“Overall, I wish people would understand that sexuality and gender are highly complex and influenced greatly by social forces,” Tony Silva (pictured), a sociology doctoral student at University of Oregon tells Queerty.
Silva’s recent study, Bud-Sex: Constructing Normative Masculinity Among Rural Straight Men That Have Sex With Men, has been blowing up the Internet. In it, he spoke with 19 different men living in rural, predominately white areas who identify as straight but who hook up with other men on occasion.
“There is quite a bit of research about sexuality and masculinity in urban areas,” Silva, who identifies as queer and has both an MA and MS in sociology, explains. “Rural sexualities and masculinities are fairly understudied. For this reason I was interested in examining those areas.”
We chatted with Silva about his study, the things he learned, and the response it has been getting. Here’s what he had to say…
OK, just so everyone is on the same page here, what is “bud sex” and who coined the phrase?
I came up with the term “bud-sex” to describe the participants’ experiences. Bud-sex reflects the ways in which participants interpret their sexual practices (e.g., “helpin’ a buddy out” or acting on “urges”), their preferred male sexual partners (almost always masculine, and often white and straight or secretly bisexual), and the sexual encounters in which they engaged (secretive and non-romantic).
How exactly is bud sex different from gay sex or an anonymous gay hookup?
First, it’s important to keep in mind that interpretations are central to sexual identities. Sexual identities like straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual, and others refer to a complex matrix of attractions, sexual practices, and interpretations of each. Men like these participants use unconventional interpretations to bolster their identification as straight. Thus, while “bud-sex” and anonymous gay hookups may appear similar, the people involved interpret them in completely different ways. For gay and bisexual men, their sex with men reinforces their gay or bisexual identity. For straight men, the ways in which they have sex with men—and how they interpret it—reinforce their straightness. Similar sexual practices carry different meanings across contexts and populations.
For the study, you spoke with 19 different guys from five different states who you found almost entirely on Craigslist. How did you verify their identities, and was it difficult to get them to speak with you?
17 I recruited from Craigslist, and two I recruited from Grindr. Recruitment was a major challenge, and it continues to be as I expand this for my dissertation. Men in this population are highly secretive, and even those who want to talk may not have the privacy and free time to do so.
Although there is a hypothetical possibility participants in interviews could lie, that doesn’t often happen in interviews. Dedicating an hour to an hour-and-a-half to talk about something like this is generally something people will do only if they really want to share their experiences. Indeed, many participants said they were happy that they were able to discuss their experiences with someone (me), since they aren’t often able to do that. For many, I was the first person other than their male sexual partners they told about their sex with men.
I haven’t read the entire study, but from what I’ve glimpsed, it seems many of the men engaged primarily in mutual masturbation and/or oral sex with one another. Did any of them say they engaged in anal sex with other men? What were their thoughts on anal sex with men, in general?
Going into it I thought participants might associate being penetrated with femininity or gayness, and penetration with masculinity or straightness, when in fact most did not. These interpretations of penetration as unrelated to straightness or masculinity reaffirmed their own straightness and masculinity, regardless of what specifically they did. Eleven both penetrated others and were penetrated in oral and/or anal sex, often with the same person, while eight either mostly penetrated or were penetrated. Of those who had anal sex more than a handful of times, five were mostly tops, four mostly bottoms, and two versatile. None questioned their masculinity or straightness due to penetrating or being penetrated. It was how they interpreted sex that was key to identifying as straight and masculine, not whether they penetrated or were penetrated. Eight men rarely had anal sex, either because they did not enjoy it and preferred oral and/or mutual masturbation or because they didn’t have many opportunities to do so.
Did they explain what led them to seek out sex with other men to begin with?
12 of 19 men experienced unintentional changes to their sexual attractions, years or decades after marriage. Further, 7 of 19 said they began having sex with men at least in part because sex became painful, uncomfortable, or undesirable for their wives, and 2 did so because they experienced erectile dysfunction, which limited their ability to penetrate sexual partners.
What has the response to your study been like?
The people who have reached out to me so far have expressed positive sentiments about the research. I did not expect media coverage at all, let alone from several websites! It’s very surprising but exciting. I’m thrilled with the coverage this research has received, since I think this is an important topic for people to consider and discuss.
How do you respond to critics who say that none of this is true, these men aren’t really straight, they’re gay or bisexual and they’re simply living in the closet?
These men genuinely identify as straight or some variation thereof. They are not “fooling” themselves. Regarding straight men that have sex with men, it is important to differentiate between two populations: (1) those who identify as gay or bisexual but tell other people that they are straight, and who are thus “closeted,” and (2) those who identify as straight and perceive their sexual identity in ways that run counter to what people think of as straightness. Men like my participants are in the second population. Interpretations are key to sexual identification. Certainly, they have been affected by social forces that encourage identification as straight (including widespread heteronormativity and bi/homophobia) and influence the ways they interpret their sexuality. Participants’ interpretations of their sexual practices and other aspects of their lives cement their straight identity. We cannot say an individual’s identity is inaccurate—that is their identity. We are all affected by social forces, and what identity we adopt reflects a complex combination of personal agency and social forces that influence our interpretations and choices.