Tank

When Guys ‘Experiment’ With Other Guys, Society Doesn’t Know What to Call Them

‘I expected to feel secure in my sexuality after it happened, but the complete opposite happened. I felt ashamed’

Fellas, is it gay to have sucked a dick or two in the past?

The argument surfaced late last week when R&B singer Tank said: absolutely not. Maybe you messed around with other guys; it still has nothing to do with how you identify.

In Tank’s words: “He sucked a dick once, and then he’s like, ‘I’m not sure if I liked it or not. Let me try again.’ And then he says, ‘You know what, it’s not for me…’ It doesn’t mean he’s gay. It means he sucked dick twice.”

Over on Reddit, many guys felt seen, as they say. They were eager to share their own stories of sexual experimentation in a thread about Tank’s comments:

  • “Can confirm. I experimented with a friend as a teenager. I’m still straight,” writes Lowenheim.
  • “Yeah, I fooled around with a gay friend as a teenager. It was fun, but I am not attracted sexually to men,” Sweetwheels adds.
  • “Sucked a dick once. Don’t really want to again,” DontTakeMyNoise explains. “It was fun, like a mouth puzzle. But not a sexual kind of fun.”
  • “I’m lucky to have had a highly open, accepting and experimental group of friends in my life. Many of us fooled around out of curiosity, but we’re all pretty secure in our sexuality (whether gay, straight, bi or otherwise),” writes Wilsongs.
  • “When I was a teenager, some of my guy friends would experiment a bit here and there. They don’t view themselves as bisexual but they’re not ashamed of the experimentation either,” adds Dallyan. “They tried it, and it wasn’t for them. I think there’s a difference between experimentation and regular sexual practices.”

When we asked guys to share their “experimentation” stories with us, they spoke of a process that’s less cut-and-dry than “tried it; not for me.” Sometimes, a period of sexual self-discovery can complicate a guy’s sense of self. Men can suffer, too, when society doesn’t really know what box to put them in.

Take Alex, a 23-year-old in North Carolina. During middle school, he really struggled to find out where he stood sexuality-wise, a process made only messier by the fact that he lost his virginity to a girl at just the age of 12. “It was difficult,” he tells me. “I expected to feel secure in my sexuality after it happened, but the complete opposite happened. I felt ashamed. I didn’t tell any of my friends, I didn’t tell my older brother and I definitely didn’t talk to my parents about it.”

Instead, Alex began to question whether he was straight. Because if he didn’t enjoy sex with a woman, that meant he was gay, right?

So in the words of Tank, Alex tinkered with the “art of being gay.” “But back then, homosexuality was tossed around as an insult constantly,” he tells me. “Everyone was always saying ‘no homo,’ as if they were terrified someone would accuse them of being gay. My friends would tease each other about ‘wanting it in the butt,’ and I was called a ‘faggot’ constantly.”

The ridicule and confusion only furthered his depression. “I was obsessed with the idea that I was surely gay because I didn’t like heterosexual sex, but the hatred swirling around me got to me.”

At 13, Alex attempted suicide. “Being dead was better than the alternative, so I tried to hang myself,” he tells me. “But I used this crappy belt, which broke after I lost consciousness and my full weight hung from it. I woke up on the floor of my room, to my mom, understandably, freaking out.”

Alex was admitted to the hospital, where he decided to embrace his identity and come out. “If I was gay, I was gay and I wasn’t going to miss out on dating and romance and everything I expected to experience as a straight teenager.”

“Over the next few years,” he continues, “I had a handful of sexual encounters with other boys, but it just felt off. I didn’t really love it, but at the time, I chalked it up to not really knowing what I was doing, which was probably also true.”

In the meantime, he was becoming increasingly attracted to women. “I realized I had a crush on the girl who was my closest friend,” he says. “So then things got very confusing. I remember thinking, Does this mean I’m bisexual? Was I ever gay? Did I overthink the whole thing?

From that confusion, though, came clarity. He’s been dating women ever since. “It took me a long time to comfortably identify as heterosexual,” he tells me. “But by my senior year [in high school], I was mostly settled into being straight.”

“I’m certainly not ashamed of [sexual experiences with men],” he adds. “If anything, it makes me happy to know that I didn’t cheat myself of those experiences simply because I put myself in a box of heteronormativity.” Or, he argues, even a box of bisexuality: “I can appreciate male attractiveness, but knowing I wouldn’t pursue anything physical with a guy, whereas I would with a woman, makes me inclined to identify as straight.”

Daniel, a 31-year-old in Denver who works at a rape crisis and sexual advocacy center, however, counters that sexual identity is far from this clear-cut. “Part of the fight for bi people is just for more bi people, especially men, to be seen and heard,” he says. Basically, someone who acts bisexual but opts to identify as straight is enjoying the privileges of being straight without having to suffer the social pitfalls of being publicly bisexual.

Part of the problem is that most wrongfully assume bisexual means being attracted to men and women equally, when that’s not always the case. So you get people having to choose polar opposite labels or the exact middle, Daniel explains. “People think they have these three boxes (straight, gay and bisexual) figured out, so when someone identifies as straight even though they’ve had male partners, it’s frustrating.”

Still, he admits, “They’re at least showing that sexuality is a spectrum, and that within those three labels, there are shades of grey. Perhaps you’re bi but prefer women 70 percent of the time — there’s currently no word for that, besides using the Kinsey-centric method of identification. But even then, it’s hard to say that it would help much.”

Outside of the more-blatant homophobic route of being physically intimate with men while condemning and/or denying doing so, there’s one other scenario Daniel can think of where a man might have past experiences with men but consider themselves straight. “They might just be afraid to come out, for any number of valid reasons — safety concerns, family dynamics, religious dynamics, fear of social ostracization and many others,” he explains.

Michael, a 27-year-old in Oklahoma, probably falls into this category. Between the ages of 19 and 23, Michael had varying levels of physical intimacy with five men. Due to early childhood trauma, he says he found it easier to hook up with men than women. With women, he knows he’ll form feelings and the fear of being emotionally hurt can “ruin me for weeks,” he explains. “But with the men I slept with, my feelings couldn’t be hurt because they didn’t form in the first place. And I always made it clear with them beforehand, so they didn’t get hurt either.”

All the while, of course, he identified as straight — the same as today. “The only person who knows about my prior male partners is my best friend of 20 years — and I guess the men that I’ve slept with probably have an idea too,” he tells me. “It’s definitely easier to say I’m straight than the ‘truth,’ and there’s way less chance of the conversation going places I’d rather it not. The biggest reason, though, is the pressure to be more ‘out’ and be part of LGBTQ culture. It’s just not my scene. I’m afraid of how that community might be critical of the way I’d express my ‘queerness’ if I don’t want to participate in all of that.”

“I’m definitely on the ‘it’s easier to navigate life’ side of things,” he continues, admitting that it’s never dawned on him that that could be interpreted as homophobic. “I can see that, though. I mean, I do partly identify as straight so that certain people don’t know there’s more to it than that,” he says. Not that it will change (for now at least) how he views himself: He’s straight. End of story.

Alex, on the other hand, has a more nuanced view of his past sexual experiences with men. “It’s so important to feel good about who you are, especially when it comes to something as stigmatized as sexual preferences,” he tells me. “So at the end of the day, I’ve enjoyed the convoluted journey I’ve taken to get to this point. Those experiences help you establish important things like boundaries and confidence, which is important, because when you gain control over your sexuality, you end up with a healthier view of it.”