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A Conversation With a Heterosexuality Studies Professor

When I read Jane Ward’s book Not Gay upon its release in 2015, I fielded a lot of questions about what exactly I was reading. The answer was actually simpler than not: It was about the way straight white guys use their race and masculinity to express homosexuality without disrupting their heterosexual identities — particularly those in the hyper-masculine worlds of gangs, frats and the military.

Ward has made a career out of treating normative, dominant identities as something neither normative nor dominant, a sort of loving reparation for the way her own identities and social values (e.g., feminism and queer theory) have often been treated as “alternative” because of the ways power has been concentrated throughout history. The best example of this is probably the heterosexual studies course she created at the University of California at Riverside, where she teaches gender and sexuality studies and is now in the process of writing a second book around similar themes — namely, what do men lose when they adhere to the social boundaries imposed on them?

Last week, I spoke to Ward about why toxic masculinity is a redundant term; the relatively recent history of “heterosexuality”; and how eugenicists established what we consider normal in the bedroom.

You developed a heterosexuality studies course, which reminds me of how white, Western history is usually just taught as history, whereas histories of people of color have to be named as such. Why is it so important to study heterosexuality?
The course is called A Critical Approach to Heterosexuality. I’ve been teaching it for several years now. I’m very interested in shifting our lens onto this thing we call heterosexuality, which we take for granted in our culture. I wanted to know its history, its culture and how it worked.

When I first developed the course, I thought students were going to hate it, having their normativity and privilege challenged, but instead, I’ve found most of them love it. They welcome the opportunity to think critically about how they came to know they are straight. Most queer people have to do a lot work to track ourselves out of heterosexuality and its dominant culture, and I find that my straight students want to approach their sexuality with that same sort of intention.

There’s also so much about the history of heterosexuality that most people don’t know about. The most fascinating thing is that the term “heterosexuality” and the notion of the heterosexual person is only about 100 years old. It appeared a little before that in medical literature, but it didn’t start to circulate among the general public until well into the 20th century. So these ideas that people are born with a heterosexual constitution that’s hardwired are all very new.

If we look closely at what the conditions were that gave rise to the invention of that word and classification, it was actually a pathological term to describe a kind of perversion in which people had engaged in heterosexual sex that didn’t lead to procreation. Oral sex and mutual masturbation fell into this category. Only years later did heterosexuality come to be understood as the normal or default sexuality. I think this alone goes to show we take for granted this category of human history.

I feel like today, more people identify as queer than ever. I’m curious if you think that’s true, and if so, why? What does it say about their politics or culture just as much as it does about their sexuality?
The term queer didn’t get reclaimed until the 1990s. Prior to that, it was just a homophobic insult to describe someone with either an abnormal gender presentation or somebody suspected to have engaged in homosexual sex acts. So it’s hard to say more people are identifying as queer than ever before, when we’re only talking about the last 25 or 30 years.

I do think people who work in and teach queer studies have spent those years trying to teach college students that ever since queerness was reframed in the 1990s, it’s not a synonym for gay, lesbian or bisexual. It’s a kind of political orientation that’s about resistance to gender and sexual normativity. The idea is to recognize that not everybody who’s engaged in homosexual sex or who identifies as gay or lesbian has counter-normative ideas. In fact, many gay and lesbian people are deeply invested in being normal and have conservative values. For example, they want access to the military so they can continue the colonial legacy of this country.

Queer studies is a way of saying, “Wait, we care about whether or not you’ve internalized the liberatory politics of the queer movement no matter who you have sex with, because a lot of homosexual behavior doesn’t necessarily lend itself to changing the political landscape.”

You mentioned counterculturalism, which reminds me of one of the more interesting parts of Not Gay — your experiences studying sexual contact between men in hetero-masculine spaces, including the Hells Angels.
From researching the Hells Angels, I can tell you that what was happening in biker culture wasn’t as consequential as it seems. Many of the men who founded the Hells Angels had just come back from World War II. You often see this when veterans come home from war, especially if they’ve been deployed a long time. They come home accustomed to very masculine social environments with high adrenaline.

There’s a deep sense of bondedness that occurred between men in World War II, including sex practices. But you have to look at that sexuality happening in the context of daily fear for one’s life. The intimacy of sharing profound risk, once combined with sexual intimacy, was impactful. Then these men came home and suffered from PTSD. It was hard for them to reintegrate into normal society, so they created a biker gang to mirror those military conditions, allowing them to express certain types of violence and risk-taking behavior. It was all about defining themselves as menacing men — and in those environments we often consider hyper-masculine is often where a great deal of sexual contact among men is taking place.

When we talk about straight-identifying guys engaging in sex acts with one another in the context of the military, it’s often assumed that their behavior is due to the sheer necessity of sexual contact, not any preference or aptitude for it. Do you think that’s actually the case?
Prison is another example. For a long time, psychologists claimed the reason straight-identified men have sex with other men in prison is because there’s simply no women available — as if they had to. The sexologists and researchers at the time had all sorts of names for it. That was a big part of why I wanted to write Not Gay — to find out if this behavior happened in environments where women were in fact available for sex.

As it turns out, this sort of thing happens in masculine institutions like college fraternities, where there are many young women around. The common thread here is that when you get straight men together in homosocial contexts, they act out in complex ways that swirl homophobia and homosexual curiosity together.

In the book, you talk about the elephant walk, a notorious frat ritual in which fraternity brothers or hopeful pledges are instructed to put one finger in the asshole of the guy in front of them while grabbing the dick of the guy in back of them. What is the relationship between desire and repulsion in this context?
It’s difficult for people to understand and accept the relationship between desire and revulsion. They’re connected for everyone, but if there’s one group of people for whom they’re most connected, it’s straight men.

One way to look at this is to think about the incredible amount of sex men have with women they find repulsive in some way — whether it’s physical repulsion or repulsion in a different way, such as simply having no respect for them but still wanting to have sex with them anyway. I reference an ethnographic study in the book in which the author followed teenage boys around for a couple years and listened to the way they talked about having sex with girls. She found their sexual stories — at least the way they told them to one another — were all about having sex with disgusting things, all about the grossness of what happened. That they fucked a girl till she bled or shat.

In these accounts, we hear both desire and repulsion. This is especially true within white male youth culture. When you understand how this disgust factors in, you begin seeing how these straight men get to touching — by treating it like a gross joke. It’s supposed to be a gross joke to straddle or mount your buddy, but that doesn’t mean the desire isn’t there. What makes it risky is that sexuality is present. These acts have sexual meaning, and the charge guys feel from engaging in them stems from that sexuality.

Speaking of white guys, your book focuses on white hetero-masculine sexuality, and you’ve said elsewhere that white male sexuality is idealized as the normal sexual standard in this country. How do you think this is maintained?
Again, historical context is useful here. The psychologists and sexologists of the late 19th century and early- to mid-20th centuries are whose work still largely defines what normal sexuality is in the U.S. They were all white men. But as I’m delving into in my new book, many of these sexologists and psychologists also were eugenicists. So they were simultaneously interested in white superiority and the creation of a superior race through encouraging reproduction among those they considered society’s most civilized people. That’s, of course, a very racialized concept.

Also at the time, sex educators were writing for married couples. Healthy, normative sexuality only existed within the context of marriage and what was normal was decided by married, straight white men, who considered themselves the default humans. They pathologized everyone else as abnormal. They characterized black men as sexual predators and black women as oversexed. They characterized white women as sexually frigid.

So this white, heterosexual masculinity wasn’t only a reflection of themselves, but a political investment into justifying gender differences and Jim Crow segregation. As I study heterosexuality more and more, it becomes clear that our cultural thoughts about normal sexuality in this country are still haunted by white and male supremacy. There’s a deep sense of interconnectedness there.

Do you consider the men’s rights movement a counterreaction to the kind of work you do? If not, what causes men to come together and rally for themselves like that?
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Men have organized themselves as victims for 150 years. At one point, it was men who felt victimized by women not consulting them before having abortions or women demanding child support but not equal custody and access to the kids. Then, for decades now, there’s been this idea that men and boys are ignored in school and not achieving at the same rate as girls because of affirmative action gone awry.

In the 1950s, young men were forced to settle down and give up pleasure by marrying early and serving their families. This era of men organizing together was all about not getting trapped by the ball-and-chain of a nagging wife and settle into a dissatisfying life. Playboy advocated for men being allowed to be bachelors without shame or stigma. It crafted a culture of men who wanted to find their true, wild masculinity again — although it also had a whole refined, consumer masculinity thing happening too, like where to get the best martini and stuff like that.

Before all of this, there were homosocial immigrant environments in the 1920s in which men were having sex with each other before their families arrived to the U.S.

So the men’s right movement is part of a longer, well-documented history of men developing these sorts of networks. The unique thing now, of course, is that their networks can grow much bigger, much faster today because of the internet.

What do you think of the term toxic masculinity?
I think we’re starting to wake up to the possibility that the phrase toxic masculinity isn’t so accurate or useful. This is because when we talk about toxic masculinity, we’re talking about masculinity in and of itself. The toxic part is that masculinity teaches men to define themselves in opposition to femininity. This creates an inability for boys and men to identify with girls and women, meaning they have very little space to imagine themselves in the shoes of girls and women.

It’s not as though some small council of evil men are the only ones who rape women. It’s all men. Men raised by women rape women. College men with 4.0 GPAs rape women. All sorts of successful and unsuccessful men rape women. They get away with it because boys are raised to dehumanize girls and have little proficiency at recognizing the suffering of women and girls. Sometimes men know what they’re doing is rape or assault and simply don’t care, but many don’t even recognize what these things are.

There’s nothing hardwired about this. We’ve just raised men to be emotionally deficient. It’s entirely in the socialization. If we want men to develop more empathy for women, we need young boys to read great books where they’re raised to identify with characters who are girls just as much as characters who are boys. We need to teach our sons to befriend girls and not go about sexualizing those friendships by asking if that’s their girlfriend.

I’m curious if masculinity limits male performance in other contexts too, such as at work.
The truth is, there are so many ways masculinity dumbs down men. Because of patriarchy, women haven’t had space to express this much, but now that we’re receiving more invitations to talk about such a matter, we largely recognize that we all know it’s true. The president heightens our awareness of this, too. He is an emotionally and intellectually deficient man who’s dangerous to all of us. His masculinity has a lot to do with this and now, which is opening up a national conversation about what has long been a taboo subject — men’s deficiencies.