Straight Men Who Have Sex With Other Men, Part III: Etiology

How does psychology explain this phenomenon?

Posted Oct 20, 2015

The last postings in this blog series described studies finding male self-reported sexual identity does not necessarily equate with one’s actual sexual behaviors. An adolescence replete with same-sex sexual activity may lead one man to describe himself as gay or bisexual but yet another as straight; indeed there are innumerable gay men who have engaged in sexual contact with females.  Using our traditional understanding of sexuality as a guide, a man who has sex with another male must be gay (or bisexual at the least).  But what if the man in question identifies as heterosexual?  Is he lying? Confused? Or is there something else we don’t quite yet understand taking place?  

Explanations for the behaviors of straight men who have sex with men (SMSM) abound, including:

- These are gay men who have yet to come to terms with their sexual orientation or who are in the early stages of the coming out process.
- These are gay or bisexual men who recognize their same-sex attraction but, for a myriad of reasons, particularly perceived risk of consequences, keep their attraction a secret and engage in furtive same-sex sexual behaviors.
- Culture differences are implicated.  A growing body of research finds that in some groups the “object” (male or female) of one's sexual desire may only be marginally significant in identification of one’s sexual identity and that instead a relatively high value is placed on a certain amount of flexibility in sexual encounters.  Also, in some cultures, individuals assume the “male” or “female” role during sexual activity dependent on penetrative status (i.e., penetrating or being penetrated).[i]  Some cultures too particularly frown upon same-sex sexual behaviors thus leading males who experience such attraction to reject labeling themselves as gay or bisexual.  Finally, minority groups often perceive gay culture as a phenomenon that entails femininity, an aspect they find pejorative when applied to males.
- These are men who engage in same-sex sexual activity for survival purposes, such as runaway youth, those needing money for substance use, and those experiencing financial constraints.
- Some men have limited to no contact with females, as would be found in a prison or jail setting, and other males are substitutes.
- Some men are more exploratory, adventuresome, and open to experimentation in their sexual behaviors.
- Some men have high sex drives, and they find the easy availability of other men willing to engage in sexual activity with them beneficial for their purposes.
- Men with extreme anxiety about dating women or poor interpersonal skills may instead seek sexual release in anonymous liaisons with other males.

All of the above hypotheses have some empirical support, and they are not mutually exclusive.  However, the theory with the most support and one championed by many in the fields of psychology, sociology, medicine, and sexology is that that the prevailing categories of gay, straight, and bisexual are too restrictive and reductionist thus compelling individuals to adopt ill-fitting labels; instead, they posit, there is a myriad of sexual variations that are elided or outright ignored by the current taxonomy. SMSM are simply a variation in the diverse spectrum of human sexuality, or as quoted by one participant in a 2013 study, “Life is too complex for simple labels.”[ii]  Such sentiments fit perfectly with Queer Theory, which argues that a fixed stable identity is unlikely and not necessarily even healthy.  Instead, it proposes that sexual orientation and gender are impermanent, fluid, and impacted by social-historical contexts. 

The research on non-gay identified MSM population continues to build, and its etiology and outcomes will become increasingly clear.  For many though it is a source of shame and secrecy, which unfortunately counters the conclusion of the renowned sexologist Alfred Kinsey:

"Only the human mind invents categories and tried to force facts into separated pigeon-holes.  The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex."[iii]

[i]  Theo G. M. Sandfort and Brian Dodge, “…And Then There was the Down Low”: Introduction to Black and Latino Male Bisexualities,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 37, no. 5 (2008).

[ii] Jeffrey H. Hudson, “Comprehensive Literature Review Pertaining to Married Men Who Have Sex with Men (MMSM),” Journal of Bisexuality 13, no. 4 (2013): 548.

[iii] Alfred Charles Kinsey, ‎Wardell Baxter Pomeroy, ‎Clyde Eugene Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 1948): 639.