Monday, November 18, 2019

Why We Scare Straight Men


originally published in Nightcharm, 2001
I’m not happy ’til I’ve found the quiver in a man. The hidden part that trembles. I don’t think I’m anywhere near home base with a sex partner if I haven’t beckoned to and found the involuntary part of him that shudders and opens and spills out what’s in it.

I’m not talking about cum necessarily. Although in porn, I’m almost always only interested in the cum shots. Even the most self-conscious porno star/poseur can’t come to orgasm — at least for the nanosecond his body and psyche are able magically and unconsciously to call it up — without delivering something completely unguarded, something irresistible to him — something he can’t help sharing with whoever catches the quick grimace and rolled-up eye that accompany the enigmatic blast-off.
I love everything about this moment. I love everything about cum (its idiosyncratic smell, heat, taste, urgency), but mostly I love what it signifies: the product — the proof — of a man’s deepest wildest shuddering ability to abandon himself.
An orgasm is quite rightly called “a little death.” It plunges us into the ephemeral fragile mysterious center of our own aliveness — we learn, for that nanosecond, the most thrilling and terrifying thing we can know: how close we are to the edge of annihilation.
It’s striking how we crave to make contact with this fluttering open secret amorphous center of ourselves — where “orgasm” comes from — at the same time so many of us try fiercely to hide its (and our) essential vulnerability.

The dilemma of being a sexual “masculine” man surely lies somewhere in this paradox. On the surface of it, the “quiver” I talk about seeking in a man doesn’t square with — well, the square shoulders and armored muscularity of the male image many men want to convey — that many of us are turned on by. Although the howl of a man coming to orgasm is as much the howl of an infant as of a baying wolf, it’s the wolf most of us are willing to acknowledge, not the infant.
Maybe this seems like obvious stuff. Maybe — if you’re a gay man — it even seems wrongheaded, the lengths to which I suggest we’ll go to hide our vulnerability. In fact, to many gay men, the orgasm’s secret thrilling closeness to self-annihilation is no secret at all. Many of us are not only conscious of this volatile mix of terror and desire — we’ve often found ways to heighten it to an exquisite pitch.
We fuck the mind, sometimes, as expertly as we may fuck the butt or face — we know that sex is in the head. Some of us, in various ingenious forms of sadomasochistic edgeplay, have turned Sex’s defining threat of annihilation into wildly imaginative, unnerving but often profoundly satisfying erotic “theater.” Ambivalence, sexual ambiguity ain’t news to most of us. We play with it every day.
But it is news to most of the rest of the men on the planet. We know something as gay men that few heterosexual men know as well — or at all. We know what it is to fuck and get fucked.
This is why we scare the hell out of straight men.
What I think of as “the gender track” is laid down very, very soon in each of us. In fact, it constitutes just about the earliest indoctrination any human being in Western society undergoes: it starts at the moment the newborn little blob of protoplasm we all once were gets dressed in pink or blue.
By the time, say, a little boy is three and, say, is leafing through a Christmas catalogue tearing out pages of Barbie doll ads and, say, his father walks through the living room and catches him — well, however “progressive” or “liberal” that heterosexual father may be, his reaction to his son cooing over Barbie is virtually guaranteed to be lethal. The child can register from his father a rejection so profound — even if it lasts only for another of those nanoseconds — that it lodges within him for a lifetime.
“There are some things,” the kid learns, “daddy must never know about.” Unfortunately, those “things” amount to some of the most central aspects of who we are. Most gay boys growing into gay men thus learn very early on what it means to be duplicitous: have an inside self, and an outside self. Far from pathology, to me this signals an amazing psychic ingenuity: we learn to hold on to what we love most, protect it — and figure out a way to navigate the rest of what we continue to discover (at least as regards our sexuality) is a very disapproving world.
Straight boys don’t have it much easier, but the challenges they face are fundamentally different. The persistence of homophobia is a fascinating marker of their particular grapple with growing up het. Whatever you may otherwise think of Freud, his depiction of the Oedipal “moment” in any child’s life, but particularly a het boy’s life, is pretty compelling — if only as a symbol.
Don’t freak at the jargon. As Joseph Campbell succinctly put it, it’s the moment when a boy becomes his father’s child instead of his mother’s child. It’s the moment when he accepts himself as different from mommy, and — through a series of wary standoffs ending up in an initially uneasy but ultimately very powerful (indeed self-defining) “tribal” bonding with his dad — finally defines himself as a Man.

But there’s a problem. To reach this self-definition, he has to quash any vestige or feeling of identification with the female. He has to renounce any connection with his own vulnerability. This isn’t just an abstract problem. It’s what allows a straight man to get a hardon: convincing himself, “I’m a wolf, not a friggin’ baby!” (Talk to any het woman about fragile male egos and expect to hear — long into the night — endless evidence of how delicate a balance this macho bravado really is.)
So what happens? These fukkin faggots start flaunting their stuff! Hardest to swallow (so to speak) is: a lot of faggots are fukkin MORE “masculine”-appearing — better looking, tougher, more muscular, etc. etc. — than THEY (het men) are! This becomes very nearly intolerable: that a creature like you or me could play “Man” (sometimes) better than “the real thing.”
Is it any wonder that the worst epithet a nine-year-old boy on the playground could hurl at another nine-year-old boy (no less in 2001 than in 1951) is: cocksucker or faggot? The idea of a male permitting himself to “fuck and get fucked” — or, more to the point, the notion of one man fucking another man — is one of the most terrifying prospects a “het” male can conceive because it so violently counters his deepest Oedipal lessons — lessons which after all have given him his identity.
On some unconscious level, the idea of one man’s dick up another man’s butt inevitably makes him think: “Daddy would kill me if I did that” (or worse, “did that” with Daddy. This is why the incest taboo is so powerful between father and son.)
But of course, there’s another reason it’s terrifying. Because — given the latitude of the sexual continuum in which we all (pre-gender indoctrination) participate — none of us is entirely free of the desire to “fuck and get fucked.” The felicitously surnamed Brian Pronger (in his book The Arena of Masculinity) gives us a stunning insight into the lure and taboo of two men fucking in his description of the jockstrap as an eroticsymbol of both phallic power and anal receptivity — which suggests why the paradigm of two-men-fucking is so unnerving to straight men:
The jockstrap is perhaps the quintessential homoerotic ritual robe because, just as it enshrines the symbol of the myth of masculinity, so too the straps that originate in the top elastic circumscribe the buttocks and disappear at the anus, bringing us to that place where masculinity meets its mythic undoing.
In adopting the jockstrap as an erotic fetish, gay men have once again raided the sanctuary of the “butch” straight male locker room — and revealed its central symbolic raiment for the erotic dick-crotch-and-butt-framing device it inescapably is. Once again, gay men are shoving stuff into straight men’s faces that straight men have a powerful investment in not knowing — blasting through heterosexual males’ entrenched defenses against their own homosexual curiosity (and, God help them, desire). No wonder they want to kick faggot butt.
But what about us? “Ambivalence, sexual ambiguity,” I suggested before, “ain’t news to most of us. We play with it every day.” Well, many of us do. But not without cost.
To me, the problem gay men face isn’t so much “internalized homophobia” as it is an internalized fascistic (dogmatic) notion of masculinity.
Homophobia is a reaction to fearful tenets about gender that precede it — lessons of gender laid down so early that, unconsciously, they seem incontrovertible. The bad news is, we can’t eradicate these lessons — in some ways, we depend on them for our own self-definition (if sometimes more in defiance than adherence) as vitally as our straight confreres do for theirs.
The good news is, we can become more conscious of these allegorical warriors in the pit of us — these guardians and seductresses that both bar the way to the “aliveness” of an orgasm and beckon us into it. We can, in other words, learn we can tolerate the inevitable conflict these wolves and infants create for us — be enriched by it — allow it to show us new ways to “play.” The more important question this will help us to answer is not so much “why we scare straight men,” but why we scare ourselves.
We’ll discover that we each have our own very particular answers to that question — answers peculiar to our own idiosyncratic selves and souls.
But boy it can be fun figuring them out.

©2007 Nightcharm

Guy Kettelhack has contributed to, authored or co-authored more than thirty nonfiction books, including Dancing Around the Volcano :Decoding, the Enigma of Gay Men and Sex — Freeing Our Erotic Lives .A graduate of Middlebury College, he has done graduate work in English literature at the Bread Loaf School of English and Oxford University, graduate work in psychoanalysis at the New York and Boston Centers for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies and studied violin at the Juilliard School of Music and New England Conservatory.
Mr. Kettelhack lives in New York City.

All of the paintings featured here are by California artist David Park. Park is responsible for helping to develop one of the most vital and inventive shifts in American postwar art. His reassertion, in the 1950s, of the primacy of the figure within abstraction initiated a return to figuration that continues to impact American painting today. Park’s palette, derived from French impressionism and Fauvism, was keyed up to render the legendary light of California. He died of cancer in 1960, at the age of forty-nine, while at the height of his powers.
The opening painting Four Men (oil on canvas, 1958) is from the highly recommended book Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art by Jonathan Weinberg.

cliff 9 years ago
Thanks for the article on why straight are afraid of us. I’ll have to remember the reason why that you mentioned. Guys will ask what thrill do you get out of oral sex, you answered that question which I will tell them. When they get off or ready to, you have complete control and I enjoy that. No way are they turning back.
Interesting article. But I think it’s tempting to psychoanalyze the reasons why straight men avoid gay men because it’s one of those things we want to “know.” But as anything in life, just because we want to know it doesn’t mean we can. And just because we see a puzzle doesn’t mean one even exists. If sex is in the mind, as the author freely admits, what else is? Identity?
We forget we are essentially animals, primates. And our desires, angst, fears, fights, bonding, competitiveness, strengths & weaknesses, all on some level originate with our primal ancestors. Modern humans seem to have taken some of it to another level (competitiveness, power, and sex) and unfortunately weakened or suppressed other elements (cooperation, same-sex love).
Homosexuality is one of those things freely found in the animal kingdom, so it is not our invention. We took it with us. However we also took along the competitiveness, and on top of that created strict new societal constructs. When a male chimpanzee engages in homosexual behavior, it does not think “am I still a man?” anymore than female chimps think “am I a real woman?” But as modern people, we do.
In this new modern environment we need a new way to relate to each other and understand each other. If we’re going to be around much longer, that is.
Chris 9 years ago
Mr Kettlehack,
Your words deserved to be carved in marble and filled up with gold.
I found you analysis pertinent, fair, objective and detached. The way you have looked at your own condition, and found plausible roots for it – as well as for all of us salivating on, is admirable. I’ll take a closer look and read more about what you write. Not that it makes things simpler, but simply that, if the sex is in our head, the key to our own understanding, acceptance, happiness and harmony is there also, as you cleverly demonstrated.
Climb on your own head, for man is something to be overcome.
When discussing psychological issues such as anxiety, it is always good to read the work of someone who knows his Freud. So many people poo-poo (a term Freud would have loved) him without any depth of knowledge about what he has contributed to our understanding of the human condition. Also, as long as being “a man” is the most important thing in our society, and not being a man is second-rate (or more likely fifth-rate), we will have anxieties. There are primarily three ways to not be a man: (a) being born female (a horrible fate), (b) being castrated (a terrible mutilation), and (c) being penetrated by another man (a ghastly violation). No wonder heterosexual men are anxious at times around gay men, but the gift of many gay men to straight men is to help them out of the “internalized fascistic (dogmatic) notion of masculinity.” And as Mr. Kettlehack said, we gay men also have the task of liberating ourselves from the legacy of being “a man.” Thanks for the insightful article
Simon 9 years ago
Amazingly interesting piece! My only humble critique lies not in the observation of the orgasm as a great force that can make us into the weakest of creatures, vulnerable to others but also in the ability of the orgasm to lift the individual into self-propagation; to conquer the world. With that, we must look at the similarities that if you start from the assumption of sexuality as a linear continuum, what do heterosexuals and homosexuals have in common? For the answer to this it would be best to examine the entire line or scale of sexuality and not to divide or differentiate btw straight and gay. The reason not to do this is because in my opinion the overriding and most fundamental indoctrination of humans as Mr. Kettlehack points out is gender and therefore to differentiate the gay and the straight into the ‘one’ and the ‘other’ would be to ignore the same basic gender programming. This leads to a self-referential understanding of homophobia as the backlash of the straight who is uncomfortable with gender roles and the gay, happy and outside of gender roles. The straight resents this (secretly wishing it were him who was happy and free) and eventually lashes out in violence. The problem here is that while that is one component of homophobia much like when any culture reacts against the ‘other’ precisely b/c it is the other and they seem like they have something the culture is missing out on and resent them for it, homosexuals being homosexual aren’t on the outskirts of masculinity as defined by any given people but directly in the midst of it and often defining and/or redefining it. Therefore, homophobia exists not out of a psychological backlash against playing men better than the ‘real ones’ or being outside of restricting gender roles but often out of a psychological fear of being bested by men just as any person fears being left out and not embraced by power and success. Those gays who have been classified as the ‘other’ are in fact directly apart of the larger society of men and like any other male other men will classify (which dehumanizes), divide (which weakens), and conquer. For gays to have the task of “liberating straights from the legacy of being ‘a man'” as a comment noted would mean for gays the extinction of the self as what propagates men, what attracts them are notions of dominance and subordination, and gays are just as concerned with dominating and being dominated as any other.
What a feast of responses here: thanks so much for the comments – which I’ll continue to take time to savor. But right now I can say, happily, that the piece is accomplishing what I’d hoped for it – to generate thought & talk. Keep thinking and talking. And (of course) having sex.
Hey Guy,
Great piece. Very much why I always believed we gay men are truly more powerful than the brown-nosing, scaredy-cat, gotta-be-like-everyone-else-at-all-cost straight guy. Fuck that shit. Their straight identity is a gross illusion, and I’m happy to bash back when necessary. So straight guys get violent over homo anything? Well, bring it on, you bastards, I’ve got 38 years of gay rage to spill. Truly, I believe the homophobic straight man is the cause of all societal ills. Why are we all afraid to spell the obvious? Simply because of their numbers, I think. Who’s the biggest “troublemaker” or evildoer in society? Hands down, the srtaight man. Women have their hand in it, but gays, lesbians, bisexuals, females in general are rarely ever the party-pooper.
if we look at the myth of the round beings of aristophenees (i think) (sp?) there were beings who were all male, beings who were all female and beings who were half male and half female. the gods decided to split them all in half because they were too powerful whole so each half set out to look for its ‘other half’ thus the creation of straights gays and lesbians. if we follow this myth deeper we can extrapolate another principle, at the core of the het male is his opposite a female essence, if the myth follows true, the core of the gay male is ……well sorry honey……male. western culture has never been able to integrate this truth so the contrasexual esssence at the core of straight men has been projected onto queers and most of us have bought it hook line and sinker. of course we have a female essence too but…this western culture being the decaying dying piece of shit carcass that it is leaves us at the point where now we have all males whether gay or straight hating the feminine within us either directly or through projection. it doesnt matter who you are nobody likes being called a sissy, even drag queens.
enter the “two spirit” and the puer \senex models. here we have perhaps a more enlightened view of the gay psyche……more evolved in that there is a closer integration of male and female within the one being, however, the problem becomes one of identification with one or ther other or neither at all stemming from the same hatred of the feminine and the lack of grounding of the masculine aspect as a result of the het father’s neglect, hatred and fear of both the feminine AND a sensibility that is more connected to both earth and spirt ………true nature
make no mistake, you go to a fisting party, or any sex party for that matter with ordinary guys you wont find anybody acting like a girl whether they are getting fucked or not. look at any gay guy who likes getting fucked its still two men worshipping the masculine as only MALES can do. a male asshole is just as masculine as a dick and i always know the difference between a male ass and female ass even if i cant see anything else. straight men cannot face the fact that they may not be all men. why do straight men get off on watching two girls have sex…did you ever watch or inquire into what it is that is such a turn on for them, its their secret desire to be feminine. its at the core of their being. its very threatening for them to see a gay guy who has his feminine right there and is still very much a man maybe even more of a man at the core.
great stuff here – and yes, in the interest of trying to understand and identify components of identity – sexual, say – we can make it sound like dissecting frogs, or make assumptions about ‘drifts’ towards one behavioral or affectional pole or another (e.g., gay or straight) that what poor data we can point to just can’t support. But the animating impulse here in your remarks, Don, reflects my own, I hope: that we’re each a bouillabaisse of influences, internal and external, and to claim some completely singular identity for anybody ends up being fascistic. Sex is messy: so is human temperament; we’re all over the place. The limited aim of “why we scare men” is to spotlight a few of the ways and possible reasons men tend experience fear in this arena: but a blizzard of i’s and t’s remain to be dotted and crossed. My hope, as I’ve stated in the piece, is that we’ll have fun punctuating.
Welcome back, Mr Kettlehack, always thoughtful, thought provoking, and insightful. And what a lot of intelligent, articulate followers you have, David K. and John Calendo.
I think this is great discussion and I’ve found something in every post to agree with, and I also agreed a lot with the original article and your last post, Guy.
But I still come back to the problem of reconciling our physical sexual nature from our origins, and our cultural beliefs. Remember, comfort comes not from freedom, but from familiarity and structure. Straight men are uncomfortable around gay men, not necessarily jealous (although that can happen).
Everyone in modern society has had to grow up and deal with the notion of what is it to be a man, of masculinity, and what is it to be a woman, and femininity. Further engraving this into our psyches are our experiences with puberty. The passage from child to adult normally contain thoughts or experiences of a homosexual nature. At the same exact time we are experiencing the usual confusion and emotional pain associated with puberty. So later on, when the straight male encounters his homosexual counterpart, it flashes him back to a difficult time in his life. And there is no way he wants to embrace that difficulty in the personage of that gay male standing before him.
Straights btw, are also perplexed as to the whole concept of gayness. Why, they reason, would you not want to hang around guys as allies and compatriates and leave the women as your natural opposite and object of attraction? Why would you want to mix all that up, be caught off guard by being presented with a male who is thinking about your ass and not your carberator? The gay male answer is, we want to think about both. Same with females, who seek an ally, and are not sure they have one until their friend puts on lipstick and high heels. A sigh of relief follows.
This is all part of the puzzle, all part of navigating complicated modern life. Modern life forces us to make boxes, draw lines and reject or accept others based on those lines. Given the differences between straight and gay, there are SOME lines, but in reality much less than we think we see. This brings us back to the idea of “sexuality as a linear continuum”, as Simon points out.
And even though THAT is not the end all answer, it is the closest thing we have to one, and it is where I have been left after 43 years. The older I get, the more I believe there is no such thing as gay or straight. There are just variations. There is no way to make any true progress until this is universally accepted. The gay ghetto leads us to nowhereland.
It’s funny, because other civil rights struggles start out the opposite way – “we’re the same as you so we deserve the same rights”, then later – “we’re different than you, celebrate our diversity”.
With us, it’s “we’re different, accept our difference.” When do we start pointing out that we are more the same than different? When are we going to start to come to the correct conclusion, especially when revelations like the Haggard incident occur, that men are men, are human, have various desires, and not the conclusion that we’ve “identified” him and he belongs over in a special box in the corner?
I think this was a great read, very intellectually stimulating. My comment centers on the formatting: I found it very difficult to read with every word capitalized. Is this a programming error or am I missing something?
jeremy 9 years ago
i think i just fell in love with mr. kettelhack. god, he has a hot mind. really though.
hey – thanks, Jeremy. wow. (you even spelled my name right!)
Thank you for that article, it was very thought provoking.
If I could just share with you part of my experience as a gay guy – since I was younger, around 14 or so, I have always felt a certain prejudice towards extremely effeminate gay men, drag queens and even lesbians who dress extremely masculinely. That makes me seem like kind of a closed minded ass, doesn’t it? Some friends suggest that I have sort of “taken on” traditional hetero prejudices by some sort of weird osmosis. I dunno.
In my opinion, however, I feel so grateful for my sexuality, am so happy to be a man, to be healthy and love the life I’ve been given I feel that acting so far outside one’s gender is an ungrateful act, its disrespectful to nature. I sometimes cant help but roll my eyes as packs of leather-clad lesbians meander past me. I dunno if that makes me a rotten person or not.
riverboy 9 years ago
It makes you a rotten person. (Roll your eyes, indeed!)
Adam –
came on this late – sorry for the delay. What a glorious infinity of choice we have, though, don’t you think? Quentin Crisp, as you may or may not know (I’ve written about him for nightcharm, etc.) – and whom you may or may not know – sort of helped me to blast stereotypes to smithereens – at the same time he got me, wryly, to enjoy (and even employ!) them. Room for us all. (given the current hypothesis that the Universe has no boundaries. everywhere is the center. or might as well be.)
I’m sure you’re beautiful. But so’s the leather dude I just ‘ran into’. :-)

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