Gay sex study reveals totally normal details

There’s a prevailing myth in our culture that gay men are all, inevitably, into varying kinds of sexual freakery. (Lesbians, of course, never have any kind of sex at all.) This myth no doubt helps to perpetuate anti-gay bias. But how grounded is it in reality?

Researchers have recently undertaken a massive study in which 24,787 gay men were polled about their most recent sexual encounters. Some of the amazingly non-lurid details to emerge from the results include:

– Gay men are most likely to have sex at their home (and the next most likely location is the home of their partner)

– They are most likely to have sex with their partner

– The most commonly reported sexual activities are “kissing on the mouth” and “oral sex”

Those perverts.

Huffpost has more details here.

18 thoughts on “Gay sex study reveals totally normal details

  1. I can’t help but feel that a study like this is still implying that there is something intrinsically wrong with types of sex which aren’t considered ‘normal’, i.e. monogamous, oral, unassisted penetrative vaginal/anal sex etc.

    I understand that it’s trying to rid gay men of a particular stereotype, but I think it’s on too superficial a level. The problem is that people think that there is something wrong with that stereotype, not just that they believe gay men behave in a certain way.

    To draw a very similar parallel, it’s like doing a survey on how many gay men would identify themselves as camp, and the study showing that most gay men do not identify as camp, or express more typical ‘feminine’ behaviour. The implication of the results is that it’s unfair that gay men should be assumed to be camp, because they most certainly aren’t. There is an underlying assumption that being camp is a bad thing. The amount of internalised homophobia about camp gay men is horrendous. A lot of that comes in the form of gay men and others trying to prove that they’re not all camp, because being camp is seen as a bad stereotype. When really we should be addressing why people think that being camp is a bad characteristic (sexism, for one).

    So in the same way, instead of trying to prove that gay men are not all into ‘weird’ sex, we should look at why we think having ‘weird’ sex is a bad thing in itself across all types of relationships.

    I mean if you think about it, what would it mean if the results showed the opposite? Then would it be okay to critcise a certain behaviour of a majority of gay men? No.

  2. Alex, I don’t think the study in question is “trying to prove” anything. I think it’s just a study. Nothing in the study itself – or in the way the researchers report the data – reveals any sort of editorial agenda.

    What’s interesting about the study – and what some people have found “surprising” (as in the reporting in the Huffpost article) – is just how bland the results are. You can think this result is significant without implying that were the results otherwise it would entail something wrong or transgressive about gay men. The problem with the myths and misinformation that informs the stereotype of gay men’s sex lives is that: (i) a lot of what people assume is just flat out false; (ii) this misinformation contributes to to the way hetero folk distance themselves from gay people and “other” them.

    People tend to conceive of “gay sex” as something very foreign and different to what they get up to in their own private, hereonormative lives. When in fact “gay sex” is just sex. Had by gay people.

    That’s not to say that nonstandard sex lives are in any way wrong or bad. But misinformation – especially when it’s “othering” misinformation – needs to be corrected.

  3. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure this study really captured the nature of the myths it’s being used to counter. When folks say that gay people are engaged in various sorts of “freakery” (great term, by the way), I don’t take them to mean to be saying that gay people are *always* or even *usually* engaged in freakery. What I take them to mean is that heteronormative people *never* or *almost never* engage in it, and that gay people do it often enough that it pops up on the radar.

    For example, I suspect that homophobes would take the stat that 19% of gay folks report a sexual encounter with a casual or dating partner to be evidence in favor of their “thesis”.

  4. Alex, I think it is right to be ready to raise questions about anything that addresses bigotry. I also think magicalersatz is right that the study does not imply anything about what the opposite would show or mean. Still, there is a problem, but I think I’d disagree about its location. The problem is the surrounding bigotry. I think it disadvantages the targets of bigotry not to inquire about them when we make similar inquiries about “normal” people. This study might have a useful effect on kids who are just discovering that they are not straight. But you are reminding us that it also occurs in a context problematized by bigotry.

    It has always seemed to me that one of the very bad things about abuse is that it can leave one with no good alternatives. Similarly, bigotry can taint what ought to be simply useful information.

  5. Just an important factual fix: Lesbians do have sex — but only if they are young and attractive, and usually in movies for the enjoyment of male watchers, because obviously their ulterior motive is to titillate men.

  6. Maybe it’s the way the study has been framed in the original post which has made me think that there are underlying implications of it. In all honesty I was basing my post on the first post, and not the actual article.

    Anyway, I have a whole heap of deeper problems with studies revolving around and about sexuality, but that’s not necessarily all that relevant.

    I can see the benefits of such a study, I think I’m just being super critical. I just have a sceptical tendency to not rejoice too quickly with this kind of thing.

  7. @Matt Drabek, judging from the abstract and the press write-up, you are probably right.  We can’t really say what relation the study bears to a hypothesis like “gay men are into freaky sex” (or whatever).  For one thing, the hypothesis is so vague that it’s hard to say what kind of falsifiable predictions it makes, and for another, the things the study might actually disprove aren’t the sorts of things that really illuminate the myth.  For example, would we expect that someone who liked to walk on the freaky side would be *unlikely* to have had their last sexual encounter in their home?  No, people of every sort tend to spend the vast majority of their free time at home.  Or if you count mouth kissing as a sexual behaviour, would anyone be surprised to learn, of almost any group of people, that it is the most common behaviour? Probably not.

    So we would have to drill down on the myth to figure out some falsifiable predictions and people’s more specific expectations of the sexual behaviour of gay men.  This is not made any easier by the fact that there are also meta-myths in play here.  (For example, pace the opening post, do a majority of people really subscribe to the notion that *all* gay men are *inevitably* into freaky sex?)

    Still, maybe this study will do some good.

  8. Matt, I agree that the study results don’t directly contradict all that’s packed into the myth. But I do think it helps to undermine it – perhaps simply by putting pressure on it and demanding further articulation. If gay men’s most recent sexual encounters don’t look particularly different from your average hetero’s most recent sexual encounter, then what exactly is the oddness supposed to be? Maybe it’s the assumption that most gay men have – at some point in their lives – gotten up to something sexually “unusual” (however you want to spell that out). But most hetero people have probably done so as well (. . .that one time. . .in college. . .when you were *really* drunk – that doesn’t count, does it?) So is the thought that gay men get up to the non-standard stuff more often? With more people? Who knows. The study, hopefully, will push people to be clearer about what exactly they’re assuming. But the more you push for clarity and specification, the less of a big deal the conclusion seems to be (and the less you can generate any sort of gay-straight divide from it).

    (And Nemo, I was attempting hyperbole.)

  9. @magicalersatz, I see the hyperbole, sorry. And you make some good points in responding to Matt. A couple of further things occurred to me as I read it.

    First, until the myth has been unpacked (as you say) more, perhaps we oughtn’t refer to it as a myth. Otherwise, what are we really saying other than that we suppose a large number of people to hold as true some specific but unspecified propositions, and that we further suppose that if we had a clearer idea of what they were, we would find that the propositions were both falsifiable and actually false? OK…

    Second, I suspect that some people to whom we might attribute these things would say that they hold sex acts that would be “normal” between people of the opposite sex to be “freaky” between people of the same sex, which no empirical study can really falsify – in which case it’s less a question of a myth than of a disagreement on terms and/or point of reference. Ah well.

  10. The word “normal” has always been tricky.

    It has the sense of what is statistically average, but it also has the sense of what
    is appropriate, sane, in accordance with some standards.

    Given the ambivalence and the resulting implicit condemnation of those who are not
    statistically average (due to the ambivalence), it is wise to be careful in one’s use of the word.

  11. @s. wallerstein, how true that is. Interestingly, I was just noticing that every time the word has appeared in this thread it has been between quotation marks (with the exception of the thread title). We are nothing if not a cautious bunch!

  12. This is interesting. I think we could all agree that, ceteris paribus, reducing the number of misconceptions about queer sex will help reduce harmful attitudes toward queer people. But I also think there are reasons to believe that such an approach, taken as a main strategy, would be harmful.

    First, there is plenty of reason to believe that such a project could never go as far as it needs to. Even if all the misconceptions about gay male sex the article seeks to eliminate could be eliminated, at the end of the day queer sex is practically different than heteronormative sex, and it is those remaining differences that seem to be the main loci of disgust amongst homophobes (anal sex is the obvious example). So if we think eliminating homophobia is about demonstrating normality, we’ll stop short at some point.

    Second, noticing those genuine differences, we recognize that queer sex involves parts of the body, positions, and practices that contest the assumption that sexual pleasure is fully biological and natural, rather than cultural and creative (is the anus a sex organ?). And importantly this requires an adjustment of heteronormativity’s conceptions of its own sex in tow. Homopbobes are often motivated not just by an intolerance of deviance, but by what’s at stake for themselves and their understanding of their own sexuality if they embrace queer folk. If we overemphasize the role of demonstrating normality in queer politics, we underemphaseize the changes we require in heteronormative folk.

    Third, while this study demonstrates that gay male sex is less deviant than believed, there is still quite a lot of sex that does conform to the challenged stereotypes, and participants in that sex are at higher risk than their more vanilla counterparts. This is both because there are less resources and information to engage in such sex safely and to deal with the dangers when they arise, and because the participants are even further removed from the heteronormative vocabulary making them more vulnerable to exclusion and violence. By justifiably seeking to alleviate the burden on more mainstream queers, we run the risk of making it worse for the minority.

    Fourth, a distinction needs to be made between sexual practices and sexual desires or fantasies. Even if most gay guys are vanilla after all, a cursory search of widely-consumed (gay and straight) pornography shows perverse desires and weird fantasies to run far ahead of actual practices, bordering on the norm. So even if we set the public straight about the majority of queer sex as actually practiced, in emphasizing how normal we are we run the risk of making queer people not feel like the world has no place for their quirks and kinks, and may encourage queer folk to bury those desires even more. The lack of that cultural vocabulary also makes them feel not at home with themselves, a phenomenon that I think all-too-often gets misleadingly categorized as internalized homophobia.

    So while I think it’s great that this study, article, and post are debunking myths about sex as it actually goes on, and I’m glad it was published, I think the worry that has come up is not so much about whether or not we should be debunking these myths, its about how how we articulate the way in which that debunking fits into our overall projects, which a lot of queer people have found to be less about showing how normal we are, and more about embracing how weird everyone is. We need to have a complex and subtle enough message that says “of course I’m happy to show you I’m more normal than you think, and hopefully that will alleviate the bad feelings you have toward me, but normalization isn’t my overall project. It is, in fact, to get you comfortable with the abnormal,” even though such qualified affirmations are resisted by our twitterfied political discourse.

    So in the end, I’m really happy about this study, I just think we need to be careful about how we embrace it.

  13. Wow, Joe, fantastic comment. I was jotting down notes this morning to try to post something on this thread, but you just covered everything I would have had to say plus a bunch, and far more articulately than I was managing to be. Well done! I agree with every bit of this.

  14. Yes, thanks very much for the comment, Joe. I agree with pretty much everything you said. Debunking myths is important, but it would be very short-sighted – and ultimately counter-productive – as a complete strategy for slaying the many-headed monster that is homophobia.

    (That being said, allow me a tangential aside in response to one of your points. I’m still not sure how much hangs on the idea of intrinsic differences between “gay sex” and non-gay sex. I mean, given the socialized differences in genders as well as the biological differences between sexes, there are bound to be lots of differences between all-male sex, male-female sex, and all-female sex. But it’s hard to point to any that are all that interesting or significant. You use the example of anal sex. And you’re of course right that a lot of homophobes freak out at the idea of anal sex, and point to anal sex as one of the “inherent differences” between “gay sex” and heteronormative sex. I’ve never been sure whether they’re ignorant of or just wilfully ignoring the fact that anal sex isn’t the sole province of gay men. Hetero people have anal sex too.)

    And on thing I really should clarify: my use of “normal” in the title of this post was meant to be read tongue-firmly-in-cheek. I worry that hasn’t come across clearly. Sorry about that!

  15. Thanks for the aside, magicalersatz. It was helpful! I meant to make the point somewhere in the comment that I mean by queer sex any sex that deviates from heteronormative expectations, and straight couples engaged in anal sex, to use your example, would fit the bill. Since the study was about gay men I (confusingly) switched between “gay sex” when I wanted to talk about the study specifically and “queer sex” when I wanted to talk about deviant sex more generally. The distinction is important for the reason you point out. Thanks!

    Oh, and I totally got the tounge-in-cheek, fwiw. “totally” “freakery” and italicized “perverts” communicated that. I think we commenters were just worried about what would happen if someone read it who didn’t see it.

    Oh, and in my comment “… we are we run the risk of making queer people not feel like the world has no place for their quirks and kinks,” should read “… we are we run the risk of making queer people feel like the world has no place for their quirks and kinks.” Many a logic professor has told me that an extra negation kinda changes what you’re saying… :-p

  16. Further to S. Wallerstein’s cogent comment about the use of the fraught term “normal”, I think it is also worth urging circumspection with regard to the use of the term “homophobe”, carrying as it often does imputations of motivation and suggestions of individual pathology, among other problematic aspects.

  17. Nemo:

    Could you expand a bit on what you mean above about the use of the term “homophobe”?

    Thanks.

    I suppose that I always use that term without much thought. It is strange how much thought we put into the words we use or that are used in classifying us or those like us and how little thought we put into words that we use or that are used in classifying those who do not share our worldview, who threaten our worldview or who simply are not us, but them.

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