Walt Odets on Sex, Pleasure, and Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives
Author: Theodore Kerr
January 22, 2020
Walt Odets’ first book, In The Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS (Duke, 1995) was bold in suggesting that an “epidemic of the worried well” had befallen HIV negative gay men amid the crisis. In the book, Odets posited that combating the plague would have to include tending to HIV negative gay men’s trauma as well. Thinking about the various culture wars that have marked the rollout of PrEP since 2012, one may wonder if maybe we should have listened more carefully to Odets.
Almost a quarter century later, having written well received anthology chapters and maintaining a gay focused psychotherapy & couples counseling practice in the San Francisco Area, Odets is back with his second book, Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives. Recently short-listed for a National Books Critics Circle Award, the new book makes use of what Odets sees in his therapy practice, and in his life as a gay man, to explore the ways in which gay men, as the book jacket notes,”construct their identities, fight to be themselves, and live authentically.”
The writing is mannered and elegant, evoking in readers a sense of gliding along heady terrain, with just enough bumps in the road to slow down, and take it all in. As a reader, one can imagine Odets as a good therapist: attentive, intuitive and balanced enough to know when to bring in a personal anecdote. The result is a level of trust between the reader and the writer, an important factor when the author poses questions such as “Are Gay Men Homosexuals?” and “What is Trauma?”
In the conversation below, Odets speaks with AIDS organizer and writer Theodore Kerr about the new book, with a focus on gay male identity, HIV, and what he means by his term sport sex.
Why is this book coming out now?
Mostly because I’ve been avoidant of doing it. When I did In the Shadow of the Epidemic, I realized even then that there were many things I wasn’t talking about because the focus was on the epidemic and its psychological consequences. So I ended up with boxes of notes that I collected but avoided. I knew it’d be too painful. Then, in 2014, I decided I had to throw out all those boxes or work with them.
Who do you see as your audience?
Well, gay men, certainly, and I’ve had many women tell me that reading this book is the first time they understood what was wrong with straight men.
Yes. I talk about the developmental gender split, and about how infants are born as helpless and entirely dependent creatures, and then starting at the age of two or so, male infants are told that boys don’t cry, or have feelings, or rely on other people. Those men who absorb that are problematic.
Within your book is this idea that we are shaped by how we live, including the people we are surrounded by. This includes our sexuality, in all its complexity.
I start out the introduction with a 74-year-old retired dentist, and he had an identity as a gay man. He knew he was a gay man, but he wasn’t living that way. So I would say his life was deeply shaped by the way he lived.
You also do so much work about de-yoking identity from sex. Like being gay isn’t just about the sex that we have.
I emphasize that again and again. Chapter one, “Are Gay Men Homosexuals?” sets the stage. Basically, what I’m saying is that people are not gay because they’re homosexuals. They’re homosexuals because they’re gay. And in being gay, sex is one of the ways we express feelings and attachment to other people. So the sex follows on the fundamental issue of attachment. To illustrate this I tell the story of a friend who’s had a boyfriend for seven years and he said to his mother, “How come you never ask how Mike and I are doing?” and she says, “I don’t ask your brother what he does in bed with his wife.” Her idea of him being gay was that it was a sexual business, and in fact, I think the public mostly thinks the same way.
I like the way you make space for men to inhabit their identity through the sex they might have…. I think of it as a soft way of making space for a diversity of sexuality, specifically for men who may get lumped into a category they don’t fit within. It is an interesting and helpful way to consider many things, not least of which, of course, is the relationship between HIV and gay male identity.
For people your age those things became completely entangled. Older men knew of gay life before there was HIV, and therefore the virus was not a natural or organic part of a gay identity. It’s something that got added in. But your generation… I mean, how old were you in 1995?
That’s young, so your exposure to HIV was connected to gay life, right?
I’m part of a cohort that thought it was inevitable.
To get it?
That depends. I definitely had friends who thought that they were going to get HIV. I didn’t. I just knew that it was going to be a major part of my life.
You were sure that you wouldn’t contract it?
I knew how transmission happened, but I wasn’t a very sexual kid, so I couldn’t imagine how HIV would get into my body.
Well, you just have to have sex once.
Yeah, but you have to have a kind of sex….
We are talking here primarily about receptive anal sex…
…with a person living with HIV, who was not on treatment. And at that age, well, let’s just say, I was in no position to be at risk. But back to your book….
Well, this is interesting because the younger group of men that I write about, and these are people now who are pretty much under 30, there’s a complete denial about HIV.
I found this part of the book upsetting.
That’s what I see. I mean, they know it’s there and they’re very worried about it, but it’s this complete denial about that. They’re in denial of just the reality of it as a significant component of their lives. Because we deny the things that most bother us. We don’t deny things we’re neutral about. So, a line I hear again and again is, “I’m not the kind of person who gets AIDS,” which is bullshit. What kind of person is the kind of person who doesn’t get AIDS?
Well, I just said I wasn’t.
Exactly. It is not about what type of person you are. It depends on what you’re doing. The other thing I hear is that the younger generation stigmatize each other.
In my life, it is different. It is older people stigmatizing younger people who have HIV.
There’s also that, yes. I mean, Larry Kramer being at the head of the pack. But I have to say, it’s just like people who survived the Holocaust. They want recognition for what they lived through, and validation that their grief is legitimate somehow.
And they don’t feel they are getting it?
Let me put it this way; the way we develop real empathy for people who lived through something that we didn’t is that we observe the consequences of it in them. When it comes to HIV, older men became very isolated. I see that when they come to therapy, this very distinct quality of living as if they had no future.
And so maybe this is exacerbated then by a sense of not being witnessed, of having a generation or two of people coming after who, as you say, are in denial.
The denial is because they’ve heard about it. It’s a little bit like people smoking cigarettes. They’ve heard that it’s bad for you, but they smoke cigarettes. So, these young people are having sex the way people did in the 70s. I mean, real abandon. I see these guys in therapy, and they’ll have had sex with three or four or five different guys since I saw them last week. And they’re doing it, some of them with PrEP, some without PrEP.
Its funny, hearing us talk I can’t help but think that for as much as I talk about HIV, maybe I am living in some kind of denial.
For my older gay friends, we don’t talk about it that much.
I belong to a gay pilot’s group in San Francisco, and almost all of the guys are over 50, a few in their 30s and maybe late 20s. We have a brunch every Sunday. Anywhere from five to 20 people will show up. I sit there and at least half of the older guys have HIV. And I have never once, in all these years, heard HIV mentioned at that table. Ever.
On a handful of occasions someone will talk about how much anger they felt at these younger men who were just fucking their brains out, that kind of stuff.
Why does that bother them?
Partly what they see as a carelessness about contracting HIV, that doesn’t support the grief that they feel about what happened. And, they probably just envy the sexual freedom, and the youth.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about sport sex, a term you use in your book to describe sex that doesn’t allow for emotional communication.
I’m not much of a sport sex person myself. I’ve done it, but… I like to have sex with people I like and to whom I have some emotional connection. But sport sex is something that gay people are trained into through that whole adolescent period where relationships are prohibited, they’re left with sex, which is surreptitious. It becomes their mode of interacting. But for people who have pure sport sex all of the time, they are still actually looking for a connection and emotional attachment. They just don’t know how else to do that.
I think you use the word “athleticism.”
It’s about performing.
It is a useful phrase. I see how so many of us take great political pride in knowing that pleasure need not be forbidden. But within that, sport sex reminds us to keep the connection in mind.
I had a guy, this was a long time ago. He was an artist. He was in his late 30s. Very bright guy, and an interesting painter. He and his partner of a long time, were not having much sex and were having disagreements about it. I said, “What are you doing?” He described what I would call sport sex. I said, “Have you ever thought about sex as sometimes a form of emotional communication?” He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, “Well, I’m talking about sex as a kind of language, as a physical metaphor for feelings that you have for your partner.”He sat there for a while, and said, “That’s amazing. I’ve never thought of that.” He went home, and he talked to his boyfriend, who had the same response as he had, and they started working on the idea that they could be emotionally expressive with each other. It had not dawned on them that sex did not have to be this sort of slamming, banging kind of sport.
I love the story about the couple who would flip a coin to see who would top and who would bottom. In fact, throughout the book I loved these examples of people figuring things out. It is a gift to give readers. Any one of us can feel that we are broken, or that everything we do is based on trauma, but that’s not our only story. Do you think people can have healthier relationships after reading books like this?
And would you say that’s part of your motivation to write the book?
Absolutely. I’d like to minimize the hurt and harm that gay men experience. I mean, I’d much rather have an 18-year-old read my book, rather than come to me and see me as a therapist 15 or 20 years later. Sort of head it off at the pass.