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.
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