“We don’t have sex outside of the relationship,” my young friend shared with me.

He then proceeded to tell me about a party at which he watched his husband make out with another person.  

“I was happy for him,” he said. “I wanted him to have that fun.”

He also described sleepovers with friends during the COVID containment during which he, his husband, and his friends would cuddle during the night.  

“Do people get erections and touch one another?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“That’s sex,” I offered. “How are you guys defining sex outside of the relationship?”  

“Anal penetration.”

“But, for me and many others, fondling another person’s erect penis is sex,” I said. “Erotic kissing is sex.”  

“Well then,” he replied, “I guess we have sex outside of the relationship.”

As most of us have learned, open, honest communication is essential for the health and growth of any relationship, but so too is understanding what is being communicated.  

Some high school girls who want to be sexual but don’t want to “lose their virginity,” allow for anal sex. If the hymen hasn’t been torn, they reason, they are technically a virgin no matter how many times, and with how many partners they’ve had anal sex. One friend of mine calls that the “poop hole loophole.”  

At dinner tonight, a heterosexual woman friend asked if we’d seen the television series, “Anatomy of a Scandal.” It concerns a trial in which a high-ranking political figure is accused of rape during his time in college. She had watched the program with her elderly father who felt that the two parties had different perspectives on what transpired several years before. The woman character felt she had clearly said, “No,” and the male character felt that she had encouraged his attention and was unclear that she didn’t want things to go any further. He called her “a prick tease.”  

We at the dinner table found ourselves talking about how difficult it is to apply today’s standards of open, honest communication between sexual partners to what transpired 50 or more years ago. The women’s liberation movement helped us all understand the lack of power women felt they had in past relationships, and how the gender roles they were put in made it nearly impossible for them to clearly communicate “no.” Men, too, were confused by the peer pressure to “get past first base,” and the seeming sexual flirting they got from their female dates.  

I’ve often thought that if the “Me Too” movement shined its light on the gay male community, many people would be embroiled in legal proceedings, myself included. When I was young and in a gay bar, it wasn’t uncommon for me to get grabbed on the ass or in the crotch. I’ve seen the same behavior at some gay parties where alcohol makes it easier to cross boundaries you’d never want done to your son.  

People do the best they can with what they’ve got, and sometimes what they’ve got are conflicting signals about what’s appropriate sexual behavior. I wasn’t an innocent bystander when I got groped. I was in tight pants that accented my assets. I hungered for the attention, but wasn’t ready for it. As a cradle to crave Catholic, I was sexually frustrated and naïve. Is it any coincidence that my first live-in boyfriend was an Episcopal priest 15 years older than me, and the one who groped me in the first and only gay bar I knew at the time?  

As an adult, I’ve clumsily crossed lines a few times, and live with regret and guilt about it. In the eyes of the friends with whom I took liberties, there was no foul, and they probably can’t remember it happening. But I didn’t have the sexual maturity at the time to fully understand how my behavior might be unwanted, nor the good sense to distance myself from “a prick tease.”  

In helping others understand the power of sexual attraction, a teacher friend of mine used the example of the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker doing busy things until a female woodpecker walks by and flirts. Then, Woody’s eyes pop out, the top of his head opens up, and his brains fall out. Sexual excitement can be like that for men, and I’d argue for women too. Once anything sexual, sensual, or intimate with another person becomes apparent, a process is started that can be difficult to maturely manage.  

Gay, straight, or bisexual, the rules are the same. Take responsibility for your actions, whether it be feeling entitled to speak to, touch, or otherwise indicating sexual interest. Be aware of the signals you’re sending. Having a provocatively clad body suggests that you’re aware of your appeal and you hope to get a response. It may not be everyone’s attention you seek, but how are we supposed to know that?  

Speak up, ask questions, establish expectations, and respect the guidance you get. If you don’t say “no,” then don’t blame the other party for crossing the line.  

Finally, it’s unfair to judge the behaviors of those who lived in different eras without knowing and understanding what the societal messages, gender roles, and the levels of awareness were at the time.

Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.” Brian has a weekly YouTube/FaceBook podcast called, “Are You Happy Without the Movie?” and McNaught's latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray: Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives” is available now on Amazon for $14.99.