Books

Male Sexual Fluidity and Undue Complexity in Mostly Straight

Mostly Straight is a mostly inadequate answer to the question of male sexual fluidity.

Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men
Ritch C. Savin-Williams

Harvard University Press

Nov 2017

Other

In 2013, actor Josh Hutcherson attracted some media attention when he made a relatively mild declaration that he would "probably list [himself] as mostly straight." In the same interview with Out, Hutcherson said pointedly, "Maybe I could say right now I'm 100% straight... But who knows?" In other words, he was a young man in his early 20 who was generally confident he was straight but not wholeheartedly closed to discovering new things about himself. Put more simply, Hutcherson was a young person in their early 20s. For Ritch Savin-Williams, Hutcherson was a "pioneer of this movement who shares with his millennial generation the possibility of being open, honest, revolutionary, and mostly straight." Somewhere along the way one young man's characteristically free-spirited remark became "a movement". Because, why not?

None of this is to dismiss the good work Hutcherson has done for the gay community, co-founding and helping to lead Straight But Not Narrow (SBNN), which describes itself as "an ally awareness campaign that prepares and trains young adults on how to become allies of their LGBTQ peers." Still, SBNN gives a noticeably different characterization of "the movement" than Ritch Savin-Williams seems inclined to assign Hutcherson's "revolutionary" remark. Of course, male sexual fluidity is discussed far less frequently than female sexual fluidity -- a point Savin-Williams' acknowledges in the "Sexual and romantic fluidity" chapter of the book. But with Mostly Straight the contemporary academic infatuation with self-indulgent wordplay reaches its nadir.

Savin-Williams, professor in Cornell's Department of Human Development, has doubled down on the idea that "gay" and "straight" are not mere characterizations of human behavior but are effectively categories of being. From within that, Savin-Williams has raised us one new category and the promise of many others. We are led to believe whole new categories of being exist alongside these traditional ones of gay, straight, and bisexual. Rather than men who occasionally experience sexual attraction to men, there are men for whom that is who and what they are ("mostly straight"). It's an intellectual charade of the boldest kind. Mostly Straight is littered with turns of phrase that perhaps are meant to be cheeky ("drops of gayness", "sexual neverlands", "closer cousins to straight men than bi men") but only end up bleeding away what little meaning might be derived from an authentic look at sexual fluidity.

If, in fact, Savin-Williams' question is How do we stop forcing young men to be something they're not? the answer might be to stop making up pseudo-intellectual categories and telling them that's where they belong. Savin-Williams asks, "We like our sexualities simple, especially among our male youths, and we prefer to ignore undue complexity." It's hard to imagine that anyone who has studied sexuality seriously, or even experienced their own, believes it's a simple thing. Nevertheless, there's a world of difference between ignoring undue complexity and creating it.

By the end of the book, it remains entirely unclear why this new category is at all necessary. It's difficult to discern exactly what we're supposed to take away from Mostly Straight: that male sexual fluidity deserves more attention? That male sexuality isn't as black-and-white as Hollywood portrays it? Two hundred pages aren't required to answer each affirmatively. This is mostly a scrapbook of stories/interviews with straight men who may need reminding that straight men can have intimate homosocial relationships without needing their own category of identity -- it exists in other countries all over the world without attempting to punt these men into some non-heterosexual check-box.

Straight men have sex with men for a dozen different reasons, none of which need some manufactured academic justification. Bisexual men aren't any less bisexual for having a slight preference for one sex over the other. Gay men have experimented with, and even enjoyed, sexual encounters with women. The sort of pseudoscientific vocabulary Savin-Williams uses here is exactly what handicaps social scientists' claims to scientific rigor comparable to the hard sciences. Social scientists do remarkable work and many employ a wide set of rigorous techniques in their research. A quote like, "Simply, a straight but not totally straight young man identifies as straight (not mostly straight) but has a very small, perhaps 1 to 2 percent, degree of same-sex attraction", with its hand-waving pretension to some meaningful conclusion eats away at the seriousness of the book. "Straight, but not totally straight" men have a "1 to 2 percent, degree of same-sex attraction." The percentages were seemingly plucked from the air as if to convey that there's anything reliable in this apparently random categorization.

It seems, according to Mostly Straight, that the solution to helping young men understand and process their sexuality is to create a new well-delineated identity box. Until that one is too small and then we'll create another one for the slightly straight, then one for the seasonably bisexual, the intermittently gay, the Christmas-and-Easter straight. On the other hand, perhaps we can stop demanding categories of sexual behavior and simply let young men live their lives and find their own identities. Most people will self-sort of their own accord, and for the ones who don't, what does it help to create these new categories as if we must tie them down to some category for our own satisfaction?

Despite all of its shortcomings, what Mostly Straight does illuminate is the impractical difficulty of our insistent labeling of individuals so early in their lives. Gossip websites and social media remain perpetually interested in debating whether this young teenage celebrity or that might be gay. It's unfair and ostracizing, and although Savin-Williams' pendulum might swing too far in the opposite direction, this pernicious habit needs to stop.

2
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.

Music

Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.

Music

That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.

Books

Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.

Reviews

Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.

Music

Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.

Film

'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.

Music

Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.