What kind of porn do gay men watch most often? According to Pornhub’s stats from last year, “straight guys” was the single most-viewed category on its gay site. The word “straight” was also among the top five searches made by visitors. Generally speaking, the porn they’ve searched for consists of a mix of straight men having sex with other men, and straight men masturbating.
Now, this isn’t to suggest that all men who sleep with men are into straight guys. As tantalizing as Pornhub’s annual insights are, we shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions about what any group of people want on the basis of what happens on a single porn site.
That said, these stats do tell us that a lot of gay men seem to be eroticizing heterosexual men. So why is that? Here’s a look at the major theories.
The biggest myth about gay sex
We are all pretty obsessed with penetration. And if you were to believe pornography—something that, at this stage, we should all know is not an accurate sexual how-to guide—anal sex is the ultimate goal when two guys get together. It’s what Western culture would have you believe, too; ass-play has long been associated with gayness, and with good reason. Dating back to the ancient Greece, anal sex played a role in the expression of same-sex sexuality (albeit, with fewer varieties of lube).
The art of anal sex is the thing that, both positively and negatively, has come to represent gay men. It’s a thing that’s helped persecute us and it’s a thing that’s helped us fight back against that persecution, one fuck at a time. But anal sex isn’t about sexual orientation, as any straight guy who’s into pegging will tell you. In other words: There’s more than one way for gays to fuck.
Meghan Trainor was wrong; it’s not all about that base. That’s because the concept of first, second, and third base don’t really apply to gay men because our endgame is different. It means that leveling up the bases like you’re playing Super Mario progressing to battling Bowser and rescuing Princess Peach—i.e. penetration—isn’t how our game ends. Rather, gay sex is more like firing up your PlayStation and playing Fallout 4. For the non-gaymers in the house, I’m trying to say that gay sex is an open world. It’s not linear, and your goal should be about exploring as many side quests—whether that’s oral, mutual masturbation, spanking, or rimming—as possible before you reach the game’s conclusion.
Sex isn’t one-size fits all, and that applies to anal. Some people aren’t comfortable with the idea of anal penetration, or have tried it and found that it really isn’t for them. This should be common sense, but it’s worth repeating. Additionally, this shouldn’t be a deal breaker for a partner. To limit oneself to just a single flavor is to shut out a smorgasbord of new experiences.
Sure, we’re all guilty of getting caught up in the moment and forgoing preparation. But really, there’s a lot more to anal sex than just penetration. Douching and warming things up a bit are recommended for optimal pleasure, and y’all, ain’t nobody got time for that. It’s probably why, according to a 2011 study of 25,000 men who have sex with men published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, less then 40 percent of respondents reported in engaging in anal sex with their last sexual partner. In reality, we’re just not having anal sex as much as everyone thinks.
If we’re to believe the above figure (which, for the sake of argument, I am), anal sex really shouldn’t hold the importance that it does. Of course, culturally and historically, gay men have been narrowed down where the act of sex itself defines us. But really, if we minimize anal sex and place it on the same shelf as oral or masturbation, how much pressure would that alleviate? Personally, I found the guiding cultural nudge towards anal sex immensely stressful that it diminished the joyous faucets of sexual expression. For young men who are experimenting with same-sex activity, removing the pressure of reaching the summit of anal sex could be the difference of someone acting upon their desires comfortably and consensually and someone slipping into a hole they’re not that all that happy with.
Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not advocating for the end of anal. Instead, I’m attempting to myth-bust presumptions about gay sex. Being gay can be hard enough by itself without then also worrying about the pressures from within our own community to conform to some sort of standard. Use your sexuality as an opportunity to free yourself from the shackles of sexual expectations. Because if there’s one thing in this gay old life that shouldn’t be formulaic it’s sex. Now, go forth and fuck.
Gay men’s obsession with masculinity is hurting their mental health
From the moment they leave the womb, men are indoctrinated with ideas about what their gender means. Real men don’t cry. They don’t ask for help. They don’t back down from a fight. Our culture inculcates masculinity in ways both subtle and overt, through schoolyard taunts and gendered bathrooms, at the gym as in the frat house.
The result of this relentless social conditioning is that every gay man inherits an identity crisis: They must reconcile their sense of masculinity with their failure to conform to its compulsory heterosexuality. While some resolve the conflict by eschewing gender norms altogether, a surprising number embrace the very rubric they fall short of, striving to embody cultural notions of masculinity in the way they speak, act, and dress. This is particularly true when it comes to dating.
“In the gay community, a sexual premium is placed on masculinity, which puts pressure on gay men to be masculine,” says Justin Lehmiller, a psychologist at the Kinsey Institute who studies human sexuality. “Feminine-acting men are seen as less desirable sexual partners.”
This is no news to anyone who has ever perused gay dating apps, where one often comes across men advertising themselves as “straight-acting” or “masc.” It’s as common to list the number of times you go to the gym per week as divulging your age. In one 2012 study about gay men’s attitudes toward masculinity, a majority of those surveyed said it was important not only for themselves to present as masculine, but for their partners to look and act masculine as well. Other studies have found that gay men are more attracted to masculine-looking faces and muscular builds. The more masculine one rates oneself, the greater importance he places on masculinity in his partner.
“If enough people tell you they’re only looking for masc men, you start to think there’s something wrong with you.”
While some may dismiss the reverence of masculinity among gay men as “just a preference,” it has documented negative effects on mental health. Gay men who are more gender-nonconforming struggle more frequently with self-esteem and experience higher levels of depression and anxiety. Those who prize masculinity are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies.
“A big part of the reason people in the LGBT community have more mental health issues is not only because they experience high levels of marginalization from society at large, but also because of the intense pressure to be, look, and act in a masculine way,” Lehmiller tells them.. “You have all of this social exclusion happening more broadly, but also within the queer community itself. We’re judging and excluding one another.”
Whether or not gay men intend to shun those who are less masculine than they are, if a critical mass of the community expresses a preference for masculinity, it creates a standard.
“Femme men can feel ostracized because of the pedestal we put masculinity on,” says John Ersing, a 28-year-old gay writer in New York City. “If enough people tell you they’re only looking for masc men, you start to think there’s something wrong with you.”
But gay culture’s obsession with masculinity hurts masculine and feminine men alike.
“Even gay men who subscribe to masculinity — and it may be genuine — feel a degree of uncertainty about whether they are masculine enough, how they are seen by others,” says Francisco Sánchez, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri who studies gay men and masculinity and conducted the 2012 study. “There’s often a sense of inferiority.”
While such feelings are most common earlier in the coming-out stages, Sánchez notes that masculine norms continue to affect gay men’s sense of self long after they’ve told mom and dad.
“Many gay men want to fit in and be seen as normal, not different,” he says.
"You cannot exist in a world where you’re always armored," says Wizdom Powell, associate professor of psychiatry at The University of Connecticut. "It puts boys and men in this box that makes it very hard for them to get the help they need.”
The pressure to conform to male stereotypes doesn’t just harm gay men; it’s bad for all men. In August of last year, the American Psychological Association released a document titled “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Men and Boys.” While the APA acknowledged that gender roles are largely socially constructed — science still knows very little about how biology affects gender — and masculine norms vary across cultures, “there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” Thirteen years in the works, the document noted that rigid adherence to this traditional masculine ideology harms men’s mental and physical health, in part by discouraging them from expressing emotion and seeking treatment when they need it.
The guidelines prompted a fierce backlash from the right-wing media, which accused the APA of demonizing men. “Traditional masculinity seems to be, in this report at least, conflated with being a pig, or a creep, or a Harvey Weinstein kind of person,” intoned Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham. National Review’s David French called it a “full-frontal attack” on conservative values.
But Ryon McDermott, a professor of psychology at the University of South Alabama who helped draft the guidelines, says such criticisms missed the point, which was to help psychologists better treat men and boys. What conservative commentators failed to appreciate was that it was rigid and extreme forms of masculinity — rather than masculinity wholesale — that the APA had cautioned against.
“When you adhere to masculine norms in rigid ways, it stops you from adapting and coping with your environment,” McDermott says. “It leads to men not seeking help, self-medicating, committing suicide, abuse in relationships. It’s not the norms that are toxic, but the ways that people adhere to them.”
It may be tempting to dismiss all masculinities as bad. But Wizdom Powell, director of the Health Disparities Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at The University of Connecticut, stresses that even traits associated with traditional masculinity can be beneficial depending on the social context. Stoicism, for instance, can serve service-members well on the battlefield, but creates a barrier in overcoming PTSD.
“The important thing to remember is that masculinity is plural and situational — there’s more than one way men and boys enact masculinities in their daily lives,” says Powell, whose research focuses on the impact of gender norms and racism on black men. “But you cannot exist in a world where you’re always armored. It puts boys and men in this box that makes it very hard for them to get the help they need.”
Gay and straight alike, men who are more flexible in their adherence to masculine norms — those who can step in and out of the box — can better handle their environment.
“Research shows consistently that men who are more flexible in their gender roles tend to be healthier at nearly every level,” McDermott says.
“There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to masc guys, but the problem comes when you’re completely shutting yourself off to any other possibility,” says John Ersing. “You’re cockblocking yourself.”
The good news is that the strict binary between masculinity and femininity appears to be blurring. A majority of Millennials believe gender falls on a spectrum, according to Fusion’s Massive Millennial Pollsurvey from queer-rights organization GLAAD showed 12 percent of this generation identifies as gender non-conforming.
Justin Clay, a 23-year-old YouTuber based in Atlanta, has noticed greater acceptance of and experimentation with gender nonconformity since coming out in 2014. “As I’ve grown up, I’ve seen more people my own age exploring how they express themselves,” he says. “I feel like a lot of it is due to the work and organizing that queer people of color have done.”
Gay men know instinctually that that masculinity is fluid. Even the most straight-acting gay man can’t call everyone “bro” all the time. All gay men engage in code-switching, butching it up in a job interview but letting themselves queen out at the weekly Drag Race gathering. Much of this variation in behavior stems from a desire to avoid negative social repercussions from society at large, but gay men also tend to put on their straight face to be more appealing to other gay men.
And yet some in the gay community — particularly those who express a preference for butch types — are reluctant to acknowledge that attraction to masculinity is as variable as masculinity itself.
“Dating apps make it easy to enforce gender boundaries, but in reality, desire is messy, complicated, and surprising,” says Jake Hall, a Ph.D. student in gender and sexuality at the University of Birmingham who identifies as femme. “Even if you have a preference for masculine men, you’d be surprised who you end up being attracted to. You can recondition your mind.”
As young people push the boundaries of gender, an increasing number of gay men feel comfortable questioning gay culture’s idolization of traditional masculinity — and the notion that desire is bound by it.
“There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to masc guy, but the problem comes when you’re completely shutting yourself off to any other possibility,” Ersing says. “You’re cockblocking yourself.”
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The gay men risking their health for the perfect body
It was the latest in a series of comments from men that Jakeb says made him feel worthless. Last summer, following the comments, he tried to kill himself.
Manchester-based charity the LGBT Foundation has warned that body image issues are becoming more widespread in gay communities. It says gay and bisexual men are "much more likely" than heterosexual men to struggle with them.
A number of gay men have told the BBC they are going to extreme lengths to change their bodies – including using steroids and having plastic surgery – just to become "accepted" by others in the LGBT community.
Several said pressure from social media platforms and dating apps was exacerbating their body issues.
"Guys with stunning bodies get the comments and the attention," says Jakeb. "I’ve not gone on dates because I’m scared of people seeing me in real life. I would honestly have plastic surgery if I could afford it."
Instead of surgery, a few years ago Jakeb turned to anabolic steroids – class C drugs that can be misused to increase muscle mass.
"I got to a certain weight from just working out and going to the gym, but I couldn’t get any bigger, and I got into my head that I needed to be bigger," he says.
"My friend said he knew a steroid dealer, so I thought maybe I’ll just do a low dose to see what happens."
But anabolic steroids can be addictive. Jakeb soon found himself unable to stop.
"I got to the size I wanted to be, but it didn’t feel good enough," he says. "I kept wanting more. It was like there was a harsh voice telling me I’m skinny."
Jakeb had his second near-death experience in November last year when – after several years of heavy steroid use – he suffered heart failure.
"I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t sleep, I was days away from dying," he says. "The cardiologist said if I had done one more injection or gone to the gym a few more times I would have dropped dead."
Months later, Jakeb has stopped taking steroids and has lost the extra muscle he gained, but he continues to have health problems for which he is receiving hospital support. "It just hasn’t been worth it at all," he says.
And Jakeb is not alone in taking drastic measures to try to appeal to men.
James Brumpton – a software engineer from Lincoln – found himself "catapulted into this world of self-consciousness", after he hooked up with a man at a local gay bar.
When James went back to the man’s house and took off his T-shirt, his date looked at him and made a disgusted noise. "Nice arms though," the man added.
Eventually, the experience led to James deciding to have an abdominoplasty – otherwise known as a tummy tuck.
"I allowed another man to influence me to a point where I literally had part of me removed," he says.
According to the most recent figures released by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (Baaps), 179 abdominoplasties were performed on men in 2018 – up 18% on the previous year.
Prof Afshin Mosahebi, of Baaps, says gay men are currently having more cosmetic procedures done than straight men, although he notes that women have more procedures than men overall.
The surgeon believes the pressure of social media is pushing people to go under the knife.
"Some patients don’t need surgery, they need psychological help, and even the patients that do need surgery need to be appropriately informed of all the potential risks," he says.
After James’s tummy tuck went wrong, he was left with permanent scarring, which made him even more conscious of his body.
"I’ve been shamed many times since then," says James. "A guy I was dating once said that I needed to go and find jeans in the maternity section because I have wide hips."
Dating apps have fuelled body image concerns, he says. "People having in their profiles ’no fats‘, or that they’re only into masculine and muscular guys, so they don’t want anyone that’s super skinny," he says.
Images on social media and in leading gay magazines have also led James to feel he is an "invader in the space".
"The idea in your head is that to be a gay man, is to look like a Calvin Klein model," he says.
Photos of "sexy bodies" drive sales of gay magazines, according to Matthew Todd, a former editor of one such publication, Attitude.
"It was a tension the whole time and I continually tried to put people on the cover that weren’t like that: the first trans man, the first trans woman, the first lesbian," says Matthew.
"I kept doing those kinds of things, but they didn’t sell well."
When Matthew put a photo of Stephen Fry on the front of the magazine in 2010, "it was one of the worst selling editions ever", he says.
"That’s not a reflection on Stephen Fry, because he’s incredibly popular," he says. "I think it says more about what readers are coming to gay publications for."
Not every gay man is dtf
If, like me, one of your first introductions to the LGBTQ scene was Queer as Folk (both the British and American versions), then your main takeaway was probably that gay men like to fuck… a lot. From the dark rooms of clubs (yes, they very much do exist beyond the cliché), the saunas and bathhouses, and now the apps installed on nearly every gay man’s phone, gay sex is accessible night and day.
The sheer staggering amount of lube aside, it’s an understandable (and perhaps warranted) stereotype that gay men partake in a lot of sex. And if a lot of gay media is to believed, we’re all thirsty bitches eager to find the next Instathottie, shirtless Jonas Brother, or daddy whose “hottest moments” are plastered all over the Internet. It’s not just gay media, either. If you hang out with a group of gay guys (and I’m severely generalizing here), chances are a lot of the conversation will flit between RuPaul’s Drag Race and sex—who’s a top and who’s a bottom? What was that guy like that you hooked up with on that app? Spit or swallow?
On the one hand all of this is wonderful. While certain corners of gay media would do well to be more diverse and inclusive of race and different bodies, it’s rather brilliant we live in a time where BuzzFeed can post a listicle written by a gay man thirsting after bulges. Likewise, open conversations about the sexual mores of gay men are pretty fabulous. On the other, it’s a damaging affirmation of a stereotype that’s causing problems. Why? Because not every gay person is DTF.
“I have a lot of anxieties around sex, and I feel a lot of pressure and expectation to have sex,” says 25-year-old Liam. “It’s not that I don’t want to have it—it’s more that I feel like I can never get to a place where I’m comfortable enough with someone to have sex. That perpetuates a vicious cycle.”
Liam (who hasn’t had sex in over a year) explains that while he wouldn’t necessarily classify his sex drive as low, he doesn’t feel the sexual need that many of his friends do. “There’s an overarching rhetoric that ’sex equals good‘ and that’s never really matched up with my experiences,” he says. “But also that expectation is something that drives that cycle of anxiety. I feel such an expectation to have good sex and if I don’t feel like that’s happened then it makes me feel very self-conscious and then I project that inwards. A lot of that anxiety also comes from how my performance sexually is portrayed and my relative inexperience drives that uncertainty.”
When Craig became single nine months ago, he expected the sex to come rolling in. “I think we assume that a single gay man is having sex. But nine months down the line, I haven’t had any,” he says. “None at all.” He admits that he feels like, because he’s 22 years old, he’s failing. “I think me being gay amplifies some of this pressure,” he adds. “There’s a focus on appearance, categorization, youth, and the like that colors dating and sex in our community.”
Liam agrees that the perceived stereotypes of the gay community have impacted his confidence when it comes to sex. “I certainly feel like there are expectations tied to gay identity surrounding sex,” he says. “I think there’s a perception among my peer group from straight people that they presume that I do have lots of sex.” He also suggests that hook-ups have only amplified this, while also enforcing prescribed sexual binaries like top and bottom. “Something about it feels very singular,” he adds. “And lots of gay people do have lots of sex as a result of apps, which I’m sure has influenced straight people’s perceptions and presumptions.”
There can be medical reasons for a lack of personal libido. Age, physical health, mental health, and medications can all play a part. But Liam and Craig are just two of the many gay men whose relationship with sex isn’t as easy as "Wham, bam, thank you ma’am." Personally, since I started taking SSRIs, my sex drive—or at least my desire to be intimate with another person—has plummeted (not, I’ll admit, that it was that high to begin with). According to a recent study, 15% of men reported that they had low interest in sex. This comes after a survey by in 2014 found that libido (in Britain at least) had decreased overall among men and women, and another study that suggested that low desire in men under 40 has seen a sharp increase in recent years.
“Both heterosexual and homosexual men have been led to believe that the more times they have sex, the more masculine they are,” says Justin Duwe, a psychologist, sexologist, and author of The Truth About Chemsex. “Many of my clients come to therapy because they are confused. They believe that they should be okay with having casual sex and having it often. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Sex is a relational experience. Humans need to feel safe, respected, connected and valued in order for their bodies and minds to work appropriately.”
Duwe argues that this can manifest in two forms. First, there is a shame among those people not engaging in regular sexual activities. Second, there are hypersexualized behaviors that are, I would argue, elevated and encouraged by the gay community. It all comes, he says, from an inferiority complex brought about due to toxic masculinity and many gay men’s early feelings surrounding their own lack of masculinity.
“Many of these men are literally dying to try and fit in with an unrealistic standard. I believe it is caused by a lack of creativity and imagination when it comes to men’s choices today,” he says. “Most adults live in invisible jail cells built from other’s expectations and opinions without even knowing it.”
Craig’s feelings about his current sexual drought echo Duwe’s comments. “It’s really fucking hard to meet the expectations of the sexual life of someone who is gay, or young, or single, or all of the above,” he admits. “And I guess the gag is that I no longer see these as external pressures because I’ve constantly been swallowing them up into myself ever since I’ve known how gay sexual habits supposedly differ from straight ones. So I guess it’s no wonder, really, that I’ve ended up feeling disappointed in myself for not getting any.”
The idea that lots of sex equates with happiness or wholeness is just another example of the complex impact that toxic masculinity has had on gay men. It’s understandable, then, that there would be anxiety, disappointment, and shame felt by gay men who lack the sexual appetite that, according to gay lore, we’re supposed to inherit. All this contributes, Liam suggests, a vicious cycles of repeated patterns and damaging behaviors.
“I’ve found a couple of times in the last year when I’ve started dating someone and I’m really getting along with someone and enjoying it, when we had been on three or four dates, I started to push away and freak out because of the expectation that they’d want me to have sex with them soon,” he admits. “Rather than have a conversation with them about how I’m not quite comfortable to have sex yet, I’d rather just push them away. When I sit down later and think about what happened, it brings it back to the fact that I find sex terrifying. It’s a sad situation to be in.”
Sure, it’s great that we’re at a place in society where we can celebrate gay sexual desire, but we need to acknowledge that gay male desire and sexual practices, like everything, aren’t a one-size-fits-all. As a society we’re doing the most to dissolve the shame surrounding people enjoying and celebrating sex. So isn’t it time we did the same for those not having sex, too?
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The attraction to masculinity
Research into the partner preferences of gay men suggests that, on average, they tend to be drawn to masculinity. For example, gay men tend to be attracted to masculine-looking faces and to other signs of masculinity, such as muscularity. Gay men also rate prospective partners who describe themselves as masculine more favorably than those who describe themselves as feminine. This preference for masculinity is strongest among gay men who identify as masculine. This helps explain why “Masc4Masc” is such a common term on gay dating and hookup sites.
Study after study has found that gay men are less gender-conforming than straight men on average, meaning that they’re less likely to adhere to strict ideas of what boys and men are “supposed” to act like. To be clear, there is wide individual variability—but if gay men tend to be attracted to masculinity and straight men as a group are more likely to conform to masculine gender roles, then it’s not hard to see why so many gay men would be searching for porn featuring straight guys.
“Gay men have fetishized straight men to some degree based on seeing them as more masculine,” says Joe Kort, a gay sex and relationship psychotherapist who works primarily with an LGBTQ+ client base.
Some psychologists believe gay men’s apparent attraction to masculinity stems from a general tendency for people to eroticize traits that are different from their own—the “exotic becomes erotic” theory, as it’s known. The basic idea is that the people you feel most different from in childhood become the target of your later sexual attractions, with gender non-conformers tending toward same-sex attractions and gender conformers tending toward opposite-sex attractions.
The evidence for this, though, has been elusive. Also, there are other possible explanations. For example, maybe gay men’s preference for masculinity stems from a general societal devaluing of femininity or internalized homophobia.
“Since many gay men grew up in places where effeminacy was devalued and masculinity was privileged, it can become almost instinctual to dislike or feel disgusted by displays of effeminacy,” says New York-based sex therapist Zach Rawlings, who also identifies as gay and works with members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This explanation makes sense in light of the finding that attraction to masculinity is strongest among gay men who see themselves as masculine—many of whom also describe themselves as “straight-acting.” This suggests that some of these guys aren’t entirely comfortable with their own sexuality.
The attraction to bdsm
I surveyed more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies for my book Tell Me What You Want, and one of the things I discovered was that LGBTQ folks fantasized more often about BDSM than did heterosexual persons. This heightened interest in dominance-submission dynamics could explain, in part, the appeal of “straight guy” porn, because this genre features a lot of BDSM themes.
Some of these videos feature straight men in very dominant roles where, for example, they may have rough sex with another man or get “serviced” by a submissive male partner. By contrast, other videos feature straight men taking on submissive roles, where sex may be forced on them by another man and, sometimes, they are tied up and/or humiliated in the process.
Seeing straight men in submissive roles might also be appealing because it offers some gay men the opportunity to “overcome their feeling of being disempowered and unwanted by straight men,” Kort says. “It may allow them to feel powerful over straight men.”
From this perspective, the appeal of “straight guy” porn may not really be about gay men finding heterosexual men to be inherently erotic, but rather it may stem from the fact that this type of porn often happens to be about power and control. This can also help to explain why “daddy” was the third most-viewed category on Pornhub’s gay site—“daddy” porn is big on power and BDSM themes, too.
Wanting what you “can’t have”
For some gay guys, watching straight men have sex with other men may be exciting because it’s taboo. When we’re told we can’t have something (or someone), we come to want it even more.
Taboos are one of the most popular themes in our sexual fantasies and most men, regardless of sexual orientation, have occasional fantasies about “forbidden fruit,” or people that our culture or society considers to be off-limits. Straight men definitely fall into the “forbidden fruit” category for gay men.
In addition, there is some excitement to be had simply in watching people who are “breaking the rules.” In a lot of these videos, the straight men are not only pushing the boundaries of their sexual orientation, but they’re often also cheating on their girlfriends or wives at the same time.
Are homosexuals sick? Since gay liberation, the enlightened answer to that question has been a resounding no. But times have changed. Recent efforts to analyze gay men’s motives for sexual risk-taking in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic have led to a revival of medical thinking about homosexuality and breathed new life into punitive clichés about gay men’s alleged low self-esteem, lack of self-control, and various psychological "deficits." What Do Gay Men Want? offers a different language for describing gay men’s inner lives.
Unlike most writers on the topic of barebacking (condomless sex), David Halperin rejects psychology’s claim to hold the keys to human subjectivity. He argues that psychology, which is grounded in a highly prejudicial opposition between the normal and the pathological, between healthy and unhealthy behavior, masks a set of dubious moral assumptions about "good" and "bad" sex.
Against these insidious forms of sexual discipline, Halperin champions neglected traditions of queer thought, both literary and popular, that afford fascinating possibilities for addressing the vexed question of what gay men want. In a series of provocative and often moving readings of authors as obscure as Marcel Jouhandeau and as well known as Jean Genet, he shows how the long history of gay men’s uses of "abjection" can yield alternative, non-moralistic models for thinking about gay male subjectivity.
The reverberations of this original and bold contribution to queer studies will be felt for years to come. Anyone searching for creative and non-judgmental ways to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS among gay men—or interested in new modes of thinking about gay male subjectivity—should read this book.
" is compelling, timely, and provocative. The writing is sleek and exhilarating. It doesn’t waste time telling us what it will do or what it has just done—it just does it." —Don Kulick, Professor of Anthropology; Director, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality; and Director, Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, The Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
"This rich and provocative book is a fundamental intervention in (and reconceptualization of) the field of queer studies. This, Halperin’s most recent work, will confirm his reputation even as it serves to renegotiate what is (or should be) thinkable under the rubric of ‚queer studies.’" —Paul Morrison, Professor of English and American Literature, Brandeis University, and author of The
"With Genet, David Halperin invokes a desire that seeks the limits of desire, and, warning against explaining it away through analyses of the individual psyche, proposes a poetical-philosophical-political exegesis. Brilliant, elegant, simple." —Myra Jehlen, Board of Governors Professor of English, Rutgers University, and author of
"Truly a wonderful read . . . wonderfully clear and exciting argument for new ways in which we may understand gay subjectivities." —
David M. Halperin is W. H. Auden Collegiate Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality, Professor of English, Professor of Women’s Studies, Professor of Comparative Literature, and Adjunct Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan.
Praise / awards
" is compelling, timely, and provocative. The writing is sleek and exhilarating. It doesn’t waste time telling us what it will do or what it has just done—it just does it." —Don Kulick, Professor of Anthropology; Director, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality; and Director, Program for Gender and Sexuality Studies, The Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
"This rich and provocative book is a fundamental intervention in (and reconceptualization of) the field of queer studies. This, Halperin’s most recent work, will confirm his reputation even as it serves to renegotiate what is (or should be) thinkable under the rubric of ‚queer studies.’" —Paul Morrison, Professor of English and American Literature, Brandeis University, and author of
"With Genet, David Halperin invokes a desire that seeks the limits of desire, and, warning against explaining it away through analyses of the individual psyche, proposes a poetical-philosophical-political exegesis. Brilliant, elegant, simple." —Myra Jehlen, Board of Governors Professor of English, Rutgers University, and author of
"Truly a wonderful read…wonderfully clear and exciting argument for new ways in which we may understand gay subjectivities." —
Matthew, the author of Straight Jacket: How to be gay and happy, says homophobia has fuelled gay men’s body issues.
"It’s really important to remember that there is unprecedented pressure on everybody to present themselves in a visual way," he says.
"But I think you can’t take out of this discussion the fact that LGBT people grow up, shamed, not able to be themselves.
"And I think for lots of people, that’s a massive trauma that manifests as low self-esteem. If you don’t like yourself, that manifests as not being happy with the way you look."
The result has been that gay men are under more pressure than straight men to have the perfect body, Matthew says.
"If you go on to some gay dating apps, you would think that the vast majority of gay men are supermodels," he continues.
"If you’re a gay man, the act of finding another man attractive is also making a judgement of yourself. Many gay men confuse ‚Do I want to be with him?‘ with ‚Do I want to be him?’"
Jeff Ingold, from LGBT charity Stonewall says it is "crucial" that we see more diverse representations of gay and bisexual men with different body types in the media.
"Not only would this help gay and bi men see themselves reflected in what they watch, it would also help break down harmful stereotypes that affect gay and bi men’s body image and self-esteem."
But as it is, Jakeb says he still gets people online telling him they "wouldn’t leave the house if they looked like me".
"I didn’t go on pride marches and have bricks thrown at me to have the community we’ve got now," he says.
"We have equality, but we’re horrible to each other."
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Hidden gay spaces
Back in Qionghai, Ah Tao and I head north out of the park and through the empty stalls of a market, before turning into a dark alley, wide enough at ground level to traverse on foot, bicycle or moped. But from the second floor up, the buildings jut out on both sides, leaving only a grey-purple strip of darkening sky above the smell of cooking oil descending from extractor fans.
“When we get there, don’t say any gay stuff,” Ah Tao warns me as we approach a shop in the cut-out corner of a building at an intersection with an even narrower alley.
When I first became involved in gay communities in Hainan back in 2009, I was taken by friends to the sole gay bar in Haikou, the provincial capital. I was struck by its location behind an inconspicuous door on the landing of a disused hotel, less than 50 metres from one of the city’s main roads. It was hidden from general view by a larger (and still in-use) hotel. I later learned that these competing dynamics of centrality and obscurity are characteristic of gay spaces in Hainan.
In the island’s biggest cities, Haikou and Sanya, there are gay bars and established cruising areas in certain parks, centrally located yet invariably beyond the view of the wider public.
Haikou’s current gay bar is accessed by climbing through a window on the fifth floor of an ageing tower block, out onto a balcony, past a long dried-up swimming pool and down a rusting staircase. In Sanya, the well trodden pathways that criss-cross a bamboo grove where the edge of a park meets a riverbank are a busy gay meeting spot, while the city’s gay bar, during the time of my fieldwork, was again located in a disused hotel.
To anyone not familiar with gay networks in these cities, these places are invisible and often impossible to find. But for those who know where to look – and who come to frequent these spaces regularly – they are vital sites for the construction of affirmative sexual identities and communities. As Xiaomai, a 19-year-old gay man in Sanya, put it:
When I’m feeling down, or if I’m in a really good mood, I go there to relax, go there to have fun. This is something that makes me happy … If the park didn’t exist, or the club, then people like us would be spread out all over the place, without a gathering place. Because there really aren’t that many of us gays … It’s good that we have these kinds of places.
Outside of the island’s main cities, gay spaces take a different form. There are no gay bars or dark corners of parks used exclusively by gay men (or at least I have never found such places). Instead, in Hainan’s smaller cities and towns, gay men meet in teahouses, convenience stores and park spaces shared with other visitors. In these spaces, fears of being “outed” and the possible damage this could do to family and professional relationships, mean that, as I was warned by Ah Tao, it is best not to “say any gay stuff”.
The floor of the small convenience store at the intersection of two dark and narrow alleys in Jiaji had been cleared to make room for three electric mahjong tables. Around one table, sit four women; around another, four men; and around the last, three women and one man. Ah Tao skirts round the tables and stops to rest his elbows on one of the men’s shoulders.
“Dee la! Not your lucky night!” he laughs, as he looks down at the man’s mahjong pieces. “You’ve not been down here for a while,” says one of the women without raising her eyes from the line of ivory and green rectangles in front her. “I’ve been busy,” Ah Tao answers. “Busy doing what? You’ve no wife, no children,” the woman replies. “Nobody wants him,” chimes one of the men. “How about you introduce someone to me?” Ah Tao retorts as he skirts back around the tables. Standing by my side, he nudges me with his elbow and whispers in my ear: “All the men here are gay.”
Careful regulation of the language and knowledge that is allowed to circulate in these spaces ensures that gay men are only visible as gay men to one another. Non-metropolitan gay spaces in Hainan are therefore characterised by duality – they are both gay and straight spaces. These two aspects are held in separation and much work goes into ensuring that this separation does not collapse.
Spending time in these spaces is a vital way in which gay men experience forms of collective belonging. Yet, the time spent in these spaces is marked by anxieties that, at any moment, cracks might appear in the barrier between parallel gay and straight worlds.
In distinct ways, gay spaces in Hainan’s cities and towns are characterised by juxtapositions of visibility and invisibility, centrality and marginality, presence and absence. In Haikou and Sanya, gay men are occupying spaces in the heart of these cities. But they do so behind inconspicuous doors, in disused buildings and under the cover of darkness, hidden from potentially stigmatising public view.
So too in Hainan’s towns. Here gay men meet one another in plain sight, but their visibility as gay men is carefully managed. They are both present and absent in public space.
Gay spaces in Hainan are a physical manifestation of the communities, identities and lives they sustain. Such patterns of juxtaposition and duality speak volumes about the possibilities for living gay lives.
Concealed from the heterosexual worlds of family, work and general public life, gay lives, identities and communities are joyous and affirming. Yet, there is little desire among gay men for public visibility and little interest overall in living gay lives beyond these hidden worlds.
Social pressure and fear
Still standing in that convenience store in Jiaji, a gay meeting place invisible in plain sight, Ah Tao has just told me that all the men here are gay. I lean in and whisper back, “really? Do the others know?” Ah Tao begins to reply, “no they …”, but he is cut short by one of the women. “Why don’t you have your foreign friend introduce a western girl to you”? she asks, intended less as a genuine question than as an interruption to our whispering. Sensing her suspicion, Ah Tao says his goodbyes and we move on with our tour of the Jiaji gay scene, visiting a teahouse before returning to the park.
Just as gay spaces in Hainan exist as cracks in an otherwise heterosexual public sphere, so too does the time that gay men dedicate to socialising in gay communities. This time is conceived as time apart from the “normal” ordering of lives towards marriage and reproduction. But this time is still threatened by pervasive pressures to marry and have children.
Such pressures come most forcefully from families and within the workplace. But they are also a constant presence in everyday life, interrupting moments of gay life – like the mundane and aggressive reminder Ah Tao received that he had “no wife, no children”.
In the face of such pressures, many gay men in Hainan take much pleasure from their social and sexual relationships with other men and their senses of belonging to gay communities. But they often fear that these ways of living are unsustainable and that they must eventually leave the gay world and conform to their families and the wider society’s expectations that they marry and have children.
Gay communities can provide rich resources for living in the present, but they provide little in terms of orientations towards the future. As Xiaomai told me:
The things that make me happy are the gay friends that I’ve made … we have a lot to talk about and we belong to the same scene, we’re all homosexuals. There are also some things that I find difficult, like, in the future how should I face my family? When I’m in my 20s and I’m still not married, what should I do? What should I do if they force me to marry?
The intensity of these pressures is rooted in Confucian understandings of family – the notion of “the family line” and the importance of its continuity. Ensuring the continuity of the family line is generally considered the specific responsibility of sons and is therefore an acute pressure for gay men. The imagination of alternative life courses to marriage and reproduction in China is also hampered by the government’s censorship of the media, which continues to limit mainstream representations of gender and sexual diversity.
On top of these issues, in recent years, the Chinese government has gone to considerable effort to figure elder care as a private, family matter, rather than a public responsibility and has introduced legislation on children’s duties to care for their elderly parents. This has further entrenched the role of children as necessary carers for their ageing parents and gay men’s perceptions of their futures as oriented towards marriage and reproduction are wrapped up in concerns for self-preservation. As 24-year-old Liang Zongwei from Haikou explained to me:
Do you know why I want to get married? One part of it is because of my parents, but it’s also because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of getting old. What would I do when I get old? Who’s going to look after me then? There is going to come a day when I can’t look after myself anymore. I can’t rely on the Chinese government to care for me in old age.
But I did meet some men who were making plans for alternative life courses. Ah Long, a 36-year-old factory owner from Nada in the north-east of Hainan, was saving up to have a child via surrogacy. He had plans to contract a surrogate mother in Thailand. Then there was 45-year-old Lu Ge, who was investing in property in Sanya so he would have something to fall back on in later life.
However, such strategies for procuring alternative futures to heterosexual marriage and reproduction require substantial financial resources. This places them beyond the reach of all but the most privileged men, especially in an economically marginal region such as Hainan. For many gay men in Hainan, heterosexual marriage and reproduction remain the only practical life courses.
It’s now 9pm in Jiaji, the air has cooled and the park is busy. Ah Tao and I make our way over to a sculpture surrounded by a low wall on which three men are sitting. “This is also a meeting place,” Ah Tao informs me. The sculpture is of a plump bronze baby suspended in a looped silver wave. It’s accompanying plaque reads: “Population, Development, Future.” One of the men is topless and is holding in his arms a young child. I later learned that this was his son.
Ah Tao strokes the topless man’s chest and jokes: “What big muscles you have.” The man recoils and looks around to check that no one saw. This is where the tour ends. We spend the rest of the evening enjoying Ah Tao’s stories of his life in the scene, all under the watchful eye of that plump bronze baby.
Very few gay men in Hainan seek to actively contest the limitations placed upon their lives. The intense social stigma that is attached to deviations from heterosexuality means that public visibility as gay is undesirable, especially in smaller cities and towns where bumping into an aunt, uncle or co-worker is a constant concern.
And some men see their plans to marry and have children as a logical repayment of the debt they owe their parents for having raised them. Others see no viable alternatives to marriage and reproduction and so reluctantly accept their inevitability.
In China’s larger cities, community organisations and activists have begun making demands for the legitimisation and public recognition of lives outside of heterosexuality. They are also taking legal action against continued definitions of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Organised activism has arrived in Hainan too, with the establishment of a regional branch of the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays China in 2016. Their activities have so far been low key, focusing on community building and knowledge sharing. But this may signal at least some interest in challenging the status quo and the potential for future changes to gay lives in Hainan through greater public visibility and engagement with activism.
Whatever forms sexual politics and activism take in Hainan, close attention should be paid to the concerns and desires of gay men, lesbians and other marginalised gender and sexual groups. Strategies for resistance should respond to the cultural and material realities of their lives.
It may sound over the top but as I reflect on my time with Ah Tao – and all I have learned from gay men in Hainan – I find myself contemplating the meaning of life. Or at least the meaning of “a life”. What is a life and how are some lives made more liveable than others?
The experiences of gay men in Hainan show how lives are shaped by the spaces and times that are available for living in particular ways. These men are claiming spaces, forging identities and building communities. These provide the basis for living lives outside of the institutions of family, education and work that otherwise make up the social scenes of everyday life and tend to powerfully enforce heterosexuality.
The spaces and times of gay lives, however, are limited. These are lives lived beneath the surface of a heterosexual public sphere and they are largely confined to the present.
The love-hate relationship every queer man has with hookup apps is way too real.
I recently deleted Grindr, Scruff, and Hornet from my phone, but ask me in a week, and I’m sure I’ll have them all back again.
I feel like Grindr has a way of reeling you back in. Right as you’re about to delete it because a guy said something racist, biphobic, or femmephobic, you suddenly meet the perfect guy and have amazing sex. Only for him to ghost you afterward. In honor of the love-hate relationship many queer men have with hookup apps, here are the 10 worst guys you’ll more than likely find on them…
The "just looking to chat" fellows
You are on an app that is known for quick and casual sex. So 1.) it’s a little weird that you’re only looking to chat, and 2.) don’t get snippy when someone asks you to do something more, acting appalled because you just wanted to chat. Know the reputation of the app you are using.
I don’t have a hatred for those who do meth. I don’t think meth users are bad people. Even recently, I’ve seen a lack of sympathy among Facebook friends, name-calling those in the gay community who do meth. I don’t like this. I don’t think it’s right to shame members of our own community who are clearly struggling with a serious addiction.
Nevertheless, it is sad how often you receive messages from men asking, "Do you ParTy?" (For those of you who don’t know, the capital T stands for Tina, which is a nickname for crystal meth.)
The "relationship only" guy
We all want a reason to delete the app, but in the meantime, we’re just having a little fun. Don’t get surprised when guys message you for sex on Grindr, even though your profile says, "looking for a serious relationship." The app is about sex.
Use other apps if you’re looking for dates. Apps like OkCupid (and even Tinder) are better for dates. Don’t get shocked and offended by gay men using a gay sex app to find gay sex.
There are six types of straight people who have same-sex hookups
Yet another possibility is that fantasizing about straight men may be a way that some gay men feel acceptance. As Rawlings told me, “many gay men have experienced great rejection from and have felt second class to straight men. Sexual fantasies involving straight men can represent a sort of acceptance by the very people who have been their aggressors for much of their life.”
Kort echoed this sentiment: “Gay men are disenfranchised by straight men even today and kept outside their fraternity. These fantasies may give gay men the feeling that they are a part of their lives.”
When it comes to explaining the appeal of any kind of pornography, there’s usually never a simple answer. Our sexual interests are complex and different people may be attracted to the same things for very different reasons. This means that rather than just one of the above explanations being right and the others being wrong, it’s possible—and quite likely—that they all explain a piece of the erotic puzzle.
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It’s around 7:30pm on a warm November evening in Jiaji, the county capital of Qionghai, on the east coast of Hainan, an island province of the People’s Republic of China. I’m standing in a park watching middle aged women dance in formation to music blaring from a loudspeaker when a voice from behind me shouts: “Ah Kang! Let’s go! I’ll take you to see the place where the gays go to play mahjong.”
I turn around to find Ah Tao* hurrying towards me, scrambling over a low hedge. With a population of about 198,000 Jiaji is a small city. I’m here to take a tour of its gay scene and 29-year-old Ah Tao is my guide.
The past 20 years have seen increasing research interest in issues of gender and sexuality in China. This work has explored how, under Maoist socialism (and especially during the fraught years of the Cultural Revolution) “acceptable” modes of gender and sexuality were largely confined to reproductive, cisgender, and heterosexual coupledom.
Following Mao’s death in 1976, China’s transition into a market economy, its reconnection with global capitalism and the arrival of the internet have combined to create opportunities for a greater diversity of gender and sexual identities and lives – though these remain subject to state regulation in the form of media censorship and limitations of the activities of feminist and LGBTQ+ activists.
This article is part of Conversation InsightsThe Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
There has been some excellent research into the emergence of gay and lesbian identities in China, including how these have been shaped by euro-American ideas of “gay sensibility” and characterised by “individuality, difference, sophistication, liberation and modernity”. One 2018 study detailed gay bars in Shanghai that rivalled those of any western capital, the organisation of “pride” events and the tense contexts in which “queer” film festivals and wider cultural production and activism occur in the face of continued regulation by the authoritarian state.
But this rich and vigorous research has focused overwhelmingly on China’s biggest, most affluent and most globally connected cities – namely Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. When I began my own research, I wanted to see what was happening in China’s marginal provinces and smaller cities.
Back in 2009-10, I spent 12 months studying Mandarin Chinese in Hainan and made friends in local gay communities. Inspired by those experiences, for the past eight years, I have been carrying out research with gay men in the region and, in 2018, completed a PhD thesis exploring gay lives in Hainan. I wanted to find out how gay lives are lived on the margins of global LGBT politics and activism, away from cities imagined as cosmopolitan centres of modernity.
Hainan lies in the Gulf of Tonkin, 30km off the southern coast of mainland China. The region has historically sat on the fringes of the nation, long imagined as an isolated, tropical wasteland of little economic or cultural value.
Recent efforts to repackage Hainan as a high-end tourist destination have raised the island’s national profile. But Hainan has not seen rapid industrialisation, extreme urbanisation and international investment to the same degrees as other coastal regions of China.
My research explores how gay men in Hainan understand themselves, build communities and negotiate the pressures to conform to the heterosexual life script of marriage and reproduction. I looked into how gay lives are figured out in everyday interactions, how they are shaped by the spaces in which they unfold and how this plays out over time.
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Looking for love in a modern gay world…
In a world almost obsessed with love, why do so many gay men struggle to find the relationship they crave so much?
It’s no secret relationships can be harder to find in the LGBT+ community, but I’m tired of seeing articles saying ‘gay men are incapable of love’ and ‘monogamy is over’.
The way we date, meet people and socially interact is forever changing, we often forget that we have to adjust to the landscape we’re now surrounded with. Relationships, sex and sexuality are evolving. But that doesn’t mean you have to change what you want. The kind of relationship you want is down to you. As long as all parties are open and stick to the rules, they work. Whether it’s monogamous or open, honesty is always the key.
We now have the ability to pick up our smartphone and interact with hundreds of guys in minutes… Maybe that’s part of the problem, we’re spoilt for choice. Not that we actually realise it sometimes.
We’ve become so set in our ways, we treat dating like shopping. If he doesn’t fit our checklist, we put him back on the shelf. We often create this unrealistic idea of who we want to meet, and anyone that falls short of that we set aside and continue our search.
Having a huge list of requirements people have to live up to not only lowers your chances of meeting someone, it can give you unrealistic ideas of who you actually want to date. There’s nothing wrong with having core values, characteristics or even a type. But creating the perfect guy in your head and comparing everyone you meet to him, not only creates unrealistic standards, it also scares off people who you might actually have been suited with.
One thing we’ve got to stop saying to ourselves is ‘there are no decent guys out there’ and have a little faith. Because in reality, there are literally thousands of good guys out there. It’s about giving people a chance.
You’ve got to put dating apps into perspective and be honest with yourself. If you’re looking for a bit of fun, say you’re looking for a bit of fun. The same goes if you’re looking to date, the chances are Prince Charming won’t sweep you off your feet if you’re replying with one word answers and only asking him what sexual position he prefers.
I recently had a break from dating and sex. I’ve not done either since last summer (I know), but I needed a reset. I got caught in the trap of having the same conversations on Grindr, getting frustrated at the same situations. Having a detox from using apps did me the world of good. I’m on my own journey of self-discovery as cringe as it sounds.
I think deep down we’re all looking for our happy ever after. But like most things, it’s different for each and every one of us as happiness comes in all shapes and sizes.
If you’re not sure what you want, get out there and find out. Don’t force yourself into someone else’s box and don’t let anyone tell you how to love.