Interview conducted by the Sexual Cultures series editors, Ann Pellegrini, Tavia Nyong’o, and Joshua Chambers-Letson.
Not Gay focuses on straight white men who have sex with other men, but who do not identify as gay. You carefully explain why you take their assertions of straightness seriously and do not just call them closet cases or diagnose them as in denial. Why aren’t these men simply “bisexual”? As if there is anything simple about being bisexual – or straight or gay, for that matter!
JW: What I think many people have misunderstood is that my book isn’t about a special subset of white straight men; it’s about all white straight men. I make the argument that the very culture of heterosexual masculinity—or white manhood as a cultural institution— produces a striking number of opportunities for men to touch each other’s anuses and penises, and to think of these encounters as non-sexual. Just as mainstream culture allows for straight women to have sexual contact with women and maintain a straight identity— straight men also have these opportunities, but they look different from women’s opportunities. For straight-identified women, sexual contact with another woman is often a performance for male spectators, but for straight men it is also a performance for other men—expressed as a form of vulgar and homophobic joking, hazing or initiation, or daredevil stunts. So the actual mechanics of the behavior are basically the same for men and women, but the cultural narratives that justify it are different.
When lesbians see two straight women kissing each other on a dance floor to excite their boyfriends or when we see straight women licking each other in hetero porn, we don’t say, “Oh, look at these poor lesbians or bisexual women suffering in the closet! They need to come out already.” Why? Because we understand the heterosexual context in which these women are touching each other. Even if they are completely turned on, we recognize that they might be turned on for heterosexual reasons, like pleasing the men who are watching them. In contrast, essentialist interpretations of men’s sexuality have not only blinded us to the prevalence of straight men’s homosexual contact with other men, they have made it nearly impossible for us to see that sometimes straight men have sex with men for heterosexual reasons.
Interestingly, I have heard from bi-identified readers who want to argue that calling someone “straight” who has had sex with women and men is a form of bi-erasure; and that since what I am really writing about is bisexuality, I have committed a form of epistemological violence by writing about the subject without being bi-identified myself. But if we are defining bi so broadly (i.e., anyone with the capacity for attraction to both men and women, regardless of how they themselves identify), then I am certainly bi. And frankly, I think all humans are bisexual by this definition. Of course it is useful to point out that human desire is more expansive than we are taught, but I don’t think it’s productive to expand the category “bisexual” to all—or most—humans. Bisexuality, to me, is a queer identification, one that resists the hetero/homo binary.
I have also been surprised by some critics’ claims that the book is somehow defending or honoring straight men by allowing them to remain straight; some readers have implied that anyone engaged in homosexual sex should be forced, I suppose, to identify as bi or gay. Or at the very least, I should be forced to write about them that way. I think this is coming from the still common belief that being straight is always easier, better, more enjoyable than being queer, and therefore to identify as straight while sometimes having homosexual encounters is to pillage queerness while reaping the endless benefits of heteronormativity. But I offer a different perspective in the book, which is that straightness has been so damaged by sexism and the gender binary that to be straight is far more miserable, especially for women, than the dominant culture wants us to recognize. As I say in the book, I find heterosexual culture quite distasteful and I would never, ever want to be straight. So if some men who have sex with men want to identify as straight, I hardly think that allowing them to stew in the juices of heteronormativity is a reward.
How does whiteness/white privilege function for your argument and for the men you write about? Does whiteness offer greater permission for them to have sex with other men without losing their status as straight?
JW: Yes, this is precisely what I argue in the book. In the last fifteen years or so, social scientists, public health workers, and journalists have been quite interested in straight men’s homosexual encounters, but this interest has centered almost entirely on Black men. Black men “on the down low,” regardless of their own self-identifications, have been characterized as closeted gay or bi men who lie to women about their sex with men—and therefore represent a serious public health threat. Many commentators have suggested that when straight-identified Black men have sex with men, it has everything to do with race. Most often, the argument is that Black culture is so hyper-homophobic that Black men cannot be honest about their ostensibly real sexual orientations. Many scholars working in Black queer studies, like C. Riley Snorton and Jeffrey McCune, have offered brilliant critiques of this discourse. I hope my book adds to those critiques by pointing to the ways that white men have completely flown under the radar of these discussions about sex between straight-identified men. Psychologists and sexologists have been much more generous and forgiving with their interpretations of straight white men’s homosexual encounters, allowing for the possibility that they are developmental, circumstantial, and compelled—and therefore not indicators of straight white men’s sexual essence. And certainly no one has suggested that when straight white men have sex with men, these encounters might be happening in racialized ways that are specific to white culture! But of course, they are, and I offer numerous examples.
It’s become something of a cultural cliché (not to mention a staple of pornography and pop culture – think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” for one notable recent example) to say that women’s sexuality is more flexible or “fluid” than men’s. Does your book show that straight men’s sexuality is more flexible than commonly thought?
JW: It seems straight men will never be tired of the girl-girl fantasy, and I think that’s precisely the point. We are inundated with images of straight women in sexual scenarios with other women because these images appeal to many heterosexual men. So it’s generally much easier for people to see how girl-girl sex might, in some cases, be about heterosexuality more than it is about lesbianism. But mention the possibility of straight dude-on-dude action, and you’re met with guffaws. Straight men deny that it happens, and gay and bi men seem to want to claim that even a single sexual fantasy about another man signals a tortured life in the closet. So it’s certainly time to unpack and examine this double standard.
With respect to the term “fluidity,” many people posit that sexual fluidity is a capacity we are either born with or we’re not. I am not saying that straight men are sexually fluid at their core, or that straight men are actually bisexual or pansexual but they just don’t know it yet. Instead, I’m shedding light on the fact that straight men touch each other’s penises and anuses a lot, often in hyper-masculine environments like fraternities and the military, and in many cases they don’t understand this touching to be sexual. Since they are often doing it as an expression of homophobia, or to prove exactly how hetero-masculine they are, I don’t know that “fluidity” is the most useful term for understanding the meaning of straight men’s sexual encounters with one another. Instead, it’s more productive to think about this in terms of the erotic flexibility of heterosexuality.
Congratulations, you have a cross over! Do you find that the feminist and queer critique your book offers is somehow being overlooked amidst all the positive coverage, though? Many responses seem caught up in the nominalist controversy of whether or not someone can have sex with someone of the same sex and still “be” straight? How would you hope the book might be received differently say, in a classroom setting? What might Not Gay be contributing to Queer Studies at this juncture?
JW: My hope is that I’ve made a case for theorizing heterosexuality differently, not as the absence of homosexuality but as a distinct mode of engaging homosexuality that is animated by very creative hetero-erotic alibis, performative disidentifications with queerness, and a fetishized relationship to heteronormativity. Of course I also hope students in queer studies will understand that I am not congratulating straight people for their imaginative efforts at having homosexual sex in sexist and homophobic ways! Instead, I am asking queer people—and especially gay men—to let go of the desire to claim all instances of homosexual contact as ours, or within the purview of queerness. I have to say that in many ways the response to the book is almost better fuel for classroom discussion than the book itself is. The onslaught of misogynist attacks from gay men has been telling: “you’re an idiot who needs to have your degree revoked;” “what could a lesbian possibly know about this subject;” “you must have been raped by a man and therefore your trauma accounts for this misandrous attack on white men”–and it goes on and on. That the book has gained the attention of gay men outside of academia, and then elicited this kind of response from them, is, I think, illustrative of the fact that gay men have largely controlled the dominant narrative about what it means to be gay, in the broad sense that includes “gay women,” and this book challenges that narrative. Queer women are rarely central in telling the story about the meaning of sexual identity categories. I have read several sound critiques of the book, but I do think a lot the push back, coming almost exclusively from men, reflects gay men’s investment in the heteronormative and male-centered premise that it’s almost always easier to be straight and that the benefits of being queer don’t outweigh the costs. Perhaps it’s often better for men to be straight, but if we keep in mind the abuses many women experience in relationships with men—domestic violence, sexual assault, unequal division of labor, etc.—then one could certainly argue that the homophobia women experience as lesbians or bisexuals is no worse than the sexism they experience in heterosexual relationships. I write from this perspective, my own perspective as a dyke who would be absolutely devastated to be straight. What all this indicates to me is that it’s time to invest in Lez Theory, or a queer theory centered in the lezbo/dyke/lezzie experience.
The subjects of your book — straight white men — are decentered in most feminist and queer studies syllabi, and justifiably so. So what does bringing up the topic of straight masculinity, specifically within the context of feminist and queer studies, achieve? Does it have the capacity to address the question, for instance, of whether or not Queer Studies is dependent upon a reflexive antinormativity?
JW: Straight white men are often the invisible reference point used by science when it turns its pathologizing gaze toward the sexuality of men of color and women. So it can be incredibly helpful to look closely at how that reference point is being reproduced, what the stakes are for everyone else, and how we might want to resist. But with regard to antinormativity, taking sex between straight men as our point of departure can certainly helps us think more extendedly about how we want to define antinormative sex practices, for instance. I agree with Maggie Nelson when she asks in her memoir The Argonauts, “how can rampant, ‘deviant’ sexual activity remain the marker of radicality? What sense does it make to align ‘queer’ with ‘sexual deviance’ when the ostensibly straight world is having no trouble keeping pace?” By most accounts, the kind of sex I describe in Not Gay—straight white men eating potato chips out of each others anuses and the like—is deviant. It’s not subversive, certainly not consciously, but it’s deviant. In the book, I describe the erotic force of heterosexuality as a kind of fetish for heteronormativity, one that can incorporate no end of sexual deviance. But what we see is that these sex acts are nasty and naughty in the service of normalcy! Because the current imperative is to have a more or less “hidden” sexual freakiness that is reigned in when appropriate, exemplified by the heteronormative dictate to be a “lady on the streets and a freak in the sheets,” Nelson is absolutely right that freak sex is not a singularly queer domain. What I think is queer is to be a freak in the streets. What straight people want to view as meaningless, incongruent, non-subjectifying, and private, queers treat with sincerity, reverence, and a sense of collective pride.
Jane Ward is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015). Visit her website at janewardphd.com.