Brokeback Today

by Andy Smith

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday February 25, 2017

Hard to believe it's been a dozen years since the premiere of "Brokeback Mountain," the seminal film exploring a long-term affair between two married men in rural midcentury America.

Arguably, Annie Proulx's Ennis and Jack were trapped in the closet, but a "Brokeback" variation is starting to get more attention from sociologists: Men who identify as straight but have regular sex with other men (usually with no strings attached), while living seemingly contented lives as married men.

Over the past few years this phenomenon has started to generate interest in academia, with two researchers taking a deeper look.

University of California gender and sexuality professor Jane Ward published "Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men," which explores real-world "straight homosexual sex" in frat houses, barracks and biker gangs, as well as more mundane settings like suburban cul-de-sacs.

Like scenes from Jean Genet transported to modern America, Ward believes many men are looking for excuses to justify their sexual fluidity.

"If you can get a straight man to talk to you about why he is having sex with men, it's very likely that he's going to draw from a small set of acceptable narratives about why straight men do things like that, and I think that's a really common one, you know, the narrative of constraint -- 'Well, I'd rather be having sex with a woman, but there are no women available,' or 'Women are too complicated' -- this kind of thing. But I don't buy that," she said in a recent New York magazine interview.

University of Oregon doctoral candidate Tony Silva has published a more targeted piece (available on the Gender & Society website) focusing on the responses of rural straight white men from Wyoming, Montana and other Midwest and Pacific Northwest states he met on Craigslist.

Silva also gets credit for coining a term that's stuck: "Bud sex," also the title of his paper. He generously agreed to answer a series of questions about his research for EDGE.

How did you become interested in this field of study, and what's the story behind the paper?

Although there is quite a bit of research about sexuality and masculinity in urban areas, rural sexualities and masculinities are fairly understudied. For this reason I was interested to examine rural areas. Additionally, much of the previous research about straight-identified men who have sex with men has focused on black and/or Latino men, and I wanted to expand that to white men. Further, there is very little research about heterosexuality -- there is a widespread perception that all straight people are basically the same, when in fact there is considerable diversity in attractions, desires and sexual practices among straight-identified individuals, including among men.

While there is a lot of research about male sexuality, male heterosexual flexibility is understudied. Although there is an emerging literature exploring women's sexual flexibility, few previous studies have investigated how men may experience unintentional changes to their sexual attractions or sexual desires, or unanticipated changes to their sexual practices, especially across the life course.

I was interested to study straight men, specifically, because there is a cultural narrative that they aren't very sexually flexible. As the participants in this study (and other emerging research projects) demonstrate, many straight men do, in fact, experience sexuality as flexible.

More broadly, I'm interested in how interpretations are central to sexual identities. For this population, I was interested to see how participants constructed straightness and masculinity despite engaging in sexual practices that wider society frames as gay or bisexual. This in turn helps us understand why people of many sexual identities identify the way they do.

How long did your research take, and how many men did you interview? What was the age range and geographies of the men?

In this paper I examine the narratives of 19 men ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, and all currently lived in or grew up in rural areas of the Midwest or Pacific Northwest. This project began three years ago, and I will continue it for my dissertation.

You found the subjects on Craigslist? Did you place an ad or just respond to existing ads?

I recruited 17 of the 19 participants from the paper on Craigslist, after they responded to an ad I posted. An additional two contacted me on Grindr, where I listed information about the research in my profile.

How did the responses of your interview subjects compare or contrast with those interviewed by Jane Ward?

Jane Ward did not interview any men, but rather analyzed Craigslist postings and other cultural materials. She analyzes white heterosexual masculinity more broadly, focusing on men in urban or military settings, whereas I specifically examine the narratives of straight rural men who regularly or semi-regularly have sex with men.

She and I found many similar themes, but also several distinct ones, due to the different populations of men we studied.

How do you define "bud sex," and how did your subjects explain (to you and themselves) how they can be traditionally masculine rural men and have sex with other men?

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, such as "helpin' a buddy out" or acting on "urges"; their preferred male sexual partners, who are almost always masculine and often white and straight or secretly bisexual; and the sexual encounters in which they engaged, which were secretive, nonromantic, and without associations between penetration and femininity or gayness.

Through complex interpretations, the participants reframed sex with men, usually not compatible with heterosexuality or rural masculinity, to reinforce both.

Were most of the men you interviewed married or in long-term relationships with women? Was this part of their lives secret?

Most were married to women, and for all of the participants their sex with men was highly secretive. Only one man was in an open relationship with his wife. He and she were open to each other about him having sex with men and her having sex with women, but they did not tell anyone else.

I know many of them were in their 50s or older. Had bud sex been a part of their lives since their teens or 20s, or did it come into their lives later on?

There was quite a bit of variability regarding when they began having sex with men. Several men began having sex with other men when they were young adults, and many started only later in life. Major age-related themes emerged: 12 of 19 men experienced unintentional changes to their sexual attractions years or decades after marriage.

Further, seven of 19 said they began having sex with men at least in part because sex became painful, uncomfortable or undesirable for their wives. And two did so because they experienced erectile dysfunction, which limited their ability to penetrate sexual partners. This suggests the need for more life course research on sexualities and masculinities, since men can change considerably in terms of sexuality and masculinity over the course of their lives.

How important was the lack of romance to these relationships? Did all of your interviewees stress this?

All but one emphasized the need for encounters to be nonromantic. One had semi-romantic relationships with a few of his regular sexual partners, but otherwise all the men had strict emotional boundaries to avoid romance.

Was the dislike of effeminate "faggoty" men universal? And how intense do you think this antipathy was?

There was also a lot of variability with how they perceived gay and feminine men. Several expressed clear discomfort with gayness and male femininity, even to the point of revulsion, whereas others were more accepting. Nonetheless, all the straight men preferred masculine men, and most had a preference for straight or secretly bisexual male sexual partners.

Were there sex acts that were off the table for most of these men, because those acts were considered too feminine or passive?

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.

How did most of your rural subjects meet their bud-sex partners -- were they casual encounters, or was the sex between friends or acquaintances?

Most of the participants' male sexual partners were casual hookups, though almost all of the participants had regular male sexual partners as well. Several of these even turned into friendships.

When will your paper be published, and are you conducting (or planning to conduct) additional research in this area? Had you conducted research in this area before?

I've been interested in sexualities and gender for several years. "Bud Sex" is currently published online at Gender & Society, and I have another paper from this project forthcoming in the journal Sexualities.

Additionally, I have several papers under review that use nationally representative survey data to explore why individuals with same-sex sexuality identify as straight. From one dataset I found that 9.9 percent of American men aged 15 to 44 have same-sex attractions and/or have had sex with men, and over 60 percent of those men identify as straight.

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