sex

When straight men have gay sex.

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. I am not proud of this time in my life, but it is where this story begins.

On one such date, one of these men sheepishly agreed to tell me some of the details of his experience in a fraternity at a Southern California university he had attended a few years prior. Looking for something—anything—to shift our conversation to my newfound queer feminist rage, I probed him for the most damning information about fraternity life at his notorious party school.

straight men gay sex
‘Not Gay: Sex between straight men’ by Jane Ward is now on sale.

I waited to hear contemptible stories of violations committed against drunken young women. I imagined that what he would tell me would offend my feminist sensibilities, that I would get angry, and that this would push me to stop seeing him and get back into the more personally meaningful and high-stakes terrain of queer life.

I do not doubt that he had tales of women and Rohypnol to tell, but when asked for the most confidential details about fraternity life, his response surprised me. He offered instead a story about a fairly elaborate hazing ritual called the “elephant walk,” in which young men inserted their fingers into each other’s anuses. Participants in the elephant walk were required to strip naked and stand in a circular formation, with one thumb in their mouth and the other in the anus of the young, typically white, man in front of them. Like circus elephants connected by tail and trunk, and ogled by human spectators, they walked slowly in a circle, linked thumb to anus, while older members of the fraternity watched and cheered.

At first I was a bit shocked, but then his story prompted me to recall another experience, one of watching a video in a senior seminar on Sexual Politics that I took while I, too, was an undergraduate in college. There were nine students in our course, and our final project was to produce a multimedia presentation that would creatively explore the complexities of “postmodern sexuality.”

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My presentation—basically a fanatical ode to Madonna—did not receive a warm reception from the graduate student teaching the seminar, but all of us were impressed by an ethnographic film submitted by the only male student in the course.

The video, a compilation of chaotic footage he had shot exclusively inside the bedrooms and bathroom of his fraternity house, showed nude white boys laughing and holding down other white boys whom they mounted and “pretended” to fuck on top of a bunk bed.

Jane Ward

I recall the small frat-house bedroom packed wall to wall with shirtless young white men wearing baseball caps, screaming hysterically, playfully pushing and punching their way through the crowd of bodies to obtain a better view of the “unfortunate” boys underneath the pile of their naked fraternity brothers.

The boys on top were laughing and calling those underneath fags; the boys on the bottom were laughing, too, and calling the aggressors fags as they struggled to switch the scenario and get on top. None of these boys seemed like fags to me. The student who shot and edited the video, himself a member of this fraternity, had remarkably little to say about the meaning of these images.

“We’re just fucking around. It’s a frat thing. . . . It’s hard to explain,” he told us.

As a young feminist, I was repelled by the heteromasculine culture of abjection and aggression in which these encounters were embedded, and I believed that this way of relating to sexuality was not unrelated to homophobia and misogyny.

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Both of these men—the date who reported to me about the elephant walk and my classmate who had filmed his fraternity brothers engaged in “pretend” sex—seemed to take for granted that these were scenes of power and humiliation, not sex.

These encounters can be read as humiliating or disgusting precisely because they involve normal, heterosexual young men behaving like fags, or being subjected, ostensibly against their will, to homosexual contact. And yet, despite the homophobia of the participants, I was also captivated and excited by the existence of this kind of contact between straight 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. I also sensed that the men involved believed they were doing something productive—something fundamentally heterosexual, masculine, and white—as they fingered each other’s anuses.

Consider, for instance, this quotation from a currently popular website by and for young men in fraternities (also known as “bros”), which explains the purpose of the elephant walk as follows: The rule of thumb is the heavier the hazing, the stronger the bros [brothers].

By doing things like forcing your pledges/rooks to eat human shit or do an elephant walk you are basically saying, “Hey, by learning what your fellow bros’ shit tastes like you will be better bros,” and I have to say—I really respect that. . . . War builds amazing bonds.

Hazing is basically war, only instead of freedom the end goal is getting hammered constantly with bros who are cool as shit and banging hot slam pieces [women]. It’s still up in the air which goal is more important, but one thing is for sure, bros would be nowhere without hazing. Is it possible that straight white men would really be nowhere without the opportunity for intimate contact with one another’s anuses?

Before I answer that question, I will say that what is clear is that when young white men grope one another, they believe they are getting work done. They are, as the straight dude quoted above suggests, engaged in something urgent and powerful—a form of bonding comparable to what soldiers experience during times of war, and a kind of relief and triumph comparable to freedom.

To the extent that sexual contact between straight white men is ever acknowledged, the cultural narratives that circulate around these practices typically suggest that they are not gay in their identitarian consequences, but are instead about building heterosexual men, strengthening hetero-masculine bonds, and strengthening the bonds of white manhood in particular.

This is an extract from Not Gay: Sex Between Gay Men by Jane Ward, published by NYU Press. 

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