If you took even a cursory look at the most popular gay blogs and websites at the end of April, a titillating array of headlines popped to the surface.
“Straight men have a lot of gay sex, study shows.”
“A lot of straight college students are having gay sex.”
“Straight guys absolutely cannot stop having gay sex, study finds.”
Cool your horses, say the study’s authors.
The headlines — as curiousity-inducing as they may be — don’t necessarily reflect the reality of a recent study, partly out of Greensboro, N.C., detailing new facts on same-sex encounters among self-identified heterosexual college students.
Dr. Arielle Kuperberg, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Dr. Alicia Walker, assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University, recently released the results of research they did on college students, sexual identity and sexual behavior.
And it’s not at all like what the gay blogs would have you believe.
“There were some things reported that were just not true,” Kuperberg said with a laugh when asked about the recent media coverage.
The sociologists’ research, digging deeper into a larger survey of some 24,000 college students, found that one out of four women and one out of eight men whose last “hookup” was with a same-sex partner also said they identified their sexual orientation as straight.
That revealing fact was enough for pop culture blogs to run with their headlines, but all is not what it may seem in the media coverage resulting from the research paper.
“I think we make a lot of assumptions about sexual identity and what it means along with our sexual behavior,” Kuperberg said. “But I think it’s important to actually do the research that challenges those assumptions and makes people say, ‘Hey, maybe what I think isn’t real.’”
Kuperberg and Walker’s study found, primarily, that sexual experimentation and students’ willingness to experiment is quite common among young people in college — perhaps, even, more common than we initially thought. More importantly, that sexual experimentation has very little to do with the labels people currently use or may one day use in the future to describe their identity.
“There are going to be some people who may have future hookups or gay sex experiences or relationships and will change their identity,” Kuperberg said of the students, “but at this point, the point at which we studied them‚ most haven’t come to a conclusion as to how they think about themselves.”
For the overwhelming majority of students, researchers say, experimentation is just that.
“People experiment with things that aren’t their first preference just to try it out,” Kuperberg said, noting that experimentation or other random experiences don’t necessarily reflect a person’s true identity. Some students wanted to explore and liked it, she said. “And what we found was that some people didn’t like it and said, ‘That’s not for me.’”
A study of experimentation
Kuperberg’s and Walker’s research, published in the Journal of Sexual Behavior, is not so much, if at all, a study of “closeted” or “down low” lesbians and gay men. The researchers say their work actually reflects a critical look into incredibly common sexual behavior and experimentation, offering clues as to how individuals think of sex, sexuality and identity.
“The response [to the study] has been interesting to me,” says Walker.
Walker’s been intrigued by how the public has reacted, including acquaintances who reacted negatively to the idea that supposed straight people are having gay sex without taking on the label associated with a gay identity.
But Walker thinks the study isn’t really about labels, and other recent research shows that many young people are even beginning to drop labels entirely.
Walker says the study’s most important finding is that experimentation is overwhelmingly common.
“The big takeaway should be it’s okay for me to experiment to figure out what my identity should be,” she says. “It’s not been received that way, and that’s not been people’s response to it.”
Walker’s right. Visit the comment sections where news coverage of the study has been shared and you’ll see a plethora of admonitions judgmentally calling out young people as hypocrites or simply too scared to “come out.” Other commenters latch on to the gay, cultural fascination — or, even, fantasy — of seducing so-called straight men into same-sex encounters.
It’s not surprising that gay pop culture blogs would pick up the pair’s study and, well, just run with it, especially given the longstanding cultural fascination with straight guys who might be “secretly gay.” Kuperberg and Walker touched on this cultural fascination in their paper, citing the phenomenon of “closeted” or “on the down low” men who have sex with other men.
One look at any number of gay porn sites and it’s easy to see this fascination played out to its full extent. Some producers have even made their entire careers creating pornographic films entirely centered on the fantasy of hookups with supposedly straight men.
But just because straight men are hooking up with other guys doesn’t mean they’re not straight, researchers say. It’s important to actually know what’s going on in society, instead of relying on culture, myth and media to inform our view of real people’s behaviors.
“There are so many myths in society about what people are doing and what people think other people are doing,” Kuperberg said. “Those myths don’t match up to reality.”
Those myths apply to women, too, though in different ways. A large number of female respondents seemed to engage in what researchers call “performative bisexuality.”
“[The performative bisexuality category] were all women who hooked up with other women in plain sight, at parties,” Kuperberg said.
The researchers found that these women had made out with or engaged in other sexual behavior, primarily in public, to attract men’s attention or experiment with same-sex hookups in a manner more socially accepted in, say, a college party scene, for example.
What’s a “hookup”?
And if you’re wondering why a “make-out sesh” at a college frat party constitutes a “hookup,” you’re not alone. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons why so many of those pop culture blogs got their reporting on the study so wrong. They assumed a “hookup” meant sex, but researchers specifically chose to use a broad definition for the word.
That’s partly, Walker says, because so many people have different ideas of what constitutes a hookup. It can vary from person to person, or culturally from campus to campus or city to city. A hookup could be making out, oral sex or intercourse or any number of other sexual activities. Part of the purpose of the original, larger study was finding out exactly what people meant by the word.
“We found out that only about 40 percent included sex in the definition; the majority did not,” Kuperberg said. “If you only focus on the sex, you’re missing a lot of sexual encounters that have sexual things going on but not full-on sex. Those things can still be activities that put you at risk for disease transmission.”
Kuperberg added, “When people think of the relationships they have with people, they don’t limit those relationships to just people they’ve had sex with.”
And, so, the pair of researchers didn’t either.
“It’s important to know what kinds of relationships people are forming, and if you only focus on sex, then you are leaving out a lot of other kinds of relationships,” Kuperberg said.
Six distinct hookups
So, what exactly did the researchers find? For the most part, they say, the research backs up many of the theories advanced from a variety of disparate studies on sexual identity formation and sexual experimentation.
“I like that we found that all the theories are true,” Kuperberg explained. “Looking into previous research, there are quite different explanations for all this behavior. There’s a set of papers on black men on the down low, then another set of papers mostly on white men in the closet. Then there’s another set looking at identity development, college hookups and performative bisexuality. All of these articles weren’t citing each other or talking to each other, but all describing the same groups. We found that all the theories are true.”
Walker and Kuperberg’s final analysis found six distinct groups among the students they studied:
1. ‘Wanting More’
The largest of their identified groups, Kuperberg and Walker found that 29 percent of students enjoyed the experience and were the most likely to have had prior same-sex anal or vaginal sex. More than two-thirds had some kind of genital contact during the encounter and had the second-highest desire for a later relationship with their partner.
2. ‘Drunk and Curious’
Twenty-two percent of students had had little prior same-sex experience and were “especially likely” to have been drinking before or during the encounter, with 72 percent saying they had been drunk during the experience. This group was also the most likely to identify as politically liberal and had positive views of premarital sex and consensual sex generally. Interestingly, though this group had the highest rate (80 percent) of anal or vaginal sex and “somewhat” enjoyed the experience, the overwhelming majority did not want a future relationship with their last same-sex partner.
3. ‘Little Enjoyment’
In this group, more than 80 percent of students said they didn’t enjoy the encounter. This group also had the lowest level of penetrative sexual activity, with most opting not to proceed past kissing or groping.
4. ‘Maybe for Show’
Twenty-one percent of respondents — all women — fell into what researchers have called the “maybe for show” category, aligning closely to ideas on performative bisexuality. Students in this group were the most likely to have been drinking during the encounter.
5. ‘Loved it, but Religious’
Comprised of nearly all women (92 percent), this group seemed to enjoy their same-sex experience, but were also highly religious, with 45 percent saying they attended religious services at least once a month. Their specific religious views on homosexuality were mixed, and this group had the highest rate (71 percent) of enjoyment for the experience. Kuperberg said this group was the likeliest to one day in the future change their sexual identity.
“They tended to be younger,” Kuperberg said. “Two-thirds of them were 18, they were freshmen. Maybe as they get older and more separated from their home communities, more confident and have more experience, they may change their identity.”
6. ‘Just not who I can be’
The last and final group was the smallest, coming in at only seven percent, but perhaps the most intriguing. The researchers said this final group “comprised those whose characteristics corresponded with the theory related to internalized homophobia.” These students were “almost universally likely to state homosexual relations were almost always or always wrong,” with 98 percent agreeing with that sentiment. Still, they were engaging in the experimentation anyway.
“These are people I probably wouldn’t say are experimenters,” Kuperberg said. “Usually, I think of an experimenter as someone who thinks, ‘This seems fun and I don’t have anything against it, so I guess I’ll try it out.’ But this group, 98 percent said homosexual relationships were wrong. These are people who I think have an internal conflict between their beliefs and their attractions.”
For both Walker and Kuperberg, their research represents exciting new ways to help bust long-held myths about sexual behavior and ways to help create healthier environments for discussing and exploring sexuality.
Kuperberg was happy the research tore into the cultural myths surrounding black men and “down low” sex.
“One of the first things we looked at was race and whether there were any racial differences on whether black men were more likely to be in this [‘down low’ or closeted] category,” she said. “We found there weren’t any racial differences at all.”
And that’s important, Kuperberg said, especially for real-life implications surrounding public health intervention.
For Walker, the study was a breath of fresh air, exposing new ideas on how people actually relate to one another, despite the labels society thrusts on people.
“The implications really are that the social constraints we have around sexual behavior and sexual identity, that those are stronger on identity than they are behavior,” Walker explained. “In other words, it’s more important from a social pressure perspective that I claim a heterosexual identity than it is for me to police my own behavior to only be heterosexual.”
Walker thinks that if society can break down the walls of this social-sexual pressure, that we can each have more healthy discourse on what sexuality means for our lives.
“Our sexual drives, our interests, our attractions to folks are clearly much stronger than [what label society puts on us],” she said. “This speaks really to the heart of the conversation we’re having about sexual identity and what it means.”
Walker concluded: “We live in this society where heterosexuality is the norm, but if you’re somebody feeling as though you’re not as heterosexual ‘as I’m supposed to be,’ I think it’s important to know other folks are doing this, too, and they’re just not talking about it.”
And that’s exactly what Walker wants people to do — start talking.
“The reality is that most people do experiment in one form or another,” she said. “We’ve got to get away from this idea that it’s horrifying or shameful that people would experiment. People do. Sometimes it means something. Other times it doesn’t mean that much at all to people. And all that’s okay.”