By Tony Silva
Scholarly interest in straight men that have sex with men has increased in recent years, and for good reason: the narratives of men in this population highlight the social construction of sexualities and masculinities. How individuals identify, understand, and express their sexuality and gender reflects culture, time period, social structures, and personal interpretations. My ongoing interview research project explores how rural straight men that have sex with men understand their gender, sexual practices, and sexual identity. While there is a framework to describe women’s sexual flexibility—“including straight women kissing each other (Hamilton 2007; Rupp and Taylor 2010) or having sex with other women (Budnick 2016)—there is no such framework for men. As my Gender & Society paper details, the narratives of my participants demonstrate the flexibility of male heterosexuality, the centrality of straightness to rural masculinity, the importance of geographic location for how individuals identify and express their sexuality and gender, and how similar sexual practices carry different meanings across contexts and populations.
Consider the narratives of a few of these straight men, who interpret their sex with men as compatible with straightness and rural masculinity. Jon describes himself as “pretty much masculine” because “I’m a… straight guy that likes to hunt, fish, camp, and I raise cattle for a living.” He loves his wife, raises several children with her, and occasionally meets men on Grindr and has sex with them in his barn. Marcus is not sexually attracted to men, but has oral sex with them to satisfy a specific “craving.” He seeks particular male sexual partners on Craigslist: “A guy that I would consider more like me, that gets blowjobs from guys every once in a while, doesn’t do it every day. I know that there are a lot of guys out there that are like me… they’re manly guys, and doing manly stuff, and just happen to have oral sex with men every once in a while.” David is retired and describes himself as a respected and visible figure in his community, and has sex with his male “friend with benefits” to maintain his sex life as he and his wife grow older: “I’m not getting sex at home, and I want sex… older men are a lot more receptive to sex, they’re more enthusiastic,” because “senior women have kinda lost their desire to do much of anything.” While their reasons for having sex with men are diverse, the participants share an identification with straightness and masculinity, as well as interpretations to reinforce both.
The men in this study engaged in what I call bud-sex to reinforce their straightness and rural masculinity, which distinguishes them from other groups of straight men who have sex with men. They reinforced their straightness through unconventional interpretations of same-sex sex: as “helpin’ a buddy out,” relieving “urges,” acting on sexual desires for men without sexual attractions to them, relieving general sexual needs, and/or a way to act on sexual attractions (see also my forthcoming paper in Sexualities). They reaffirmed their sense of themselves as “normal,” masculine rural men through their choice of male sexual partners on the axes of masculinity, race, and sexual identity, as well as through the type of sex they prefer. By having sex mostly with other men like themselves—conventionally masculine, white, and straight or secretly bisexual—and by enjoying secretive and romance-free same-sex sex, the participants framed their encounters as straight and masculine. “Bud-sex” captures the participants’ unique interpretations of their sexual practices, as well as how they had sex and with whom they partnered. Through complex interpretations, the participants reframed sex with men, usually not compatible with heterosexuality or rural masculinity, to reinforce both.
The implications of straight, masculine men open to sex with other men are complex. On one hand, unconventional expressions of heterosexuality and masculinity demonstrate that normativity can be challenged, though unintentionally, from within dominant identities. Relatedly, it is encouraging that some straight men are willing to enjoy sex with men despite the “one-act rule of homosexuality,” the widespread perception that any man who has sex with men is gay. On the other hand, the participants’ masculinity reinforces inequality. All nineteen maintain straight privilege by publicly identifying as straight and keeping secret their same-sex sexual encounters. All of the straight men avoid effeminate men, and several insulted male effeminacy, contributing to the widespread devaluation of femininity. Moreover, thirteen were married and had extramarital sex without their wife’s knowledge, underscoring their male entitlement and unwillingness to consider ethical non-monogamy. The participants enjoy marginalized sexual practices, but they are unwilling to challenge heterosexism or other forms of domination, maintaining numerous systems of inequality.
Tony Silva is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of Oregon. His primary research interests include sexualities, gender, rurality, and qualitative and quantitative methods. His dissertation includes interviews with rural straight men that have sex with men to explore how they understand their identity, practices, and gender. His article,”Bud-Sex: Constructing Normative Masculinity among Rural Straight Men That Have Sex With Men,” can be found in the February 31 (1) issue of Gender & Society here.