BPR Interviews: Jane Ward

Jane Ward is an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California, Riverside, where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and heterosexuality studies. Her most recent book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, investigates the social construction of heterosexuality and whiteness and has recently been featured in large media outlets such as Newsweek, New York Magazine, and Forbes.

BPR: What motivated you to write the book Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men?

JW: The seed for this project was planted almost 20 years ago when I was just out of college and having dinner with a friend who had been in a fraternity. He told me about a hazing ritual called the elephant walk, involving pledges putting their thumb or finger in the anus of other pledges. As he was describing this, I was surprised and asked him, “Did that not feel the slightest bit sexual to you?” He said absolutely not — it was gross; it was a joke. So I started to think about the different opportunities that straight-identified men are provided to make intimate bodily contact with one another…As examples of this kind of behavior began to mount, I thought: “I want to write about this.”

BPR: What kind of research did you do to prepare for this book?

JW: I started out collecting and analyzing personal ads of hundreds of straight-identified men seeking sex with other straight-identified men. At the time, these ads were posted on Craigslist. Now, there are dating apps like Grindr, Tinder, and a new app called BRO, which is precisely for encounters between men who don’t necessarily identify as gay or bi. Then, I became interested in hazing rituals in the military and fraternities. There’s been a lot of attention already paid by researchers to sex between straight-identified men in prisons, so I chose to look into rituals that are under-examined. I pulled historical accounts, did some interviews, looked at military documents, and gathered examples from popular culture and recent reports in the news media. I compiled them together to make a case.

BPR: Since the publication of your book, how has your research been received?

JW: I received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, mostly from queer and feminist scholars, who were happy to see more critical attention being paid to heterosexuality and its complexities. I also received a tremendous amount of hate mail, largely from gay men — I’d say about 95 percent, who were angry at the suggestion that people could engage in homosexual sex and not have it signal an essential homosexual constitution…It’s easier for us to wrap our heads around it when we’re talking about young women. Two straight women might make out or fondle each other at a bar in order to titillate men who are watching, and we see that as in the service of heterosexuality. Young, straight-identified men also behave this way, but the cultural opportunities that are provided to them are different. The male narrative has more to do with dominance and hierarchy…abjection and the grotesque. We have eroticized sexual behavior between young women, but we explain it as nonsexual for young men.

BPR: People have criticized your work for lacking a clear distinction between straight men using gay sex to enforce heterosexuality and gay men portraying themselves as straight due to internalized homophobia and stigma. Do you think there is a distinction, and how do you address this criticism?

JW: Yes, I think there is a distinction…but this book is about men who are completely invested in heterosexual culture and [who] occasionally come up with excuses to touch each other sexually. After the publication of the book, it was fascinating to see that so many gay men bought into a one-time rule of homosexuality — that if you have ever engaged in a single homosexual act, you’re lying to yourself if you’re unwilling to identify as bisexual or gay…I think there’s a sense, especially among older gay men, that they have struggled for so many years to be open and honest about who they are, and men who engage in homosexual sex and still get to identify as straight is a reward of sorts. I think they felt like I was allowing straight men to have their cake and eat it too and that I was defending them or giving them a gift of heterosexual identification.

BPR: Can you expand on your analysis of the role of privilege in the question about heterosexuality? Why do you emphasize whiteness in your argument?

JW: In the last five to ten years there has been a significant amount of high-profile media coverage about…African-American and Latino men who are straight-identified and have sex with other men. Often in this coverage, the argument is that men of color engage in homosexual sex and lie about it because they come from hyper-homophobic, racial-ethnic communities…The more I looked into white men’s sexual practices, the more this story appeared to be erroneous…When you see that white men also engage in nonidentitarian homosexual sex, you have to account for what’s going on in white culture. Why it is that white men are able to do it without being pathologized in the same way as black and brown men?…I spent a good amount of time looking at military hazing rituals in which service men put things in each other’s anuses and then eat it out or retrieve it. People don’t view this behavior as sexual because it’s done in the name of brotherhood or strengthening the cohesion of military units. It has even been argued by military officials that these kinds of hazing rituals bolster national security by toughening men’s bodies. When white men engage in this kind of touching, it is not perceived as a signal of a shameful, hidden, fundamental homosexuality. Rather, it is glorified. This disparity needed to be exposed.

BPR: What do you think our college audience should know? Is there something we can do?

JW: At Brown, you can encourage faculty to develop a course focused on the history and evolution of heterosexuality as a social construction. Critical race scholars have pushed us to think critically about whiteness and to put whiteness under the microscope. Feminist scholars have pushed us to think about masculinity…and put masculinity under the microscope. We really need to do the same with heterosexuality.