Lucky Bradley, author of the blog Accidentally Gay, didn’t set out to be with another man. “I was always flexible,” he says in retrospect. “But I had never imagined dating a guy, let alone being married to one. My sexual identity was more about who I was in love with.” He fell for and later married Wolsey, the love of his life, who — decades later — came out as a trans man.
Initially worried “that it would be hard to be intimate [with Wolsey] when he can grow a beard,” Bradley says, “when we married, he was in an incredibly attractive female body. I knew I would love him, but I was worried what I would feel when all the femininity was gone and he was visibly masculine. It turns out that there has never been a single moment of hesitation or lack of attraction, so I was worried for nothing.”
People like Bradley are having experiences that raise questions about sexual orientation. Sexual identity is one of the few identities that has traditionally been assigned to us based on the attributes of another person, rather than arising from our own sense of self. “The term sexual orientation is conceived as of as being your orientation towards, as in other-facing,” explains Hanne Blank, the historian who wrote Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. “So the nature of the other that towards which one is oriented is determinative. The self becomes meaningless in a way. Meaning is imposed by the other.”
But should that be the case? Does our current partner’s genitalia really determine who we are? Can you still be lesbian-identified when married to a man? Can you be a straight guy who has buddy sex? What about our partner’s own sexual identity? Does it impact how we can identify? How much is our sexuality our own making, and how much of it is revealed in our actions and who we happen to be bedding at the moment?
“I actually think that most people have sexual contact with people who have surprising genitals,” says Jane Ward, author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. “By which I mean, genitals that don’t seem to conform to what their stated sexual identity or sexual orientation is.”
In particular, Ward found that straight men “in the context of being part of totally normal straight male institutions, touch each other’s genitals and anuses … a remarkable amount.”
She says, “Whatever the context is, most people have had that experience and we have all of these great cultural narratives that help people to explain them away. The way that straight white men are able to have sexual contact with each other and still remain straight is by paradoxically making it seem not sexual. It could be that it’s homophobic joking, like, “I’m going to grab your dick or I’m going to stick my finger in your anus and then I’m going to make a homophobic joke about it.”
Surprisingly, Ward argues that these atypical sexual experiences can actually substantiate our sexual orientation. She points to “the sex that straight women have with other women — to entertain their boyfriend, or to seduce men, or somehow in the service of heteronormativity.” And in Not Gay, Ward delves into the ways white heterosexual men use homoerotic or homosexual encounters to validate their heterosexuality:
“There’s often some kind of discourse happening that sex is seen in which everyone involved understands that it’s not sexual. [But] just because men are saying it’s not sexual doesn’t mean it’s not sexual. It could be that that’s just the story that makes it possible for straight men to touch each other that way and stay straight.”
While some of these homoerotic experiences were in the context of hazing, Ward also researched Craigslist ads (back when Craigslist still ran personals) in which straight guys were seeking other straight guys for casual sex and found the men “drawing on that same kind of logic to justify it, even when it’s not actually happening in an institutional setting. The personal ads … would reference some kind of institutional context, like, ‘Remember when … after a game in college, we would just sit around and maybe jack off together?’ They’re kind of hearkening back nostalgically to an institutional setting in which that kind of thing was understood to not be gay, but just be about being dudes, about male bonding, and they’re using that logic in order to try to convince another man that this … doesn’t make them gay.”
In “Bud-Sex: Constructing Normative Masculinity Among Rural Straight Men That Have Sex With Men,” published in Gender & Society in November 2016, Tony Silva writes that most of the 19 straight-identified white rural men who have sex with men he spoke to “chose other masculine, white, and straight or secretly bisexual men as partners for secretive sex without romantic involvement. By choosing these partners and having this type of sex, the participants normalized and authenticated their sexual encounters as straight and normatively masculine. The participants engaged in bud-sex, a specific type of male-male sex that reinforced their rural masculinity and heterosexuality. The married men framed sex with men as less threatening to marriage than extramarital sex with women, helping preserve part of their lives that they described as central to their straightness.” Silva argued that this shows “how similar sexual practices carry different meanings across context and populations.”
Ward agrees, saying, “Sometimes people feel a very strong cultural fit within straight culture, even if they might be interested in some kinds of homosexual sex, and that’s an important facet of human sexuality that we shouldn’t dismiss. When we desire another body, it’s not just that body that we’re desiring. That body represents… how society will perceive you if you’re attracted to that body, what kind of life you would have if you partnered with a person with that body, and it [may come] with all kinds of cultural stigma.”
That’s certainly what Bradley experienced. “I am accidentally gay,” he says now. “I never set out to be, but to the world, two married men are automatically gay, even if I am evidently bi. … I don’t fit into the straight world anymore, as my husband is very visibly male. To the straight world, we are a gay couple. I still haven’t figured out the LGBTQA world either. Some people aren’t sure I even belong in this world … and [they] treat us like a straight couple.”
When Sinclair Sexsmith — a butch nonbinary feminist dom, and author of the award-winning sex blog Sugarbutch Chronicles — got married last year, it wasn’t to the kind of person Sexsmith had always imagined committing to. That’s because Sexsmith (who uses they/them pronouns) had been “femme-oriented” for most of their adult life, preferring queer femmes and having “a fetish for feminine accoutrements.”
Then Sexsmith met Rife, a trans/genderqueer “boi” in the BDSM community. “We met at a kinky summer camp, and we decided to have a scene together and play …. the chemistry was unmistakable. What first drew my attention was the combination of his submission and his boldness. He could sense my dominance … as I could sense his submission, and it was intoxicating.”
The top acknowledges that Rife was “definitely not my orientation, yet what he provides in our D/s [Dominant and submissive] and M/s [Master and slave] relationship is profound and what I’d been searching for.” The couple developed a “total power exchange” or a 24/7 master and slave relationship. “M/s and full ownership was something we’d both been seeking, somewhat unconsciously. It was incredibly clear to me that this is my path when I met Rife and we started going deep into power exchange.”
Sexsmith says while their own identity hasn’t changed (“I identify as a queer butch, and that’s still very true”), other people have had a different reaction. “I have had some folks express disappointment toward me,” acknowledges Sexsmith. “Particularly femme folks who perceive a shortage of butches who like femmes and a rise in gay trans men or butches being attracted to other butches — both of which I believe are myths, but those are hard things to prove. The hardest part has been not being seen as someone who loves and respects femmes, and being presumed to have always been into other masculine-of-center queers.”
Queer-identified Hanne Blanke says that her own sexuality and sexual identity are (like Sexsmith’s) tied up with her gender. “I’m a cisgender high femme, and for me, my version of high femme is not about appealing to heterosexual men. … As a cisgendered woman, I am supposed to, by definition, care very deeply [about] what heterosexual guys think about me, and I really don’t.” Instead, she says, “My attractions and my sexuality don’t center around heteronormative people, practices, [or] culture. So, regardless of who I might actually be getting naked with, the culture of my sexuality is very nonheteronormative.”
And yet Blanke ended up with a cisgender man. On the way, she’s been with women and even had an intersex partner — so, what does that make her? “We have this system of sexual orientation that presumes a bi-gendered world. What does it mean when the system is built on this binary, if we have [intersex] people coming in saying, ‘I actually would like to get laid too, and I’m not [male or female]’? What do we call that? How do we talk about what we’re doing?”
Ward sees the way others respond to one’s sexual experiences as part of a “cultural element of desire,” and it’s something she feels scholars don’t pay enough attention to. For example, she posits, “That’s why there are a lot of trans people who, after they transition, have a desire to have sex with people with certain kinds of bodies that they wouldn’t have before, because it has a different cultural meaning now.”
When it comes to straight guys who haves sex with men, Ward continues, “Their cultural and political and psychological and emotional investments are entirely within straight culture, and so there’s just no way that just because they might want to suck a dick, that they’re going to identify as gay.”
But they might identify as “mostly straight,” argues Ritch Savin-Williams, a psychology professor at Cornell University, in his new book, Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men. He believes there are actually far more “mostly straight” people than bisexual or gay-identified people put together (which he bases on an extensive review of “everything that’s ever been written that we could find that designated ‘mostly straights’ or Kinsey ones”).
While Savin-Williams, who is gay, admits that “technically,” these men are bisexual, that’s not how they see themselves. And, the researcher adds, “I take very seriously [Alfred] Kinsey’s research. And I take very seriously what young people have been telling me for the last couple of decades, which is that there’s a spectrum, a continuum, of sexuality.”
In Not Gay, Ward is clearly “referring to straight-identified men, who have sex with guys for reasons other than their sexual orientation,” Savin-Williams argues, while in his own research, he is “relying on guys who actually are aware that they have romantic and sexual attractions to guys, and who almost always say they are ‘mostly straight.’”
The 40 men Savin-Williams interviewed prefer being with women sexually and romantically but can also imagine themselves finding a man sexually attractive or having a crush on a guy. “They might engage in sexual activities with another guy,” but, he acknowledges, “most have not.”
They may have made out with a guy or jerked off with another dude, but Savin-Williams explains, “I don’t think there’s been a single guy of my ‘mostly straights’ who [has] had anal intercourse with a guy. They’re not absolutely saying they would never do that, but … if they want to have intercourse, they’ll pick women. They clearly are attracted to males, but their attraction to women is far, far greater.”
But, Savin-William reiterates, “these are not closet cases, these are not gay men in the making.”
He does see them as strong LGBT allies, though.
“They’re extraordinarily pro-gay. They’ve marched in gay pride marches. They’ve worked for AIDS organizations. I know one who’s in a gay chorus. … They are so incredibly comfortable with their sexuality that they don’t care if people think they’re gay.”
“I think that the younger generation, the last several generations, are very clear that they are on the spectrum,” says Savin-Williams, who is now working on a book about young "bi-plus" people.
He says today he’s seeing more young adults whose orientation “is not about the sexual equipment of their partner,” instead of about something else. “It may be a body type … they’re attracted to. Or a personality. Or a temperament. They have a hard time specifying what it is, but they tend to say it’s the person that is most attractive to them.”
As far as his orientation goes, Bradley says his compass only points in one direction. “I couldn’t imagine being with anyone but Wolsey. It wouldn’t matter if he was a man, woman, or something else. He has always had my heart.”
For Sexsmith, it’s a little less fixed. “Rife is my new north, in that I am committed to growing our partnership and investigating what it’s like to be a deeply flawed human in relationship with another deeply flawed human for a long period of time,” Sexsmith admits. “But are gorgeous submissive trans bois my new sexual orientation? No. If something did happen and we separated, I would be more likely to consider bois as partners than I would before, but I have a deep love and attraction to femmes that hasn’t, and probably won’t, go away.”