On the outdoor patio of a bar and grill: a gay Syrian Jew, a lesbian with a mom and two dads, a straight New York Jew, and me. Beers all around. A chili burger for me, a tofu salad for someone else. All academic types, yet the conversation, of course, is about sex.

Straight guy, to me: “So stop me if I’m prying, but in your experience, are you one of those gay men who is also incredibly promiscuous? I mean, do you find most gay men to be promiscuous?” He says this animatedly, but contains himself from projecting out loud.

Given my relative lack of experience, I want to laugh, but I know my Syrian friend is the type to broadcast his sexual escapades and habits, his occasional rendezvous at the local steam baths, his late night excursions to a popular San Francisco sex club. I can’t be disrespectful. But I choose to lean holier than thou and suggest my disapproval.

I shake my head. “No, I’m definitely not one of those gay men,” I assert, “It’s just not me. I don’t mind if other people do it, but I think as far as dating and sex, I’m looking for a more traditional type of experience.” I decide that tradition, with its connotations of valor and innocence, with its subtle implication that deviance exists, was just cocky enough to rope the other gay guy into the conversation.

I am right. He stops us, but at another word: “Wait, but what do you mean by promiscuous?” He wants to defend his lifestyle. “Just because I’m sex-positive doesn’t mean I whore myself out.”

Sex-positive: a term that a former machismo roommate introduced to me as self-evident in its definition—the quality of being attitudinally positive about sex, sexuality, and sexual experiences. At the time, my roommate accused me of not being sex-positive because I wasn’t interested in having it daily. I’d like to suggest to him now, after thinking about it for a year, that you don’t need to have sex frequently in order to be sex-positive. Can’t you be positive about sex but choose to be selective or—dare I say it: conservative—in your sexual expression? Does positivity necessarily correlate with a higher numerical value?

My friend, sex-positivity incarnate, continues (with passion, of course): “I’ll go home with boys who can come to a mutual decision with me. We want to sleep with each other and see what happens. We’re obviously attracted to each other, and there’s no more honest time between two guys than laying around, post-coital, talking. I think of promiscuous, and I think of jumping from man to man without agenda. I’m sex-positive because I have no problems with sex and can see it going further from there.”

By now, the three college students at a neighboring table are quiet.

In my head, a split-second flashback to an article I read on the reversal of romance over the last half-century: In the old days—or what people want to remember of it—couples dated, courted, and when attraction escalated, they consummated their relationship. Today, people consummate casually and freely, only evaluating after the fact if something else is there. Which one is more fun? Which one is safer? Which one works best in the long run?

The only woman at our table chimes in, academic claws ready to attack: “And traditional—what does that really mean?”

I purposefully keep things light. I turn my eyes to the side and flinch my cheek upward as if to blush. “Like in the movies.” I don’t blush though, because for me, this is true. I want the improbable movie romance.

Laughter. Initial disbelief.

“But come on,” my gay friend prods, “how many times have you picked someone up at a bar?”


“Well,” my lesbian friend continues, expecting something juicier to bring proof to her disbelief, “how many times have you been picked up at a bar?”


“Really?” the Syrian, still skeptical, presses. He pauses, his hand clasped around the pitcher, but not ready to pour. I can tell he’s not used to being around the relatively sexless; his truth, perhaps, lives in the tradition of primetime drama, that perpetually smoky and drunk bar of the everyman in which sex—not socializing—is the objective. This is what twenty-somethings do, he might posit: choose to make sex positive or make sex negative.

But what to do with me, or with the experience of just no sex? Is no sex always bad sex? While clarifying the two branches of so-called promiscuity, is it possible to apply the same idea to its opposite: prudishness? Must a sexual conservative—someone not necessarily abstinent but still getting, whether by choice or not, less than average—be plundered into the black hole of prudishness? Is he or she, for example, boring—as opposed to naughty—by nature?

In my head, the wheels turn: With times, connotations, and traditions changing, how are we supposed to define romance, let alone find it? Or, have we now come to a point where our words can no longer define our actions? Does our action—or lack thereof—define our words? What does it mean to be positive about an idea whose meaning we can’t even agree on?

I zoom back into the real world. I hesitate about, then decide against, sharing my questions; the academics, after all, are talking about sex.

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