you and manipulate you. She said that I have a woman’s soul (and, I mean, it’s not difficult to see what she means), and that having a big heart leads to being hurt in terrible ways. She meant it sincerely. It was advice given generously, and I very much get the impression that she wished someone had told her the same thing when she was younger. She disappeared without giving me her contact details; it felt like a fated meeting.

The thing is, I know exactly where she’s coming from. When I first came out last year, I started going to gay bars alone (I didn’t really have any friends who would go with me, and being alone forces you to learn how to start conversations pretty well). I have had a lot of disappointing or just straight-up terrible sex with strangers I met in the clubs. Tinder was scarcely better; I never met anyone I really clicked with, and I’d be filled with so much existential dread after not finding anything worthwhile that I’d just delete the app. After a month or two, I’d get bored, redownload, and despair again. Rinse and repeat.

My entire life, I have wanted to experience a sincere, passionate kind of love. The kind they talk about in movies; a beautiful romance that shatters and rebuilds the world around you, through which you emerge bigger, brighter, wiser, and happier. This is not so much a self-esteem issue — I like myself a lot (or as much as can be reasonably expected from a teen with a somewhat troubled past in a world where marketing hits you with a scooter in the metaphorical ankle of insecurity!).

Earlier this year, I thought I’d found something real. I gained the confidence to approach a stranger (in public!) to ask if he wanted to grab a drink with me. To my surprise, he said yes, and we actually began dating. Because we were dating, and because we liked each other, and because he thought I was funny, charming, clever, and handsome (which, you know, I am), I felt comfortable enough to sleep with him.

That all came to a swift (and probably foreseeable to anyone with half a brain) end a week before Valentine’s Day, when I asked him to clear his schedule, as I had gotten us tickets to one of my absolute favorite musicals. He informed me that he had plans to spend the day with his ex, and ghosted me right then and there. Which was, uh, not great for me. The cherry on top, of course, was that that little fling resulted in my contracting super gonorrhea (and God, I wish I was joking), which had me in an absolute panic for months afterward until I was proclaimed clean. Before having ever received a love note, a flower, or even having been in a serious relationship, I have had super gonorrhea. Yikes. I felt so, so dirty.

That was a real come-to-Jesus moment for me. I decided to stop making out with strangers in clubs altogether. But like, Polly, let’s be realistic. I am a 19-year-old boy. I also want to have fun. And gay culture, as I assume you know, is laser-focused on sex and sexuality. In a way, just looking for sex would be easier. But I have this niggling feeling that I might be scared of actually finding love.

This quote from Thomas Yingling explains how I’m feeling perfectly: “This homosexual dream of perfect metaphysical union is not so much a reflected heterosexual ideal as it is the compensation for having wept in the darkness.” And, you know, I really, really have wept in the darkness.

Am I really being naïve about holding out for love? I really struggle with the idea of this; for me, kindness is absolutely crucial to what makes a person valuable — this world is already dismal enough, I feel we owe it to each other to be sweet. It’s one of the qualities I’m really proud of, particularly since it’s something I’ve worked hard to become after becoming totally toxic, having gone through an unbelievably difficult part of my life from ages 16 to 18.

Am I putting too much stock in the value of love? Would it be insincere to have casual sex? Is the woman I met in the bar right — should I try to erase this “big-heartedness”? You are absolutely my favorite agony aunt, Polly. I just want to have my head on straight (no pun intended) as I am going to university in September, and want to know how to deal with this before making first impressions!

Always Dummy, Never Thicc

Dear ADNT,

I’ve never liked the term “agony aunt,” because I associate it with the kind of straight-talking, “older” woman (early thirties, lol!) you meet in a smoky bar. Through the haze of three or four bourbons, she’ll give you the lowdown on how the world works, how men are, and what’s wrong with you. The operative word here is “agony”: Life is agony, kid. All you’ll find ahead is pain and disillusionment. And once your ankles of insecurity are utterly pulverized by the scooters of the world’s careless men, you’ll finally give up on love entirely. In the meantime, wear big leather boots, stay out of the street, shrink your big heart, be practical, hide behind the haze of three or four bourbons, hide behind cynicism, hide behind fear, and feel less.

As a natural-born romantic with a big brain, you’re uniquely susceptible to this kind of advice. It looks much cooler and better to predict the shitty things that will happen next, to see around blind corners, to never be caught wanting more than you’re given, to never be manipulated or used or let down or heartbroken. Notice how you say that getting ghosted right before Valentine’s Day was “probably foreseeable to anyone with half a brain.” But how in the world was it foreseeable that a guy you were dating, who complimented you often and clearly enjoyed your company, would ghost you? Sure, in retrospect, it seems obvious that he had a boyfriend (not an ex) the whole time, and he romanced you just enough to convince you to sleep with him. But who would know that from the beginning? Is it risky to be beautiful and 19 years old and hitting on adult men in public? Yes. I maybe wouldn’t do that with guileless enthusiasm moving forward. But I disagree that simply using caution requires adopting a worldview predicated on the idea that no other men are like you, and even when they seem nice, they’re just manipulating you so they can have sex you.

This goes beyond the transactional nature of bars and Tinder and the hypersexuality of gay culture. What we’re talking about isn’t just self-protection and realism, which are fine. We’re talking about a guiding philosophy for living. I applaud your impulse to pull back and be more cautious, to protect yourself, to avoid places where you tend to get wild if it kicks up your shame after the fact. (Is it naïve of me to say you should have safer sex? I hope not.) In becoming more careful, you’re following your instincts. Keep doing that. Use your feelings (and yes, even your shock and panic) as a guide. Protect yourself from bad situations as much as you can.

But pleeeeeease don’t join the agonizing aunts of the world, who know everything about everything always, who predict darkness then smother the fire, who roll their eyes at earnestness and delight in your comeuppance, who preach from the gospel of suspicion and resent not just hope but the hopeful themselves. Because they’re pulling off the easiest trick in the book. Nothing is difficult or sophisticated or wise about tearing your hair and foretelling doom. The Fates nailed that shit centuries ago; they earned lots of likes and follows from the swords-and-sandals crowd, and I’m sure they felt very proud of themselves for being so omniscient.

Likewise, it’s easier to put on some leather boots than it is to show your pretty, vulnerable ankles to the world. Like most true romantics who secretly believe that their giant hearts are unbearably embarrassing, you’re already tempted to join them. In spite of your clear belief in sincere, passionate love and sweetness, you’re already defining those who are preemptively disappointed as smarter and cooler and wiser than everyone else. You’re already taking cues from your shame, and hoping to get a handle on your effusive spirit. You’re already ready to predict darkness and then smother the fire. Won’t you be more attractive that way? Won’t you suffer less? Won’t people respect you more and manipulate you less?

I don’t think so. Because you’ll be pretending. You’ll act like you know that your dreams will never come true, you’ll act like you’re super-chill and you can hang with anything, you’ll act like you don’t care, and you’ll attract people who are drawn in by apathy, disinterest, coolness, chill. Those are people who’ll shame you when you say you broke your ankle on a scooter again, and it hurts, damn it. Those are people who’ll smirk or roll their eyes or slowly back away when you talk about weeping in the darkness. Fuck those people. Find the kind, sweet boys like you instead.

Because it’s not magical and insightful to expect the worst, to protect yourself first and foremost, to tell a story about the broken world that feeds your ego and makes you sound downright omniscient. It’s not special to lose hope and hide and warn other people to hide the way you do.

I’ve been alive a lot longer than the perfectly nice young woman you met in that bar — who, by the way, was probably mostly reacting to your story about the guy on Valentine’s Day more than she was trying to lay down a heavy trip about the universe. She was just a boozed-up gal whose words got heavier and more foreboding the more she drank and you listened with those big, watery, gorgeous eyes of yours, blinking like a little lamb with an invitation to a super-cool barbecue in his pocket.

“Protect yourself” is not a terrible message. But should you alter your entire personality, change your belief system, hide your little lamb eyes, and mask your effusive nature, just so you don’t seem so eager and look so naïve? Should you climb on top of every interaction, blurting “I already know I’m a romantic idiot, teehee!” and “I get that you don’t care that much” and “Please excuse my gushing”? And then, should you forcibly replace this nervous self-deprecation with eye-rolling, been-there-done-that AGONY?

I don’t think so. Because I have been there and done that (please excuse the immediate irony here! I know I’m an idiot, teehee!) and let me tell you WHAT: It’s bad for your soul. Period. Beating all of the sweetness out of yourself just so you can become the kind of person who pretends to know what’s going to happen before it happens isn’t just a bad choice, it’s a tragic choice.

You lose so much when you do that. The one thing you need to learn at this point in your life is that if YOU don’t stand up for who you really are, NO ONE ELSE WILL. That’s not me being jaded. That’s me saying GUARD YOUR BEAUTIFUL, SWEET, ENLARGED LAMB HEART WITH YOUR LIFE. And by “guard it” I don’t mean “never fall in love, love is a sham.” I mean own it. Stand up for it. Live it. Breathe it. Because your big heart won’t change. You can hide it in a dark cave, or throw it down a well. You can cover it in thick black leather. You can put spikes around its neck. It’s still the same giant, pretty, sweet, wonderful thing.

You can ignore it, and vow to feel less. It’s not that hard to do. It’s the easiest thing to do, in fact. The easiest, most common, most ordinary, most tedious bullshit path in the whole world. Almost everyone follows that path by the age of 18, 22, 25. You had a chance to follow that path when you went through that toxic time. You came back to your large-hearted nature. You built a belief system out of your pain: In these dismal times, sweetness and kindness matter, you said.

Don’t take a long road away from who you are, like I did. That will take decades. That will stand in the way of your connections, your friendships, your relationship to yourself, your career goals, EVERYTHING. It will make you depressed and anxious. It will make you feel lost. And once you finally decide to grow and learn and reconnect with what you truly love (if you’re lucky enough to realize that you’ve gone astray), guess where you’ll land? RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE NOW, IN LARGE-HEARTED BOYLAND. Vulnerable, fragile, open, full of feelings, full of joy, full of adventure, full of hope.

This is where you find the other large-hearted boys. Right here. They exist. Getting hurt is fine. Being tricked is expected. Being rejected is difficult but unavoidable. But losing yourself? That’s the real tragedy. Don’t do it. Don’t lose yourself. Be where you are. Love who you are. Find the confidence to keep believing that sweetness and kindness matter. Because disappointment and heartache are nothing compared to losing your faith in your own heart. This is your religion. Fight for it. It matters.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Am I Too Romantic About True Love?’