When a woman mentions she’s had an “experimental phase,” it’s often shrugged off as a shared experience. But when men share this same information, the results are often more extreme: They’re teased, labeled gay, or their masculinity is questioned; a Glamour survey even found that 63% of women wouldn’t date a man who had sex with another man. This is an extension of the idea that female homosexuality and sexual fluidity are more socially accepted.
All of this information is nothing new. What’s less known, however, is exactly how interested men are in sex with other men: Are straight men just as curious as women, but shame is suppressing their desire, or are women indeed the more sexually fluid gender?
“I know of no evidence that shows that men are less likely than women to have an ‘experimental phase,’” Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Ph.D., and author of Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men tells NewNowNext. “I do believe men are less likely to report it to researchers, on surveys, or to their friends and families due, in part, to the ‘homohysteria’ that pervades our culture.”
As result of his research, Savin-Williams believes men are just as curious in same-sex dalliances as women, and argues if men were “allowed” to engage in such behavior, more would. “I do believe there is a subset of straight men who are fascinated by penises and they might well have sex with a man for that reason.”
This last point is one of many uncovered in a 2017 study. Researchers from Northwestern University conducted 100 interviews with men who identified as straight, but sought casual sex with men online. After analyzing the results, the study concluded that these men are indeed primarily attracted to women, with no sexual attraction to men—despite the desire to have sex with men.
Confused? The result relies on semantics. To researchers, “sexual attraction” must include both “physical” and “emotional” attraction. So while these men have a sexual attraction (a combination of both emotional and physical attraction) toward women, it is often only a physical attraction when it comes to men. Some said they aren’t drawn toward male bodies as much as they are female, and others observe they’re only interested in penises. Some will even limit what they’re willing to do with men to convince themselves that their sexual interest in women is stronger than their attraction toward men.
“I know what I like. I like pussy,” Reggie, 28, shares in the survey. “I like women. The more the merrier. I would kiss a woman. I can barely hug a man. I do have a healthy sexual imagination and wonder about other things in the sexual realm I’ve never done. Sometimes I get naughty and explore. That’s how I see it.”
John, 43, is less lewd in his perspective. He tells NewNowNext that masturbating didn’t come naturally to him, so he had a friend show him how. After that inaugural moment, the rest was history. “I have had anal sex and oral sex with a few other guys as a young man, mostly out of sexual frustration but also experimenting. Ultimately, through these experiences, I found out that I am completely straight. I won’t go back.”
Based on the men he’s spoken with in his career, Eric Marlowe Garrison, certified sexuality expert and bestselling author, laments most straight men experiment as a top, mimicking cisgender, heterosexual intercourse. Some do bottom, of course. But that’s considered feminine and submissive.
Author Dan Savage wrote in The Stranger, “If a straight guy sucks one cock and gets caught—just that one cock, just that one time—no one will take him seriously when he says he’s straight.”
But what if it’s more than one cock? What if these straight-identifying men are having regular sex with men? Are they still considered straight or would their sexual preference veer into bisexual territory? What’s the barometer here? Better yet, does one even exist?
“I believe one can be male, straight, and have gay sex without changing either of the first two,” Savin-Williams says. “Of course, they might well be ‘mostly straight,’ a spot on the sexual continuum next to totally straight. Thus, gay sex might not be experimental but an expression of their slight degree of same-sex sexuality.”
Garrison agrees, suggesting that straight men who experiment shouldn’t be scrutinized any more than “a vegan whom you catch eating chicken.”
Same-sex experimentation, though often discouraged, is well documented throughout male history. Think fraternity and military hazing rituals, online personal ads, and straight men frequenting public restrooms for gay sexual encounters pre-Grindr. With such a complicated and discreet history, can straight guys ever experiment without reprimand? Sexuality isn’t black and white‚ it exists on a spectrum. Sexologist Alfred Kinsey published this discovery back in 1948. A lesbian can mess around with a guy every now and then and still identify as gay, just like a heterosexual man can hook up with a man and still identify as straight.
Fortunately, it appears that with each passing generation people’s understanding of sexuality is expanding inch by inch. Savin-Williams and Garrison believe today’s youth are more likely to report that they have engaged in same-sex dalliances, given the more positive attitudes toward same-sex behavior.
In addition to these expert perspectives, a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior previously analyzed same-sex experiences between 1990 and 2014 and found not one but two encouraging results. First, it revealed that people’s acceptance of same-sex relationships had quadrupled in the timespan; and second, that same-sex activity had nearly doubled for men and women. The final survey in the study documented that 7.5% of men aged between 18 to 29 reported a gay sexual experience and 12.2% of women in the same age bracket reported a lesbian experience.
Sexual experimentation is exploration at its core. And as progressive attitudes toward sexual fluidity emerge, men may become more comfortable openly exploring rather than remaining curious and, perhaps, adopting homophobic attitudes as a result of suppression. Whether they learn they like men or find out they’re more definitively attracted to women, with less social-cultural stigma, that information will be theirs to discover—not for others to judge.