“Sometimes straight men touch each other’s dicks or touch each other’s anuses,” Jane Ward (pictured) tells Queerty in an exclusive interview, “and they do it for a number of reasons that they don’t perceive as sexual.”
The provocative Ward is an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California Riverside, where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and heterosexuality studies.
She is also the author of the best-selling Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, which is currently lighting up the blogosphere.
In an exclusive interview, Ward spoke to Queerty about the reasons so many straight-identifying men hookup with each other and the mysterious origins of the word “bro-job.”
Queerty: First, I believe a congratulations is in order. You’re book is currently #1 on Amazon’s Gay & Lesbian Nonfiction list.
Jane Ward: I have to say I’m delighted, but I’m also surprised. I was not expecting so many people to be interested. I think it’s triggering for a lot of people. Gay men have an investment in it. I’ve also gotten a lot of feedback from bi-identified people. And of all these people — I’d say, 95 percent — have not actually read the book yet, so that’s interesting. And then this word “bro-job” got thrown into the mix which, interestingly, I don’t even use in the book. But now that’s sort of taken on a life of it’s own.
Did you coin the term “bro-job” or did it emerge from comment boards on the internet?
I wish I had coined that term, but I did not. I do describe in the book what could arguably be called “bro-jobs,” but I never once use that word. So later, it’s sort of like a game of telephone, four blogs down the line I’m reading stuff that says “Jane Ward has written an entire book about ‘bro-jobs’.” I just had to laugh. But also I worried for the gay men who would be like “Oh, of course I’m going to buy that!” and think it’s going to be something more pornographic than it is. So hopefully they won’t be disappointed. There are some hot photos in the book, for sure!
Well, there’s been a lot of interest in the past 10 or 15 years in the broader culture on the subject of sexual fluidity, but the attention has focused almost exclusively on women. You know, girls who hookup or make out with girls at parties or at the club or whatever for the attention of straight male onlookers. Or it has focused on mostly Black but also Latino men on the down-low. And so the book emerged, in part, out of the question: Who’s left out of this conversation about sexual fluidity? Well, it’s straight white men. But do they not also have a more complex sexuality than we have imagined, and, if they do, then why are we not talking about it? This book is about shining the spotlight on what straight white men are up to with one another.
So what are they up to with one another?
A lot! When writing the book, I did not do any interviews with straight-identified men themselves. I looked at historical documents, military documents, a lot of photographic evidence, news reports, and personal ads placed by people claiming to be straight-identified men. I looked at the Hells Angels biker gang. I looked at research on the history of straight-identified men having sex with men in public bathrooms. I looked at examples in popular culture.
A lot of people have conducted research on sex between straight-identified men, but often they are looking at one particular context. Like prisons, for instance. Often what those researchers conclude is: These are straight-identified men who are engaging in temporary homosexual sex acts under very unique circumstances. In prison, no women are sexually available and so straight men are doing this out of deprivation.
What I argue in the book is that straight men actually manufacture opportunities to have sexual contact with one another all the time in pretty much any environment, whether it’s constrained or not, whether women are available or not.
In the book, I ask the question: Might it be productive to allow people to choose their own sexual orientation? To let them pick the label?
When straight-identified people engage in homosexual sex and they have no interest whatsoever in bi identification or gay identification, they want nothing to do with queer subculture, they’re deeply invested in heteronormativity, they feel very comfortable with straightness, they want to be understood as straight, then it’s actually most useful to say these people are straight.
If we’re thinking of bisexuality or homosexuality as purely technical descriptions of sex acts and not sexuality identities, then yes, whenever somebody is engaged in homosexual sex we could say that it’s homosexual. But that doesn’t tell us anything about the identity of the person involved or the cultural context in which that sex is occurring.
Homosexual sex and desire is basically part of the human condition. It’s what all humans do. The difference among us is how we understand those sex practices, and straight people understand what they’re doing very differently than bi or gay people.
How exactly do they understand it?
Often the people I write about in the book don’t think what they’re doing is sexual at all. I mean, if you’re a gay man and you put your finger in another man’s anus, there’s a really good chance you think that’s a sexual act. But the straight men I write about who engage in the exact same act don’t think so. They call it a joke, they call it hazing, they call it humiliation, they say “I was drunk,” and it flies under the radar of sexuality because the person engaged in it truly doesn’t have any meaningful attachment to that sex act.
I would say this kind of contact between straight people is so common that if the way that we’re going to make sense of it is to say they’re just closeted and repressed and gay then everyone is closeted and repressed and gay, and that does not seem very useful. The vast majority of those people are going to have hetero weddings and they’re going to have kids and they’re going to live out their straight lives and they’re never going to look back on that time they put their finger in another dude’s butt while they were in a fraternity and be like, “I was secretly gay.” That’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on here is that sometimes straight men touch each other’s dicks or touch each other’s anuses and they do it for a number of reasons that they don’t perceive as sexual.
So what are some of the reasons?
One of the primary reasons they do it, ironically, is as a way of strengthening their heterosexuality and expressing their homophobia. It’s like, “If I can stick my finger in another dude’s butt and I can make a big show of how gross I think it is, and when I’m done I can stand up, still a straight dude, totally unbroken, not a fag, then I’m all the more heterosexual.”
That makes sense when it comes to hazing or drunken debauchery, but what about the guys you mentioned who are placing personal ads looking for other straight men to hookup with? How is that strengthening their heterosexuality?
You have to look at the function of the sex act. Obviously, one function is to get off. But sex acts also have a lot of cultural meaning. When we have sex it helps to build our identity or reinforce something about our identity. When you’re straight and you’re having homosexual sex, you set that sex up in a way that it reinforces your heterosexuality.
If you look at the casual encounters ads on Craigslist, for instance, a lot of the men say they want to watch straight porn together. They want to talk about women and women’s bodies. Some of them want to talk about gang rape of women. Some of them want to talk about sexual conquests in college. There’s a lot of homophobia in the ads with people saying “I don’t want to do any fag shit,” “This is just going to be a hand job,” or whatever.
Of course, this is the internet. I did not interview these men. It could be anyone writing these ads. We don’t really know. But certainly what we do know from these ads is that they’re crafted in a way that’s expressing a desire for a kind of sex that would happen between straight men, that would be totally heteroerotic, not homoerotic. They want to drink beer, watch sports, watch straight porn, talk about pussy.
I could be wrong, but I’m queer and I’ve been friends with gay men for 20 years, and this kind of fantasy of talking about vaginas while giving each other hand jobs is not something I’ve seen in gay subculture. Have you?
I can’t say that I have. I also can’t say that I’ve ever met a gay man who has expressed the need to fool around with a woman to affirm or reaffirm his homosexuality.
We live in a heteronormative culture. Straight men, especially in junior high and high school, but even later on, live constantly under threat of someone thinking they might be a fag. So they’re kind of obsessed with constantly performing their heterosexuality.
One way they manage that is by being homophobic, by constantly talking about how other men are fags, because if you can make other men fags, then you’re not a fag. Another way is through these sort of chicken acts of playacting at being gay.
The story is different for gay men. Most people, in the process of coming out, go through the process of dis-identifying with straightness or heterosexual culture. After that, once one is marked as queer, there’s far less work that needs to be done to sustain their queer identity.
Right. Because once you’re in that category then the expectations are far lower. Thank god. You’re liberated.
Why do you think gay men are so fascinated by the subject of straight-identifying men having sex with other men?
Well, anecdotally, I think many gay men find it really hot! And I think many gay men have had sex with straight-identified men or are familiar with this dynamic.
From an academic perspective, I think there are a few important reasons. One is that the boundary between straight and gay, or straight and bi, is such a significant part of our daily existence and our claims to nondiscrimination. One of the most expedient gay political arguments is that we are all “born this way” — with the idea being that straight people must accept us if we have no other choice than to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. But this argument leaves very little room for sexual fluidity. It also raises confusion for people about how someone who appears to have been “born straight,” let’s say, could engage in homosexual sex.
I think another reason gay men are so interested in this topic is that many straight men can be such homophobic assholes, that there’s some pleasure in knowing that even straight dudes engage in some of the very same behaviors that they shame gay men for participating in. And I think a lot queer people — not just gay men — have an impulse, for better or for worse, to want to swell our ranks, to feel like our tribe is growing, and so we walk around like little gay detectors looking for other people we can claim as one of us.