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Gay or Straight, A Male Is a Male Is a Male

Gay sexual preferences are surprisingly similar to those of straight men.

Paul Dawson and P.J. DeBoy by David Shankbone / Flickr
Source: Paul Dawson and P.J. DeBoy by David Shankbone / Flickr

On the surface, this title may well seem baffling—or brainless. And, of course, marked discrepancies do exist between the sexual arousal cues distinguishing gays from straights. But as I’ll be demonstrating, the major (and little recognized) similarities between them ultimately suggest that a gay’s “sexual psyche” is much more complementary to a heterosexual male’s than contrasting to it.

As in other posts in this 12-part series on human sexual desire (of which this is # 9), most of my points will be based on Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s groundbreaking book A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment [based on voluminous Internet research] Reveals About Human Desire (2011). Many of these two authors’ findings are controversial—counter to mainstream assumptions and beliefs. Yet the massive evidence they frequently garner to support their contentions compels us to take their conclusions seriously.

Although I’ll be focusing on the similarities that profoundly link gays and straights in what sexually turns them on, I’ll start by enumerating some differences that do in fact separate them. But even here, some of the results of Ogas and Gaddam’s painstaking research are likely to surprise you. For much of what’s traditionally assumed about gay males simply doesn’t bear close scrutiny.

One key assumption about gays is that they’re somehow less manly than straight men—that they’re effeminate, even “girlish,” in their behavior and preferences. Although this may be true of some gays, just how do we explain the copious evidence that they’re, if anything, more interested in masculinity than straight males are?—and that generally the more masculine (i.e., less feminine) the male, the more they’re attracted to him? Ogas and Gaddam analyze this phenomenon at some length, and I’ll try briefly to clarify their perspective.

It’s certainly significant that on the Alexa Adult List, the category Straight Men is the fifth most popular of gay sites. As these two authors put it: “The vast majority of gay men prefer to masturbate while thinking about cowboys, firemen, or David Beckham instead of drag queens, ballet dancers, or Elton John.” And further: “On the television show Glee, the football player Finn and mohawked bad boy Puck are bigger turn-ons for gay men than the effeminate gay character Kurt” (p. 131). Ogas and Gaddam also observe that in terms of exciting the passion of gay males, many of them need to know whether the porn model or actor they’re watching is gay or straight. Which is why a significant number of them opt to watch standard male/female porn, for it reassures them that the male their lustful attention centers on is heterosexual.

Adapting to these preferences, some Web sites now offer gays straight porn expressly designed to appeal to them. These videos present heterosexual couples having sex, but substantially alter the point of view taken toward the couple. That is, in conventional videos of straight sex, the camera clearly focuses on the woman—her most enticing body parts and her expressions of sexual excitement (both visually and aurally). After all, that’s what most turns heterosexual men on. But sites like “Straight Guys for Gay Eyes” reverse the focus entirely.

Here the sex scenes are shot so as to feature the male anatomy. And as opposed to porn for straight males, where the man’s body is rarely highlighted, in what we might term “gay heterosexual porn,” it’s the woman’s body that’s almost incidental. This, of course, makes perfect sense since gays just aren’t wired to respond to feminine sexual cues. And In this respect, it’s most telling (as Ogas and Gaddam reflect) that most women don’t react positively to straight porn, because the camera virtually instructs them to have sex with the woman showcased—and in a manner that a male (not another woman) would. On the contrary, many women can be turned on by heterosexual porn tailor-made for gays. For here the visual focus is clearly on the masculine, which their sexual brain experiences as a far more powerful sexual cue.

But returning to gay preferences, is it not curious—not to say, counterintuitive—that, overall, gays’ arousal would be more strongly activated by heterosexual males than by fellow gays (where their attraction would much more likely be reciprocated)? Surely, such a predilection must go beyond simple anatomical cues. And it does appear that to be sexually turned on, the gay brain may be structured to search for masculinity cues quite as psychological as physical.

As Ogas and Gaddam speculate about the gay sexual psyche:

“It might be that by the time males are born, a binary ‘gender cue’ in their brain software gets set to target either masculinity or femininity. There is some evidence that a neural network consisting of core regions in the human reward system may contain receptors for the gender cue. This fundamental, relatively inflexible gender cue then influences and organizes the other male cues—including the visual cues” (p. 133).

Most gays’ preference for taking the submissive role in sexual interactions also runs counter to the dominance a clear majority of heterosexual men favor. But here, too, the dynamic would seem to indicate that gays’ brains are “preloaded” to gender cues that (if anything) are hyper-masculine, since they’re generally attracted to males more masculine than they are. Gay porn, viewed in terms of “tops” and “bottoms” (or “doms” and “subs”), reveals that most gays prefer the bottom position. A somewhat comically exaggerated quote that Ogas and Gaddam offer to illustrate this situation is from a 37-year-old gay man, who laments: “‘Tops have it so easy. All you need to do is walk into a bar and flex your pecs and a dozen bottoms will throw themselves at you’” [!] (p. 145). And these authors further observe that though bottoms strongly outnumber tops in gay porn, the tops “are the biggest stars with the biggest fan bases and the biggest paychecks” (p. 146).

So, unsurprisingly, the gender cues operating in gays cause them to be drawn toward other men and (also similar to most women) make them more comfortable in a sexually submissive, rather than dominant, role. What is it, then, that finally renders a gay man’s sexual brain far more similar to that of a straight male’s than to a female’s?

One thing that strikingly connects straights and gays is the nature of the porn films they find arousing. In contrast to most women—who find graphic depictions of sex and private part close-ups a turn-off—heterosexual and gay males are similarly titillated by such explicit depictions of lust-in-acton. As Ogas and Gaddam remark: “Except for the fact that the male body is the star, gay porn looks and feels exactly like straight porn.” Also similar to conventional heterosexual porn (and unlike porn tailor-designed for women), gay videos show very little interest in presenting a narrative, or romantic prelude to the actual sex portrayed. Instead, they catapult the viewer right into the “good stuff.” The sex presented is “a fast, anonymous, orgasm-focused tangle of bodies” (p. 134).

Additionally, Ogas and Gaddam consider the most popular sexual interest categories of gay men. And excluding their second most favored ranking, Straight (a predilection that would undoubtedly be mystifying had their near obsession with dominant masculinity not already been explained), all their other preferences closely parallel those of straight males. They are: Youth, Mature (cf. DILFs, or “Dads [or Daddies] I’d Like to F**k” with MILFs, a common preference among heterosexual males elucidated in two earlier posts). Then comes: Black, Penises, Animation, and Domination/Submission (and yes, another surprise: more heterosexual sites are devoted to submission than to domination—see O & G, p. 202, and my earlier “The Secret, Taboo Aspects of Male Sexual Desire”).

Straight males have repeatedly been shown to prefer young women. And the common biological explanation here is that youthful females offer them, long-term, the best opportunity to father healthy children. But such a straightforward evolutionary rationale can hardly be applied to gay men. So how do Ogas and Gaddam, as neuroscientists, account for this phenomenon? In short, by addressing the likelihood that gay men possess the same brain software targeting youth cues as do straight males (and, once again, distinguishing both of them from women—who typically desire their partners to be older and more experienced).

Gays also search the Internet much more for athletic, full-bodied actors than for skinny ones, additionally paralleling a preference on the part of straight males that’s counter to what much popular culture might have us believe . Moreover, just as straights reveal a penchant for BBWs (“big, beautiful women”), so do gays show a strong interest in Bears—hairy, older, oversized gay men, who are yet warm and accessible. And if massive Web evidence demonstrates just how fascinated heterosexual men are with large penises, gay men seem even more preoccupied with the size of the male organ. Ogas and Gaddam discovered literally hundreds of gay sites celebrating the phallus, noting that many amateur sites display assemblages of penises shot at close range, omitting altogether any accompanying face or body.

If featuring disembodied anatomical parts as sexual cues seems rather strange, recall my discussing in a much earlier post that specific visual cues (particularly of the breast, butt, feet, and vagina) powerfully activate heterosexual men’s libido. So if straight men demonstrate a hard-wired tendency to objectify women or view them as sex objects, well, so do gays for their own kind. And they’re similarly willing to pay good money just for the opportunity of gazing (leering?) at these erotic stimuli.

In the end, after reviewing an encyclopedic amount of evidence, Ogas and Gaddam feel obliged to conclude:

“Feet, butts, and chests are highly popular in both gay and straight porn, as are domination, submission, group sex, amateurs, and numerous types of squickier interests [and "squicky" is porn jargon for preferences that, conventionally, would be viewed as repulsive]. With so many parallel interests, Internet porn suggests that gay men share the same visual cues as straight men. This fact overturns many common misconceptions about gay desire. Gay men are not looking for flamboyant, effeminate actors who are preening and emoting. Gay porn is not full of chatty conversation, Cher impersonators, or the elaborate analysis of feelings. . . . Instead, gay guys like the same things as straight guys: youth, aggressive and seductive maturity, graphic details of the body, large penises, ejaculation shots, and anonymous, emotionless, nonmonogamous sex” (p. 137).

“But what,” these two authors ask, “about psychological cues?” Do gays’ predilections match up with straight males’ here, too—or are they more aligned with females’? Comparing gay male erotica with its female counterpart, Ogas and Gaddam find overwhelming evidence that their tastes are no more similar to women’s than are straight males’.

Literature written with gays in mind is as graphic as gay videos, which emphasize the male anatomy—especially penises and butts. And as opposed to the female focus on sentiment and feelings (e.g., “his gaze,” “ his heart,” his “sigh”), gay narratives exclude such “doting” details and all but eliminate tender, caring foreplay before bounding into considerably more explicit sex scenes. In brief (at least as it's generally depicted in gay erotic fiction), gays display no more interest in women’s highly favored romanticism than do straight males.

Reporting on the findings of a mammoth international survey (with over 250,000 participants), Ogas and Gaddam note that both gays and straight males were found to “prefer appearance and visual attractiveness over all other qualities when selecting a partner.” And they add that when, in another study, gays and straights were placed in a brain scanner and shown pornographic videos, “their brain activity was strikingly similar”—as contrasted, that is, with the scanner results when women were subject to complementary arousal cues.

Moreover, these authors point out that, in general:

“Gay men don’t just like the same kind of porn as straight men. They use it the same way. In fact, you could even say that gay guys act more like men than straight guys do. Gay men watch more porn, have larger porn stashes, search for more porn online, subscribe to porn sites more often, maintain more subscriptions at the same time, and renew their subscriptions more often” (p. 138).

Perhaps the most surprising finding among Ogas and Gaddam’s many surprising findings in this area is that research suggests that gays, on average, have larger penises that straight males. The authors’ explanation for this phenomenon relates to gay males’ fetal hormones, also viewed as quite possibly causing other anomalies about them already discussed.

But in closing this segment on the vagaries of human sexual desire, I can hardly do better than quote these authors one last time. For, as they put it, “Boys will be boys. Even when they like other boys” (p. 151).

NOTE 1: Here are the titles and links to each segment of this 12-part series:

NOTE 2: If you found this post illuminating (as I very much hope), I trust you’ll consider sharing it with others—so they, too, might become more informed.

NOTE 3: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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