**Content Warning: NSFW descriptions of sexual acts**
Repression of sexual orientation still happens way more often than it should, and we can see the ripple effects in the unfulfilling lives of those it still holds in its grasp. The bubble of conformity to heteronormative structures holds sway even to those who don’t actively go against it, cutting off what would make someone whole in the name of making them “normal”. But it’s not just about not having sex with who you really want. When you’re repressed, you stop yourself from other things, too. You develop a fear of coloring outside the lines, or you become comfortable in the miserable little box society has provided for you. Sexual identity isn’t just about sex. It’s about unleashing your potential free from constraints, a phenomenon successfully explored in the sex game Strange Flesh.
Strange Flesh is a beat-em-up where you play as The Bartender, a servant of the sentient bar Strange Flesh. You’re tasked with corrupting the mind of a patron, Joe, who is currently feeling trapped by a job he hates and a society that wants to put him into a box he doesn’t fit into. To do this, you have to progress through Joe’s mind and dominate or corrupt the many projections of himself through violence or sexual acts. If you hit an enemy until their health goes to zero, you’ll get Domination Orbs. You can also finish off an enemy sexually thanks to cigar smoke. Your smoke attack will arouse enemies, temporarily putting them on your side and fighting for you. But when you empty an enemy’s health bar using a smoke attack, they’ll transform into a naked form and start masturbating. If your arousal meter is filled up from doing attacks, you can engage in intercourse with them – a unique sexual act for every type of Joe – and they’ll ejaculate, leaving behind health orbs and Corruption Orbs.
Of course, it’s implied that Joe is actually gay and is suppressing his desires. You’re just freeing him from society’s confining grasp. As you progress through the levels, you can feel his uptight nature slowly starting to relax, eventually giving way to sexual freedom by the end. But it’s not just his sexual proclivities that are loosening. You eventually notice a theme of the Joe projections giving off a more and more punk rock vibe, starting with a leather jacket, then appearing with a green mohawk, eventually giving way to a full-on punk rock god boss complete with a ball-gagged orc slave. It seems there’s more to Joe’s repression than his taste in sex, but rather a whole potential identity that he’s missing out on. As those walls break down between him and his sexual identity, they continue to break as more of his whole being is revealed and embraced. Sexual identity is tied to the whole self, and denying part of it is denying all that you could possibly be.
This is illustrated in the game’s three possible endings. The first, where you gather enough Domination Orbs, sees Joe becoming a submissive body to be used at other people’s pleasure, which in turn gives him pleasure. The Domination ending illustrates the second sexual awakening repressed gay men experience. If you gather enough Corruption Orbs, Joe instead becomes an actual punk singer at the bar and owns his sexuality, having his pick of the patrons who desire him. This is where sexual identity and personal identity merge into something more than what someone repressed would be. The hardest ending to get, though, is the one where The Bartender doesn’t strip Joe’s will to leave away, but rather lets his mind rebuild itself. Due to this, Joe later has a boyfriend, a record deal, is much more muscular, and is a monster in the bedroom. This represents a self-actualized gay man finding himself in gay spaces and being able to live authentically outside of them, too. It’s the fruit of a journey of self-discovery, of more than one kind of awakenings.
Let’s be very clear, though: This last ending is in no way portrayed as a superior state to the other two. In all three endings, Joe is happy about finding his place in the world and making himself whole in one way or another. In turn, this reflects on how we all find different places to belong and different places where we find fulfillment. The roles that sex fulfills in our lives run parallel to the roles that the rest of our identity fills. They end up in different places for different people, but they’re all valid, and they all make up the whole of who we are. The endings themselves just represent different aspects of the inner lives of gay men as they continue to figure out who they are. The journey is never truly complete.
So why couch a journey of self-discovery in negative terms like “corruption”? Because that’s how the world sees our presence as gay men. We corrupt just by our very existence. We are predators that need to be avoided, lest the straights catch our feelings. If corruption is our nature, then so be it. Let’s corrupt. Let’s revel in who we really are, heteronormative societal structures be damned. We can create our own spaces to be corrupt in, our own Strange Fleshes. Let, then, our corruption open doors for those stifled by heteroconformity, and let it break them free too. Strange Flesh itself is a leather bar, a community that’s known for pushing past sexual taboos, but also as a queer space in itself, one where we can be ourselves outside of the heteronormative world. Strange Flesh very much mirrors the journey of someone coming to grips with their sexuality and finding a space where they can be themselves. If the transmission of the idea of freeing oneself from societal constructs is someone’s idea of corrupting, then so be it.