09 PM | 02 Aug

Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men

Cover of 'Not Gay'

Author: Jane Ward

Publisher: NYU Press

ISBN: 9781479825172

Date of Publication: July/August 2015

Date of Review: July 2015

“I began this study because I felt heterosexuality calling me to do something, repeatedly hailing me, flagging me down to tell an obligatory and erroneous story about myself.” (pg. 191) Later, Jane Ward writes, “I find both heterosexual and mainstream gay culture distasteful and often pitiable; that my partner and I are not ladies and we don’t want our relationship described as beautiful; that if you think you would be happier as a dyke you could and should be one; and that I don’t want a good public image (at least not the kind for which mainstream gay and lesbian movement is striving); and that it is precisely because queerness refuses normalization that is meaningful to me and to other queers. The subversion is where the romance lies.” (Why is this in the middle of “Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men“?)

Now that you know too much about the author, Jane Ward, (she describes her lesbian sexual encounters throughout Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men), you should remind yourself, this is an academic book published by New York University Press.

Ward admits that “Not Gay” stems from a personal fascination, and that even her lesbian friends ask why she’s studying “white dick.” (pg. ix) Had a man, even a gay man, written a book about “white c–ts,” New York University would never publish the book. And, that is the crux of the problem with Not Gay: By demeaning men with overt condemnation and basal rhetoric, particularly against straight white men, and by focusing exclusively on the most outrageous behavior of straight white males, behavior which is borderline or definitively sexual abuse and rape, Ward makes straight white men out to be little more than “white dicks.”

To be more direct: by focusing exclusively on hazing rituals in frats, the navy and pseudo-military; Hollywood movies like “Humpday”, “A Few Good Men”, and “Jackass”; Craigslist ads from Los Angeles (gee, that’s a fair and accurate sampling of straight white males across the U.S.); gay porn portraying straight male sexual encounters (Really? Gay porn as a sampling of reality in straight men’s worlds? ); and, biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels, Ward misses the more intimate and fascinating sexual exchanges between straight white men, encounters that are not based on power, violence, and shame.

I found Ward’s narrative and approach to be exceptionally narrow-minded, propelled by a desire to make the modern sexual behaviors of straight white men out to be little more than an aggressive ritualization of a desire to portray one’s “hyper-heterosexuality.” Where were the discussions of white male sexual development through childhood and adolescence? What about sexual encounters between two (or more) older straight white males, or between older and younger men? Where were the discussions of straight male sexual experiences that stem from friendship and camaraderie or friendly experimentation? What compels a straight man to “try it once?” Why do some straight men seek out casual, anonymous masturbation in public restrooms? In Ward’s own words, “Little attention has been paid to the aggregate finding of these studies [that straight-identified white men engage in sex with one another]: namely, that white straightidentified men manufacture opportunities for sexual contact with other men in a remarkably wide range of settings, and that these activities appear to thrive [her emphasis] in hyperheterosexual environments, such as universities, where access to sex with women is anything but constrained.” I could write roughly 20 pages about the assumptions Ward makes in this sentence alone; like universities are “hyper-heterosexual.” It should be noted, NYU is the publishing house for this book, a university that is also “hyper-heterosexual?” Perhaps not, which is why they are publishing this book?

(An aside: I think Ward sometimes uses “hyper-heterosexual” when it may be more appropriate to use the word “hyper-masculinity.” After all, a woman who is “hyper-heterosexual” would probably present as something entirely different from a “hyper-heterosexual” man…but I’m really just being pedantic. Also, “Hyper-heterosexuality” is a term Ward uses to describe when men act “heteroflexibly.” Does that make sense to you?)

Unfortunately, Ward seems to have taken a cue from the puritanical zealots of the mid-twentieth century (a movement Ward despises) by focusing almost exclusively on the repugnant side of modern sexual encounters between straight white men. And yes, I do mean repugnant. Though Ward defines and speaks at length about the modern idea of sexual fluidity and heteroflexibility, with few exceptions she only presents examples of white men oppressing one another through exceptionally kinky sex, and here’s the important point, which is often forced upon peers through threats of retaliation, isolation, excommunication, physical altercation, or demotion.

I found Ward’s handling of some sexual situations to be downright horrifying. Even she acknowledges that some of these instances of sexual violence may be deemed sexual assault and/or rape because of a lack of genuine consent. However, she then attempts to dispel that narrative, suggesting that deeming such sexual occurrences as assault and rape diminish their cultural significance. Here’s a direct quote from the chapter discussing fraternity hazing: “Akin to the contention by some feminists that rape is about power and violence and not sexual desire, one might argue that homosexual contact within hazing-presumably forced, or at least falling within the previously discussed rhetorical framework of ‘fuck or die’-tells us little about the sexual fluidity of straight men and more about men’s impulse or socialization to dominate one another by any means necessary (including homosexual touching.)” So, Ward basically disregards the argument that such instances are rape/assault, and presses forward with her narrative of men’s aggressive sex drive. Horrifying and sad that straight white men aren’t even worthy of being considered victims (survivors), even when all the signs say they are victims (survivors). Some men walk away from these “hazing” rituals severely damaged, both physically and emotionally. They often resort to excessive binge drinking just to endure the experience, and they almost always follow up with more binge drinking and drugs. Even if they do feel deeply violated, they’re told by their peers that everyone’s been through it, and if you have a problem you must be gay and thereby not welcome. My god. My god. That is sexual assault. Period.

I’ve been around sexual assault victims because of my prior line of work. Also, because I am a man, I tend to be paired with male sexual assault victims. I cannot possibly count the number of instances where a man has brought up a hazing experience, recounting how painful it was. Some studies claim 1 in 6 boys before the age of eighteen are sexually assaulted (this ration is lower among some minorities). That means, potentially 1 in 6 frat pledges are approaching these hazing rituals having already been sexually assaulted as children. Plain and simple, this is re-victimization at its most basic level.

I wonder if society’s condoning of “do-or-die” hazing behavior amongst white men is causing a breakdown in understanding sexual boundaries to the point that it’s leading to an increase in assaults outside of these “hyper-heterosexual” groups. Maybe to lower the prevalence of rape in general, we need to teach young men that they have an obligation to respect their fellow (frat) brothers. At this point, I must make it clear that I am absolutely not making excuses for sex offenders. I am not saying, well that frat brother can’t be held responsible for raping that woman because he’s been in an environment of sexual assault. What I am suggesting is that society should consider the message it’s sending boys and men. I think society should make it clear to everyone (straight/LGBTQ, men/women) that there is no such thing as “non-consensual sex,” it’s either rape or it’s sex, and that this principle applies to hazing and to dating.

I also want to be a clear on one other point: Ward’s examples of “do-or-die” hazing are not BDS&M frolics. I’m not trying to suggest that rough, painful, or degrading sex is automatically sexual assault. (Consider the Craigslist posts and Hells Angles discussions.) In consensual BDS&M (for which I take no issue), the participants typically establish clear boundaries and safety words or safety actions to ensure that lines can be pushed to the limit but not crossed. The only “safety words” frat brothers learn are “chug, chug, chug, chug.”

Contrary to Ward’s claim that similar actions between sorority sisters would be deemed normal, I posit, if a sorority forces their pledges to insert rough, painful objects into one another’s anuses (or vaginas) while being urinated on and forced to lick other pledges’ genitals, I have a feeling society would call it sexual assault. (By the way, some studies claim girls have a 1 in 4 chance of being sexually assaulted before age 18, which also raises serious re-victimization concerns.) But, because Ward’s subjects are heterosexual white males, these same behaviors are mere hyper-heterosexual litmus tests according to Ward, which to me sounds strikingly similar to frats claiming these occurrences are “bonding rituals” and are “activities the pledges freely choose to participate in when they sign up for initiation and pledge week.”

Interestingly, even Ward acknowledges this double-speak when discussing the case of private militaries in the Middle East, and especially criticizes the military and private militias for claiming that such activities between enlisted (and hired) men are parts of military culture, while those same activities that include Afgani/Iraqi integrated forces are deemed by the same institutions as sexual assault because of the Afgani’s/Iraqi’s perceived religion and cultural persuasions. Ward claims this doublespeak is detrimental, then she proceeds to use the same logic: Even if it looks, tastes, smells, and feels like rape/assault, it’s not because it’s not culturally assault because the institutions ok the behavior and the participants join those institutions voluntarily…unless it is culturally assault for one minority participant, then it is assault and wrong. Confused yet? I am exceptionally confused. I don’t care what the “media” or “institutions” say, force feeding someone feces while jamming a grease gun up their ass as an initiation ritual during “crossing the line” in the navy, or to something similarity to pledges in fraternities, is sexual assault…even if the frat members chose to join and soldiers voluntarily enlist. If they had no real choice (should a sailor jump ship and go AWOL?), even if the participants don’t think it’s sexual assault, it’s sexual assault, and their own denial of this behavior as sexual assault is more indicative of the pervasiveness of this doublespeak than any truth that these actions are “character building” or part of “male bonding.” (It is astonishing that what I’m saying is a counterpoint to a book published by NYU in 2015!) I hope Jane reads “Exit Wounds“. (p. 103, Rick Lawson; See also, “In Debate Over Military Sexual Assault, Men Are Overlooked Victims,” The New York Times, June 6, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/us/in-debate-over-military-sexual-assault-men-are-overlooked-victims.html?_r=0 )

At one point I started asking myself, “Is ‘Jane Ward’ Ann Coulter’s penname? Is Ann surreptitiously writing Not Gay to bolster her arguments against the LGBTQ community?” It appears Ward is a real human and not Ann Coulter.

Ward spends a great deal of time discussing Craigslist ads posted by straight white men looking for intimacy with other straight white men. I thought to myself, “finally, something that isn’t going to focus on these old tropes: frats and military hazing.” Unfortunately, Ward’s sampling was severely restricted (Los Angeles only), and focused on posts that obviate joy and camaraderie, though they were consensual. I think Ward focuses more on the aggressive or power play Craigslist posts because they feed her “hyper-heterosexual” narrative. In fact, Ward begins breaking her cardinal rule of looking at sex between only white men to help her meet her narrative goals of showing “hyper-heterosexuality.” Specifically, Ward writes that some straight white men look for straight black or Hispanic men to fulfill a need to be dominated or to dominate. I don’t agree with the premise that the inclusion of a black or Hispanic man means that power plays are involved. More importantly, I don’t see why Ward feels the need to discuss these actions at all given she stresses that she’s only looking at sex between white men.

Taken at face value, these posts show incredibly fascinating relationships (or “casual encounters”) between straight men, built on intimacy, trust, and, quite frankly, bonding. It’s not necessarily, “bondage.” And, unlike Ward’s position, it’s not usually centered on a dominator-dominated power play. In fact, both participants are taking a mutual risk by being “outed” by Craigslist trolls and people responding to such ads. In this paradigm, it seems that both straight identified white men are availing themselves of a shared risk and joy, diminishing any disparity between the participants’ power. Both men can “out” the other, but in doing so they would also “out” themselves. (This might also explain why it’s important that straight identified men find “authentically” straight men, because a gay man might have less to lose if he “outs” the other participant.) Further, to me these Craigslist posters focus on mutual understanding, mirrored behavior, and “chill” or “relaxed” atmospheres (part of the invitation to “host” is usually focused on ordering a pizza, having a beer, or playing video games), specifically not domineering or violent encounters. Actually, they sound quite lovely. Beer, video games, and two people climaxing simultaneously without risk of spreading diseases, and with no strings attached, and definitely no desire to bring this relationship into the real world (no “romantic” dates!!!!)…but there’s often an open invitation to do it again, consistently, maybe even daily! I’m suddenly wondering, are straight white men having better sex with each other than they are with women?

Ward does address the concern that some self-identified “straight” men may be hiding their homosexuality; but, like her, I find this quandary to be a dead end. It’s an important concern, but it’s exceptionally hard to overcome. As Ward states (and I’m sorry I can’t find the direct quote, because it was brilliantly written!), is there really a test for straight men A to use to confirm straight man B’s self-professed heterosexuality when both men are actively looking to mutually masturbate with one another? No. Imagine this: “straight athletic 29 year old looking to jerk off with another fit straight guy in his mid twenties to early thirties: must prove you are straight in your reply…” How the…? Ward does actually delve into this question/answer some, and it is one of her more insightful explorations.

Here’s a few more thing Ward does well: 1) Her historical analysis of straight white male sex was fascinating, illuminating (for me), and felt well balanced. She shows straight white male sex prior to the 1950’s to be a culturally complicated but a relatively common occurrence. Particularly, her analysis of the historical definitions (both medical and cultural) of heterosexuality and homosexuality really did change my understanding of our cultural and medical definitions of those terms today. 2) I did find her peek into the world of Hell’s Angels to be incredibly fascinating. For one thing, these acts were consensual, though occasionally they involved prostitution. In fact, I think the Hell’s Angels inquiry is Ward single best example of “hyper-heterosexuality.” 3) Though I hate the film Jackass, and other films like it, I understand the value of analyzing them. The fact is, many adolescent and young adult males do watch and emulate these movies. They are culturally important, and thus their place in the book is warranted.

I hate that Ward references San Francisco. In my San Francisco, the majority of the LGBTQ community wants to be viewed as normal–specifically not how Ward wants her or her sexuality to appear. Yes, San Francisco has Folsom Street Fair, an international pride parade, Kink.com, and The Armory to give people like Ward the room to be whomever they choose, but San Francisco also has a rich history of “normalizing” homosexuality, something Ward vilifies and pins on “gay men.” (You’re welcome, world.) I moved to San Francisco specifically because I wanted to live someplace where my sexuality is utterly boring. Where being gay is one tiny, three-letter adjective in a long line of adjectives that barely define who I am. (Ward, you’re right by the way, this gay man doesn’t agree with your stated position on homosexuality, but I’m not offended either, I’m sorry for you…which you shouldn’t have a problem with because you “pity” people like me.) Gay people aren’t special or unique; we’re actually quite common. You work with us! (Gasp!) You went to school with us! (Gasp!) You go to church with us! (Shut your mouth, Alex!) And you’ll die next to us. I guarantee it.

I’m sorry that this book is such a mess. I wanted to read something refreshing about this topic, something that didn’t play into all the stereotypes and headlines; unfortunately, Ward’s analysis did not deliver. Worse, I believe she actually does damage through her narrow focus on fetishized instances of straight white male sex, her constant insertion of personal stories, and her improper data acquisition and sampling.

More to the point, I’m sorry that another book has come out about straight white male devils who are so sex-charged, they create elaborate situations to affirm their sexuality through reprehensible behavior between their own kind. I really don’t know many straight white men like this, maybe because they’re so good at hiding it that only someone as skilled as Ward can uncover the truth? Honestly, I think it’s because Ward focuses on tiny, specific segments of society: the military (only about 1% of Americans serve in the armed forces), frats (small/exclusive group), gangs (another small sampling), Hollywood, and Los Angeles Craigslist ads, at the expense of all the other instances when straight men engage in shared sexual encounters. I really hate that Ward didn’t consult with straight white men engaging in same-sex activities, and provide them with a voice in this book about them.

Growing up, I found that adolescent boys frequently found excuses to expose their erect penises to one another, whether it was while obnoxiously lingering in the locker room while naked, peeing in the snow to write messages (particularly tricky to remain erect, ah youth), spanking one another in communal showers, or down right watching porn together while jacking off, even when the scrambled TV is so scrambled you can no longer make out people or noises on TV, just your buddy next to you beating off like an Olympic rower. When I go to the gym and see two men staring at each other while they shower and masturbate, then I see those same two men split off with women around their arms (this has happened), I don’t assume that there is something nefarious going on, but I do want to know what’s happening in their minds. I’ve heard and read about countless examples of men in the military who develop exceptionally strong, meaningful, and sexual relationships with other straight soldiers, and these relationships don’t start with force-feeding someone human feces. They sometimes end with the war, and those friends may never take similar actions. Why? Once I was in an airport restroom standing at a urinal, looking pretty non-descript in oversized sweat clothes, a scruffy face, baseball cap, and filthy tennis shoes, this is to say, not particularly “gay.” The restroom was empty when a man in his 40s entered the room and situated himself directly next to me, even though he had many other options for urinals. He took an obvious “peek” at my penis, and starts repetitively moving his hand back and forth (on himself). I abruptly turned away. He said, “Man, it’s cool. I’m straight, you know how it is, you just gotta look sometimes.” I said, “Man, I’m gay and I never look.” It was as if I had told him his mother is also his aunt and first cousin. He pretty much ran out of the bathroom. Why did any of that happen? More basic, what happened? I hoped this book would answer some of these questions, or at least shed some light. “Not Gay” didn’t even try to address these situations because they weren’t extreme enough. Ward never explores these types of situations.

Worse still, she never talks to men who have more innocuous encounters, likely because they don’t jive with her own “subversive” (her word) sexual interests, which she freely writes about in this book… about straight men. In fact, Ward almost never asks straight men anything. For the most part, the men Ward chats with are gay men, not to say they can’t provide insight, but I personally would like to hear straight from straight men. Even more frustrating than not providing room for the voice of straight white men, Ward uses this academic book to tell “an erroneous story about [herself]” and her sexuality. I hope a straight white man writes a damn good rebuttal to “Not Gay.”

I just have to call Ward out for this gem: “Dykes have no corollary term [to men describing women’s vaginas as fishy] to describe their disgust with penises or any other part of men’s bodies.” Really? What about “dick, ” which is Ward’s favorite word for white men and their penises? (How unaware is this person?) What about: “cock,” “prick,” “dink,” “junk,” “dingy,” “pecker,” “snake,” “shrimp (a stinky fish!),” “shit packer,” and the ubiquitous “dude,” which is the term for a whale’s penis (a stinky almost-fish)! I also think “dick” is about as bad as “c—t” because it gets at the same thing. The difference is that society has decided that it’s ok to call men “dicks,” and society doesn’t feel that way about calling women “c—ts” …another double standard. “Dick” especially has no place in an academic book used by the author to refer to her subjects and their sexual organs. Grow up already!