In her recent book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men sociologist Jane Ward shows how straight guys are often more sexually fluid than they’re expected to be. Childhood games of doctor, spontaneous threesomes involving women or causal propositions from another man regularly push the boundaries of heterosexual identities — without negating them.
Consider Rory, a 25-year-old guy from Minnesota. He identifies as straight, but has a number of queer fantasies and has had gay experiences. Culturally, there’s a tendency to assume men like Rory are just taking the slow road to coming out. But as bisexual visibility rises and the transgender equality movement continues to strengthen its non-binary discourse and mainstream reach, sexuality is becoming more and more understood as a fluid spectrum, not a fixed designation. Room is even being made for hetero people like Rory to actively discover and recognize their own queerness.
How do you describe your sexual orientation?
I identify as straight — although I’ve had several sexual experiences with men and I have a rich fantasy life that doesn’t always fit [into] the straight box.
What are those fantasies like?
I fantasize about performing oral sex on other men. Someone once told me they identity as “contextually sexual.” That phrase rings true for me. My sexuality depends on the circumstances.
What was your first sexual experience with another man?
My ex-girlfriend and I had sex with [another] couple — a man and a woman. We took a sexy bath together and I touched his penis. Like, literally just touched it out of curiosity. My ex-girlfriend really got off on bi guys. She kept a count of how many dudes she’d been with that she’d gotten to get with other dudes.
Did that further spark your interest in guys?
After my girlfriend and I broke up, I had sex with the same couple by myself. I was writing erotica at the time and was fantasizing about penises, and I got to play that out with the guy. I didn’t want to touch his butt or his testicles much because I wasn’t used to how much hair he had, but having him give me oral sex didn’t feel different than receiving oral sex from women.
The women facilitated what I did with the other guy. I don’t think we would have done it at that time without either one of them there. I would never have sex with him just to get off. That said, I would have sex with him again if the opportunity arose — it could be be exciting and explorative.
Have you hooked up with a guy who identifies as gay?
Yeah, a little more than a year ago. He was living with a woman whom I had dated, and he expressed interest in me after he heard me say I thought hooking up with men would probably challenge me in a good way.
What does that mean?
I knew that touch is touch and that my g-spot is just a muscle that happens to be in my butt. I also had some sense that being closer with men was important, but I wasn’t going after sex with men on my own — I still had feelings of internalized homophobia. This guy was direct in his wants.
Did you tell him you were nervous?
Yeah, we talked about how scared I was. He was very encouraging and gave me lots of space to process verbally, which was very nice of him. He was happy to have an experience that was sexual without the pressure of having to cum.
Do you regret anything about that experience?
I was a little disappointed that I didn’t put his dick in my mouth, but I was also a little relieved. Imagining the texture of him on my tongue was scarier than I want to admit.
Does it still scare you?
Lately, I’ve only been having sex with women. That’s somewhat out of habit and being busy, but also somewhat out of fear. I definitely still fantasize about going down on another guy, but I also have this worry about getting nervous again and not being able to perform while with a man. Fear is the only thing holding me back from further acting out my own fantasies.
Why identify as straight if your experiences and fantasies go beyond that?
I know my fantasies about men are contrary to what straight identity is supposed to mean, but for me it makes a lot of sense. I’m a man who has exclusively had romantic relationships with women. If something changes, I may reevaluate, but for the time being, I don’t think my few isolated sexual experiences with men and fantasies about men change the fact that I grew up with straight, cis male privilege and continue to read to the world as a straight man. It also gives me the most leverage when it comes to encouraging radical closeness with other straight men.
What do you mean by leverage?
I identify as straight so I can model flexibility within that label. Choosing to identify differently would mean I would lose my ability to advocate as a straight, cis, white man with other straight, cis, white men who don’t often get the opportunity to discuss these types of things with each other.
Wouldn’t some people consider that a privileged position in and of itself, being able to “pass” as not gay?
It’s not about escaping the baggage of being labeled gay. That’s not something I’m afraid of.
It’s about pushing the limits of what it means to be straight.
I’m in a unique position as a straight man to do that work. I’d rather do that than bring my privilege into a queer space. Identifying as straight makes me feel like I’m taking responsibility for my own experience.
Do you ever experience shame related to your sexuality?
I’ve felt ashamed when someone else wants sex and I don’t, because we’re taught that all guys want sex all the time.
So do you think the way you think about sex differs from the way a lot of guys do?
I hear men talk about sex like, where is my next meal coming from? That’s not my attitude, but only because I’ve spent a lot of time processing my own urgency. For me, sex is about actually navigating closeness, not just getting off on the idea of a person or the idea of connecting with that person.
Do you pursue closeness with men differently than you do closeness with women?
Yes. I’ve been conditioned to do it with women, and I’ve been much more comfortable doing it with women. But I want be able to pursue closeness with anyone.
Do any of your guy friends resist that closeness?
If I stopped pursuing closeness with men every time a man pushed me away, I wouldn’t have any close male friends. We’d all just be playing videogames together all the time.
In building connections with women, I try to let them set their own pace. That seems like the most consensual way to engage. But I do the opposite with men. Upon their consent, it’s all about calculated risk. I want to push them. I think it’s radical to see straight men like me seeking emotional and physical intimacy with anybody other than women we’re in monogamous sexual relationships with. I want to foster that. That said, there are definitely times when I am the one whose walls come up first (with the gay man for instance), but for the most part I am the person who is willing or craving to push for more intimacy than another person (or willing to sit with and explore that dissonance). This is true in all kinds of relationships in my life and is limited by things like time and consent.
What has sustained your interest in sex and gender theory, as a straight guy, beyond that?
When I was 13, I had two goals: To be a millionaire and to be with a woman with big boobs. I clearly already knew how status tends to be defined for men. Now, I have different goals. I want to live equitably, sustainably, and connected in the world, and I want that for my eventual children. I think it’s hard to raise anybody in our culture, but when we look at the consequences of not raising young men right, we see the violence of rape culture. Men easily, and often without knowing, become agents of oppression because they buy into toxic masculine ideals. I don’t want my future son living in a toxically masculine world because he’s taught that’s cool, and I don’t want my daughters sexually assaulted because someone else’s kid is living out that toxic stuff.
I want to work towards a world where everyone sees each other as worth connecting with, and I think that sexuality will become more fluid across the board from there. Right now, for me, that means being a straight man who is trying to go out and love a lot of men.