MedHum Monday Book Review: Not Gay

DailyDose_PosterWelcome back to the Daily Dose and MedHum Mondays! Today we review of a new book investigating and exploring the complexities of human sexuality.

NOT GAY: Sex Between Straight White Men
Jane Ward, New York University Press, 2015
Review Editor: Anna J Clutterbuck-Cook

Jane Ward’s new book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (New York University Press, 2015), begins with two observations. First, that same-sex sexual intimacy between straight, white men is commonplace; second, that this sexual intimacy is consistently dismissed as meaningful by everyone from its participants to politicians to social science experts. Whether it’s military hazing, fraternity notgay_coverpartying, roommates jerking off side-by-side to porn, “situational” homosexuality in prison, or straight men seeking one another for sex on craigslist, we seem united in understanding these activities in one of two ways: either as proof of the individual’s true identity as a gay man, or as something other than sexual behavior. Ward suggests a third possibility: that these sexual activities are, in fact, integral to the creation of a straight, white heterosexual identity. She argues that same-sex intimacies between straight-identified white men, rather than being an aberration to be explained away, are foundational to heternormative maleness. By performing acts that would render lesser men queer, yet remaining straight themselves, the white men Ward describes solidify their privileged place in the social order.

Not Gay is a brief two hundred pages yet manages to cover a great deal of historical, social, and theoretical ground in clear, economical prose. Beginning her exploration of sexual intimacy between straight, white men in the late nineteenth century, Ward relies on the excellent work done by historians of sexuality to document the invention of sexual orientation — principally homosexuality and heterosexuality — as first diagnostic and later social categories. She then examines the popular science of sexual fluidity, a notion of human sexual behavior principally attributed to women while experts and lay individuals of all stripes continue to imbue male sexuality with a rigid simplicity that demands two narrow, supposedly self-explanatory categories (straight or gay). With this contemporary backdrop outlined, Ward then details the variety of sexual intimacies between straight white men in our era, and the strategies used to render these intimacies non-threatening to or, indeed, illustrative of heteronormative masculinity.

Not Gay challenges us to reconfigure our understanding of identities and sexualities on multiple levels. On one level, Not Gay encourages us to examine the most invisible, supposedly self-evident category of sexual identity: white heterosexual masculinity. Throughout the long twentieth century, straight, white men have been held out as the normative gold standard of human sexuality. As is so often the case with such unmarked identities, male heterosexuality has been rendered self-evident, resistant to scrutiny or critique. While book-length explorations of “what women want” are commonplace, the supposed pathology of men of color regularly put under the sociological microscope, and queer men of all colors and gender identities are the focus of much cultural scrutiny, the sexual selves of straight, white men remain obscured. We believe we already know what straight men desire, assume the landscape of their erotic imaginations is made obvious through mainstream porn, and understand the relationship between their desires, physical responses, and actions to be highly concordant.

Not Gay demands that we see all that this narrative does not capture about straight men’s erotic lives. More damning still, Ward points out how deeply our cultural narratives of straight (white) male sexuality are intertwined with feelings of revulsion and violence — not just toward women, but also toward other men and toward individual actors’ own erotic desires and vulnerabilities. The “nexus of sexual desire, disdain, and repulsion [experienced, for example, in the context of hazing rituals] is arguably a mainstay of heterosexuality itself,” Ward observes (166). The erotics of heteronormative masculinity, she suggests, have been built upon and within the context of a white supremacist, patriarchal social order, and therefore often reinforce these inequalities through acts of sexual intimacy.

It bears highlighting at this point that normative identities are not synonymous with individuals. White men whose sexual desires are expressed predominantly or exclusively toward women are not, somehow, innately violent human beings whose sexual lives trend toward the erotics of disgust. Part of Ward’s point is, in fact, the ways in which the straightjacket of white heteronormative masculinity fails to account for the wide variety of sexual desire and expression found among men who desire and partner with women.

This brings me to the second level of cultural critique Not Gay brings to bear on our contemporary understanding of human sexuality and sexual identities. Coming from a queer theoretical perspective, and speaking as a woman who identifies as queer, Ward argues forcefully against the contemporary reliance on biology-based understandings of sexual motivation. As recently as the 1970s, gay liberation activists and lesbian feminists spoke of sexual desire, identity, and behavior as a matter of sexual freedom and choice. However, over the last fifty years researchers and activists alike have relied upon notions of innate sexual orientation that are, themselves, dependent upon theories of gender difference for which there is little scientific evidence.

One of the reasons that sexual intimacy between straight men has been occluded or explained away is our collective investment in an innate sexual orientation which is both biologically knowable and fixed: that regardless of what we do sexually, our true identities are inscribed somewhere deep within ourselves, authentic and free of social influence or change over time. This is particularly true of our stories about male sexuality, straight or otherwise, as evidenced in the way — to give but one example — we believe that genital arousal to be a more authentic indicator of a man’s “true” desires than their self-reported feelings.

In contrast, Ward suggests that a person’s sexual identity or sexual orientation may be less about our specific sexual desires or even our sexual partners — but instead about where the individual feels most comfortable in relation to sexual norms. Within this schema, a self-identified “straight dude” who jerks off with his fraternity brothers while watching porn, eats food out of a colleague’s ass, or kisses another man at a bar, remains straight not because these acts are non-sexual but because he is invested in performing and maintaining normative heterosexual identity. Early on in the book, Ward argues that

I conceptualize heterosexual [identity] not by lack of homosexual sex or desire, but by an enduring investment in heteronormativity, or in the forces that construct heterosexuality as natural, normal, and right and that disavow association with abnormal, or queer, sexual expressions. This investment in heteronormativity is itself a bodily desire; in fact, I believe it is the embodied heterosexual desire, more powerful than, say, a woman’s yearning for male torsos or penises or a man’s longing for vaginas or breasts. It is the desire to be sexually unmarked and normatively gendered (35).

This, then, is the deeper challenge of Not Gay — a challenge to back away from our investment in human sexuality as something innately dependent upon a forced gender binary that allows the hetero- and homo- sexualities to make sense, and instead to consider our sexual orientations as socially-contingent upon our “desire to be sexually unmarked and normatively gendered” by the rubric of our particular time and place.

Not Gay is a well-researched, wide-ranging examination of sexual intimacy between straight white men that has much deeper implications for the ways we think and speak about sexual identities and behaviors. As a queer, white woman my own experience is in many ways far removed from the experience of the men who appear in Not Gay. And yet Ward’s account of sexual identity resonated with my own journey from an ill-fitting heteronormative culture to a more comfortable home within the realm of queer sociality. This book is a timely reminder that even as some (primarily heteronormative-looking) queer identities are increasingly accepted by mainstream, our culture continues to be deeply uncomfortable with the rich complexity of our sexual lives.

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