On Meaning, Monogamy, and Marx

I’m standing in a room, arguing with progressive pastors who believe the very structure and intention of the modern-day church is a new form of empire-building, inherently connected to imperialism. (Yes, we are drunk and high.)

“We have to tear down these structures that are ultimately hurting people. We need to quit gathering simply because we agree with each other, casting anyone out that doesn’t submit.” The nameless pastor says quite articulately for being on his fourth beer.

“Agreed.” I say, also not sober and also slightly annoyed. “But I’m tired of tearing everything down. I’m tired of deconstruction. When do we start building something? Where can we gather?”

I had been doing this work of deconstruction for six years now, walking away from the faith of my parents. But now I was ready to believe in something; now I was ready to build something from the rubble, and nameless pastor wasn’t giving me answers, like a good pastor should; instead, he was further problematizing the questions I already had.

I’m grateful for my deconstruction. I’m grateful for calling everything into question. But I’m also exhausted from living in rubble. It gets cold most nights, and I want to start building a home.

I think this is one of the hardest works of exvangelicals.

It’s easy to call into question the beliefs and systems that have hurt us. (Well… maybe not emotionally. Emotionally it’s absolutely terrifying.) But it’s always easier to tear something down than to build something back up, whatever that may look like (e.g. atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism, a conglomerate of everything). And when everything you believed in was a lie (or you’re trying to find out what was a lie and what wasn’t), I think the more important work is going about building something to find shelter for the soul.

For most of our lives, we’ve been told, “Here’s the building you live in; here are the house rules you live by, and here’s your room, the lot in life you’ve been assigned.” And in doing, we surrender our agency and meaning-making, something so intrinsic to who we are as humans.

Hegel, and later Marx, would call this abstraction: a process of removing something of yourself to let it then rule over you. An example of this, according to Marx, would be monarchy: the abstraction of our own personal power and authority, something that is intrinsically ours, being given or surrendered to someone else. (This thought of abstraction would climax with Marx’s ideas around the commodity, saying wages are abstracted labor, ruling and dominating our lives.)

Part of the work of the deconstructionist is not to simply tell the Church/Christianity, “You will stop ruling over me.” We can’t stop there. We must pull back within ourselves that which we surrendered because we didn’t know we had a choice, things like authority, autonomy, and meaning making. And in reclaiming those abstracted parts of us, we must then do the work of building a house for ourselves, rather than inheriting the one given to us.

And if we don’t do this work, we’re bound for Nihilism.

Nihilism can be this terrifying thing. If nothing matters, if we’re just a product of chance and chaos, what’s the point? What’s the meaning?

Christianity, in spite of all its flaws, gave us these answers. We didn’t need to discover them for ourselves.

But now a lot of us have rejected them, and if we don’t forge new answers, answers that we believe in, the consequences are dire.

In Viktor Frankl’s powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning, he catalogs story after story of Jewish prisoners surviving or perishing in concentration camps based solely on meaning.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

His whole argument revolves around this premise, a premise forged and tested in the walls of Auschwitz.

While my relationship to the Bible has changed over the years, Frankl’s thoughts make me think of a long-forgotten verse: “For lack of vision my people perish.”

As long as Frankl and his fellow prisoners assigned meaning, any meaning, to their terrible circumstances, they were able to survive, while the ones who didn’t perished.

I think his premise holds true today.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, the younger someone is, the more likely they are to commit suicide, and according to the Pew Research Center, the younger someone is, the more likely they are to be de-churched. Am I arguing that church or religion is the answer to mental health? Absolutely not. In fact, for queer people, growing up in religious institutions makes them more susceptible to suicide than their peers raised outside of religion. What I am saying is that religion does provide meaning, a work a lot of us have yet to embark on. But if we are to build something that is healthy, something that matters, we have to find meaning on our own, or rather, we need to assign meaning to the life we live.

When I moved to Korea, I didn’t get a “Thus saith the LORD” moment. I didn’t have a burning bush in my friend’s townhome. But when I moved, I decided it would have meaning. I took something common — a move to another country — and infused it with meaning. I had moved to Korea to find myself, to have a year of figuring out what I wanted from life, and that infusion of meaning filled my days with color and brightness, in spite of Korea being genuinely difficult. The process made me intentionally live, rather than letting life simply happen to me.

If we are to survive and live a life that means something, we must assign it meaning; we must set intentions. It’s our work. No one else’s. And we can’t just assign meaning to life in broad strokes because life is not one canvas. Life is composed of parts and pieces. If we are to live a life full of color, we must take each of those pieces, and infuse them with meaning.

And for me, an important piece I want to infuse with meaning is my sex life.

According to a survey by Compare Camp, one in three gay men are in an open relationship while their straight counterparts report one in ten. Why is the percentage significantly higher in gay relationships than in straight? Could it be that men are just horndogs? Very likely, as our libido is on average higher than the average woman’s, and we’re socialized to believe that every man is uncontrollably horny while women are socialized to be almost asexual (I have friends who are women who felt they were broken because they wanted sex growing up, and that’s genuinely startling), not to mention only 5% of lesbian couples say they are in an open relationship.

I also think it’s likely due in part to the history of a gay person. We learn early on that our sexual urges are not okay, that they’re not safe. So we force them down, deep inside us, and that repression was debilitating, so much so that most of us are still picking up the pieces of who we are after coming out. Now, on the other side of the closet, any form of sexual urge is given permission because how could we risk forcing down another sexual urge. Didn’t we get hurt the last time we did that? This concept, I think, is one reason why I think open relationships are more common in queer relationships than they are in straight.

But I also think another reason gay men are more likely to be in open relationships is attached to this idea of abstraction.

Growing up, 90% of the time, a queer kid is born into a straight household, and those households are full of sexual expectations, sexual abstractions, that are intrinsically against us, ruling over us with a menacing rage. The effect is one of pain and self-hatred: an idea that The Velvet Rage elaborates on at length.

As a result, many gay men break loose of these abstractions, refusing to be bound by anything that looks remotely heteronormative, including monogamy.

“Why would I define my sexuality by straight standards?” They say, as if being monogamous is somehow bowing to heteronormativity, the system that abused us.

And if this is the case, why do I want monogamy? Why do I choose it when the whole horizon of sexual ethe stretches before me? Is it because I’m simply inheriting a heteronormative sexual ethic when I should be inventing my own? Is it because I’m scared of what people may think? Don’t I know that humans are primates and primates aren’t meant to be monogamous? Isn’t it against nature? Am I fighting against science?

When I look at a lot of my friends in open relationships, especially the ones that say, “Why would you subscribe to monogamy when it’s a heteronormative construct?”, my argument back to them is that heteronormativity is still driving the car of their decisions.

Here’s what I mean: Instead of turning right, moving towards monogamy, they turn left, not because they necessarily want it, but because it is further from heteronormativity. With this in mind, sure you turned away from heteronormativity, but it looks like heteronormativity is still driving your car.

Which makes sense. At a fundamental level, there will always be some reactivity to life and the pain it causes. It’s a pendulum swing, and it’s common to all spheres of life. For example, kids who were raised by controlling parents are more likely to rebel against their upbringing than those who were raised in more open environments. It just happens. When one is leaving an abusive place, it doesn’t matter where you’re running, just get as far away as possible from the pain, and the furthest space away is directly the opposite. But at what point do we stop running, take a breath, and decide where we want to be, not letting the ruling of our past further determine our future?

In the end, I think there is a more difficult but more true way, a more honest way, a way that stands in the rubble, though it be painful, dusting off bricks, one by one, so that we can examine what we genuinely want, no longer reacting but instead infusing those bricks with new meaning, reclaiming one’s own power and agency.

Here is the meaning I am infusing into monogamy, a brick I have chosen — not inherited, not reacted to, not ran from — chosen.

Inflation and depreciation are intimately connected to supply and demand.

I don’t only want to assign meaning to my monogamy, I want to inflate my sex with value, adding a new layer of richness to my life. Sure, it gets hard. Choosing someone is a hard act. But again, that’s where value comes from.

Have you ever eaten a pomegranate that you’ve broken open and carefully pulled the seeds from yourself? And, have you ever accidentally knocked the bowl of loose seeds into the drain after all that time and effort? It’s heartbreaking! Far more heartbreaking than when you buy those cheater packets of pre-loose seeds from Trader Joes!

Or how about wine? Which wine is the most expensive? A new vintage? A global brand shipped across the world? No. It’s the one that has been sealed and aged, adding new levels of richness every year. It’s the one you can only get from that one small winery that you have to go to in-person and buy directly from the owner.

Take the Melanzana hoodie for example: A simple but beautifully designed outdoor sweater that you can only get while in person from their store in Leadville. The waitlist is so long, locals who live in Leadville have been stalked through social media by desperate buyers offering to pay them double or even triple for the sweater if they’ll go to the store, wait in line, and it to them, and the hoodies are already $78, a price that has skyrocketed in recent years due to its limited supply.

Value, whether monetarily or emotionally is intrinsically connected to supply and demand.

When I have sex with my partner, while having fun and getting off is great, I want more value, more layers, more richness. I want to learn my lover’s body. I want to explore each and every surface, under each and every new year of light. When I have sex, I want to stare into the eyes of my lover, the one I have chosen, chosen above all others; and somehow, by the very act of choosing, every day, inflate our sex with value. Because it is something unique. Because it is something rare. Not because some book or person told me it’s holy: a fancy term for setting something apart — but because I made it holy, because I set it apart, infusing it with value, infusing it with meaning.

I’m not a psychologist. And I have more to learn. But what I do know is that while I was having a lot of casual (and I mean a lot of it; my body count is in the hundreds), I felt even more lonely, and maybe it’s because I was robbing myself of value, of giving myself to anyone that was willing to have a good time. Sex became this cheap stupid little plastic ring I could get from a quarter-turn container that I’ll forget exists the second it rolls under the couch. It’s so easily accessible. Right now, I could download an app or open up a browser and have sex in less than an hour. And I think that ease of access has robbed it of its value. I know it definitely has for me, but I also think it goes beyond me, as important gay books like The Velvet Rage and Faggots and a powerful articles like “Gay Loneliness” by Michael Hobbes all showcase the gay dilemma: We have the most amount of sex and yet feel the most alone.

At the end of the day, I can’t know for sure. These are all just random meanderings of a gay guy trying to find his way. What I do know is that my mental health has significantly improved since I’ve decided to not engage in casual sex. And while monogamy is a brick from that old house of heteronormativity, I think I want to reclaim it. I think I want to dust it off and make it mine, infusing it with my own meaning and value. What do I have to lose? A bunch of sex? Like I said, it’s lost its luster for me. It’s become too common. But sex with a lover that I trust and I’m building a life with and that I’m exploring sexually with? I think that’s something I’d like to fight for.

And that’s why I have chosen monogamy.

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