How to Have Gay Sex Without Being Gay

We spoke to Jane Ward, author of <i>Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men</i>, about the gay sex straight white guys have been having for centuries.

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Aug 9 2015, 4:16am

Jane Ward's new book, Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men, is an investigation into "no homo" culture, which charts the many ways in which straight white men explore, explain, and excuse their sexual behavior with other men. So readily visible are the pieces of evidence she amasses, and so surprising are her conclusions, that reading Not Gay is like doing a Magic Eye puzzle for the mind: All the dots you'd never before put together suddenly snap into place, allowing you to see just how hot for other men some straight men are.

Each chapter in the book explores a different framing device that our culture uses to understand sex between straight white men: frat house or military hazing rituals, boys-will-be-boys summer camp circle jerks, or the "situational homosexuality" of sailors at sea, for instance. Women, Ward contends, are allowed (or, increasingly, expected) to be more sexually fluid and "open," while the concept of the "down low" has prompted many recent discussions on the supposed sexual fluidity (and duplicity) of men of color. But straight white men are generally held up as the paragons of our sexually normative culture, oriented in one rigid direction, unwavering and in fact disgusted by any other kind of sexuality.

In particular, Ward pays close attention to the ways in which white straight men justify their own sexual behaviors with other men. She neatly breaks down common defenses given to "explain" such actions. For example, sexual contact between men is often seen as a kind of heterosexual bonding if the participants loudly declare how disgusting the activity is (think frat boys "forced" to insert things into each others' assholes—a frequent occurrence in the pages of Not Gay). Yet she points out that many straight men openly express disgust about women's bodies, showing that disgust and desire can easily exist in the same moment.

Ward is not arguing that these men are "really" gay or bisexual (though some probably are). Instead, her point is that what makes these men "not gay" isn't their actions, nor the complicated and contradictory emotions that are involved in those actions, but rather, their commitment to straight, normative life. The very same behaviors and feelings these men exhibit might, in someone less invested in normality, have given rise to a gay, bi, or queer identity.

VICE called up Ward to discuss sexuality, normative culture, bro-jobs, elephant walks, "crossing the line," and the dozen other bizarrely named and carefully orchestrated rituals that white straight guys use to get inside each other's cargo shorts.

VICE: So, what motivated you to write a book about straight guys having gay sex?
Jane Ward: In my early 20s I was still dating men occasionally, and, as I explain in the book, one of these men started telling me about the elephant walk, which is a ritual that is notorious in the Greek system. This is basically a ritual in which men are holding the penis of the guy behind them and they have their thumb in the butt of the guy in front of them. This was a totally straight guy—I can't imagine a more hetero-masculine man—who I had known for many years, and I just thought, How were you making sense of this when you were participating in that? And so I was interested 15, 20 years ago in this question, and then I just started to see more and more evidence that straight men have intimate contact with one another's bodies and don't necessarily perceive it as sexual.

As homosexuality and homosexual sex become increasingly normalized, they'll stop triggering the gag reflex in your average American. —Jane Ward

I imagine you get a lot of people saying "Oh, these men are just closeted."
Absolutely. I think because sex practices are still so closely scrutinized and morally laden, I think people—including many LGBT people—are most comfortable with sex when it adheres to clearly defined categories and when it's relatively predictable. And so I think people like to believe that there are three sexual orientations, straight, gay, and bi, and it's becoming increasingly popular to believe that we are born with those sexual orientations. Any sex practice that's more complicated than that or that can't be explained by that schema is especially threatening.

I've gotten a lot of feedback from bi-identified folks, who I think have not read the book but have read the title of the book, who feel like this is contributing to bi-erasure, but from my vantage point, bi is a distinct and significant queer identification. So I can't see why we would want to take straight-identified men who have no interest in bi-identification whatsoever and who are completely invested in hetero-normativity and who don't even understand the contact that they're having as particularly sexual, and who are framing that contact within misogyny and homophobia—why would we want to claim them as part of the queer community? It reduces bisexuality to just a technical description of sex acts. I understand bisexuality more broadly than that.

You make the point that before the rise of identity politics—before we had sexual identities that were neatly constructed into packages like gay or straight—men who thought of themselves as "sexually normal" had somewhat more freedom to engage in same-sex practices, because doing so didn't necessarily mean they were "gay" or "bi." Do you think that means that straight guys used to have more gay sex?
There's a great book written by this historian George Chauncey about precisely that. It's called Gay New York. I remember very clearly excerpts in it from an interview with a gay man who says, "It was really a bummer when the gay liberation movement started pushing people to come out because it meant that straight men were far less willing to have sex with us." All of a sudden, there are all of these identitarian consequences.

I think that we're again in a time in which all of this is shifting, because there's such a push by the mainstream movement to normalize and assimilate all of us queers, through marriage, for instance. So I think what we'll see is as homosexuality and homosexual sex become increasingly normalized, they'll stop triggering the gag reflex in your average American. There'll be more and more room for people to engage in it and to make sense of it however they want. But that doesn't mean that the binary between normal and abnormal will go away, because that's always shifting. So for instance now, I think you can be a "good gay" or you can be a "bad gay." Either you're a married gay with kids living in the suburbs, and that's good, or if you're still wearing leather and you're into kink or whatever, then that's bad. I think we're seeing the culture always adapt a little bit in ways that sometimes look like progress but half aren't.

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