Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Burroughs and Ginsberg: Literary Heroes and Totally Gross Sex Predators

BURROUGHS... IN THE MID-60SYesterday we got some hate-mail-really though it was more like mildly upset mail-about referring to William S. Burroughs as a "dirty old poet." And while I really like me some Burroughs-I did sit around and listen to "You're the Guy I Want To Share My Money With" as a teen, so!-I realized that I also deeply, terribly dislike him. You know why? Those guys were all the worst. Setting aside the drugs and alcohol and their sons claiming to have been molested, at the age of 14, by friends of their father's, and, yes, the wife-shooting, it's also true that Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (a NAMBLA member, lest we forget) and their gang-some of whom are somehow still living, so, let's not name names-were literary rockstars who kept a steady supply of boy groupies as disposable sex toys.

Pretty much it was as gross as anything you can imagine about the lifestyle of a hair metal band in the 80s. By the first-hand accounts I've been told, they didn't care if the boys were 15 or 22 or were clearly extremely damaged from terrible childhoods; also, some of the groupies had sex with them all. And I'll always think of Burroughs as "old" because, first, he was born in 1914, after all, and to people born in the 60s and 70s, Ginsberg and Burroughs and their pals all were unspeakably old, in that way that anyone over 40 is already unfathomably old to someone who is 18.

And sure, lots of this was truly consensual, even the stuff that'd be considered statutory rape! And there's a whole crop of a generation that can pipe up at a dinner party and be all, "Burroughs? Ha, I remember when we shared a huge spike of heroin and we had sex! Hilarious! Can you imagine?" It's a good story!

(Related: one of the things I find refreshing about many of the gay millennials, by the way, is that it seems like more of them feel comfortable with and only largely attracted to people their own age. That's a good development.)

But just like "free love" so often meant that "chicks" should stop being "uptight" and have sex with whatever man wanted them to put out, fundamental to the whole post-beatnik and "groovy" literary and art scene of gay men was an idea that these, yes, old dudes came to think that it was their right to leverage their literary reputations to screw whichever troubled young boy most recently wanted their autograph.

So on some level, I'll always carry some enormous dislike for the characters that pop up to be the new-again counterculture heroes in movies like Milk and Howl. They were, apart from some of their excellent qualities, also totally skeevy, gross, drugged-out predators.

72 Comments / Post A Comment

A.R. Chrisman (#2,964)

"America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting."

HiredGoons (#603)

(best thing ever)

stevesilberman (#6,558)

Sorry Choire, love you and the Awl, but I knew Ginsberg very well for 20 years, and Burroughs slightly, and you're simply wrong — as in, factually incorrect, offbase, wack. Anyone who knew them well could tell you this. Yes, Ginsberg had many young lovers, like many a rock star (albeit in poetry) with an overgrown ego — many of whom are close friends of mine — and they were anything but "disposable sex toys" to him. He was tremendously loyal and helpful to his former lovers, even after most of them had gotten married and had kids (as they, like Ginsberg's partner Peter, were usually primarily straight.)

In fact, I spent last weekend with Ginsberg's former "boy toy" as described in many poems written in the '70s. He's now a sweet, very bright, very down-to-Earth guy who's now a middle-aged man with kids like me (except I have no kids and am a happily and legally married gay man.)

To be blunt, this post is much more about Choire Sicha and his evident embarrassment about getting older than it is about the Beats. Relax, Choire, it happens to the best of us.

Yes, Ginsberg had a long-term partner! And he was a lovely man in many ways! And I think very kindly and very supportive to many people.

There's also other reports that you've not gotten.

But you know, thanks for making it weirdly about me and my alleged issues about aging. That was weird! I don't actually have those!

But your point is a good one that these were complex people.

There's a period that you probably know more about that I'm interested in–which is when (and why) Ginsberg wasn't speaking to Burroughs. What was that over? Besides Ginsberg (allegedly) "spurning" Burroughs as a lover.

(I guess my point here is: I'm a little old-fashioned and I think it's quite clearly the responsibility of the adult to be a responsible party, and that consent is tricky with people who are teenagers. And that people who are on heroin maybe don't always make the best decisions.)

(And if anything, I would think this says way more about the me of a few decades ago than the allegedly "aging" me of today!)

stevesilberman (#6,558)

Choire, I appreciate your replies. Since I don't know you, I have no idea if you really have aging issues, but this post seemed very heavy-handed, obscuring more than it exposes. I certainly won't defend Burroughs shooting his wife Joan – definitely much worse than "creepy"! – but if you want a nuanced portrayal of what it was like to be a cute kid who slept with Ginsberg, read NPR reporter Matt Power's memory "Holy Soul," published in Heeb about a decade ago:


It's all there, dark and light. But mostly: human. Ginsberg was a complicated guy with a complicated emotional life (and an active sex life, for a guy who looked like my uncle), but he certainly didn't treat his lovers as "disposable sex toys" as you say. That's more like the opposite of the truth.

His life-partner Peter Orlovsky was indeed a lovely (and equally complicated) man. I wrote an intimate obit for Peter here:

Impossible Happiness

Keep up the good work, Choire. The Awl makes my mornings.

La Cieca (#1,110)

There's a sliding scale here between morality, law and taste. There is nothing inherently immoral in a 40 year old having sex with an 18 year old, and in most states there is nothing strictly illegal about a 50 year old having sex with a 17 year old. But in both cases there is a strong "eww" factor that tends to cloud the moral and legal argument, especially when you load it with terms like "boy groupies as disposable sex toys."

I just think it's unfair to view all this from the vantage point of a different century and a different (i.e., undamaged) psychology.

That said, I applaud you, Choire, for eschewing the use of boy groupies as disposable sex toys, and I hope many others in your generation will follow your example.

I will totally go read that, thank you!

Listen, these were complicated guys! As you know. They broke a lot of rules. A lot of them were rules that should have been broken. (Yes, not so much the gunplay probably.)

And people had different experiences with them. (ALSO: to be fair, painting Ginsberg with Burroughs' brush isn't totally correct.) That's going to happen with young people and sex. Some of them will think it's awesome then and awesome as time goes on. Some will think it's less than awesome. That's the joy of being a teenager–we get to make mistakes. But making mistakes with adults can be serious stuff when you're young.

And I think that when one person says "People I know had x experience with these people," and another person says "No, people had y experiences with these people," well, those are probably both true! But I'm not going to chalk your experience up to projection. Annnnd end Feminism 101 rant here. Heh.

BadUncle (#153)

FWIW, in most states, it's legal to pork a 16 year old. That doesn't necessarily make it the wisest choice. Of course, some of us don't really become adults until we hit our thirties. And really, I should have had my ass kicked all the way there. But all of this jibber jabber just makes me miss the Cedar Tavern.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

It's not weird at all.

And don't deflect.

Face the fact that you can't just walk down a campus and bang the first hot guy you see already.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Or girl in case that's how you want to deflect it. But then you would just be sick for wanting that gooey weird thing.

saythatscool (#101)

Every comment on here except PKD's disturbs me. Choire's right. You're all wrong.

sigerson (#179)

How about Burroughs' own son? "Billy was sent alone by air to Tangiers, Morocco to live with his father. In Tangiers, Billy was introduced to marijuana, and he experienced several unpleasant episodes of grown men attempting to rape him."

sigerson (#179)

p.s. – he was THIRTEEN. Billy later drank himself to death in 1981.

mathnet (#27)

(Who are you dumb millenials who aren't largely attracted to Choire Sicha?)

keisertroll (#1,117)

35 is the new 18.

keisertroll (#1,117)

If Walt Whitman was talking to the produce boy today, Chris Hanson would be waiting for him at frozen foods.

KarenUhOh (#19)

The pen is mightier.

Smitros (#5,315)

But the sword apparently got a workout, too.

Buffalo66 (#6,146)

"Pretty much it was as gross as anything you can imagine about the lifestyle of a hair metal band in the 80s."

Yeah, all except the part about the (statuatory) RAPING OF UNDERAGE BOYS. Jani Lane would be disgusted at your comparison.

HiredGoons (#603)


This precise subject has been on my mind that past few weeks.

Also, and this is not meant to be mean, but did Allen Ginsberg have a stroke or something that I never read about? Man's got one wandering eye and a bit o' slurry drawl.

Multiphasic (#411)

Well, the slight case of death he suffered from might have negatively impacted his attractiveness.

HiredGoons (#603)

Depends on who you ask.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Never did much care for those east Lawrence types.

La Cieca (#1,110)

As a non-millennial who is now presumably on the other side of the power equation thingy, I can now vaguely recall that one bit that I did sort of intuit back in my years of nubility was this: for every middle-aged skeeve leveraging his name or his money or his drugs, there's a kid on the make who's leveraging his own sources of power, i.e., youth and beauty.

It isn't until you first stack the deck with a redefinition of what constitutes power in a relationship (age, wealth, fame are the only qualifiers) and then infantilize young adults into utter mindlessness that the equation can be read as so badly unbalanced.

And, finally, isn't it clear that Burroughs and Ginsberg were pretty badly damaged themselves? Or do only the young and pretty get to claim "damage" as an excuse?

deepomega (#1,720)

I mean, the young and pretty would be able to claim "damage" as an excuse if they were the ones doing the statutory rape? What?

La Cieca (#1,110)

As an excuse for making questionable moral choices, I mean.

deepomega (#1,720)

Not to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you don't think that there are any consent issues associated with age? Like, you don't think that statutory rape is a thing? Which, ok, I guess we can talk about that but for the record I don't care what genders are involved, I think informed consent is (generally and for the most part) impossible when there's a teenager and a much older person. Treating this as a "moral" issue makes it sound like Ginsberg was cursing with his young partners, as opposed to statutorily raping.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

I think it most charming that writers and their acolytes think that they are so incredibly powerful that they must mete out their actions so as not to destroy society as a construct.

Or it could just be that at the fucking time they were doing little boys every goddamn priest and politician was too and it was socially acceptable.


It was just them and their powerful wicked power.

And they drove around in packs snatching little boys up and banging them at prom.

You know what I wanted to do when I was 14 yrs old and going through poverty?

Have sex with a guy. A powerful svengali? No.

Whatever got my dick hard and wet.

WTF is wrong with all of you? Not everyone was raped at 3.

Some of us, like myself, led a rather boring unrapefilled life and become a teenage horn dog because my balls filled with sperm and my penis felt good to play with.

Seriously, some of you sound like sick fucks the way you act like this world is teeming with children screaming out silently while being sodomized by Mandingo (Father O'Shaunessy for you liberals) with broomsticks.

La Cieca (#1,110)

Thank you for not putting words into my mouth, particularly those words. Statuatory rape is a thing, yes: a legal thing, and big awkward blunt instrument that is of little use in a moral argument.

"Teenager" is a very slippery term too, seeing as how it can be applied equally to a very sheltered child who had a 13th birthday last week and to a very experienced adult who will be 20 next week. In between is a huge range of gradation.

My problem rests with the assumption that no teenager is capable of making such an informed decision; that is, defining "informed" so far upward that few 25 year olds would be capable of rising to its level. This, to me, has little to do with protecting the innocence youth and everything to do with demonizing sexuality in general.

I can recall that among the big talking points in the Clinton/Lewinsky brouhaha was that she was "a young girl" or "too young to understand what she was doing" or "the same age as his daughter." In other words, the sex was dirty because she was a child and therefore any sex she had was wrong.

So, if you ask the question, I say: absent a complaint of abuse, I think it's a better idea to respect the privacy of consenting individuals. Given that the subjects of Choire's piece are all now long since adults, that's even more reason why it's none of our business.

deepomega (#1,720)

I hear what you're saying about teenagers having a wide range of responsibility, and I mean to a certain extent, yes, this was years ago and also the 70s. But if you accept this argument with Ginsberg, why wouldn't you accept it with, say, Roman Polanski? Catholic (boy-fucking) priests? Etc.? I think a lot of shitty sexual behavior from the 70s goes unexamined because "It Was The 70s", and seeing as how Choire isn't suggesting a civil suit I'd rather the realities of the lifestyles be discussed.

Baboleen (#1,430)

Any teenager 16 and younger is deemed too young to make an INFORMED decision. So, just as adults may not agree with many laws, we have to obey them. They may be sexually mature, but not emotionally or intellectually mature enough to know the possible unintended consequences of their actions.

La Cieca (#1,110)

Since when does sexual behavior from the 1970s "go unexamined?" It's been the rallying cry of the culture wars since 1980. I agree that teenagers need help in understanding sexual responsibility, which is one reason I can't fathom the attitude that "informed consent" snaps on like a light bulb on the 18th birthday.

La Cieca (#1,110)

Of course I also can't fathom the attitude that suddenly typing in all caps somehow makes one's argument more morally compelling, though I admit that "RAPING OF UNDERAGE BOYS" is a bit more eyecatching than "raping of underage boys."

keisertroll (#1,117)

I was at the National Gallery of Art Sunday and caught the exhibit of Ginsberg's photography. I'd hate to be the curator looking for the one naked self-portrait fit for display.

Michael Savage talks about his friendship with Ginsberg from time to time on his radio program. Very odd.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I was reading this old NAMBLA story in Boston magazine the other day, and I got to the part about Ginsberg and felt like an idiot for not knowing about this aspect of his life. They don't teach you some things in high school English, I suppose. (The story is worth reading irregardless of your feelings on Ginsberg, also.)

HiredGoons (#603)

"The '70s were an incredible time…"

And that's when I clicked 'close tab.'

deepomega (#1,720)

Incredibl…y pederasty?

keisertroll (#1,117)

The correct term is 'pederasty-y'.

G Garcia-Fenech (#4,190)

Thank goodness heterosexual writers would never even dream of abusing their power like that.

Matt (#26)

Way to go, Bukowski.

La Cieca (#1,110)

You obviously haven't heard that the male-female dynamic is inherently power-unbalanced, so there is no such thing as a consensual heterosexual relationship.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

@Matt I am really enjoying all the Bukowski potshots you've been taking recently, even if I am totally unaware as to what trauma brought them on.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Miles Have you READ Bukowski?

Miles Klee (#3,657)


HiredGoons (#603)

He gives dirty old men a bad name.

G Garcia-Fenech (#4,190)

Erm, I hope my sarcasm was palpable.

Matt (#26)

@G Garcia-Fenech: Oh it was! I had just been looking for an opening for my patented catch-phrase and this was it!

sox (#652)

I'm with Miles, loving these Bukowski references this week Matt!

I read Women the year I graduated from college and felt like I was peaking inside the every-man's brain. (yes, also my childhood was a bit dodgy and now I know better.) But I still found it incredibly enjoyable in my 22 year old brattiness.

Rod T (#33)

You know, now that gays are actually getting old again (and not dropping like flies from AIDS) this topic is going to return. While a bunch of homosexuals (the media-friendly ones) will be struggling to get their place on Today's "Modern Day Wedding Contest", others will still be Single Men, having sex with all ages. While "society" is pretty cool with the 50 year-old with a twenty-something gal pal, it will be interesting to see exposed the same dynamic for gays.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

"Society" is "cool" with hetero 50/20? Did I miss a post-Cougar trend piece?

Return? Haven't folks been making fun of David Geffen for years now?

La Cieca (#1,110)

Hetero 50/20 evokes a good deal of "eww" but not (generally) outcries about how power/wealth dynamics make informed consent impossible. (This does not count Jezebel, where all social interactions are by definition species of date rape.)

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@r_t I have adored your comments for years. But. At the risk of turning into a question mark, since when does Hefner-related product indicate what society accepts as cool?

All ______ is rape.

But Beat excuses are the best! "Nobody does more harm than somebody who feels bad about doing it."

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

And if they'd repented?

EAT (#4,511)

Growing up around gays, both of my parents' generation and my own, I definitely see the spring-autumn age dynamic as something that is also helpful for young, gay men. Many younger dudes need someone older, more established and comfortable with themselves, their lifestyle, and their scene, to show them the ropes (no, not those ropes) of gay society. My friends, arguably Gen Xers, definitely started their gay dating with men at least 10 years their senior. Now, mostly, they date around their own age.
I think that the reason millennials are dating their peers, which I've noticed too, is because of the way gay culture has evolved. Most of my friends were too embarrassed to come out until after college, while nowadays kids are flaming all over elementary school. Which is cool, but different from gaystyles past. Sometimes it's ok to have an older person mentor a younger sexually/socially, though, obvs, only if it's consensual and the younger one's not a baby-teenager.

doubled277 (#2,783)

Totally agree

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

This is not Greece of yore.

Have none of you ever listened to a sophomore in college bitch about how every bf he ever had was a slimey cheater whore that would do it with anyone as their reason for dating older guys?

It's like you all live on some stage in London c. 1840's discussing the raw animality of sexual pursuits as if it was some intellectual enterprise filled with thought and sound and fury signifying something.


EAT (#4,511)

Sometimes you have to be cerebral about it, cause honestly, who wants to fuck an old guy?

I thought all men were disposable sex toys.

La Cieca (#1,110)

If only.

Jennifer Zito (#8,947)

La Cleca, you are one smart cookie. I could make a comment but you've been saying everything I've been thinking, worrying,and pondering about on this subject better than I could.

Sakurambobomb (#1,722)

Sorry, but could we review how Harvey Milk gets thrown into the Beat Poets crowd?

La Cieca (#1,110)

He defied God's Commandment of "(X/2)+7."

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

SFO (Sublated Franco Overexpozo)

Danzig! (#5,318)

Scott Smith was 18 years younger than Harvey Milk, but I certainly don't think that's NAMBA-class creepy, if it is at all creepy.

You might get creeped out from the film, but that's all Gus Van Sant, who spares no opportunity to cast radiant young men in his films. Diego Luna in particular is much, much younger in the film than the real man was at the time the film dramatizes.

Grrg (#2,237)

"The Love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its name," and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it. (Loud applause, mingled with some hisses.)

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