By Brian Blanchfield, from Proxies, an essay collection that will be published in April by Nightboat Books. Blanchfield is the author, most recently, of A Several World, a volume of poetry.
I can’t bring myself to rhyme it with “cottage,” but I’ve heard it pronounced that way. The French pronunciation makes it sound like a delectation, a frill or a whip, a froth. Anyway that’s the one I say when I say it. I don’t know when I first had the word, or whose word it was — not someone I did it with. I know I was doing it without a word for it, and with men who didn’t seem to have a preestablished idea of the thing or its name, young men doing what comes naturally. Put their mouths together in a kiss and between their bodies no room for daylight.
Like other sex terms founded in circumspection (I imagine it used capably in one of the poems Auden kept in a drawer), frottage is unstable in its definition, particularly at the dividing lines of generation and orientation. Among older straight people, it seems primarily to mean a sociopathic, furtive rubbing against strangers in crowded places like subway cars. (“Masher!” was the cry in sitcoms already long in syndication when I was young — followed by a customary whack to the head with a heavy purse, whereupon over the laugh track the hapless innocent taken for pervert stammers his explanation.) As it happens, furtiveness (I’ll claim it) is one of my defining attributes, and something I miss about New York is the erotic charge of returned glances in crowded places, and even the brush of intention under the cover of accident. I have leaned back yes into excessive leaning. But frottage, to gay guys I know, has nothing to do with that.
Frottage is rather a broad category of consensual, nonpenetrative, (usually) hands-free sex wherein both ideally naked bodies press against each other frontally (most often), and genital stimulation for one or both is achieved by rhythmic movement along the vertical axes of the bodies. If the two are no longer standing, verticality is remembered in the movements that the bodies find. Up and down rather than in and out, as a general rule. The grinding, in my experience, begins crotch to crotch and eventually comes to situate one guy along and against the other guy’s perineum; frequently this gets fervid enough that you come away abraded or achy, depending. Variants are endless. Frottage, as a term, is not necessarily specific to men with men; it’s also a kind of sex women have with women; although tribbing — similar in principle, I think, and similarly variable — and scissoring, missionary or otherwise, are terms not shared by cisgender men. I’m not sure what along these lines men and women do together, though I think dry humping is still a term in use, which raises the question: to what extent is frottage, or whatever wordless thing it is we do with one another and have done for millennia, understood as simulating penetrative sex? To say it is derivative of intercourse discounts the draw it has: you follow your partner’s pleasure there. But as pleasure builds it’s not unusual for one to say to the other, “I want you inside me,” or “I can feel what it would feel like to be inside you.”
It was at first a surprise, and then a kind of discovery I came to expect — like sex itself, both singular and repeatable — that the partners I found in New York were, same as in North Carolina, where I’m from, rarely expressly into penetration. What did we solve — a metaphysics, a phobia? — each time we kept the sex exterior? Sometimes we marveled that we should have found such a fit, that we were called to this (we coaxed each other), that if before tonight there had been a script there was with each other a thrill in ditching it. How little the world knew!: ever the cry of the lover. Here’s the thing about that time that doesn’t seem transhistorical. Easily half the guys who hours before had been strangers said or else heard me say, in an early pause, catching our breath or resetting to attune to the ambient moment: “We don’t have to do anything.” The opening for disinclination was the space of intimacy. As hesitation, it often functioned anyway as aphrodisiac; and as pass, password. You’re like me. We’re okay.
At a time, in the mid-Nineties, when New York saw its climbing AIDS death rate reach the highest level in the history of the epidemic, regular daily dosage of AZT and other medications (together known as the cocktail) was determined a lifesaving protocol for the walking ill and infected, if they were not too far fallen already. Neither fact in this treacherous chiasmus would be evident — or believable — until much later. I arrived in the city in June 1996, and found the gaunt, unsteady, depleted men fifteen or twenty years older than me to be much as I had imagined them, back in Chapel Hill: aged beyond their years, lost (“wasting” is the medical term) inside sweaters far too large and occasionally insufficient for the purpose of concealing the sarcoma lesions that emerged anyway at the neckline or cuff. That summer Thanatos and Eros was an intersection quite as real as Christopher and Hudson. The tragedy selected me from central casting to cross their paths; I was functionally necessary to complete the tragedy, in fact. To elicit in a man a glance and then from somewhere his instant reproval of that glance, to watch the flicker of interest stanched, renounced altogether (an apostasy on those streets) or else transmuted to raw resentment, even dark prophecy for the fresh, healthy arriviste. A few times audibly: Fuck you. It was only in books I knew the concept of queer tutelage.
Does any fifteen-year-old ask: what is the maturation end point of my sexuality? Where is this thing going, this burgeoning attraction to — in my case — other boys? Is there someone out there who has arrived where I want to be? Can I visualize lasting fulfillment? No. Mostly the future he imagines is fantasy’s subjunctive version of the present, were the beloved here now next to me with his impossible eyelashes, his snug jeans, and his heart-racing smirk: what might happen. But in 1988 extrapolation tugged heavily on otherwise sexy contingent if/then calculations. It was grave. I mean, mine was a generation like those before and after that deeply, darkly valued the category faggot, which organized like a lodestar all nascent masculinity, choreographing in any room or gym or field how far from one another we stood. In 1988, if you privately understood you were gay and you were capable of basic logical continuity, you had made the implicit equation between your own attraction to men and the depthless suffering of AIDS victims stranded in their crisis on the nightly news — and not just their appreciable agony but also their leprous toxicity. Reports regularly stressed their reckless, even willful communication of the virus to others. Sex between men that resulted in infection was in some instances prosecuted as attempted murder or manslaughter, and men who spat on H.I.V.-negative cops were maximally sentenced for aggravated assault.
For so much lethality the American imagination needed monsters to blame and to fear; likewise, to justify the paternalistic hard lines that might be drawn to keep its children safe. The corruption of the young innocent was to be avenged — until the moment he seroconverted, whereupon he too was hastened into villainy. Many of the men sick in San Francisco and New York were dying disowned by their families of origin. Programmatic mass quarantine was debated, and camps — camps — were publicly contemplated. Late in the Reagan presidency William F. Buckley proposed in a reasonable tone an emergency measure to tattoo the buttocks of all H.I.V.-positive men as a “warning” to potential sex partners. I can recall Tom Brokaw managing the phrase “tattoo the buttocks”: an indignity to him, one felt. America beheld in its mind’s eye for a moment the firm young ass unwrapped, the quarry somewhere of the sodomite whose predation would be foiled by the guile of the state. Let me be candid: I had no better (and no less prurient) idea than anyone around me about what “counted” as gay sex. But that news came within weeks of the day I ceased in my autoerotic life the ludicrous rationing bargains I had made with myself regarding images of girls instead of boys. I remember in the complex acceptance a feeling of immanent correctness, consigning myself to a short life expiring on one of the already iconic cots, abandoned, ravaged, fouled, destitute, panicked, eyes listing in their bony orbits. I was what I was; it was in me already.
I never had a sex life without having a status. The two were inextricable. My early vision of partnership was in fact sealed fast by H.I.V.: if finally you and he were infected and allegiance followed whatever tearful forgiveness, it seemed to me you could not uncouple, conjoined in the blood. That was my gay marriage. The brave intimacy, and then hurtling undead together through the newly meaningless trappings of the world, liberated by the worst once it had happened. It took years to learn that a lot of guys my age harbored this fantasy.
That our psyches were similarly imprinted by the epidemic was the kind of thing you learned, I learned, one-on-one, in bed, often after sensing — in the compatibility of what we found hot, which limits and uncertainties we had eroticized — that our bodies, too, already belonged to AIDS. The leap, if you dared, in the logic of contagion, was that consequently we belonged to each other, were responsible to each other (pass it on); these bonds, these pairings, were, I started to trust, fastening a social order among us, by which we might raise one another into an unforeseen adult queerness. It would be manifold, loving, defiant, permissive, heedful, like our encounters. It would be a slow build.
I had been in New York three months — fewer than a dozen people in the world knew my address and phone number — when, in September 1996, in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, I received a call from the New York State Health Department. I was alone. The conversation was quick. A health official tersely delivered the news: Benjamin Rowan (name altered here) had listed me as a sex partner and had tested positive for H.I.V. somewhere in Georgia. It was urgent that I make an appointment to be tested myself before a date two weeks from then; the result would be reported to both me and the state. With no doctor or insurance (I was working as an office temp), I took the number and the Bedford-Stuyvesant address they gave me, and hung up. It was happening. I wasn’t yet out to my parents. I recounted to myself each time — eight, nine — that Ben and I had been together, and turned forensic in my memory. I planned my next steps. I called and emailed Ben. No answer. His former roommates in Charlotte weren’t helpful about where or why he was out of state. But they had mail to forward to him and would give him the message to call me. I had to tell David, whom I was dating in New York. He decided to stay where he was that night, with his brother’s friends in the city, and for the next several days. He said he’d wait and see what would happen, didn’t much see why he should worry. The day came; I transferred from the F to the C train, which I had never taken farther into Brooklyn, and got off at Nostrand. The clinic was busy — there as on the train I stood out for my whiteness — and the practitioner I met with semiprivately was frank: As many as half the people who were testing at that center would be H.I.V. positive, even more who’d had phone calls like mine. I should think about my support system. I should return in ten days to get my results in person.
It was very early one morning when Ben finally called; he was keeping strange hours, had been working as a club promoter in Atlanta. He sounded weird, stoned, exhausted, or just remote, and told me that he hadn’t been with anyone since me, and since he and I had been exclusive in the months we were together, he had concluded that I must have infected him. His tone sharpened; he didn’t want to talk anymore. That was that, this is it, I kept saying to myself in the emotional free fall of the next several hours.
The day of my trip back to Bed-Stuy was a crucible, some kind of parable in danger and courage. After the transfer, a couple of stops in, two young men about my age stepped separately into the C train and stood facing each other at opposite ends of our car, hurling threats, spitting invectives. This was the end of a chase. Within a few seconds each had drawn a handgun, and their voices began to rise and even to shriek. Their rage was full of real, mortal fear. Many of us on the train began to look down and still our movements, as if any of us could disappear. I think they would have killed each other had an older man in the middle of the car not stood between them, speaking to both with his hands outstretched, alternating his eyes’ attention, balancing. He must have been seventy-five, hair entirely white, his face bumpy with black freckles; in a sure, even voice, he began to tell them what was going to happen next. He conducted them from the middle, insisting as the train was slowing for the next stop that the man at the far end get off, save two lives if not more, and just walk on. He did, and when the doors closed, the gunman closer to me began to shake uncontrollably. Pin-drop silence until he departed too, at the next station platform. I followed him off. It was my stop. The results were waiting. I was negative.
Ben, too. I found out weeks later, when he returned more of my calls, that his test had been a false positive. The blood bank had been mistaken. Georgia and New York stood down. The worst had happened and then had been undone.
I went on undoing it.