Gay, But Not Gay, Sex: New Book Explores Gay Sex Between Straight Men

https://www.theblot.com/new-book-explores-gay-sex-between-straight-men-7749644
Brock Thompson spoke with Jane Ward about her book ‘Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men,’ feminism, frats as incubators for same-sex desires and more. (Amazon.com photo)

Brock Thompson spoke with Jane Ward about her book ‘Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men,’ feminism, frats as incubators for same-sex desires and more. (NYU Press photo)

We all know the lyrics by now. Something like, “She kissed a girl and she liked it … and her boyfriend didn’t mind it.”

For straight men, though, it would go something like “He kissed a boy and … well … they were at camp … it happens … don’t make a big deal out of it ” 

Or:

“He got a hand job from a boy and … well … all the other frat brothers had gone home for the break …. the house was empty … and …” 

Why is gay sex between straight men so complicated, but also, seemingly everywhere? In her new, very-entertaining book “Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men,” Jane Ward, professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California at Riverside, explores this and more.

In a recent conversation with TheBlot Magazine, Ward discussed everything from ideas of desire, to the closet, feminism, brotherhood fantasies, the future of academic writing and why the frat house seems to be the perfect incubator for same-sex desires.

(ucrtoday.ucr.edu photo)

Jane Ward. (ucrtoday.ucr.edu photo)

Brock Thompson: Why this book now? 

Jane Ward: Because straight “girl-on-girl action” is becoming kind of played out, don’t you think? I don’t know, perhaps straight men will never be tired of that fantasy, but I think that’s precisely the point. We are inundated with images and fantasies of straight women in sexual scenarios with other women because these images appeal to many heterosexual men. So it’s generally much easier for people to see how girl-girl sex might, in some cases, be about heterosexuality more than it is about lesbianism. But mention the possibility of straight “dude-on-dude action,” and you’re met with guffaws. Straight men deny that it happens, and gay and bi men seem to want to claim that even a single sexual fantasy about another man signals a tortured life in the closet. So it’s time to unpack and examine this double standard.

When lesbians see two straight women kissing each other on a dance floor to turn on their boyfriends or when we see straight women licking each other in hetero porn, we don’t say, “Oh, look at these poor lesbians or bisexual women suffering in the closet! They need to come out already.” Why? Because we understand the cultural context in which these women are touching each other. Even if they are completely turned on, we recognize that they might be turned on for heterosexual reasons, like pleasing the men who are watching them. In contrast, essentialist interpretations of men’s sexuality has not only blinded us to the prevalence of straight men’s homosexual contact with other men, it has made it nearly impossible for us to see that sometimes straight men have sex with men for heterosexual reasons. It’s time we talk about this.

Do Americans, especially American males, suffer from some sort of outdated, puritanical idea of same-sex desire? 

I’d say we suffer more from the belief that men’s sexual desires are uncomplicated, static and utterly out of their control. So many of the cultural narratives about men’s sexuality center around the idea that male desire and arousal are unstoppable, hydraulic forces. The notion of “blue balls” is a good example. No one is worried about giving women “blue clit” (though it’s arguably a thing!), but many a young woman has been warned not to get a guy going and then leave him hanging, balls blue. The idea that men must achieve sexual release has long been used to justify why straight-identified men will have sex with men when locked up in prison and why men will rape women who have ostensibly tempted them with their short skirts.

My point is that we have been taught that men have far less control when it comes to their sexual urges than women do. And I think this is why people are especially threatened by the idea that men’s sexuality might actually be more nuanced than that or look a lot more like women’s sexuality than we have imagined. If straight-identified men can, in fact, have fun licking each other’s nipples and drinking vodka out of each other’s asses (examples I discuss in the book) AND if they can also live happily straight lives, then this means men have more sexual agency than we have previously ascribed to them. It also means that sex acts themselves aren’t the most-useful measure of whether a person — of any gender — is gay, bi or straight.

“People are especially threatened by the idea that men’s sexuality might actually be more nuanced or look a lot more like women’s sexuality than we have imagined.”
Jane Ward, author of “Not Gay”

Many of the examples you provide of straight males engaging in the homoerotic are grounded in humiliation and power (hazing for example) and even force (such as in the penal system). Why are those component almost always found? 

Well, just to clarify, several of the examples I examine in the book do not involve humiliation or force. Peer pressure, yes. But that’s different from force. Biker dudes making out with each other, frat boys wrestling in the nude, drunken dudes at parties licking each other’s nipples and mounting one another — there are lots of examples in the book of straight men touching each other in ways they imagine to be ridiculous and defiant stunts. But to answer your question more directly, one of my findings is that the dominant culture requires of straight men a more-concrete alibi than straight women. Whereas straight women’s alibi is typically something like, “I did it for my boyfriend,” straight men’s alibi is often more like, “I HAD to do it.” This idea that straight men are in some way being forced, even when it’s very questionable whether that’s true, helps absolve them from responsibility for the homosexual activity.

You speak at length on the frat house. As a space, what makes it so conducive to queer experimentation? 

I definitely wouldn’t call what happens in frat houses queer experimentation because this implies, at least to me, a conscious choice to explore same-sex desire. Instead, frat dudes are participating in longstanding hetero-masculine rituals that incorporate homosexual contact as part of the work of establishing male bonds and toughening up straight men. Frat houses are the perfect environment for this kind of hetero-erotic homosexual activity because they are typically quite homophobic spaces where fantasies of brotherhood, frequent drunkenness and anus-focused jokes all come together with regularity.

Read more:

Why did you confine your study to just straight white men? 

Because in addition to straight women, the other group who has received a considerable amount of public attention for their homosexual activity is black men on the down low, who have been presumed to be lying about their true, core sexuality. While the “fluid” or “closeted” sexualities of women and men of color have been in the spotlight, straight white men have flown under the radar of this conversation. And when people do look at white men’s presumably discordant sex practices, race is almost always ignored, as if white men’s sexuality has nothing to do with their racial subjectivity. So I focused on white men to fill in some of these gaps and to illuminate how race shapes people’s sex practices — even when the people in question are white men!

Acceptance of all things gay is increasing at breakneck speed in this country. What does this mean for straight white men? Will their desires come out of the closet eventually as well? 

Their desires are already out of the closet! The closet is a term we use to describe the repository for things about our sexuality we don’t want others to see or that we don’t want to see ourselves. But many of the sexual encounters I examine in the book are time-honored traditions, happening in full view. Because they are occurring in the name of toughening up straight dudes or making a dramatic display of these dudes’ homophobia, no one is in the closet about it. That’s the point — it’s not gay.

Now some of the behavior I look at, like sex between men in public bathrooms, is somewhat covert. Because this is sex we’re talking about, after all, and people don’t have sex on public streets. But even so, sex in public bathrooms isn’t exactly private. Getting more to your point, though, the fact that people are increasingly accepting of lesbian, gay and bisexual people doesn’t have much bearing on how straight people think of their homosexual touching. If anything, it makes them more sure of their heterosexuality because for many straight people, being gay now has romantic or loved-based associations. If straight-identified men don’t love other men, then they often feel even more certain they aren’t bi or gay.

Why do women have it so much easier here? It’s almost chic to have been a lesbian in college for a time.

We touched on this already, but this is in large part because women’s sexuality has been defined in relation to men’s desires, and given this, women are typically viewed as hyper-sensual and receptive to almost anything — sex with other women, sex with much-older men, dehumanizing sex, etc. And so because public sexual culture is still organized around the desires and preferences of straight men, and because many straight men want to watch women have sex with each other, we see a lot of leeway extended to straight women to have homosexual encounters and retain their straight status.

“Because public sexual culture is still organized around the desires and preferences of straight men, and because many straight men want to watch women have sex with each other, we see a lot of leeway extended to straight women to have homosexual encounters and retain their straight status.”
Ward

You comment of the fluidity of sexuality and desire, and the highly permeable boundaries of gender and sex. How do race and class, two other social constructs, allow straight white males to navigate sexual boundaries with greater ease? 

Great question. In the book, I demonstrate that the disciplines of psychology and sexology have long positioned straight, white, Christian, middle-class men as the exemplars of normal, healthy sexuality. Black men, on the other hand, have been characterized by whites as dangerous and predatory and are often criminalized based on this view. It is in this context that straight white men are more likely than black men to be forgiven or excused for crossing sexual boundaries, because the belief in their fundamental normalcy is already so strong. Their homosexual contact has been explained away by psychologists and by white dudes themselves as circumstantial rather than as evidence of a gay identity.

(Amazon.com photo)

(NYU Press photo)

But I argue against both of these approaches; straight men touch each other far too often, and across too many circumstances, for us to dismiss this behavior as purely circumstantial. I also don’t think it’s productive to imagine straight men’s homosexual contact as an indicator of an essential bisexual or gay constitution. Instead, if we allow ourselves to examine the ways that homosexual contact has been woven through the culture of heterosexual masculinity, then we can begin to make sense of the apparent paradox that homosexual contact is part of what produces heterosexuality.

I found your book to be incredibly witty. Not to stray too far from the topic, why is it important to treat this subject with a little bit of humor?  

Thank you! I love hearing that because I’m committed to writing in an engaging, accessible style — and humor is a big part of that, especially when writing about sex. Plus, sex is funny. It just is! It’s still such a morally laden part of the human experience, so our hang-ups and neuroses tend to be amplified around the subject of sex. One very common way that people manage this is to become intensely attached to sexual labels. When sex is predictable or easily classifiable, I think we feel a little more secure. And since “Not Gay” is destabilizing some very beloved categories — namely heterosexuality, masculinity and whiteness — it just felt right to throw some feminist comic relief into an otherwise uncomfortable subject.

Read more: Why ‘Real Men’ in America Have So Few Close Male Friends

Why include the first-person perspective? 

This is a very common feature of feminist research, and one that is grounded in the feminist premise that research is never truly objective. The natural sciences, which aim to be objective, still commonly reflect the prevailing beliefs of their time and place. I’m thinking here about the white supremacist sciences of eugenics and craniometry in the 19th century, for instance, or research on homosexuality as a mental disorder in the mid-20th century. Recognizing that the identities and prejudices of researchers always shape how we view the world, feminist scholars often incorporate first-person commentary and reflexivity into their work.

What’s the future of same-sex expression for straight white males? 

Straight-identified men have always participated in homosexual activity, since the inception of the hetero/homo binary, so these practices are not likely going away. But certainly they will evolve as heterosexual masculinity evolves. In the early 20th century, a man could have sex with another man and not be queer as long as he was normatively masculine. Today, this masculinity-focused system continues, but it has been significantly elaborated. If men identify as straight, are normatively gendered and only touch other men’s anuses and penises in contexts that can be explained away as circumstantial, then it’s likely that they won’t worry about being a fag (just like straight women can hook up with other women to please a boyfriend and feel no sense of obligation to identify as bi or lesbian).

So what’s the future of same-sex expression for straight white men? I can’t predict how the circumstantial logics that justify straight men’s homosexuality will change (or how sexual identities themselves might change), but I can almost guarantee that straight men will be putting their fingers in other dudes’ butts for as long as straight dudes and butts exist.

Jane Ward’s “Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men” was published last month by NYU Press as part of its Sexual Cultures series.

Brock Thompson is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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