Sex & Relationships

Can Men Have Sex With Men and Still Call Themselves Straight?

"I'm not sure there's a name for what I am,' says Dillon, a college hockey player. Welcome to the world of the mostly straights.

Dillon, a college varsity hockey goalie, is an eager volunteer for our interview. In fact, he so loves telling his story that he stays beyond the 90 minutes he believes it will take, and offers to come back for the chance to talk some more. When we reschedule, he’s thrilled, and shakes my hand and thanks me four times in the process of leaving.

Besides being remarkably polite, Dillon is talkative, self-aware, and reflective, with an engaging smile and an at-ease quality. Nothing he says feels rehearsed. It’s as if each topic brings forth another triumph, as if he’s discovering his life as he reflects on the questions.

When eventually asked about his sexuality, Dillon isn’t fazed. Though he wants to “fuck lots of girls” before graduation, he’s not entirely heterosexual. “I’m not sure there’s a name for what I am,” he says. He wants this process, this interview, to help him figure it out.

♦♦♦

By his own admission, Dillon says he resides in the “Sexual Netherlands” (his words), a place that exists between heterosexuality and bisexuality. In previous generations, such individuals might have been described as “straight but not narrow,” “bending a little,” and “heteroflexible.”

Dillon is part of a growing trend of young men who are secure in their heterosexuality and yet remain aware of their potential to experience far more—sexual attractions, sexual interactions, crushes, and, occasionally romantic relationships with other guys. Dillon lives these contradictions—seemingly hetero guys who now reject that label, sexual description, and identity.

And he is not alone. National surveys in the U.S. and Canada show that 3 to 4 percent of male teenagers, when given the choice to select a term that best describes their sexual feelings, desires, and behaviors, opt not for heterosexual, bisexual, or gay, but for “mostly” or “predominantly” heterosexual.

An even higher percentage of post-high-school young-adult men in the U.S. and in a handful of other countries (including New Zealand and Norway) make the same choice. There are now more young men who feel they are “mostly straight” than who say they are bisexual or gay.

To the uninitiated, “mostly straight” is a paradox. These young men fracture the heterosexual agenda—or do we call it a lifestyle? If a guy is not exclusively into girls, he can’t be totally straight. Aren’t you supposed to pick a side?

If a guy is not straight, not bisexual, and not gay—and yet still falls in love and gets an erection—what the hell is he?

It’s a common misconception that the “mostly straight” phenomenon is nothing more than an adolescent foray into sexual experimentation, possibly due to excessive hormones and sexual confusion.

Sizable numbers of young men maintain their “mostly straight” status—not just as adolescents or college students, but as adults. Of the 160 guys we interviewed for a study in 2008 and 2009, nearly one in eight reported same-sex attractions, fantasies, and crushes. The majority had these feelings since high school; a few others developed them more recently. And in a national sample of young men whose average age was 22, the “mostly straight” proportion increased when they completed the same survey six years later.

These men aren’t bisexuals in disguise. They’re not closeted gay men seeking the privileges afforded to heterosexuals in society. They’re not simply tired of sex with women. With the words “mostly straight,” they’re describing a unique sexual identity, their complete romantic self.

♦♦♦

Among the “mostly straights” we surveyed, a few subtypes stood out.

First is the guy whose progressive political leanings lead him to feel constrained by traditional heterosexuality and masculinity, an outdated and unnecessary burden. “I might have been gay if I’d been raised differently,” one said. “Aren’t we all born bisexual and culture pushes us one way or another?” He challenges homophobic customs and assumptions. One such young man sings in a gay chorus; another marches in pride parades as an ally; a third intends to “come out” as mostly straight in the military to test the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He wants to know, how gay does one have to be to count?

Second is the guy who finds guys physically attractive. One interviewee pleaded, “I mean, come on, tell me some guys aren’t hot!” If he finds himself staring at men in the gym, on the sports field, around the neighborhood, and in Details, Instinct, and Vman, then how can he say to himself that he is totally straight? He notices guys in the buff and who are buff, visually appealing, and pleasurable to be around. He wonders if he only desires the toned body, stylistic appearance, and athletic facility—and not the sexuality.

A third guy may admit that he’s a little sexually attracted to guys. It may not be his top priority, but he’ll acknowledge that men occasionally pop up in his masturbatory fantasies. He doesn’t expect to have sex with a man, but he isn’t ruling it out; he has a willingness to experiment. He’s into sexual pleasure without strings, without meaning. Anything is possible, given the right circumstances with the right person. (Well, almost anything: most interviewees drew the line at actual male-male intercourse.)

A fourth guy is a guy like Dillon: he grants that he’s not totally straight, and that his feelings for guys are more than just sexual—they’re romantic. He can imagine experiencing emotional, intimate relationships with other young men. It just seems natural. He’s into cuddling without the pressure of sex, and he could spend countless hours with “special buddies.” He’s been infatuated with best friends, teammates, and videogame partners.

All four guys have one thing in common: unlike their totally straight brothers, they’re not averse to sexual or romantic feelings, encounters, or relationships with other males.

♦♦♦

It’s unlikely that mostly straight youth are limited to just four types. As additional young men recognize and reveal their sexual breadth, they assist all of us to understand previously unrecognized sexual and romantic possibilities. How many of us have these feelings and are clamoring to “come out” as mostly straight?

Indeed, throughout his life, Dillon has had boy chums, boy crushes, and boy infatuations with teammates and best friends. He makes lingering, intense, frequent references to his core group of high-school buddies and to the male companionship he habitually seeks. He readily hugs and even cuddles with male friends while watching a movie and eating popcorn, especially if they are “on the same wavelength.”

Dillon could see himself meeting a guy and together developing a “partnership.” They wouldn’t act on it sexually, but they’d be physically affectionate. Dillon imagines that their relationship would be difficult for others to understand. They’d think it was a gay relationship because of the time he and his partner spent together, the secrets they shared, and the knowing glances, nods, and code words they exchanged. This is the “homosexual thing” that most interests him.

Far more than we realize, young males wait to be released from their heterosexual straightjackets.

Dillon might just show us the way.

Kenneth M. Cohen, Ph.D., is a licensed Clinical Psychologist at Cornell University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, and Lecturer in Cornell’s Department of Human Development. Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Ph.D., is Professor of Developmental Psychology and Director of Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University. He is currently investigating the spectrum of sexual development among straight-identified and sexually fluid young men.