Last week, Jane Ward, associate professor of women’s studies at the University of California, Riverside, penetrated the internet with one of those ideas that people were maybe thinking but just weren’t saying: Male sexuality is as fluid as female sexuality and “white straight-identified men manufacture opportunities for sexual contact with other men in a remarkably wide range of settings.” These opportunities include fraternity hazing and online cruising. This sexual contact, Ward detailed, is often conducted in the interest of affirming their heterosexuality as opposed to subverting it.
Ward’s book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, published last month by NYU Press, got tons of pickup, including an enormously popular Science of Us interview. (Note: Ward’s focus on white men primarily serves to circumvent racist discussions of “DL culture” and to shine a light on behavior she feels white guys could get away with without scrutiny as forbearers of the so-called norm.) That most of this coverage has relayed Ward’s message without much skepticism comes as no surprise—we barely have a language with which to describe self-identified “straight” men’s sexual engagement with other men. Ward’s idea that our cultural understanding of men’s sexuality has been way too simplistic for way too long is fundamentally sound and refreshing. Ward’s reach suggests she’s well on her way to enacting the change she intended with her writing. Greater understanding of any cultural phenomenon is only a good thing for the world.
But several of Ward’s claims deserve the same level of scrutiny that she affords to supposedly “straight” men who have, or come close to having, gay sex. Ward writes that “a good number” (whatever that means) of straight-identified men “feel at least somewhat open to the possibility of a sexual interaction with another man and do not view this possibility as a challenge to their heterosexuality.” A “good number” might mean “majority,” as Ward also writes of the “all-too-often ignored probability that straight men, as a rule, want to have sex with men. And they want to live heterosexual lives.”
Of course they do. There are many reasons why a man who sleeps with men would want to pass as heterosexual without a stated queer identity, the foremost being that life is easier without the stigma of sexual difference upon you. And let’s not ignore the wide-ranging data on male/male sexual attraction that suggests it’s extremely common or predictably rare, depending on what study you’re reading and deciding to intellectually invest in. (Here are 30 pages from a psychologist Ward cites that explore just how difficult it is to nail down a number.)
“I am not concerned with whether the men I describe in this book are ‘really’ straight or gay, and I am not arguing that they (or that all men) are really homosexual or bisexual in their orientation,” writes Ward. “Instead what I am arguing is that homosexual sex plays a remarkably central role in the institutions and rituals that produce heterosexual subjectivity, as well as in the broader culture’s imagination of what it means for ‘boys to be boys.’”
While Ward reasonably demonstrates the second sentence in this statement (though “remarkably central” is a stretch), why isn’t she concerned about whether the men described are really gay or straight? Given the cultural incentives that remain for a straight-seeming gay, given the long-road to self-acceptance that makes many feel incapable or fearful of honestly answering questions about identity—which would undoubtedly alter the often vague data that provide the basis for Ward’s arguments—it seems that one should care about the wide canyon between what men claim they are and what they actually are. Ward cites a 2010 Good Men Project article in which “developmental psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams describes his interviews with ‘securely’ heterosexual young men who report that they occasionally experience attraction to other men.” Had I been one of the subjects in a similar 2001 study, I also would have been one of those “securely” heterosexual men; I would have been lying and not worth listening to. I would have skewed the data.
Obliterating the identity boundaries between circumstance and desire while discussing the idea hardwiring, Ward goes as far as to claim:
No amount of homosexual sex or desire can change nature’s heterosexual design. If one knows one is not born gay, then one’s homosexual desires and behaviors simply cannot be gay, regardless of their content or frequency…To be very clear, I agree with the contention that when straight-identified people participate in homosexual behavior, they are still best understood as straight.
I read all 240 pages of Ward’s book and still don’t understand why they are “best” understood as straight in any context other than to bolster her argument, to fill her book with pages, and to sell said book. Just who is identity for, anyway: the self-identifier or the people he is relaying his identity to? Ward’s argument that our cultural conception of male sexuality needs expanding notwithstanding, when a guy says, “I’m straight,” he knows that what he is conveying is he is exclusively attracted to women. I, as the hypothetical recipient of his claim, then understand at the very least, his sexuality vis a vis mine. If his behavior and attraction is more complicated, we have words for that. (Ward cites “heteroflexible” and “straight but not narrow” as examples, which are clearly more useful than “straight,” but she returns to “straight” most frequently.) If he doesn’t like those words or is allergic to labels, as many people claim to be, he can use a sentence. If that’s too reductive, he can construct a paragraph. He can furthermore recite a book’s worth of explanation about his interests and behavior.
“…When a heterosexual need or impulse is a man’s primary alibi for homosexual sex, he is/becomes heterosexual,” writes Ward. “His heterosexuality is defined by his investment in heterosexuality. Gay men, in contrast, are men who have sex with men without an alibi.”
Are the terms “gay” and “straight” similar to the word “feminist,” which is to say that they have a useful and descriptive function but because of baggage attached to them (by either society, history, or self-creation) pose problems to many would-be adopters? Are many of Ward’s discussions subverted by the semantics of label-phobes? As Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder extensively explored earlier this year, there are plenty of gay people who don’t feel queer, who don’t subscribe to gay culture, who feel “normal” but for the same-sex attraction that makes them exceptional. That doesn’t make them straight. A single word couldn’t possibly convey the totality of a human’s emotional and sexual experience. It’s just shorthand that allows for people to begin to understand you.
“The reason that many of us feel ‘born this way’ is because your dick gets hard at what your dick gets hard at. I was popping boners at age 5 at the mere prospect of male nudity on my TV screen. My brain knew nothing about rejecting societal norms and queer iconoclasm; my body just knew what it wanted.”
While a word on the tip of the examined “straight” guys’ tongue would seem to be “bisexual,” Ward provides an opaque dismissal of the term “bisexual” being applied to the men she describes:
Because I understand bisexuality as a mode of queerness, one marked by sexual desire that is not gender-specific (or that extends to masculinity, femininity, and genderqueerness), it would be troubling to conceptualize as bisexual the desires expressed in [Craigslist] ads, as their authors have gone to great lengths to circumvent the imposition of this kind of queer meaning.
Elsewhere, Ward describes the “straight-identified men who are the subjects of this book” as “men who prefer to be partnered with women, who are typically repulsed by the idea of a gay life, who feel no connection to gay or bisexual culture, and who, in various ways and for a variety of reasons, have sexual encounters with men.” Ward’s argument is contingent on her accepting self-identified straight men at face value, while elsewhere explaining why things like the fraternity-hazing ritual of the elephant walk are gayer (in terms of pleasure and being an elected activity) than they are made out to be. “Straight” sexuality is understood as a fluid concept, while cultural queerness is far more rigid—why shouldn’t, for example, the men in the paragraph quoted above be considered queer? Why isn’t it useful to distinguish them from heterosexual-identifying men who only sleep with women and have never once been aroused by the idea of sex with another man? Such a designation could only broaden our understanding of the world and the fascinating gradations of sexuality.
Throughout the book, Ward claims that the true sexuality division does not come from sexual activity but from one’s relationship to heteronormativity: those who embrace it are straight, those who reject it are queer. While I do agree that “born this way” arguments can be reductive and condescending, the Freudian basis of Ward’s claim—“It is only through disciplined conformity to societal norms, typically directed by parents, that young children’s sexual impulses are redirected toward a sanctioned, and most often singular, object of desire (most often, a person of the ‘opposite’ sex)”—is outrageous. Her conclusion regarding this “choice” is fundamentally impractical:
This investment in heteronormativty is itself a bodily desire; in fact, I believe it is the embodied heterosexual desire, more powerful than, say, a woman’s yearning for male torsos or penises or a man’s longing for vaginas or breasts.
Yeah, but that’s not how dicks work. Ward’s perspective is that of a queer woman who elected to start sleeping with women as a rejection of the misogyny evident in virtually every male sex partner she had. “I discovered that the object of my desire was not a person or even a class of people (like women or men), but queer spaces, queer ideas, and queer possibilities.” I do not wish to challenge Ward’s well-articulated and singular experience, but I do want to challenge her application of complex female sexuality on men. By and large, men are more simple than she describes—I guarantee you that no straight dude has ever identified as someone who enjoys heteronormativity more than pussy or tits (that’s another example of Ward arbitrarily choosing to impose what men really mean over what they project while still taking “straight” for an answer). The reason that many of us feel “born this way” is because your dick gets hard at what your dick gets hard at. I was popping boners at age 5 at the mere prospect of male nudity on my TV screen. My brain knew nothing about rejecting societal norms and queer iconoclasm; my body just knew what it wanted.
If Ward had actually talked to some of the men she is describing, perhaps her findings would be different, perhaps her book would be shorter, perhaps she’d have to face the reality of theory’s failings. Instead, her most thoroughly quoted firsthand source is gay psychologist Joe Kort who runs straightguise.com, and shares findings like, “Straight guys, they might have a penis fetish, or maybe they’re into giving blow jobs…but it’s not about the entire man.” For a real sense of straight-guy-on-straight-guy sex outside of institutions like fraternities, the military, and pornography, Ward analyzes a series of Craigslist ads posted by supposed “str8 guys.” That Craigslist has been largely outmoded by geolocation apps like Grindr and Scruff is of no concern to Ward, nor is the fact that lying while cruising for sex online is an oft-used means to an end. I couldn’t even count the amount of guys I hooked up with who lied about their dick size or their looks or their affect or preferred sexual role before we met (so often do “tops” turn into bottoms when thrust from shadows of online to IRL encounters). If a guy really wants to get laid, it behooves him to call himself “str8,” regardless of his self-identity or actual behavior. It’s just good strategy.
Nonetheless, Ward reports, “Sexological survey research conducted with straight-identified men who post ads for sex with men on Craigslist suggests that, in fact, these men quite commonly report actual heterosexual identification.” The article she cites, however, suggests no such thing. Ward’s handling of the truth here, in fact, is as dubious as those str8 dudes’. What she points to is a 2013 paper from Culture, Health & Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care by Brandon Andrew Robinson and David A. Moskowitz called, “The eroticism of Internet cruising as a self-contained behaviour: a multivariate analysis of men seeking men demographics and getting off online.” The fascinating study is not about the real life identification of guys who claim to be “str8” on Craigslist—it’s about cruising for sex online being the means and the end (think of it being used as an erotic aid similar to porn). And even if it were about whether those guys are telling the truth about their identities on Craigslist, what would stop them from deviating from their Craigslist claims in the self-reporting they’d be asked to do in a survey? How much “proof” could they possibly supply?
Regardless, Robinson and Moskowitz report that 4.01 percent of their subjects identify as heterosexual, which is far from “quite commonly” by any standard. I have no idea what Ward was going for with this. It certainly seems foolhardy to glean any notion of sexual practice from online ads, which tend to be overly specific, idealistic, and rooted in fantasy. How often does any sex go according to plan?
Ward examined this subject in a 2008 article for Sexualities titled “Dude-Sex: White Masculinities and ‘Authentic’ Heterosexuality Among Dudes Who Have Sex With Dudes.” While many of her previous findings are repeated in Not Gay, Ward’s earlier writing takes less of a hardline in its claims about male sexuality. “This study demonstrates how a heterosexual culture is constructed online without making any claims about the ‘true’ heterosexuality of the men who post ads on Craigslist,” she writes, and indeed, that is sound and fertile ground for exploration. Granted, heterosexuality as an active construct runs counter to masculinity’s fundamentally effortless ideal. True, idealized masculinity just is, and made realer by its matter of fact. There are few things less masculine than a guy who identifies strictly as “masc” and makes great effort to display that for the male gaze. Understanding that “masculinity” or “str8ness” is a pose, a form of drag, though is more in line with the playful nature of man-on-man sex that often involves switching roles at will, playing with “toys,” and eroticizing symbols like piss and raw sex. Gay sex offers infinite possibility.
In “Dude-Sex,” Ward also provides a useful refutation for the position I have taken in this piece:
To de-queer the sex described on Craigslist is to give up the epistemological pleasure of self-righteous knowing, owning, outing, and naming. In the face of homophobia and heterosexism, honing one’s “gaydar” and revealing that “we are everywhere” have been among few queer luxuries. Yet as others have argued, political solidarity built primarily around sex acts misrecognizes what is most threatening, and subversive, about queerness. Queer culture—including a collective rejection of the rules associated with normal, adult, reproductive sexuality and (nonconsensual) heterosexual power relations—may better help scholars and activists determine the meaning of queer.
But what of the nonacademic who’s just trying to have a conversation or understand the world? How is he or she at all helped by shifting this divide? Perhaps I am exercising “self-righteous knowing, owning, outing, and naming,” and a more gentle approach to the sexual identification claimed by “straight” guys who sleep with guys would be the compassionate route. But I think it would also blind me to the reality, and I am suggesting that in order to write so many words about this topic, Ward had to willfully blind herself.
Words exist for a reason. They have use and describe actual phenomena. Though we sometimes have no choice but to rely on self-reporting in matters of identity, it is not always the case. I by no means want to pathologize sexuality with the following examples, but I want you to think about how guilt drives people to false self-reporting. Think of the crook who claims, “I am not a crook,” the rapist of underage girls who claims, “I’m a good person,” the stalker who claims, “I’m actually a nice person,” the monster who claims, “I am not a monster.” People attempt to distance themselves from themselves all the time, and it’s because they feel bad; they’re delusional, or stupid, or they think you’re stupid enough to buy into their delusions. Self-awareness is a rare commodity. You are what you think you are and what you do.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]