FINALLY! Academia is talking about fluidity of male sexuality (perceived, lack thereof, the dangers of, etc.). We’ve come a long way from Foucault, Butler, Muñoz. When we’re now looking at the idea that “heterosexuality is, in part, a fetishization of the normal,” (35) and no one is batting an eye. We’re starting to get somewhere.
One of the biggest critiques I had while pursuing my master’s degree was the lack of research, or even recognition, of the fluidity of male sexuality. So much of what we discussed resolved solely on women, women’s sexuality and feminists critique.
These are all very valuable and important to the field of gender studies, but they’re just as exclusionary as “regular” studies have been of women and people of color to the detriment of academia. Seriously, though I didn’t even have the words or the ability to put into words why I was not impressed with my department. I specifically chose a Gender Studies department rather than a Women’s Studies department because I thought we would touch on masculinity and it’s relation with sexuality. So, thank you Jane Ward for making me excited about academia again, it’s been a long eight years.
There is so much more I could talk about than I do in this response. I could write essay upon essay about the book, but instead you get this brief stream-of-conscious response that’s basically saying, “whoa, Ward is on to something.”
It is really hard to say whether Ward was successful. I think for academia yes, I think for public consumption that is going to take years. Just a quick glance at Goodreads shows how divisive just the idea is. Add in the confusion of this Vice.com article’s interviewer and that’s a taste of what’s to come. I don’t think it’s a bad thing and it’s increasing the discussion, but I just wish it were happening faster.
If I had to boil down the book into a sentence it would be this: Heteroflexibility exists and how a person identifies means more than their actions.
I’ve always believed that how you identify your sexuality overrides what you occasionally do. I will defend your sexuality if that is what you say it is to anyone and everyone until you say otherwise, which isn’t common among the LGBT community. We are quick to accept those who identify as LGBT, but then questionable of those that are heterosexual but dabble in same-sex sexuality, especially men. This places the importance on “cultural construction of sexual identities” as Ward terms them.
Ward sets out, and succeeds in my opinion, to clear up these misconceptions with three outcomes:
- There is not enough focus on male heterosexuality and what that sex looks like.
- We have to push back against hardwire sexual natures (born this way) because of the evidence.
- White male heterosexuality gets away with this because of privilege and patriarchy.
Where Ward truly won me over wasn’t with the who’s who of gender theorists or philosophers (YAY for remembering and recognizing so many still), but with her humor. Some instances I don’t think she was going for humor, like when she mentions un-ironically “anal-resilience,” “dude-sex,” “vulnerability of urban temptations,” and the chapter titled Fuck or Die: The Performance of Necessary homosexuality. (This probably says more about me that I found this humorous than the author.) Not to mention the sheer comedic absurdity that Ward a self-identified queer critic (and pervert), feminist, author educator spent what I can only guess is hundreds of hours watching hazing porn (she mentions watching 76 of them and there are actual non-blurred screen shots in the book and “cruising” the online personals section of Craigslist. This just made me smile a bit because it sounds absurd, but it’s provided so much interesting information.
But in other instances she was legit trying to get the reader to laugh at the absurdity of all of it:
“If only they sold gay tests at the drug-store!” (91)
“…gays are homosexual to their core and would be gay even if they ejaculated in a forest and no other gays were there to hear them make a sound.” (194)
Ward’s distinct voice and humor was refreshing and shows where I hoped academia was going when I was still involved. She’s taken these cultural phenomena and turned them into legitimate studies and research to better align the “theoretical,” the “folky” (hey heteroflexible) and the “evident” (this is what’s actually happening now.)
If there was one thing that I wasn’t a fan about in the book it was Ward’s use of the word psychic versus psychological. Maybe they’re synonymous and I’ve just always had this weird pure distinction because I read so much paranormal fiction, but every time that word came up I had to pause and think, “Oh yeah psychological.” I mean this is nitpicking, it was a wonderful book and I hope there is a proliferation of books like this in both academia and in pop-culture that allow for the further expansion of what it means to be a male.
Recommendation: If you’re interested in male sexuality, gender studies and queer theory/gender studies check this out. Not only does Ward do an excellent job of defining men’s heterosexuality and homosociality, she does an even better job of defining queer and what it means to be queer. This would be an excellent book for an intro to gender studies or masculinity studies book. Just know that you will blush because there are actual screen caps of porn films in the book.
Special thanks to NYU Press for providing an advanced copy of the book in return for my honest opinion, for which I received no compensation.
Opening Line: “About fifteen years ago, in the late 1990s, I was a young dyke who would occasionally date boring straight men, especially after a difficult queer breakup.”
Closing Line: “In many ways, straight white men’s homosexual encounters look remarkably like the kind of queer collective sexuality I am describing here: communal, public, kinky, and defiant. But while straight white men use these features as evidence of the meaningless of homosexual encounters, or as signal of their true loyalty to heterosexual normalcy, we queers know that these features are the lifeblood of queer difference, to be cherished, preserved, and treated with reverence and sincerity.” (Not whited out as this is a work of non-fiction.)
Additional Quotes from Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men
“The budding queer critic (and pervert) in me was impressed by the imagination required to manufacture these scenarios, the complex rules that structured them, and the performative and ritualistic way that straight men touched one another’s bodies or ordered others to do so.” (4)
“This set of uniquely white hetero-masculine logics—namely, that sex with men is often necessary, patriotic, character-building, masculinity enhancing, and paradoxically, a means of inoculating oneself against authentic gayness—forms the subjects of the chapters to follow.” (25)
“When we know we are born straight or gay, this knowledge enables us to experiment, to stray, to act out, and to let ‘shit happen’ without fear that we have somehow hidden or misrecognized or damaged or true sexual constitution.” (41)
“When the hetero/homo binary made its nineteenth-century debut, sex itself was still the purview of men, something that happened to women, synonymous with the presence of the penis. The notion that women cannot be full sexual agents, either heterosexual or lesbian, clearly persists today, expressed through characterization of women’s sexuality as fundamentally docile, receptive, or motivated by emotions over lust, or in the form of confusion about how two women can possibly have sex with one another.” (58)
“Though this political orientation was certainly consistent with the broader white supremacist and homophobic culture in which straight white men were situated in the 1960s, Humphreys interprets the strong conservatism of homosexually active straight men as ‘a protective shield of superiority,’ a performance designed to deflect attention away from their deviant behavior and set the stage for future indignation should they be exposed.” (75)
“The demand to know seems increasingly reasonable in light of the scientific evidence that sexual orientation is fixed, and yet, given the proliferation of sexual possibilities, and the inaccessibility of neuroimaging or other means of viewing inside one’s possibly homosexual body, how is one to really know? If only they sold gay tests at the drugstore!” (91)
“To ensure the heterosexuality of bromantic dudes, instances of sexual and romantic contact are structured to be the funniest moments in the films, the moments in which homosexuality becomes an accident that, could only happen to losers and bumbling idiots.” (112)
“Collectively, the ads assert that being straight or gay is not about the biological sex of participants, but about how the sex is done—the language that will be used (before, during, and after sex), the type of pornography that will be viewed, the types of alcohol and drugs consumed, and the agreed-upon reasons for the sex itself.” (129)
“…the primary litmus for what counts as heterosexuality versus queerness should be the cultural and relational investments of the participants.” (134)
“Given the ways in which systems of white racial dominance construct whiteness as natural, invisible, and non-racialized, sex between white men is de-racialized by extension, so that it seemingly possesses none of the difference or racial fetishism expressed in cross-racial sexual encounters.” (152)
“In many ways, gay men and lesbians perform a kind of unpaid labor for straights, embodying the symbolic and romanticized position of sincere gayness and amplifying the normalcy of those whose homosexuality is insincere and ‘meaningless.'” (191)
“I don’t want a good public image (at least not the kind for which the mainstream gay and lesbian movement is striving); and that it is precisely because of queerness refuses normalization that is meaningful to me and to other queers. The subversion is where the romance lies.” (203/4)