This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.
Ever since I came out of the closet, I’ve been a bit of a compulsive dater. Whether in the form of dates, hookups, or casual crushes, I need a guy’s attention to keep myself satisfied. Even when I try to be more independent, I only last for a few weeks on my own before I throw myself back into the dating scene.
When quarantine began, I figured that I could use self-isolation as an opportunity to reset my habits and become less dependent on external validation. I deleted The Apps™, I ended my ongoing flings, and I stopped posting thirst traps every other day. But alas! It has been over a month, and I already feel the quintessential “gay loneliness” void opening back up inside me.
Papi, I’m torn. On one hand, I know that it’s perfectly normal to crave intimacy with other humans (especially in times like these). On the other hand, I’m worried that I’ve become a needy person who can’t be happy without male attention. Is it worth it to keep swearing off men for a while, or am I just depriving myself of a basic human need?
Gobble, gobble, Cold Turkey! Hello.
If my mailbox is any indication, you’re hitting on something here that a lot of gay men wrestle with. Other people probably do too, loneliness being a key human element and all. But everyone I know is gay, and gay men in particular seem much more likely to have this crisis: Am I hooked on validation from other men?
I often struggle with this too, Cold Turkey. I really like male attention. It makes me feel good. But in the process of looking for it as one might look for a snack while staring at an open fridge for an hour, I have a few questions I have to ask myself: What are my stakes here? What am I feeling? And Could I be spending my time in a better way?
And you know, sometimes, everything checks out fine and I stay on Grindr or Tinder or wherever warm bodies are piloting flattering profiles with various degrees of honesty. Because sometimes I’m just horny or bored or wanting to chat with a stranger. It’s not the act of looking that’s the issue. It’s about what I’m looking for, why I’m looking for it, and what I expect finding it will do.
In my most miserable days of trolling for crumbs of validation on sex apps, my stakes were unreasonably high: I wanted someone out of my league (whatever that means) to tell me (or show me) that I was attractive. I thought someone like that would have authority that I didn’t have, and their approval would let me walk through life with a pep in my step because I could believe them. I could believe that, indeed, I was an attractive person.
But when you’re operating from a negative like that, when you’re entering any activity with the mindset of “I need this to validate my existence,” you’re only setting yourself up for failure. You’re putting yourself at the mercy of strangers and giving them the power to make you feel good or bad. Never mind Grindr, never mind sex, and never mind being gay, Cold Turkey, that’s a dire situation for anyone to be in regardless.
The thing is … while abstaining from dating apps and social media can certainly work as part of your strategy to build self-esteem, it not, on its own, the solution. You can delete as many apps as you want, but if you’re not happy with yourself, well, you’ll just be an unhappy person with fewer apps on your phone. So, what now?
I think often our frustrations play out in the arenas of desire, and so we end up pathologizing desire itself: iI’s sex that’s the problem, or promiscuous guys, or hot people who won’t just love us already. But I can tell you from personal experience that the problem is coming from inside the house, so to speak.
For example, a negative response from a stranger on Grindr used to hold the potential to ruin my day. But now it doesn’t. Some random torso called me ugly the other day, and instead of breaking down I was just like, Well, no I’m not, and then I moved on with my day! I could hardly believe it! I’m very proud.
Anyway, the fact that I use The App™ didn’t change. What did change were my expectations and my sense of self. Cold Turkey, in this life you’ve got to have a firm handle on who you are. That doesn’t mean you have to know everything about yourself. It means that you give yourself the final say.
To do that, you’ve got to find some reliable methods of validating yourself. It’s not that the world is full of bad people who will always knock you down. It’s that if you don’t have a solid foundation, all it will take is one person to send you tumbling. And we can’t have that, now can we?
I actually think you’re on the right track with using this self-isolation period to take a break from the apps. As I mentioned, that can be a great step to a breakthrough — so long is you don’t confuse it for being the breakthrough! But don’t do it as some kind of self-flagellation for deigning to desire things, because what’s more important than deleting the apps is how you spend your time away from them.
If indeed you take some time off, I want you to consider: What are things I like about myself? What are things I do that make me feel happy, or competent, or secure? How can I nurture those things? What do I want out of my relationships with other men, be them short or long-term? And How can I prioritize my desires when I reenter the dating scene?
I think this kind of reflection is actually quite exciting, Cold Turkey. It’s a project, for one, and heaven knows we need projects right now. For two, it can make your isolation period a kind of chrysalis from which you can emerge a beautiful butterfly. You’re gay, right? You like butterflies. Like all gays do. I don’t know. Pretend that’s true and run with it.
I’m rooting for you, Cold Turkey! I really hope that in the future you can suck dick in peace without your entire sense of self-worth being at stake. I want that for you just like I want that for everyone. Say hello if you’re on Brooklyn Grindr! Don’t be upset if I don’t respond! Que será, será.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on April 28, 2020.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, here.