Featured prominently the Albuquerque Craigslist's "men seeking men" section is a post entitled "lookin' for a str8 jo sesh."
"Looking for a chill straight dude so that we can watch some porn, whip out our dicks, jerk off, and shoot in front of each other," it reads. "I want us to be totally comfortable and have fun. Just want to have a good time with a bro and do some male bonding. Stays between us."
Reading this post, a few operative words stand out.
These, in fact, are the key characteristics of an increasingly visible group of men called MSM, or straight men that have sex with other men. Despite living lives that present as stereotypically heterosexual — wives, families, Sunday night football, blue collar jobs, conservative politics — they're able to compartmentalize the part of themselves that desires other men and keep it from complicating their public identities. The world sees them as straight, because they are straight … they just like to suck a good dick every now and then. Nothin' to see here.
And although you don't hear about them often, MSM are everywhere — in the military, in fraternities, on sports teams, in biker gangs, dad-ing it up in suburban neighborhoods, and pulling a Brokeback Mountain in rural, white areas. According to Jane Ward's fascinating book on the topic, "Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men," MSM can be found pretty much everywhere, but most ironically in the nooks and crannies of the country that hyperbolize American masculinity — chances are, if you're somewhere where stereotypically macho shit is happening, you're also somewhere where there are undercover MSM.
One of these men is Marcus, a research subject of University of Oregon sociology doctoral student Tony Silva. Marcus is straight and self-identifies as a "manly" man, yet he likes to suck men off every now and then.
"I know that there are a lot of guys out there that are like me … they’re manly guys, and doing manly stuff … they just happen to have oral sex with men every once in a while," Marcus told Silva in an interview.
Marcus belongs to rural white species of MSM — the group Silva has been zeroing in on for his research. Attempting to explore how straight male sexuality is connected to rural white identity, and how certain men are able to find sexual fluidity within that relationship, Silva found 19 men of various ages on Craiglist's "men seeking men" section, and interviewed them about their lives, sexual habits and sense of identity. All of them were from places known for their “social conservatism and predominant white populations," and they were predominately in their 50s or older. Most were exclusively straight, but a couple identified as "mostly straight," or in the case of one participant, “Straight but bi, but more straight.”
What he found was that in rural white areas, sex between straight men functioned as a way to form companionate, bro-like connections, and actually increased men's sense of both masculinity and heterosexuality. He called this phenomenon "bud sex."
Here's how he defined it:
Ward (2015) examines dudesex, a type of male–male sex that white, masculine, straight men in urban or military contexts frame as a way to bond and build masculinity with other, similar “bros.” Carrillo and Hoffman (2016) refer to their primarily urban participants as heteroflexible, given that they were exclusively or primarily attracted to women. While the participants in this study share overlap with those groups, they also frame their same-sex sex in subtly different ways: not as an opportunity to bond with urban “bros,” and only sometimes—but not always—as a novel sexual pursuit, given that they had sexual attractions all across the spectrum.
Instead, as Silva (forthcoming) explores, the participants reinforced their straightness through unconventional interpretations of same-sex sex: as “helpin’ a buddy out,” relieving “urges,” acting on sexual desires for men without sexual attractions to them, relieving general sexual needs, and/or a way to act on sexual attractions. “Bud-sex” captures these interpretations, as well as how the participants had sex and with whom they partnered. The specific type of sex the participants had with other men—bud-sex—cemented their rural masculinity and heterosexuality.
At first glance, the concept of gay sex actually increasing a straight man's heterosexual identity may feel off, but once you read some of Silva's interviews with rural MSM men, things start to become more clear. In his interviews, Silva rationalized their seemingly counterintuitive sexual preferences with the realization that traditional heterosexual identity is actually central to men's self-understanding. The men he spoke with thought of themselves as burly, patriotic, Kevin James characters, and this self-image guided their “thoughts, tastes, and practices. It provides them with their fundamental sense of self; it structures how they understand the world around them; and it influences how they codify sameness and difference.”
One way they did so was by seeking out partners who were similar to them.
“This is a key element of bud-sex,” writes Silva. “Partnering with other men similarly privileged on several intersecting axes—gender, race, and sexual identity—allowed the participants to normalize and authenticate their sexual experiences as normatively masculine.”
Translation: If you're a straight country dude who, on occasion, bangs other straight country dudes, it doesn't threaten your identity as a straight country dude … it increases it. MSM tend to view that experience as an entirely different thing from say, traveling to the nearest city and trying to take an obviously gay dude home. Straight country dudes would never go to a gay bar — so they're not actually gay!
… And it's not gay sex if the guy you're banging doesn't seem gay at all.
Marcus summed this up perfectly in his interview:
A guy that I would consider more like me, that gets blowjobs from guys every once in a while, doesn’t do it every day. I know that there are a lot of guys out there that are like me … they’re manly guys, and doing manly stuff, and just happen to have oral sex with men every once in a while [chuckles]. So, that’s why I kinda prefer those types of guys … It [also] seems that … more masculine guys wouldn’t harass me, I guess, hound me all the time, send me 1000 emails, “Hey, you want to get together today … hey, what about now.” And there’s a thought in my head that a more feminine or gay guy would want me to come around more. […] Straight guys, I think I identify with them more because that’s kinda, like [how] I feel myself. And bi guys, the same way. We can talk about women, there [have] been times where we’ve watched hetero porn, before we got started or whatever, so I kinda prefer that. [And] because I’m not attracted, it’s very off-putting when somebody acts gay, and I feel like a lot of gay guys, just kinda put off that gay vibe, I’ll call it, I guess, and that’s very off-putting to me.
In other words, MSM like women, but women are just so clingy. Other straight men, on the other hand, can be there for each other when it's needed, and they can fuck off when they're not. Like a friend … only more.
Nick*, an MSM who we found on the Bakersfield, CA Craigslist, confirms this. He identifies as "totally straight," but says his sexual experiences with men give him something that heterosexual sex can't: straightforward sex without the complex web of expectations, emotion or energy.
"I love my wife and I love having sex with her, but the emotion is overwhelming sometimes," he tells us. "With men, it's different. Sex is easier. The fact that we're having it doesn't define our relationship. We're friends who sometimes get physical."
"It's not even that I'm so much attracted to men as I am to male sexuality … the ease of it," he continues. "To me, a woman is something to be loved, cared for and respected. A man is a tool you use to get a job done."
Plus, he tells us, he can do things with men that he can't with women — things like watch sports, hunt, lift weights and go to strip clubs. Guy stuff. Macho guy stuff. Stuff that makes men feel like men.
"To have someone there with you, when you feel the most masculine, is a turn on," he says. In this way, he's able to reaffirm, not dissolve, his masculinity through gay sex. He says it "makes me feel like double the man."
Well … nothing's manlier than watching the game with your bro at the strip club then furiously jacking each other off in the parking lot.
However, although MSM spend a lot of quality bro time together, they're very clear that there's no emotion exchanged. Instead, their connections are very different from lust or love — they're more like really great friendships where there's attraction, but not emotion involved.
As Silva writes:
While relationships with regulars were free of romance and deep emotional ties, they were not necessarily devoid of feeling; participants enjoyed regulars for multiple reasons: convenience, comfort, sexual compatibility, or even friendship. Pat described a typical meetup with his regular: “We talk for an hour or so, over coffee … then we’ll go get a blowjob and then, part our ways.” Similarly, Richard noted, “Sex is a very small part of our relationship. It’s more friends, we discuss politics … all sorts of shit.” Likewise, with several of his regulars Billy noted, “I go on road trips, drink beer, go down to the city [to] look at chicks, go out and eat, shoot pool, I got one friend I hike with. It normally leads to sex, but we go out and do activities other than we meet and suck.” While Kevin noted that his regular relationship “has no emotional connection at all,” it also has a friendship-like quality, as evidenced by occasional visits and sleepovers despite almost 100 miles of distance. Similarly, David noted, “If my wife’s gone for a weekend … I’ll go to his place and spend a night or two with him … we obviously do things other than sex, so yeah we go to dinner, go out and go shopping, stuff like that.” Jack explained that with his regular “we connected on Craigslist … [and] became good friends, in addition to havin’ sex … we just made a connection … But there was no love at all.” Thus, bud-sex is predicated on rejecting romantic attachment and deep emotional ties, but not all emotion.
This differentiation — the one between hanging out with feeling and hanging out with fucking — seems to be what separates MSM from bisexual or homosexual men. The lack of emotional connection is what allows them to compartmentalize their desires and stay straight while having gay sex.
Taylor*, another rural California Craigslist MSM find told us that while he spends every weekend with his regular, dining, playing pool, and jacking each other off, it's not gay because "I only see him as a friend."
Nick agrees. "Like I said, I'm not attracted to men. I'm attracted to their utility."
If he had feelings for men, Nick would classify that as "bi," but he's adamant he doesn't. He also doesn't find our culture's classification of sexuality as useful or beneficial for anyone.
"I'm not bi. I'm not gay. I'm straight, but I'm still having sex with men," he says. "What do you call that? I don't know. I don't think it matters. I'm going to do it no matter what you call me."
Sam, a 39-year-old PhD student and Craigslist MSM, also doesn't care what you, or society, cares to label him as. However, Sam doesn't form compassionate relationships in the same way Nick, Marcus or Taylor do. His MSM-ness is more about adding some variety to his sex life, and he's very careful to assert that him doing that is not associated with a particular sexuality at all. To him, sexuality is less of a definition and more of a construct; a belief most of us would probably benefit from ascribing to more.
"One cannot be straight," he explains. "Straight is a word. It’s a construct. A description. One can fit the description, but that does not make them the construct exactly. So, of course it would depend on what one means when they use the construct “straight”. If one means, “only has relationships with those of the opposite sex”, then clearly that person would not use the word “straight” to describe someone who also has sex with men. If by “straight” one means, “is only romantically interested in the opposite sex and sometimes has sex with the same sex as well”, then clearly it would be possible for someone to 'be straight, yet have casual sex with men.'”
Of course, intelligently and compassionately verbalizing that using words from our current popular lexicon isn't as easy as simply labeling someone something, then expecting them to live up to that label. In fact, that very lack of language our society has to describe MSM and their desires is actually what keeps a lot of them from going public with their unique brand of sexuality … which is why you've probably never heard of them. Because there's not a commonly accepted word for them, it's hard for them to find each other. And because it's hard to find each other, there's not a community. And because there's no (visible) community of MSM, their behaviors and sexual expression are considered outside the realm of normal. It's hard to be honest with your friends and family about who you really are and what you need when no one's ever heard of what you are; when you're so marginalized that there's not even a name for what you do.
Plus, there are benefits to playing it straight. Heterosexual men enjoy a certain degree of privilege in our society when it comes to housing, employment and representation in the media, so it behooves MSM to align themselves with that demographic, even though what they're doing falls outside of the typical definition of "straight."
In that way, MSM are lucky. Clearly, these men are getting something important and even healthy out of these relationships, something more meaningful than just sex. There's a wealth of research on the benefits of both close friendship and regular sexual expression, so it wouldn't be difficult to argue that the blurred lines between these men's hetero and homosexuality is actually a productive act of self care that allows them the best of both worlds without having to shoulder the sometimes negative impact of coming out as a person with an alternative sexuality.
Of course because of this, MSM men often run into criticisms from people who think their more fluid sexuality is just a way for them to dabble in gaydom while remaining in the closet. Some people, like the late Gawker's Rich Juziwack, worry that MSM men are taking advantage of those own privileges by rejecting their gay desires publicly while simultaneously fulfilling them behind closed doors.
Yet, after reading Silva's interviews and speaking to MSM men ourselves, that doesn't seem to be the case at all. It's overwhelmingly obvious that these men's sexual expression isn't as simple as them sitting down and deciding it's a simple way to be gay without actually having to be gay. Instead, these men are straight men … we just lack the knowledge and vocabulary to accommodate them into our normative world, or the brain cells to understand that being straight doesn't mean you don't also fuck men.
In the end, a person's sexuality is less about what they do, and more about how they feel … and who they want to be. Men don't get enough credit for displaying that in our society. According to what culture tells us about men, they're either gay or straight, and all they want to do is fuck. The millions of shades of grey in between are rarely accounted for, and even more rarely expressed in the media … something that makes their sexual preferences seem confused, or not worthy of being taken seriously. We're almost never privileged enough to encounter a man with a progressive, fluid view of his own sexuality, and we scoff in the face of men who seek loving connections from their friends. We demand that men be loving and kind, then call them weak when they are.
"There’s clearly a double-standard for men and women when it comes to sexuality," Sam says. "There’s also just so much confusion and ignorance and insecurity out there. When people say things like, 'There’s no such thing as a bisexual man,' they are basically just delusional, in the literal sense, since of course there are bisexual men. What those people are really saying is, 'I know other peoples’ sexuality better than they do,' which is not only arrogant and insulting, but I would argue downright illogical."
MSM fly in the face of these standards. By transcending sexual categorization and pulling off the remarkable feat of homosexuality to increase their own straightness, they advance the case that men are much more nuanced and complicated than we allow them to be. And in a world where we hold men to certain expectations, that knowledge can be useful.
We don't need to classify what they're doing as gay, straight or bi. We don't say whether it's wrong or right. It just is. All there is to do is to let boys be boys … even if that means two farmers named Earl fucking each other on top of a 64" TV in Waco, Texas before going home to their wives, children and Bass Pro Sports memorabilia.