There’s a pretty clear gender divide in how Americans deal with straight people who dabble in gay activity. When heterosexual women make out with one another at a bar or party, it’s generally understood that they’re simply playing around for attention, or exploring the fluid space that is female sexuality. When heterosexual men hook up with each other, on the other hand, it’s seen either as an act born of desperation — think men who are locked up — or an indication that while they may claim to be straight, they really aren’t — think disgraced GOP members of Congress. When straight women hook up with other straight women, no real explanation is required; when straight men hook up with other straight men, it’s a different story.
This divide stems from a common understanding of human sexuality: The female variety of it is more malleable, more inherently open to experimentation and variety, than the male variety. In Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, out last month from NYU Press, Jane Ward, an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of California, Riverside, makes the case that this is a flawed understanding. In doing so, she shows that homosexual contact has been a regular feature of heterosexual life ever since the concepts of homo- and heterosexuality were first created — not just in prisons and frat houses and the military, but in biker gangs and even conservative suburban neighborhoods. Given how prevalent this behavior is in so many different sorts of settings, Ward suggest it’s time to stop explaining it away — and argues that society’s conception of male heterosexuality is an unrealistic, expedient one.
Science of Us spoke to Ward about her book.
There does seem to be this idea that women can do it without being seen as gay, while with men, either there’s some explanation that can explain it, or they’re gay and just don’t realize or won’t acknowledge it.
Right, and it’s not just sort of conventional wisdom or conservative ideology that teaches that. I think there’s been a lot of sexological and psychological research suggesting that men’s sexuality is more rigid than women’s and that women are inherently more sexually fluid. And what I argue in the book is that even that research is situated within some long-held beliefs about the fundamental difference between men and women that are not accurate from a feminist perspective. It’s interesting, because if you look at this belief that women’s sexuality is more receptive — it’s more fluid, it’s triggered by external stimuli, that women have the capacity to be sort of aroused by anything and everything — it really just reinforces what we want to believe about women, which is that women are always sexually available people.
With men, on the other hand, the idea that they have this hardwired heterosexual impulse to spread their seed and that that’s relatively inflexible, also kind of reinforces the party line about heteronormativity and also frankly, patriarchy. So one selling point for me in the book was to think about, Why are we telling this really different story about women’s sexuality?
You take readers on sort of a 20th-century American tour of heterosexual dabbling in homosexual behavior, and there was never a lack of evidence that such dabbling took place. You write about homosexual activity within biker gangs, for example — one Hell’s Angel, enthusiastically describing having gay sex for cash, memorably told Hunter S. Thompson, “Shit, man, the day they call me queer is when I let one of these faggos suck on me for less than a tenner.” This stuff was sort of always going in all sorts of different situations and cultural contexts, right?
Right, exactly, but what’s interesting about all of those accounts is that because we’re so committed to this narrative that men’s sexuality is bound by biology and can only be shifted somehow by the most extreme circumstances, the authors of those various accounts always seem to come to the conclusion that it was the very unique and particular circumstances of that context that account for why heterosexual men would act homosexually.
So if it was in prisons it was like, Well, this would only happen in prison because there are no women available, and that’s how we would explain this. And people who looked at the military would say, This would only happen in the military, but no one who was looking at prisons or the military was also looking at what was happening in bathrooms or bars or living rooms or in biker gangs or all of the other contexts where, frankly, those constraints aren’t in place. And yet despite lacking any pressing reason to do so, men are still manufacturing reasons to touch each other’s anuses. So that was one of the guiding questions through the book: What happens when we pull all of this evidence together? What might we glean about straight men’s sexuality?
I thought one of the most interesting examples of coming up with justifications was in the study of “tearoom” culture in the 1960s — the “widespread practice of straight-identified, married men giving and receiving blow jobs in semi-isolated public restrooms, in or near parks, subways, and rest stops,” as you write. In that case, the sociologist who studied it came up with one theory that since these men and their wives were Catholic and couldn’t use condoms, and since they didn’t want to have more children, the men were forced to secretly seek out sex in bathrooms with other men.
Right, right, right. I talk about that as the logic of homosexual necessity in the book and that comes up a lot, this claim that, well, men have to do this for X or Y reason. There’s simply no other choice. I think people are really committed to that idea because it means that men are not agentically choosing homosexuality as something that is happening to them, so it’s what keeps their heterosexual identity intact, when that’s the logic that applies.
When you look at it in the fraternity context, in a way it’s almost farcical, because the logic there is, Well, these boys have to participate in an elephant walk because an older boy is telling them they have to do it and because if they don’t do it then they don’t get into that fraternity. I mean, certainly I understand that peer pressure is real and that it needs to be taken seriously, but I just don’t think in every case the participants engaging in an elephant walk, that they’re truly afraid for their life or fearful of violence or whatever — and these are the same boys who two years later do this to others.
The photographic evidence of an elephant walk in the book is really important, I think. Because I think often when people hear these stories, they’re imagining sort of quaky, nauseous, sad little straight boys who are being forced to do this kind of thing, but then you look at the photos and you see there’s just a lot of smiling and laughing. And I think the reason also why a straight man would be able to take some pleasure in these kinds of rituals like the elephant walk or the crossing-the-line ceremony that I describe [a Navy hazing ritual “involving filth, anal penetration, and rimming” to celebrate a sailor’s first time crossing the equator — here’s a video of one set to Sublime’s “Santeria”], is that they really aren’t thinking of it as sexual at all. So there’s no sense of oh my God, I’m doing this gay thing. Instead, they’re thinking, I’m doing this gross thing. I’m doing this hilarious thing. It’s sort of like making out with a fish or something. It’s just not perceived as sex.
Right. Growing up as a straight male, there’s this category of joke like, Oh, well, if you’re a real straight guy, you’ll let a guy jerk you off because it’s no big deal, because you’re actually straight — that kind of joking and dialogue is a staple of bromance films. You view it as a way of performing heterosexuality, even if the content looks gay from the outside?
Exactly. And that’s precisely the argument that I make about how and why it’s possible for these homosexual sex practices to actually reinforce heterosexuality, because they provide an opportunity for straight men to show, I am so straight that I can do this without it actually having any consequence whatsoever for my daily sexual orientation, which is straight.
My favorite examples of that were the casual encounters ads from Craigslist you included in the book. Like this one:
Seeking a MASCULINE JACK OFF BUD to STR8 PORN — 29. Hot masculine white dude here … looking for another hot white dude to come by my place, and work out a hot load side by side. Straight Porn only. Prefer str8, surfer, etc. Not usually into gay dudes.
A lot of these ads, which are, after all, written by ostensibly straight men seeking out homosexual contact, are couched in this hyperhetero language.
Yeah, and a lot of people read those and they say, “Oh, come on. I think these are really gay men who are posing as straight men.” And of course, there’s no way for me to verify that, but there have been a couple of sociologists who have contacted these men and asked for an interview with them, and have reported that many of them do identify as straight in their lives. But what I’ve found in comparing those ads with ads written by gay men in the men-seeking-men section as opposed to the casual encounters section, and that specified that they are for straight-acting — which is kind of the gay-male code for that sort of thing — is that the ads posted by these straight dudes include just a lot of homophobia. There’s a lot of “I hate fags,” and there’s also a lot of focus on how they’re going to talk about women. They’re going to watch straight porn. Some of them say that they’re going to act out a rape fantasy or talk about a gang bang.
So this, I think, at least culturally, is quite distinct from the tradition of gay men being interested in straight-acting gay men. This is about, I want to have a kind of sex that’s so deeply embedded in heterosexual culture that it will remind me of those circle jerks that teenage straight boys might have engaged in.
And it sounds like all things being equal, white guys have a lot more flexibility to try to pull this off than black men do.
Exactly. I think a lot of people who read the blurb, but not the actual book, have been confused about why the book was focused on white men, and I made that choice very consciously. There’s been a lot of interest and commentary about sexual fluidity and heteroflexibility in the last ten, 15 years in the U.S. and it’s focused either on girls kissing girls for the pleasure of male spectators or it’s focused on black men and to a lesser extent Latino men on the “down low,” and all of those accounts have [been so] focused, in the case of women, on what’s going on with women and with femininity that it allows this sort of behavior. In the case of black and Latino men, the question is, What’s going on in these ethnic communities that facilitates these kind of sex practices?
But for white men, no one ever asks what’s going on in white culture or what it is about white masculinity that is making this kind of sex practice possible. But that’s really precisely the question we should be asking, because white men have engaged in — straight-identified white men have engaged in — intimate or sexual encounters with one another since the very invention of heterosexuality and homosexuality as medical terms in the late 19th-century, and yet very little attention has been paid to it. So yes, I would argue that because white men have been understood as the idealized, most normal, sort of exemplars of normal human sexuality, there’s a lot of work and attention that goes into excusing anything they do or rationalizing anything they do that might disrupt that view, and that’s not the case for women or for men of color.
Another rationale for homosexual activity among men was this idea of men turning to sex with men because there were fewer obligations — no pressure, no stress, no romance. Can you just talk about that for a minute?
Yeah, well, that is an argument that, again, psychologists and psychobiologists have commonly made and those kinds of arguments, I think, trickle down into the broader culture so that men themselves know which claims have legitimacy. If you can get a straight man to talk to you about why he is having sex with men, it’s very likely that he’s going to draw from a small set of acceptable narratives about why straight men do things like that, and I think that’s a really common one, you know, the narrative of constraint —Well, I’d rather be having sex with a woman, but there are no women available, or, Women are too complicated — this kind of thing. But I don’t buy that.
That’s not to say that I think those straight men know the real reason — I think often they don’t know. I guess we don’t have language that circulates in mainstream culture that would help straight men make sense of or explain their sexual encounters with other men, whereas straight women, when they have sexual encounters with other women, have an array of socially acceptable narratives that they can draw on. “Well, I just think women are hot — they’re beautiful, but of course I’m straight.” They can say almost anything and get away with it, but straight men have very few resources for understanding that part of their sexuality, and so the main thing, the first and foremost thing they do is to just understand it as not sexual at all and just to not think about it, and to the extent they think about it as sexual, yeah, then all of these narratives about deprivation or constraint kick in.
Especially reading the last part where you talked about your own history, it seems like you almost feel like white men are missing out on something — missing out on all the stuff they could feel safer exploring in the way women do. Is that true?
That’s a good question. First, I want to say that I’m not in any way interested in calling these men bi or gay. These are men who — these are just average straight dudes like all average straight dudes who either in adolescence or at boarding school or in the military or in a fraternity or in any of these contexts have these experiences and it’s just part of their heterosexual past. And they go on to date women, marry women, so in no way do I think it’s productive to call this bisexuality, which I understand as its own significant and important queer identification in its own right, and that’s not what I’m describing.
I do, in the end of the book, suggest that, if straight people want in on queer life, that’s about something more than homosexual sex. That’s about queer subculture, which is anchored to a long tradition of anti-normative political practices and anti-normative sex practices and appreciation for a much broader array of bodies and kinds of relationships and so forth, and so I think most straight people don’t actually want to be part of it. I think straight people who engage in homosexual sex, what makes them straight is precisely that they have no interest whatsoever in being part of queer subculture, and so in the last chapter I’m making the point that they could if they wanted to, but they don’t, and that’s part of how we know that this is homosexual sex being enacted in the service of heteronormativity.
The other really interesting argument you made was when you talked about fraternity hazings and other rituals in which the guys do stuff to each other, but act grossed out by it. You’re saying that this same sort of weird dichotomy of disgust and desire is there with heterosexual sex, too?
Precisely. Yes. Yeah, many people have wanted to argue that the kind of sexual contact that happens in hazing, for instance, is not sex, but is violence, is sexual assault and we know that because the men involved appear to be repulsed by it or to feel degraded by it, and so I want to push back on that argument a bit by saying, Well, there’s a lot of repulsion that happens within heterosexuality.
No one bats an eye when a young, beautiful woman marries a man who’s 40 years older than her but who’s very wealthy, and who we might expect is repulsive for her to have sex with, because we understand the circumstantial meaning of that relationship. And similarly, many straight men, especially younger men, have a very ambivalent relationship to women’s bodies and many feminists have written about this at length. The sort of natural state of women’s bodies, the smell of their vagina, their armpit hair, their leg hair — straight men are only attracted to women’s bodies to the extent that they have been very carefully modified.
And so we ultimately see that the language of the hetero-eroticism is — and I’m not talking about making love, but just the language of hot, hard core hetero-eroticism — a language that reveals to us this dynamic relation between desire and repulsion, that women are bitches, that you’re going to “hit that,” that you’re going to “slam that,” that you’re going to “kill that.” I cite another great book by a sociologist named CJ Pascoe who did this study of boys in a California high school, and she talks about how their accounts of sex mostly focused on what they found abjectly repulsive about a girl’s body — you know, I fucked her until she bled, I fucked her until she was shitting, I ripped her walls, that kind of thing. So there’s something in the very formation of hetero-masculine desire that can allow for both attraction to and repulsion by the person, the woman, being penetrated.
When you talk about men giving justifications for their homosexual encounters that are perhaps far-fetched because they lack the vocabulary to talk about what’s really going on, do you think the solution is just to acknowledge that sexuality is complicated and fluid and weird for men, too, and some men just like going down on another guy in the bathroom and that doesn’t really say as much as we think about their identity? How do we discover that vocabulary to talk about it?
Yeah, well what I would like to see first is acknowledgement, more mainstream acknowledgement that everybody has homosexual sex. And when I say that I don’t mean that truly everybody does — there are some people who have no sex and of course there are some people who never have homosexual sex, but if we’re going to talk about who has homosexual sex, we often just think, well, only gay, lesbian, and bisexual-identified people have homosexual sex, but it turns out straight women have a lot of homosexual contact with other women, and so do straight men, and so that means that kind of everybody does, and so I think it would be helpful to just start with greater awareness that homosexual desire is just part of the human condition.
Now if we take that as given, then the question is, Well, why do some people want it more than others, or why do some people organize their life around it, and other people don’t want anyone to even know that they do it? To me that’s a more interesting question than Are you born gay or straight? and so I think that the solution, honestly, is to stop being so obsessed with sociobiological arguments about sexual orientation, which I think are a trap, frankly, and instead ask the question, Given that so many humans have homosexual encounters, what is it that makes some people understand their homosexual encounters as culturally significant, and other people understand it as meaningless or circumstantial? I don’t think we have the answer to that question yet.
From both what you just said and reading your book, it sounds like you think that the “born this way” thing was partly a liberal overcorrection to conservative arguments — a politically expedient line that has some negative consequences of its own?
Precisely. I think that it’s an argument that is aimed at legitimacy and it’s been effective, it’s a legitimizing argument, but it’s also pretty transparent as a really heteronormative, I’d probably even say homophobic argument, because the logic is, Well, of course I was born gay — who would ever choose a life like this? No one would ever choose to be queer, so of course it must be something that I have no choice about, that I have no control over.
That’s not the prevailing “racial justice” logic when the subject is race — Well, of course I’d be white if I could choose. Rather, we recognize that racial and ethnic communities and cultures have tremendous value in and of themselves, and so I think similarly that there are many, many reasons to want to be queer, and because queerness, unlike race or gender, is something that we can cultivate in our lives, it makes perfect sense to me that people would. So I think “born this way …” you know, there are a number of great books that have interrogated the science itself, that’s not my project, but outside the flaws in the science, I think it is just homophobic. You scratch the surface and right underneath you encounter a lot of internalized homophobia.
This interview has been edited and condensed.