When it comes to sexuality, there’s never been a more exciting time to be alive. Straight, gay, pansexual, asexual, transsexual, hetero-flexible, bisexual; the endless list of sexual identities surely indicates society is heading in an ever-more inclusive direction, right? Perhaps we’re finally moving towards a time where people are less afraid to live a life that reflects who they really are.
Yet there are still some social barriers that refuse to budge - especially for those people who aren't entirely sure of their own sexuality.
Sexuality is often described as a spectrum; some people identify as entirely straight and others as entirely gay. However many people lie somewhere in that sizeable grey area between the two, and it seems that more young people than ever are realising they are in that number: not identifying as bisexual, nor identifying as 100% hetero either. In a recent study, when asked to place themselves on a ‘sexuality scale’, of the 18 to 24 year olds participating, 1 in 2 chose something other than 100% heterosexual. This figure contrasted vastly from the rest of the general UK population, of which 72% identify as exclusively heterosexual. In short, this study would suggest young people are feeling less and less straight.
Another study looked at same-sex experiences in Americans between 1990 and 2014. It not only found that people’s acceptance of same-sex relationships had quadrupled during this time, but also that same-sex sexual activity had roughly doubled - for women and men. By the time of the last survey, 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.
I wanted to get some first hand views on same-sex experimenting from people who have tried it, but it’s clearly a topic that people still feel uncomfortable talking about. I reached out to some straight-identified people who have sexually experimented, but found people reluctant to talk. So I did what a lot of people do and went online. It seems that the anonymity of an online persona, in a community of like-minded people - such as a forum - is comforting enough for some people to vocalise their experiences.
One forum user had written, “I would say I’m straight, but I do have this fantasy of playing around with a guy” whilst another admitted, “I’m not homosexual but I would definitely try it.” Those are brave statements it would seem.
Because, despite the significant shift in numbers of younger people identifying as something other than heterosexual, there still seems to be one area of sexual activity where the shift in attitudes are lagging behind - men experimenting with men. Perhaps one of the reasons the men I reached out to didn’t want to talk to me is the common belief that it's somehow less acceptable for men to try out same-sex activity than it is for women. One forum user reinforced this theory by writing, “It’s generally more acceptable for women to explore their homosexual urges than vice versa.”
So where do these preconceptions come from? One idea looks at the very fundamentals of both masculinity and femininity.
Dr. Jane Ward, author of Not Gay, tells me, “Straight people have these socially acceptable alibis in order to explain same-sex sexual behaviour. The alibis that are available to men are different to the ones available to women, and are consistent with the way we think about masculinity and femininity.
Femininity is traditionally viewed as a spectacle, or a show. Straight-identified women get to have sexual contact with another woman as long as it is a show for men. Often same-sex sexual contact between men will take a form of hyper-masculinity and joking around. People tend to think that’s just boys being boys; it’s about hierarchy, it’s about dominance, it’s about initiation into manhood.”
Dr. Ward explained to me that straight men would be more likely to have a relationship with a bisexual woman than women are with a bisexual man. I wanted to see if this was true. I went back to my anonymous friends online. One user had written, “Women definitely don’t have the same reaction to their boyfriends having gay sex as guys have to their girlfriends having lesbian sex.” Another user’s post offered an explanation as to why this may be the case, claiming, “A lot of people seem to think that if you’re a guy who’s ever been sexually interested in men, then you’re gay.” Perhaps what this boils down to is that a man who has had a same-sex encounter may be branded anything from ‘gay’ to ‘in denial’, unlike a woman who will almost be celebrated for doing the very same thing?
Why would this be the case? Dr. Ward argues that it is largely down to both our culture and to the media.
“There are many examples of women kissing each other in non-stigmatised ways in the media. Look at the Madonna and Britney Spears kiss. The images are everywhere and there are no consequences to that. In fact, it’s celebrated because it’s desirable to men.
We’ve seen that same-sex eroticism for straight women over and over again in the media. It’s not that it’s inherent to women. It’s that culture has changed such that it has given women permission in a way that it hasn’t given permission to men.”
Perhaps the reason same-sex experimentation remains more controversial for men than women can be put down to the fact that, for whatever reason, men often feel ashamed or guilty when faced with a desire to try a few new things out. But if social acceptance is moving forward for such a large number of people on the aforementioned sexuality spectrum, shouldn’t it too for all the people in the middle, men included?
There are events such as Bivisibility Day(which takes place every year on 23 September) which can only help increase awareness, but what else could help? More male celebrities to open up about their same sex dalliances - in the same way Miley and Madonna have? Or perhaps a rather more formal approach and sex-ed in schools to become more inclusive? The reality is that probably every area needs to evolve - the media, education and as we've all become so obsessed with celebrities, a Hollywood star or two to help along the way. Until these things happen it's likely nothing will change and bi-phobia will continue to rule.