There is something fascinating going on in the basement of our culture.
Not all that long ago, there were a relatively small number of words we used to describe sexual orientation: heterosexual (straight), homosexual (gay), bisexual (attracted to both genders), asexual (not attracted to sex), etc. But over recent decades, it's as though our culture's subterranean sexual boiler, the one that produces and reinforces the hot new labels and language trends, has become superheated.
Facebook, for instance, lists some 51 sexual orientation labels by which users can identify themselves, and these are ever expanding on countless Internet sites and discussion forums. It's enough to make therapists, who often see it as our responsibility to name the slippery things going on in our psyches in order to help our clients with identity problems, a little despondent.
The latest blast from the basement that has people scrambling for naming conventions has shown up on the Internet as BRO, "The Social App Just for Men," a site dedicated to straight men seeking other straight men for sex. BRO's founder, Scott Kutler, explains in one interview why he was inspired to create the app: "... mainly because I felt there was a huge segment of men that don't feel welcome in the "gay" community--be it 'bi' guys or gay men that don't fit the 'gay' stereotype." Or how about otherwise straight guys who have erotic fantasies about sex with other men? Or straight guys who want to prove to themselves through such sexual exploration that they are, after all, straight? What kind of label is appropriate here?
Once we begin to realize that there can be such a thing as an erotic identity coexisting with a different sexual identity, and that either of these states of mind are fluid and can change over the course of a lifetime, then we begin to think it might make sense to get out of the naming game altogether ... if only we could. What do you call the straight man who has sexual interest in women, as well as erotic interest in gay sex?
Jane Ward, the brilliant author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men, offers another reasonable perspective: "When straight-identified people engage in homosexual sex and they have no interest whatsoever in bi identification or gay identification, they want nothing to do with queer subculture, they're deeply invested in heteronormativity, they feel very comfortable with straightness, they want to be understood as straight, then it's actually most useful to say these people are straight."
Most people outside of the sex-therapy community have never considered the existence of a multi-universe of sexual identities, but those of us immersed in this stickiest of human foibles have come to realize that there is much yet to discover. Let me offer some common examples, all of which I have encountered:
The family man, happily married with kids, who loves his wife, loves having sex with her and who finds himself seeking out a young man who will whip and humiliate him.
The cuckold, who considers himself to be straight, but will indulge his wife by finding someone to have sex with her while he watches, even fellating the fellow to arouse him to the task.
- The lesbian activist who has erotic fantasies about being violently raped by a gang of straight men.
One has to ask, then, is it really essential for us to have labels for the seemingly endless nuance of sexual expression? Many of the comments I've read about the BRO app from gay men, for instance, reveal defensiveness about not labeling BRO app users as gay or bi, as if not doing so is a threat to their own hard-won place in the pantheon of identity archetypes. From my point of view, however, the need for a label pales in comparison to the potential, perhaps, for a community to develop for men who have not yet found their own cultural and/or sexual and/or erotic identity, men who identify as heterosexual, but who are aroused by the eroticism of gay sex, or men who are simply trying figure it all out. BRO gives them permission to explore who they really are.
So, given the ongoing explosion of sexual awareness rising from the basement of our cultural psyche, there very well may come a time when we are forced to abandon our proclivity to pigeonhole our preferences altogether, despite the unease this is likely to cause members of various subcultures. With the tectonic plates beneath our cultural psyche shifting so rapidly, we may have to learn how to maintain our balance and simply stand tall for who we are, and live with the ambiguity.