How to Do It

My Partner and His Bros Joke About Gay Sex All the Time

Two gamers playing around a neon set of male symbols.
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How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Dear How to Do It,

My partner and I have been together for six happy years. Here is my (female) problem: He and our gaming friends (all male) have this habit of making gay jokes constantly. They think it is hysterical to just tack some fellatio-related quip onto every. damn. sentence. I’m exaggerating, but it is frequent. I am part of a text chain with these guys, and it is relentless—I rely on my husband to tell me when we have plans with them because I have to mute it unless I want to be inundated. These jokes aren’t hateful, per se, but they’re just constantly referencing gay, male-on-male sex, and to me, there often seems to be no discernible punchline. I see and speak to these men (and they are indeed men—we’re well out of our 20s) often and consider games with them to be a huge and rewarding component of my social life. I am the only person in the group who is not a hetero man, and I feel that if I try to say “Enough, already!,” I stand to slightly alienate myself, though they’d respect my preference.

I must say that I have never seen even a hint of outright bigotry from any of them. My partner is super kind to my close gay buddy and his partner and doesn’t act uncomfortable in the slightest when they are affectionate around us. He has embraced them with no issue whatsoever and considers them some of our best friends. In my experience, the friends have also been completely normal around them, and two other group members also have great relationships with gay family members. In fact, one guy expressed a purely religious judgment about homosexuality once (to someone outside the group), and everyone else has discussed how gross it was.

So what is my question? Well … is this a thing? Do hetero guys really talk like this, or are they just anomalous pervs? Is there any chance they stick to the gay stuff because they don’t want to be gross about sex with women with me around? Do I need to “stand up” to this humor, even though it seems to be free from hate? I’m not even uncomfortable with it exactly, I’m just concerned I might be dropping the ball as a citizen of the LGBTQ world. They really don’t seem hateful. Could this just be a way for them to engage with something that makes them uncomfortable?

— No Homo

Dear No Homo,

Your partner and his friends are engaging in what sociologist C.J. Pascoe calls “fag discourse.” She writes about it at length in her fascinating 2007 book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Pascoe calls such discourse “central to boys’ joking relationships,” and, noting the crucial role that humor can play in bonding within this group, writes, “Boys invoked the specter of the fag in two ways: through humorous imitation and through lobbing the epithet at one another. Boys at River High [where the book’s fieldwork was performed] imitated the fag by acting out an exaggerated ‘femininity’ and/or by pretending to sexually desire other boys.”

In her study, Pascoe found that the use of the word fag and the imitation of the fag were often explicitly self-evaluated by boys as being not anti-gay. This is something Peggy Orenstein found in her own study of young men that she published in the book Boys & Sex earlier this year. Pascoe cites what activist Riki Wilchins has labeled the “Eminem Exception,” which is to cast faggot as not a comment on a person’s sexuality but a way of ridiculing weakness and, in turn, reaffirming one’s own masculinity. Writes Pascoe: “After imitating a fag, boys assure others that they are not a fag by instantly becoming masculine again after the performance. They mock their own performed femininity and/or same-sex desire, assuring themselves and others that such an identity deserves derisive laughter.”

I know that you didn’t ask specifically about this epithet, but I think a similar exception is at work in your friends’ joking. I also think the view that one can joke about fags and fag behavior in a manner that is somehow divorced from  “real” homophobia is massively shortsighted.
I’ve never found anyone who has made such an argument publicly—the aforementioned example of Eminem or Tyler the Creator—to be particularly thoughtful or wise on the matter, either. It sounds like something overgrown boys would say, and it in fact is. I think it’s egocentric and naïve to assume that as a straight guy, one can ridicule gay-adjacent stuff without consequences like perpetuating prejudice against real gay people, at least indirectly. It is a delusion of privilege.

So I understand your discomfort, but I also think that this is bigger than you. You have every right to request that language whose derogatory nature is fairly obvious not be used around you. It’s reasonable for you not to tolerate that. But I don’t think that scolding is going to change someone who’s been socialized to communicate in this way, let alone a group of such men. Given the number of responses that Pascoe and Orenstein fielded from boys and young men who say they would never call a gay person a fag and thus are fully aware of the potential bigotry they wield, I’m not convinced that exposure to actual gay men would even make much of a difference (as your anecdotal evidence also indicates). I think your hypotheses, particularly the one about them using humor to get close to something with which they are uncomfortable, are sound and I appreciate the empathy implied in your formulation of them. I also think your partner and friends are acting like kids, and unfortunately, our culture doesn’t offer a formal education to facilitate enlightenment in this particular facet of life. Probably the best thing you can do is keep that chat muted and perhaps strike up a conversation about this the next time you’re all together—one that is more curious in tone than accusatory, for it seems to me that a lot of toxic straight-male behavior is not quite conscious. They often know not what they do, but perhaps an intelligent conversation could help set them on the course to understanding it.

Dear How to Do It,

My partner and I have been together for six years. Romantically, things are great. Sexually? I keep fucking it up. The only recurring fight in our entire marriage is that they feel like I don’t initiate sex, which makes them feel unattractive. From my point of view, the issue is that they get upset with me when I ask questions during foreplay. For example, I’ll be kissing down their shoulders and ask, “Are you up for it tonight?” and they won’t answer. If I don’t get a response, then I ease off and eventually stop. Because I back off when I don’t get an answer, my partner now thinks that any time I ask them a question during sex, I’m trying to get them to say “no” so I can get out of having sex with them. I want to have sex with them all the time! I just want to check in. I know, I know. “What does their body language say?” The issue is until we get into the actual act, they don’t like to move. They want me to physically push them around and make them take it. I really enjoy domming them. But I find it very difficult to gauge how they feel when they’re not verbally communicating with me OR showing me obvious physical reactions. I feel like I need to be able to check in with them, especially when I’m slinging them around the bed or we’re getting into serious dom/sub stuff. I want to be confident enough to just do things and trust that they’ll stop me if they don’t like it. How do I get to that point? How do I get myself to quit asking questions?

— Too Many Questions

Dear Too Many Questions,

I really don’t think the problem is with you asking questions, but I do think there is a clash in communication styles at hand that’s detrimental. What I suggest is a conversation about this stuff in a nonsexual context well in advance of contact, in which boundaries are delineated and a safe word is formulated. What your partner is asking for is a bit too heavy to leave to chance, and you are being extremely responsible as not just a partner but a fellow human being for wanting to understand their limitations. I don’t know if you’d call this play BDSM, but it’s adjacent to it, and that sort of sexual relationship tends to function most healthily when it is supported by rigorous and specific communication.

Your asking for consent before initiating sex is purely concientious. If your partner is uncomfortable with such verbal initiation, perhaps you can devise a system of nonverbal communication by which you can approach sex (say by kissing down their shoulders), and they can verify consent by tapping you on the shoulder twice, or gently squeezing your hand, or kissing you back. Something. The answer is not to shut down communication, but to find a path to communication that serves both of you. If that has to occur separately from the sex act, so be it.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a 40-something-old woman in a relationship with a loving, supportive, communicative, and very generous man both in and out of the bedroom for one year now. He reintroduced me to anal play that I previously found painful, repulsive, and more often than not forced upon by my abusive ex-husband half a lifetime ago. My current partner and I regularly engage in anal sex both penetrative and oral once or twice a week. I never knew how much pleasure this could actually provide. Most times, the only lube we use is our own fluids, which is fine with me, but other times we use coconut oil when our fluids are not sufficient. We also do not use condoms nor other contraception as we cannot conceive anymore. However: Sometimes I develop hemorrhoids and itchiness, and I was wondering if anal play is the culprit. The only other time I ever got them was when I was pregnant. How can I avoid them and particularly without medications?

—Ouch!

Dear Ouch,

The party line on hemorrhoids is that they are generally not caused by anal sex, but that anal sex can irritate them and cause flare-ups. A hemorrhoid is basically a varicose vein—it starts as a normal vein that becomes dilated. The cause of this is pressure on your anorectal canal. As Dr. Stephen E. Goldstone writes in The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex: “Most often hemorrhoids result from bearing down to lift something heavy or pushing out a hard bowel movement. Occasionally something as simple as a cough or sneeze will do it. In most instances you will never know why you got the hemorrhoid.”

Unless you can say for sure that your stools are flowing like soft serve, that you haven’t been sitting on the toilet for too long, that you haven’t lifted anything heavy, and that your respiratory system hasn’t expelled with force, I don’t think you can say that anal sex is for sure the culprit here. However, your laissez-faire attitude toward lube surely isn’t helping your cause. I know some people prefer to go au natural, but lube helps ensure that your butt works like a well-oiled machine. In terms of other steps for the avoidance of ‘rrhoids, make sure your bowel movements are as regular (and brief) as possible by taking a fiber supplement like psyllium husk.

Listen to the women of Thirst Aid Kit interview Jake Johnson about his career, his new Netflix show, and why so many people are in love with New Girl’s Nick Miller.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a trans man, I think I might only be attracted to other trans people, and I don’t know how to feel about it. For background, I transitioned quite young (almost 10 years ago now) and am post-transition (on hormones, post–top surgery, post–bottom surgery). I haven’t always known I was bisexual, but I’ve been pretty stable in that identity for a good while. Until the past couple of years, I mostly had sex with cis men (and occasionally with cis women), but in hindsight, I think I liked the attention rather than actually having sex.

Around two years ago, I got into a relationship with another trans man. While it only lasted about 10 months and imploded pretty badly, it was still the most positive and intense sexual and romantic experience I’d ever had— the difference between that and what I previously considered my best/most intense relationships is so big a difference I can’t really communicate it in words. After that relationship, I started seeking out other trans people (men, women, and nonbinary people) for sex/casual dating and turns out those feelings weren’t just a him thing. I guess I didn’t realize how apathetic I actually was toward sex until that relationship—I had it, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I thought the difference might be that I’m now more able to communicate my desires or that I know what mechanics work for me (for a long time, I felt pressured into bottoming for vaginal sex with cis men, which I realize now I absolutely hated). But then I actually did have a hookup with a cis friend, and even though mechanically it all worked, and it was with somebody I trusted, emotionally I just felt really distant and apathetic.

It’s not that I don’t check cis people out or vaguely think they’re attractive without knowing about their trans/cis status. It’s just that unless I know somebody is trans, I don’t really have a desire for that feeling to go anywhere practically. When I fantasize about sex or relationships, it’s always with other trans people. A friend asked me if I would date a cis person if they were otherwise the perfect partner, but the truth is I cannot conceive of my perfect partner being cis at all. My concerns are threefold: First, I worry that what I’m experiencing is just Not Normal. Second, part of me worries this is the result of unprocessed trauma—I have experienced sexual violence at the hands of both cis men and women, and some people I know have said that might be a cause. But if it is, I don’t want to go to therapy just to “fix” myself into liking cis people, because that feels so gross and skeevy. And last, I worry that if I actually am only attracted to other trans people that I’m just adding another dealbreaker to a list of dealbreakers. For what it’s worth, I think I’m pretty cute, as well as cool and interesting. I just also know I’m not most people’s thing, given I’m a kinda chubby trans person. I feel like throwing a “into other trans people” on top of that, I am basically making myself undateable for the foreseeable future. What say you?

—Trans Amorous

Dear Trans Amorous,

There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to trans people, and there’s nothing wrong with only being attracted to trans people. My general feeling on the subject of sexual taste is that it becomes a red flag when it hews closely to the status quo—i.e., white people who “just aren’t into” people of color as a “preference.” In those cases, I’m not sure how one untangles what they perceive as sexual taste from cultural indoctrination, and how one can be sure that they aren’t perpetuating societal bigotry in their personal life via what sure as hell look to me like discriminatory dating practices. But that isn’t what’s happening with you—for whatever reason (that almost certainly has to do with shared experience and may in part derive from your trauma), you are attracted to a group that remains grossly marginalized in most cultures.

I’m a big proponent in knowing thyself, but I think relaxing a little might be useful for you here. You like what you like, and that is OK! I don’t know if you could ever truly know why you’re attracted to whom you are, and I’m not sure it would help much anyway. I also think that you’re perhaps putting too much identity stock in your interests. What does it mean that you’re primarily (and perhaps only) attracted to trans people? It means that you’re primarily (and perhaps only) attracted to trans people. Practically speaking, this is a way of organizing a rather unruly world and potentially vast dating pool. Your previous experiences with trans people shows that your taste doesn’t make you “undateable.” You have, in fact, dated. It may reduce your options, but options can also be noisy and distracting, and unless you’re committed to a life of rigorous polyamory, so many would-be options just amount to unused overstock anyway. You only have so much time.

I don’t think you should pursue therapy to “fix” yourself, but a good therapist would offer you potential outcomes beyond that. I think the work that would be useful to you wouldn’t be to change your orientation, but to accept it, which may actually be a process in which a guide would be useful. You can also view your sexual discovery as a journey. What you like right now will not necessarily define the totality of your sexual life (just like your previous experiences with cis men didn’t). But even if it does, it’s hardly a thing to be ashamed of or to fear.

— Rich

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