Topped by Tenderness: Choosing Exclusivity in Intergenerational Love

I struggle with sobriety in love. I always have. Considering the promiscuity towards which many men in the gay community are prone as compensation for years spent repressing their sexuality in the closet, I am likely not alone. Sociological speculation and my own projections aside, I am naturally a very sexual person who finds great joy and passion in the sex act, especially when I am on the receiving end. I am also attracted to men of all types within a certain age range (mid-life and older). The rub here, however, lies in the facts of aging, one of which is often and quite naturally genital impotence--compounded, as it is in my partner's case, by such health issues as diabetes and high blood pressure. For someone like me, this creates an obvious problem, sabotaging the mental gymnastics it requires to transcend the reality of age in loving someone across a multi-generational divide.

How does one such as myself deal with this issue, which can be a hindrance to sexual intimacy, without having the urge to act out sexually with another man, someone more "capable" of "getting it up"? It is a question that is "up" for me right now as my present partner, a "top" energetically, has become a bit of a "bottom" in light of the challenges to his health, even as he is still wildly vital with sexual energy.

Given such a scenario and the fact that, as a former lover of mine used to say, "two bottoms don't make a top," some may opt to "open" up the relationship if their partner is willing. Or, alternatively, one could take a pill or receive an injection. Though he doesn't really want to, my partner is willing to be open for my sake; he understands my desire. He is also not opposed to taking a pill or receiving an injection, nor am I.

As far as opening up the relationship is concerned: in the words of Petula Clark, his favorite singer, "I don't want to share my love with anyone new." And it's true. What my body sometimes craves in the way of extra-curricular sex, as it were, with someone who is seemingly more "capable" is just another jab to the heart--a tearing away at the fabric of our shared being-in-love, or being-for-the-other in love (and in death). It is not a solution at all. If anything, it would just create more problems, to say nothing of causing pain to the Other.

In her autobiographical account on the complexities of navigating the troubled waters of love in the context of death and dying, sociologist Carolyn Ellis quotes a scholarly article on jealousy she wrote with her now-deceased partner Gene Weinstein, also a sociologist:

'Liberalization of the relationship rules [...] presents an inherent problem in inhibiting jealousy. Even if some

details would no longer signify an intrusion or violation of trust, the extended access permitted by the liberalized

rules creates more chance to distrust and greater opportunities for loss of control by either partner. Thus, in open

relationships, in contradiction to the "official" feeling rules, the actual structure of preference often aggregates to

a mutual double standard. Each partner would like access restricted, but only for partner and not for self.'

(see Final Negotiations: A Story of Love, Loss, and Chronic Illness, Temple University Press, 1995, p. 41)

Here was an intergenerational couple--Weinstein the older of the two and also Ellis' former graduate school professor--caught in the throes of one partner's sickness (Weinstein struggled with emphysema, leading to his death in 1984), but still willing to work it out. In Final Negotiations Ellis records her experiences of compromise and commitment as she learned in the course of her nine-year relationship with Weinstein to prove the words: "'I love you more than anyone.'"

Is love, in this sense, not a "'zero-sum'" transaction, as Ellis and Weinstein put it (see Final, p. 35)? Does the bond that develops between two people not require some degree of sexual exclusivity for it to become the fullest expression of the term I love you more than anyone? I'd say it does. This is at least the conclusion I'm coming to in my present relationship with a man who is nearly 30 years my senior and the one whom I love more than anyone.

Of course one could argue that opening up a relationship does not preclude exclusivity with a primary partner; it could even bring two partners closer together, particularly if they join each other in their extra-marital sexual play as I know other couples who have and have done so successfully.

Yet, in one of our conversations around opening up the relationship, I expressed my reservations about doing so--not only because of issues of jealousy on both of our parts, but because it would distract me from growing in love with the one I'm with. It would lead me further down the rabbit hole of habit and addiction as, since I came out at 23, been difficult for me to get a hold on my sexual compulsions--so much so that I joined and actively participated in a Twelve Step program for sex and love addicts almost four years ago. Fortunately for me, my partner's eyes are not fixed elsewhere. Though my eyes and my body have wandered from time to time, they always return to him. He is my Beloved and a reflection of all that I could ask for in a partnership: he is my friend and my confidant. His embrace soothes my soul; his scent attracts me. He is the only one I want to touch me in an intimate way and vice versa.

So what happens when sexual intimacy doesn't happen the way you want it to because it is not physically possible on your partner's part?

I have no definitive answer except to say that you simply work through it and find creative ways to engage in sexual, as well as non-sexual, play--particularly if you opt against medical assistance. This is at least what I'm doing and which seems to work for me in moments of confusion, doubt, and resentment. In this way, the work to maintain fidelity, fun, and sexual satisfaction in intergenerational love is worth the effort as I find other ways to be topped.

I was speaking about this with a wise monk who likes to do yoga on the beach and he told me that he likes being topped by the sun. I thought that an interesting image and pondered it in terms of being penetrated by warmth. I think about that in relation to my present partner, whose issues with high blood pressure and diabetes hinder his capacity to penetrate. I often want to break up with him for it, and I have sometimes responded in self-defeating and self-destructive ways, turning toward the temptation to have sex with other men as a quick fix.

Most of the time I am self-aware enough to catch myself in the absurdity of my intentions, self-aware enough to see just how much energy, to say nothing of time, is wasted in the heedless pursuit of sex for the sake of sex. A rollicking bang in bed will not satisfy the longing for release that only my partner's touch can provide. He is my top, whether he can top me genitally or not. In other words, he offers me a constancy in love that no amount of idle fucking ever could.

Additionally, I learn to find ways of fulfilling myself, to find outlet for the release I am seeking in the temporary thrill of anonymous sex through creative self-expression, namely through writing. This post, typed out on the laptop he gifted me as a graduation present this past May, is witness to such sublimation as I channel energy into something worthwhile, energy that would otherwise dissipate in a fruitless prowl--one that distracts me from what matters most in life and love: companionship.

Through this lens I see my lover for who he is and what he has to contribute to the bond--and, in this, all that I am being given to receive--rather than for what he, or I, seem to lack. It's an everyday challenge, but one in which I am learning to distinguish the difference between resenting my lover and resenting his disease, realizing that the resentment I feel toward him is really a reflection of my own character defects: selfishness, greed, lust, envy, jealousy. For I get topped, which is to say, I find fulfillment, in all of the small gestures that can make life grand, simple though they may be--such as when he prepares his signature Chicken enchilada dish or meat loaf, or talks dirty to me, or gives me an unsolicited kiss on the lips, or massages my shoulder, or rubs my feet, or smiles at me, or when we accompany each other on long neighborhood or beach-side hikes, or when he lets me top him. These interactions and more create an appreciating currency in our shared savings in love so that we might build the future I imagine us living together: one that involves, quite literally, building a home.

True love is compromise. As popular wisdom goes, we give by receiving; we receive by giving. But we can only learn how to receive by knowing what it is we are being offered. We can only learn to give by knowing what's worth giving up. For me, commitment in love is a matter of giving up the "hungry ghost," to put it in Buddhist terms, that is perceived lack, manifesting as an unbridled sexual appetite for multiple partners to fill what sometimes strikes me as a void in love.

Instead, I choose one--the One.

Once we acknowledge the benefits of cashing in our individual investments in self-serving pursuits for the purposes of storing up a joint account in love, we see how rich in life we actually are. For nothing outweighs the pay-offs of having a constant companion: loyalty, security, stability. These are treasures unaccounted for in a life of promiscuity, in a life of restless looking for the best lay. Being grateful for what I've got keeps me accountable to a process of self-searching discernment by which I am able to see the very thing which divides me and my partner--age and the complications that come with it--as that which brings us closer together. The mental gymnastics is a needless expenditure after all.

I therefore draw energy from gratitude rather than expending it on bitterness when I remember the ways in which the one I'm with fulfills my most primary of human needs--the need for love--that render a 15-minute quickie (or even a prolonged session) with someone other than the one I love the most non-sensical and downright destructive (to self and other). Being thankful in this way increases my reaction time when I get caught up in the fog of lust and its attendant sense of perceived lack that haunts me most when I'm not paying attention, obscuring my sense of what has been, as long as I have known the one I'll call Beloved, a tenderness as warm as the sun.