Frank Vincentz (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Frank Vincentz (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve long assumed that a straight man might engage in same-sex sexual interactions under unusual circumstances, such as a display of power dynamics while in prison, a gang, or a fraternity. Or it could be an “accidental” act while he’s high or drunk, or a means to “get off” (orgasm), or to fulfill a dare or prank. More charitably, it might be a gift or a favor to a bisexual or gay friend.

Several years ago, psychologist Jane Ward introduced us to dude-sex: sex among white, masculine, straight men in urban or military contexts for the purpose of building and reinforcing their masculinity. Writer Graham Gremore elaborated:

“By understanding their same-sex sexual practice as meaningless, accidental, or even necessary, straight white men can perform homosexual contact in heterosexual ways…Ward argues that the real reason ‘straight’ men behave in these ways is to ‘reaffirm rather than challenge their gender and racial identity’ and ‘to leverage whiteness and masculinity to authenticate their heterosexuality in the context of sex with men.’ In other words: They do it to prove they’re not gay.”

What Ward doesn’t address is whether these straight men are actually straight or some other sexual orientation — such as mostly straight, bisexual, or gay-in-denial/hiding. She’s interested in culture, not biological realities.

In terms of bud-sex, Tony Silva — who's currently writing his dissertation about rural straight men who have sex with each other — proposed that both the goal and the consequence of bud-sex is to reinforce their masculinity and heterosexuality. He interviewed 19 rural men who have had bud-sex, and they gave several motives: “helpin’ a buddy out,” relieving urges, acting on sexual desires for men without sexual attractions to them, relieving general sexual needs, and acting on their sexual attractions. Bud-sex cemented their rural masculinity and heterosexuality, and distinguished them from other men who have sex with men. To Silva, the results "demonstrate the flexibility of male heterosexuality and the centrality of heterosexuality to normative rural masculinity.” To these men, same-sex sex is compatible with heterosexuality: “It is not the sexual practices themselves but individuals’ interpretations of them that are central to sexual identity and gender.” For partners, the men preferred “secretive, nonromantic same-sex sex” and had both one-time meet-ups and regular male sexual friendships.

In an email exchange, I asked Tony Silva why he researches bud-sex. He explained: “I think bud-sex is interesting because it demonstrates that there are many different populations of men who have sex with men. These guys are different from men who identify as bisexual, gay, mostly gay, and mostly straight. They align themselves strongly with heterosexual identification and straight culture, and their complicated interpretations of their sexual practices reinforce this.” In addition, the research underlines a critical distinction that is too seldom recognized by sex researchers between sexual orientation and sexual identity: “My participants experience a wide variety of sexual desires, fantasies, and attractions, and different sexual histories, but all have sex with men and identify as straight. To them ‘straight’ refers more to their identification with mainstream heterosexual institutions, such as conventional marriage, and straight culture more broadly. Their narratives show how similar sexual practices carry different meanings across contexts and populations.”

I couldn’t agree more. The contrasts that Silva makes between identity and orientation and the various meanings the same behavior has for individuals was well illustrated by the mostly straight young men I interviewed. When he entertained or had sexual relations with a man, provided it was the right man or the right circumstance, it was not to solidify his masculinity or his heterosexuality — indeed, nearly the opposite on both counts — but rather an expression of his sexual orientation and, on occasion, his sexual identity. Mostly straight is less about dude-sex or bud-sex and more about who they are as sexual and romantic individuals.

The take-home message: Men are considerably more fluid and complex in their sexuality than we might believe.

References

Savin-Williams, R. C. (2017). Mostly straight: Sexually fluidity among men. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Silva, T. (2017). Bud-sex: Constructing normative masculinity among rural straight men that have sex with men. Gender & Society, 31, 51-73.

Ward, J. (2015). Not gay: Sex between straight white men. New York: New York University Press.

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