Velvet Rage review

This is a repost from my old, non-functioning site

So, this month's is "the 'issues' issue" which aims to discuss, in particular, gay men's mental health. This was based mostly on the book The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the pain of growing up gay in a straight man's world by "Alan Downs, PH.D". So I went out and got it (De Capo Press edition, paperback). Well, I went online and clicked "buy". I hoped it would be a fascinating examination of the mental health problems we face because of heteronormitivity and straight privilidge, unfortunately once I started reading I became disillusioned. I started writing this review around Chapter 4 and kept adding bits and pieces as I went on - as such if it comes across as bitty I apologise...

The book sets out a model of gay life centred around our relationship with shame:

  • Overwhelmed by shame
  • Overcompensation for shame
  • Past shame

I can immediately spot these as stages I can trust and a model I can reconcile with my own experience, however, it is the author's reliance on "own experience" which formed the first key pillar of my criticism of this book. Since reading the book I've come to disagree with the definitions he gives and many of the conclusions he draws.

Downs is a clinical psychologist and describes his writing of this book as being based on his own experience and the stories of his clients. My years of reading 's Bad Science (must be years now...) and my OU course ask me to look carefully at evidence - the evidence being used here is anecdotal and selected from those who have admitted a poor relationship with their gay identities - this is exacerbated by the fact that the american health system only allows the relatively successful to seek the kind of help he offers - Downs describes gay men as being "over-the-top outrageous" (pg 74) and massively successful and brags about his successful friends (pg 74), this seems to jar with the description of Sean and his suicide (Pgs 59-62) - despite knowing about this, poorer, vulnerable side he forgets about them until he can use them to make a point. This problem of evidence is furthered by the references list (Or "notes"). It's a whopping five items long.

You must be careful extrapolating from your own experience and Downs really doesn't seem to present this - in the introduction he suggests:

I suspect this model, or some modified version of it, is likely to be universal to all gay men in the western world and perhaps across the globe. (Pg 3)

I started off tempted to believe that Downs' model is applicable to the Western World despite having some doubts as expressed in this review, however that is because of my own personal experience (and that view has changed as I've understood more about his model and what he is actually proposing) not because of a truly evidence based understanding. However, where he claims "perhaps even the across the globe" (pg 3) he demonstrates a failure to understand that different cultures have different relationships to sexuality. Different ages have different relationships to sexuality. Different generations have different relationships to sexuality.

He presents his opinion that "betrayal...does seem to be a serious problem in most gay relationships" (Pg 138). This opinion is backed up with another therapist stating "second only to HIV, betrayal is the most devestating gay epidemic" (Pg 138-139) as fact. There is no discussion of how the figures compare to straight couples (indeed, no figures) and is, again, drawn from the clients who come to a therapist - not an academic study.

The book is written by a gay man, for what he sees as gay men. And the stereotyping is horrific. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover and Downs likely had no input into the cover design, but the photo of four children - three boys and one girl - is good for illustrating Downs' description of gay men as stereotypes. The photo is in black and white except for the tie of one boy which is pink. This boy, clearly marked out as the idea of gay youth, is the only one without a smile and is wearing shorts and short socks thereby exposing his legs... just like the girl in the skirt he is sat next to. The two boys portrayed as straight are either wearing trouser or long socks completely covering their legs.

Downs constantly uses "we" in an attempt to get his target audience to accept his ideas and model and hence to accept their problems and his solutions and explanations.

The problem is what he describes isn't me. There are two reasons for this: firstly, Downs is relying on gay stereotypes that I don't fit into or find offensive; secondly, this book is clearly written for the generations above me. The cover photo is fashions and styles from before I was born. Downs talks about fathers who are mostly war veterans, of bathhouses and sex clubs as if they were the dominant feature of gay culture when growing up. This is not a definition of "gay" I identify with. It's a definition of gay which was looking out of date when Nathan Maloney was hitting Canal Street and finding Stuart Allen Jones (himself probably brought up by a father who would have been born towards the end or just after the second world war (I suppose for Americans, Veitnam is a possiblity for that age)).

Downs model uses our relationship with the gay identity - particularly shame - to explain the problems we face and the way to resolve them. He describes a person's need to seek authentic third-party validity in their identity. "Growing up gay in a straight man's world" as the subtitle puts it is to struggle in getting that validity through that identity. This is where a fundemental flaw at the heart of his thesis can be exposed. He presents gay as being the only identity gay men possess. Any other identity we form is inauthentic, unable to provide us with validity.

In Downs model, the transition from stage 2 to Stage 3 - or from abandonning shame and embracing authenticity - is a quasi-religious experience. he describes "the dark night of the soul" and the need to "untie every anchor to his small vessel" (Pg 84). This reads more like joining a cult than finding authentic happiness. Earlier chapters had me scrawling notes about how similar some of his stereotypes seemed to be to the ex-gay movement (another cult-like setting) - "whatever the cause, most of us grew into our young adulthoods without having had a truly loving, honest, and safe relationship with a man" (Pg 14).

Downs' model is very uncertain in whether stage 3 is the journey to resolving or the resolution and what comes next. Chapter 13 for example talks about stage three as being a journey with potential for foreclosure and backtracking before finally resolving whilst at the same time presenting the resolution as the stage.

Chapter 14 also presents us with a contradictory idea - on the one hand, Downs argues that we are closer to our mothers, earlier in the book he suggests we are pushed towards "feminine qualities" (Pg 15) but all of a sudden these abandon us as we were not "given the ... skills for nuturing and maintaining intimate relationships - as women are" (Pg 125). On the other hand, straight men can build on the "close relationship with a nurturing individual of the gender to which they were attracted" to build a template for relationships (Pg 125).

My verbal response to two paragraphs in this book had my housemate come running concerned about me:

Relationship hopelessness is truly widespread among gay men. There are even some gay men, such as those involved in queer nation or the radical fairies, that suggest that gay men are not meant to be in committed relationships. Among other things they point to other animal species where the males never remain with the same female, and suggest men are just genetically programmed to be "poly-amorous."

When I encounter such relationship hopelessness in a gay male client, we can almost always woprk together to discover at least one and often multiple betrayals in his relationship with male lovers. In most cases, the betrayals are quite clear and vivid in the client's memory. (Pg 139)

*sharp intake of breath* "Ouch" as I think about the poly friends I have. The sheer judgementalism in evidence is scary - the rejection of polyamory with the quotation marks, the highlighting of animal behaviour as being what poly-relationships are based on and the conclusion that it is down to previous betrayals. And as is becoming common, a clear lack of any evidence.

This judgemental attitude towards any non-monogamous or non-heteronormative gay relationship continues throughout the chapter with Downs complaining about a friend who's longest relationship is partly sustained by the sex the two have with other men. Down's use of phrases like "his own admission" show the extent to which Downs is projecting shame onto that relationship (Pg 145). He knows he can't prove it but thinks that the problem this friend of his has with relationships is because he was abused as a child and hustled his way through medical school. Oh, and forget having validation from anyone other than your partner in Downs' perfect life stage three - that would be undermining integrity (Pgs 164-166) - one of the pillars of contentment.

This book took me through several emotions:

  1. It started with joy and excitement, a book to read which might prove to be interesting
  2. Then anger which I suppressed as I tried to ignore that he was presenting a stereotypical gay man and trying to hoodwink me into identifying with it
  3. The disappointment as I realised the problem with evidence
  4. Then disappointment really set in as I realised that the book was poorly presented - honestly, I didn't bother finishing the final chapter of tips, in addition to other issues with the book, I'd been noticing more and more typos creeping in (including one particularly significant one which could change the meaning of the sentence and seems to present more of the author's predjudices) so it felt like the publishers/author couldn't care and neither could I
  5. About two thirds of the way in I started really hitting upon the author's prejudices around polyamory and non-heteronormative relationships generally and then his willingness to ascribe problems to abuse in childhood or single parent upbringing. This lead to anger coming back to the forefront

For a lot of reasons Downs describes in his book, the relationship of a person to their identity as a gay man (shame) can have a major effect on the mental health of the person, however by promoting the idea that the gay identity is the only identity which can be worthwhile - any others dismissed as facades and avoidance techniques - allows that relationship with that identity to have a stronger effect and minimises the validity found through other identities. This cannot be in the interest of any client looking to use this model to resolve their issues.

I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone - especially of my generation. This model may be OK for a generation of gay men, but my generation has grown up in the society they have created, and the generation after me will grow up in what we have created. A better model, better understanding can be pulled from this, but this book is ultimately a failure for my generation in the UK. Which is a shame because some of the substance is good, is important would work in a decent model... but this aint it.

Interestingly, I didn't see the word "normative" or any derivations once...