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Straight Men Who Have Sex With Other Men: In Their Own Words

How do straight men who have sex with other men explain their behavior?

The last posting described a population of males who consider themselves heterosexual, do not label themselves gay or bisexual, who eschew involvement with the LGBT community, who are often married or romantically involved with an opposite-sex partner, and who engage in sex with males or express the desire to do so. Research with this population is difficult due to the challenges of reaching these men—the majority of whom keep this activity covert. Recall from the previous posting that straight men who have sex with other men (SMSM) do not generally share details about their same-sex sexual activity or desire with significant others in their lives.

Due in large part to the popularization of the topic in the bestselling 2005 book On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep with Men,[i] Latino and African-American men are the primary subjects in research with non-gay identified MSM. The existence of white men engaging in the same behavior is unquestioned but has generally been elided (even though our existing knowledge base on bisexual men, in general, is built upon the white male experience).[ii]

One of the earliest studies, "The Bisexual and Non-Gay Attached Research Project" from the early 1990s, found that participants engaging in same-sex sexual behavior but not identifying as gay or bisexual described themselves as “kinky,” “normal,” or “just a guy.”[iii] A much more recent 2010 study consisted of interviews with heterosexually identified men who had engaged in sexual activity with another male in the previous year; participants did not consider this activity as discrepant with their identity. Same-sex sexual activity did not necessitate a reconsideration of sexual identity for four reasons:

  1. The activity was infrequent
  2. Sex was seen as recreation or sport; males engaged in same-sex sexual activity for the sake of physical activity or stress relief
  3. Sex as an economic necessity; almost half of the participants engaged in sex with other men for money, and the majority of those reporting this were substance users
  4. Sex as an accident; participants stated the sexual activity was not their fault or beyond their personal control, such as inebriation or the unplanned outcome of an argument with a wife or female romantic partner

Also, while engaging in the sexual behavior, the subjects avoided kissing, hugging, talking to the other male (or even looking at him), and leaving immediately following sex.[iv]

Similar findings were found throughout a series of interviews with non-gay identified MSM prepared for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in 2004. These men determined same-sex sexual activity did not challenge their heterosexual identity because:[v]

  • There was little to no emotional attachment between partners
  • There was no pretense of commitment between partners
  • The activity was infrequent in comparison to sexual activity with females

In tally, the men interviewed reported that if sexual activity between men was anonymous, experimental, occasional, or if substance use was involved, the act was not “gay.”

Finally, while there is conflicting data, it appears that non-gay identified MSM engage in high levels of drug and alcohol use.[vi] Many in fact engage in sexual activity with other men as a means of obtaining financial resources to procure such substances. Other studies further elaborate the many reasons for SMSM substance use, including:[vii]

  • Substance use leads to disinhibition
  • Substance use is used retrospectively to rationalize or justify one’s engagement in MSM behavior
  • Substance use acts as a facilitator by allowing increased comfort when approaching another male for sexual activity
  • Substance use intensifies the sexual experience

As the above research demonstrates, we have a much better understanding of the lived experiences of SMSM in comparison to a mere decade ago. However, the etiology of this behavior remains contentious, and the final posting in this blog series will examine proposed etiological explanations for this demographic. The concept of straight men who have sex with men challenges the traditional and for many the unyielding belief that sexual behavior is indicative of identity. Using this stricture as a guide, a man who has sex with another male must be gay (or bisexual at the least). But what if the men in question identify as heterosexual? Are they lying? Confused? Recall from the first posting that researchers increasingly call for studies to include a comprehensive description of sexuality, one encompassing self-identification, arousal patterns, and behavior. Quite possibly, this conflux of factors offers the best etiological elucidation of the SMSM demographic.


[i] J.L. King, On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep with Men (New York: Harmony Books, 2005).

[ii] Karolynn Siegel, Eric W. Schrimshaw, Helen-Maria Lekas, and Jeffrey T. Parsons, “Sexual Behaviors of Non-gay Identified Non-disclosing Men Who Have Sex with Men and Women,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 37, no. 5 (2008).

[iii] Daryl Hood, Garrett Prestage, June Crawford, Tania Sorrell, and Chris O’Reilly, "Report on the BANGAR Project: Bisexual Activity/non Gay Attachment Research Targeting Strategies Identification Project." (Sydney: National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research ,1994).

[iv] Cathy J. Reback and Sherry Larkins, “Maintaining a Heterosexual Identity: Sexual Meanings Among a Sample of Heterosexually Identified Men Who Have Sex with Men,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 39, no. 3 (2010).

[v] STD Communications Database: Interviews with Non-Gay Identified Men who have Sex with Men (NGI MSM),” (Atlanta, Georgia: Orc Macro, 2005).

[vi] Nina T. Harawa, John K. Williams and Hema C. Ramamurthi, Cleo Manago, Sergio Avina, and Marvin Jones, “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Identity, and Substance Abuse Among Low-Income Bisexual and Non-Gay-Identifying African American Men Who Have Sex with Men,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 37, no. 5 (2008).

[vii] Nina T. Harawa et al, Sexual Behavior, Sexual Identity, and Substance Abuse.