This originally appeared on SaulofHearts.com. Republished here with permission.
The other night, one of my friends, who is gay, was telling a story that ended with the line, “And that was the first time I had sex with Harry.”
There was a moment of surprised silence in the room. “But … isn’t Harry straight?”
“Yeah,” said my friend. “And sometimes we have sex.”
It was an interesting story, but not an earth-shattering one. For some people, this would be a contradiction in terms: a man who has sex with another man must “obviously” be gay.
But when you live in a community full of progressive-minded people like I do, you stop forming such rigid expectations. Sexual acts don’t always line up with orientation.
The gay rights movement has done a lot to help with the visibility and acceptance of alternate sexualities over the past few decades. Bisexual, trans, kinky, queer, and asexual folks have more options for support and community than ever before. Columnists like Dan Savage have paved the way for frank discussion of straight sex too.
But the fight for gay rights has also, inadvertently, created the illusion that same-sex activity is exclusively for gay men. In reality, that isn’t the case, nor should it be.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about a “gay gene,” but I’m more intrigued by a gene called D4DR. Found on the arm of Chromosome 11, D4DR is responsible for building the brain’s dopamine receptors, which regulate the way that we respond to thrilling and pleasurable experiences. Matt Ridley calls it our “motivation chemical.”
Some of us are born with a “long” form of the D4DR gene, and others with a “short” form. The longer the gene, the less responsive the brain is to dopamine, and the more likely the individual is to have an “adventurous” or “novelty-seeking” personality.
Here’s where it gets interesting. According to Ridley, “Among heterosexual men, those with the long D4DR gene are six times more likely to have slept with another man than those with the short genes. Among homosexual men, those with the long genes are five times more likely to have slept with a woman than those with the short genes.”
If a “gay gene” is what causes some men to fall in love with other men, then do genes like this one explain why some men are more “heteroflexible” than others?
Are there biological reasons why some men have sex with other men that have nothing to do with sexual orientation?
When I was in grade school, I didn’t know much about the politics or the psychology of sexual attraction. All I knew were the words that got thrown around the playground:
Gay. Queer. Faggot.
I never seriously considered that I might be any of those things, and I don’t think anyone else in my class did either. No one got made fun of because they were gay; it was more of a preventative measure, to ensure that they weren’t.
For me at least—and I expect for a lot of other men raised in the Internet age—sex was a very non-social activity. When you could look up “how to masturbate” online, why would you have any reason to ask your friends about it? Or trade issues of Playboy?
“Experimenting” with other guys was out of the question. We already knew that we weren’t gay, so what was there to experiment about?
While the Internet has increased our tolerance level for what people do in their own bedrooms, we’ve raised a generation of men uncomfortable with each other’s sexuality.
We develop our sexual preferences in isolation, outside of their social context—as Adam Rubenstein puts it, porn is like “someone giving me [an] erection from years ago, miles away”—and expect our sexual encounters to take place within an equally private sphere.
We forget that our sexual instincts evolved within complex social structures, and that even a few hundred years ago, the amount of personal space that we take for granted was neither quite so expected nor possible. Sex is a social activity, and always has been.
When I went to college—Emerson College, one of the most liberal schools in the country—there was a lot of self-segregation going on between the gay and straight communities.
As a general rule, the musical theatre majors were gay, and the film majors were straight.
On the surface, this created a culture of tolerance. Straight men felt comfortable supporting gay marriage. Gay men could openly kiss and hold hands in the hall.
It put an end to the witch hunts of grammar school: If you actually were gay, you would have said so by now. And if you weren’t, then you weren’t.
But that divide made it very difficult for people like me—people who are fascinated by sex in all its forms, and lean mostly in one direction, but don’t feel constrained by it.
It took me until 26 to start identifying as polyamorous, and even that is more of a philosophy than an orientation.
You’d think there would have been plenty of opportunity at a place like Emerson to catch up on my lack of youthful indiscretions. I don’t doubt that, if I had chosen to “mess around,” most of my straight friends would have tripped over themselves to “accept” it.
But I was afraid that, once done, it could not be taken back. I was afraid that one small step toward another man equated to a giant leap from stage right to stage left.
We can accept same-sex activity when it happens over “there,” amongst the gender studies and the musical theatre majors, but less so when it happens within familiar territory.
It’s either When Harry Met Sally or Brokeback Mountain.
What happens when we find out that one of our friends has “been with a guy”? Assuming we’re not a bigoted, conservative-minded prick, we’ll be quick to insist that it’s OK to be gay. We’ll slap a marriage-equality sticker on our car and march in PrideFest.
The alternative is to say, “Dude, you’re not gay, you’re just bi/questioning/curious,” and that implies that maybe we get it a little too much, that maybe we can admit to some same-sex attraction in our own lives.
By declaring our acceptance of broadly-defined orientations, we avoid the uncomfortable process of understanding what it is that our friends are actually attracted to. It’s easier to accept whole categories of people than it is to understand specific acts.
Not everyone who keeps quiet about their same-sex encounters is in denial. It might be that they’ve already worked through the problem in their head, know what they want and are looking for, and simply don’t want the hassle of having to explain it to everyone.
There are plenty of men who would enjoy the occasional encounter with a same-sex friend, but would be left cold by issues of Playgirl.
There are also plenty of men who wish they could be open to these kinds of things, but aren’t.
We need to give each other the freedom to decide not just if we’re gay or straight—most of us know that from an early age—but what specific acts we’re drawn to and which we would rather avoid. That takes more time—and experience—to figure out.
Saul Of-Hearts blogs about work, travel, and community living at his website, www.saulofhearts.com. He also writes for Slate, Brazen Careerist, and Burn After Reading Magazine. He’s actively involved in the Share Economy, and lives in an intentional community of writers and artists in L.A.