Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, by Jane Ward

It’s communal, kinky, defiant – but whatever it is, don’t call it that, says Kalle Berggren

October 8, 2015
Review: Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, by Jane Ward

Sex between straight white men? This seemingly paradoxical phenomenon is, according to sociologist Jane Ward, ubiquitous, although often misunderstood. Not Gay engages with this intriguing topic in an approach firmly rooted in the tradition of queer scholarship, which analyses how cultural meanings attached to hetero- and homosexuality are established and negotiated in different contexts and by different groups – including straight white men. Ward’s book is confident and theoretically well-informed, and offers a rich, often counterintuitive and thought-provoking tour through straight white men’s homosexual activities and their shifting meanings – in history, in the military, in fan fiction, in French kissing among Hell’s Angel members, as well as in the accounts of pop psychological experts who assure straight men having sex with other men that they are not gay. In short, this is cultural studies at its best.

Ward starts with hazing rituals among men in the military and in fraternities, where homosexual sex is a central component. While these activities have often been interpreted as having to do with the specific institution of the military, or as non-sexual acts of initiation into brotherhood communities, the originality of Not Gay lies in considering such interpretations precisely as accounts. They are exceptionalising accounts of homosexual sex between straight men that seek to persuade us that it is circumstantial and meaningless, and in particular not gay. The hazing rituals, in this analysis, become scenes carefully organised by straight white men for having not-gay homosexual contact. Her focus on white men, Ward notes, reflects the greater cultural resources at hand for white men in legitimating their homosexual sex as heterosexual.

As we move from “tearooms” to “casual encounters” advertisements placed by “Str8 dudes” looking for friendly sex with each other, and from white Republican politicians caught giving blowjobs to black men, to “bromance” films and Jackass, Ward contends that sex between straight men is so ubiquitous that it should be seen not as an exception to heterosexual masculinity but instead as an integral part of it. Thus, what distinguishes gay sex from not-gay sex is not primarily the sexual practices, but instead the cultural meanings attached to them. As Ward explains: “Some men like to have sex with men in backrooms of gay bars after dancing to techno music; others like to have sex with men while watching straight porn and talking about ‘banging bitches’.”

But the similarities do not stop here. It turns out that both gay and straight men portray themselves as having “no choice” about their homosexual sex, with gay men bound by biology and straight men by circumstance. Both are ways of denying agency and sexual fluidity – which are instead associated with women, but also embraced by Ward. In opposition to the popular “born this way” story, she advocates queerness as a cultivated resistance to the pressures of normality. It is here that a final twist emerges: her frustration with an expansion of heterosexuality to include “communal, public, kinky and defiant” sex practices, including hazing, while queerness, on the other hand, is being narrowed down to marriage and monogamy.

Kalle Berggren is lecturer in sociology and gender studies, Uppsala University and Stockholm University, Sweden. He has published on gender, sexuality, race and class in Swedish hip hop.

Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men
By Jane Ward
New York University Press, 240pp, £62.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9781479860685 and 825172
Published 31 July 2015


Print headline: Str8 is the new queer

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Reader's comments (3)

The premise of this book is so counterintuitively absurd - that straight (ONLY white?) men regularly engage in not only in homoerotic but homosexual sexual activity, not out of innate desire, physical or psychological coercion, situational or even youthful experimentation, but as a reaction to some ill defined and unfalsifiable marxian ideological supervening social force that threatens their fragile heterosexual identity - that one would expect the author to posit a plausible theoretical framework backed by strong empirical evidence gathered using reliable methods and measures and alternative explanations along with explicit limitations should be anticipated and evaluated in order to justify such radical conclusions. Most of us would explain “straight” men having sexual contact as either a one off curious experimentation or maybe evidence of repressed gay/bi attractions. Age, intoxication, coercion, etc. would all be factors to help explain these situations. However, in a homophobic and heterosexist society, the claim that straight men “prove” their heterosexuality by engaging in gay sex is absurd on its face! It is just the opposite – gay sex is so stigmatized that most straight men would have strong pressure not to be “tainted” by the act. Someone suggested that some gay men experiment with girls in order to prove that they are gay but most do it in order to try to make themselves straight because that is what a homophobic society expects. Ward attempts to get around this by racializing the topic but that is just a discursion she uses based on her theoretical assumptions.
Ugh – Jane Ward strikes again with another volume of pop pseudoscience heavily marketed to the press with best click bait titles ever! Unfortunately, most empirical sociologists cringe because she is notorious for employing weak methodology shaped by the most extreme post-structuralist/queer theory in order to justify ridiculously counter-intuitive per-determined conclusions that just so happen to match her politics. Discourse analysis of media is basically a non-quantitative black box that is ripe for abuse because it is basically boils down to the researcher’s subjective opinion that can be distorted by the anecdotal nature of the study. Ward is a hard core social constructionist who rejects any biological explanations for human behavior, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality. For her, there is no reality to sexual identities outside of a very extreme anti-capitalist, anti-normative politics, which the vast majority of people, gay and straight, would reject as nonsense. Her view of “queer” identity is so narrow and political that it would exclude almost everyone who currently identifies as LGBT so I guess we are all heterosexual then! “That’s about queer subculture, which is anchored to a long tradition of anti-normative political practices and anti-normative sex practices and appreciation for a much broader array of bodies and kinds of relationships and so forth, and so I think most straight people don’t actually want to be part of it. I think straight people who engage in homosexual sex, what makes them straight is precisely that they have no interest whatsoever in being part of queer subculture, and so in the last chapter I’m making the point that they could if they wanted to, but they don’t…” Finally, she really crosses the line when she claims that any LGBT who disagrees her just-so theorizing and asserts an innate sexuality is suffering from internalized homophobia! Talk about chutzpah! Ward, just like the religious right, is motivated by a kind of faith based denial of science – her faith being in Queer Theory – and allows her own ideology to trump the lived experiences and narratives of the vast majority of LGBT people.
Finally, Ward basically minimizes and excuses sexual violence, coercion and even rape when discussing hazing in the context of fraternity parties where alcohol, drugs and psychological pressure is involved. When women are subject to those same violations, it is called rape but Ward dismisses even the possibility in a few sentences. See the Amazon review at the following link for a thorough review that identifies this serious ethical problem: