- The Production of White Male Heterosexuality
Why do straight white men find so many opportunities to have sex with each other? In Jane Ward’s analysis, the real question is, “Why don’t they do it more?” Ward’s fundamental assertion in Not Gay is that sex between straight white men is a productive act, and specifically that it constitutes the production of heterosexuality for these men and for their larger social worlds. It is logical to approach this book with a lot of skepticism: Aren’t these men really gay? Aren’t the straight men really being exploited? Aren’t the straight ones who are not exploited really just bisexual? Ward addresses those concerns head on. She doesn’t rule out that those explanations could be relevant some of the time, but she also refuses to assume that they are the final word on these sexual interactions. In other words, she is not as quick to explain away the sexual component of these sexual interactions as the rest of us tend to be.
Not Gay takes readers on a tour of a wide range of settings in which straight white men have sex with other men, usually also straight and white, but not always. In chapter 2, she uses George Chauncey’s work to introduce us to the queer urban spaces of the early twentieth century, spaces that afforded straight men opportunities for sex with other men. She uses Hunter S. Thompson’s work to introduce us to the man-on-man sexuality of the Hells Angels in the 1960s. Laud Humphrey’s research then provides a lens into the public bathroom sex of straight men. Finally, we are reminded of the many religious and political leaders in the late twentieth century who survived scandals following same-sex encounters, and continued to live their lives as straight men.
One reaction to stories like this is to insist that these men are really gay. Ward essentially asks her readers to interrogate what we mean by the [End Page 315] word “really.” What is the true meaning of sexual identity, and what agency do we have to define our own sexualities? Ward rejects the “born this way” ideology that has become the de facto explanation of sexuality for LGBTQ folks and their allies in the twenty-first century. “Born this way” has been embraced as a powerful political strategy because it implies that our sexual orientation is programmed into us, irreversible and untamable, and must therefore be tolerated as something beyond our control. When debating sexuality with a conservative religious person, “born this way” has the added benefit of suggesting that our sexuality is a gift from God, and part of the way that we are created. Ward critiques “born this way” ideology throughout the book, but most definitively in chapter 3, where she explores “the popular science of sexual fluidity.”
Ward disputes the long-term value of embracing an explanation of sexuality simply for its momentary strategic value. In a different culture, “born this way” could just as easily provide the justification for queer genocide—not at all far-fetched when we think of the persecution and killing of homosexuals under the Nazi reign. Why not embrace our agency and demand the freedom to define our sexualities on our own terms? For Ward, heterosexuality is not an original or normal condition, though she does discuss how it operates as such, and it is not a classification of someone’s behaviors or desires. Rather, “heterosexuality is defined by . . . investment in heterosexuality” (116). By extension, homosexuality is defined by investment in homosexuality and not simply by sexual behavior or desire. And the same goes for bisexuality. Straight men are straight because they are invested in heterosexuality, even when they have sex with men—or perhaps precisely because they have sex with men.
Ward is particularly fascinated by the intricate rules around these male sexual practices that help to make sex with men very clearly not gay and therefore heterosexual. She first discusses these in chapter 1 in an analysis of the “elephant walk,” a...