‘On the DL’: The sexual politics of sleeping with closeted guys

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Media: Ally Rzesa

Gary Sowder writes about love and sex.

By Gary Sowder, Columnist

My mom lives in Westchester County, New York, a place that is most known for being the home of the Clintons’, and the last place Robert Durst’s wife was seen alive. After COVID-19 touched down in America, I was forced to move out of my dorm and back into my childhood bedroom, which sat unchanged since I went to college three years ago; when I peeled my Lana Del Rey poster off the wall—to make room for a calendar I impulse-bought—I discovered that the tape had started to mold. I told myself I would use this time to be productive: I’d finally start the columns I had been planning to write, I’d get back into learning French, and, finally, I’d teach myself how to skateboard. Instead, I spent most of my time on my bed and scrolling through Grindr.

For the uninitiated, Grindr is a dating app primarily geared towards queer men, although it also welcomes trans-women and non-binary people. It markets itself as a “social media app,” Grindr is most commonly used for casual sex—there’s no swiping, and no “it’s a match!”-ing. When you open up Grindr, you are presented with a grid of little profile photos, and you can message anyone with reckless abandon. That is unless they block you. When opening up Grindr in Boston, you’ll typically find a sea of college twinks and older businessmen, almost all of them posing in front of their bathroom mirror smiling. I took my profile picture in the dining hall bathroom after I bought a pair of $90 pants from Zara. 

In Westchester, however, Grindr is full of grey, faceless profiles. Few of them even dare to write a bio or include any information about themselves—Grindr has a drop-down menu where you can put everything from your weight to your preferred sexual positions. Many of these enigmatic profiles include the tagline “DL.”

“DL,” short for “down-low” is a term most people in the gay community are familiar with. It can mean anything from a curious guy down to experiment, to a gay man that does not want to come out yet. They tend to have strict parameters for how they want to have sex with you. No kissing is a pretty common rule. Or they won’t touch your dick. Very often they’re more than happy to send you nudes to round out that blank square they keep as their profile picture, but don’t ask them for a picture of their face—that’s too personal.

I received tons of offers from down-low guys in quarantine, mostly businessmen whose marital situation was…questionable at best. Occasionally I’d get the stray college kid but they’d rarely want to meet-up, and they were always hesitant to show their faces, out of fear that we could have gone to high school together, or that the wrong person would catch a glimpse.

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Eventually, I started talking to someone—who I will call Zach—that wasn’t so secretive. He messaged me from his college’s Zoom graduation, which took place at the Jefferson Valley Mall—right next to my dad’s first post-divorce apartment. He was nice, he thought I was attractive, and, most importantly, we could hook up in his house. I swore off the car stuff the moment I got my diploma.

He lived in a massive house just off the border of Connecticut and New York, the kind of house that stretches over a giant green lawn. His driveway was a swirling mass of gravel, carefully manicured. There were four cars perched in his driveway, all with little decals from different colleges.

Zach told me it’d be easier if I entered from the back door, that way we’d have less of a chance of running into his parents. They’d ask too many questions, he told me. Though just in case Zach had come up with a cover story: I was there to help him design a website.

After avoiding his parents, Zach led me down into his basement, where a big screen TV played old reruns of Big Brother. Once he turned on the humidifier and cranked the volume up on the television we got to, well, “designing his website.”

Mid-way through I found out that I was the fourth guy he had ever kissed, the third guy he’d ever blown, and the second person he’d ever done anal with. The first was his ex-girlfriend who, fun fact, I did a science project with in elementary school. Small world. When I fingered him, I realized he hadn’t douched, and that he didn’t even know what that was. To be honest, it wasn’t as much of a fingering as it was a light Tinder-swipe. After making him shower, thoroughly, we had a blissful fifteen minutes of fun. He provided me with a warm towel after he accidentally came in my eye.

After, he gave me a kiss, took me upstairs, and told me that he’d text me if he needed any more help with his “website.” Graciously, he held the door open as I left.

He would block me on Snapchat the second I walked out the door. In an attempt to be courteous, I was going to message him that I had a nice time and wouldn’t mind seeing him again, much to my surprise, his Snapchat was missing from my friends list. It might’ve been the fact that it was quarantine, but I really liked hanging out with him. He was smart, he was nice, he greeted me at the door wearing an “ACAB” shirt, and I would’ve liked to see him again. Did I want to date him? No. But the sex was pretty good—even if his asshole was a little bit of a poop-laden-warzone—and Gov. Cuomo had just recently advised all New Yorkers to find a quarantine fuck-buddy to help flatten the curve.

As I sped down Route 35, blasting Alanis Morrissette and reapplying some deodorant, I realized something: Sneaking around, getting a blowjob in a lazy boy, and lying to his parents as well as mine, this was high school stuff. More importantly, this was closeted stuff.

Now, my sexual liberation came a little late, unless you count that one soccer player I gave a hand job to in high school—talk about cumming a little late. But I was well acquainted with the kind of pre-adulthood sneaking around. I know that car-stuff and late-night rendezvous in the local nature reserve is pretty par-for-the-course with every teenager. But when it’s gay, there’s a little one-up of secrecy. Getting caught doesn’t just mean your parents know that you’re sexually active, they know you’ve sexually active with a boy. Getting caught engaging in some gay debauchery outs you to your family, your friends, and your community. On top of the immediate embarrassment, there’s a deep long-lasting level of shame that never really goes away.

There can be something thrilling in being treated like a sex object, tons of people are into that, but this kind of objectification goes outside the realm of sex. There’s a moment, the terrifying pause mid-kiss when you both hear someone coming down the stairs, refusing to suck your dick, or being told that making out is just “too far,” when it stops being about sex and it starts being about identity. They’re not ashamed of having sex with you, they’re ashamed that they’re having sex with a guy. Your gender, your sex, your orientation all become part of this sexual-shame narrative. You are no longer just a person that this other person wants to have sex with.

When Zach blocked me, I felt like I had done something wrong. Like him calling me hot, following me on Instagram just to see more pictures of my face, or asking if I would make him my bitch—did I mention how much of a bottom he was?—was just a ploy to get me to have sex with him. I didn’t really feel sexy anymore. I just felt like a secret.

The decision to stay in the closet isn’t really mine to police (acab), and the argument “having sex with closeted guys gives me the bad feelies and therefore don’t do it” isn’t really much of an argument. So, I’m not going to tell you shouldn’t have sex with guys on the DL. I’ve done it twice since I moved back to Boston—both provided me with a recent negative COVID-19 test, by the way. To risk sounding like my grandmother whenever someone brings up abortion: it’s kind of a case-by-case thing. Having sex with someone closeted doesn’t have to shove you back into the wild world of psycho-sexual identity politics, sometimes it can just be sex with someone closeted.  

 And I think that’s a lesson that doesn’t just apply to gay people: In every hookup, there’s always going to be a degree of objectification. But it’s about your comfort level first-and-foremost. Where do you draw the line when it comes to being objectified? How full can your shame cup get until it runneth over? A hookup shouldn’t leave you feeling like some dirty secret. We shouldn’t be dwelling on hookups days, months, weeks after they happened, and then writing really long articles about them. Sex should be sex, after all, and it should feel good. Great, dare I say. At the end of the day, we’re kind of all treating one another as a means to an end. And that’s kind of okay.