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Are the gays recruiting? (image: Pixabay) Are the gays recruiting? (image: Pixabay)

Life

Are the gays recruiting?

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Human sexuality is incredibly complex. Take away the emotional and religious hyperbole and it doesn’t take long to realise that the scientific research and analysis is still relatively inconclusive on many aspects of what makes us who we are.

What shapes our sexuality? Biology? Society? Or something else? Is our sexuality some sort of fixed concept or are we all somewhere on a fluid spectrum? No one really has the definitive answers to these fundamental questions.

One of the challenges that researchers face is that a discussion of sexuality often pre-supposes we all have a very clear sense of self. Studies to understand human sexuality are generally taking a snapshot at a particular point in time — there is an underlying assumption that sexuality and sexual identity are tangible and unchanging.

I’ve recently been reading the results of a major study that was published in the Sexual Health journal . The title of the article is Sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual experience: the Second Australian Study of Health and Relationships. Perhaps not the most attention-grabbing title, but it does give you a sense of the size and scope of the analysis that has been undertaken.

This study involved researchers collaborating from a number of major research institutions in Australia, and there are two key factors that make the results of this research worth reading. Firstly, the population studied was a random sample of around 20,000 men and women in Australia between the ages of 16 and 69. Secondly, the data was able to be compared to survey results that were collected 10 years earlier (of a similar-sized sample). The bottom line is that this is robust and credible research about adult sexuality in Australia.

To make sure that I was reading the results correctly I sat down for a coffee with Dr Qazi Rahman, Senior Lecturer with the Department of Psychology at King’s College London . Rahman specialises in the study of human sexuality — particularly in physical response analysis to understand the sexuality of gay men.

“There are a lot of interesting results contained in this research paper…” explained Rahman, “…but in many ways it confirms that human sexuality is not black and white, it is not necessarily linear, and it comes with a lot of contradictions and anomalies.”

“This survey asked respondents about three key areas — their sexual identity, their sexual attraction, and their sexual experience. If human sexuality was straightforward you would expect that the percentage of people that identify as heterosexual would match the percentage of people that report they are sexually attracted exclusively to the other sex, and would also match to the percentage of people that report that their sexual experience has been exclusively with the other sex. But what we are seeing here are material differences across those three responses and those material differences are consistent when we compare this latest survey with the responses that were collected 10 years earlier.”

“What does that mean in reality? Well, the number of men who say they are heterosexual has gone down in 10 years from 97.5% to 96.8%. But that doesn’t mean that they are exclusively heterosexual. When asked whether they are attracted only to the other sex or to the same sex to any degree, 7.4% of men reported some level of attraction to other guys. That’s up from 6.8% recorded in the previous study.”

“In addition, the number prepared to act on that desire — or at least to act on it and admit it — is up too. When survey participants were asked about their sexual experience — whether that was exclusively with the other sex or various degrees of sexual experience with the same sex — 6.6% of men reported some level of ‘gay’ sex (up from 6% in the earlier survey). So what the researchers have really found out is that beyond the small percentage of men who identify as gay or bisexual, there are men who identify as heterosexual but are sexually fluid in some way — they are attracted to guys or having sex with them. And those numbers are growing.”

Beyond what the survey is telling us about the sexuality of men, the survey’s findings in relation to the sexuality of women suggests an even greater level of complexity.

“It may be that men’s and women’s sexuality are simply different, not just expressed differently…” explained one of the authors of the survey report, Professor Juliet Richters from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales. “Although the term ‘homosexuality’ suggests that being a gay man is in some way the ‘same thing’ as being a lesbian, sexuality is patterned differently among men and women.”

For Dr Rahman, research like this is not just theoretically interesting but practical. It can help governments make decisions, for example about health spending.

“If you reduce depression in young gay men you could save significant amounts of money in the provision of health services. So even while gay men are a minority in the population, that doesn’t mean that the economic impact of improving their health outcomes is not material. This adds to the weight of argument when seeking better services for gay men.”

Are we any closer to understanding human sexuality? Perhaps, but what is clear is that whether you identify as gay, straight, or bisexual, those labels don’t always tell you the whole story.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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Life

Wednesday Wisdom: Heteronormativity

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Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash
Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

I find it hard to shake my perception that dating is ultimately about finding ‘the one’ — that you may have to kiss a lot of frogs in the process, but ultimately you’re hoping to find someone that you really connect with, that you have amazing sex with, that you want to move in together and do domestic things with, that you want to introduce to your family, that you want to go on vacation with, that you want to grow old with and live happily ever after.

That’s pretty much what I’ve seen in my family, that’s what I’ve seen in movies. For some gay couples that I know, that’s exactly how it works.

It’s not difficult to understand that from all of our cultural and environmental influences, we’re being conditioned to aspire to a ‘good’ relationship that roughly fits that Hollywood ideal. This is heteronormativity in action.

One of the foundations of much of queer theory, ‘heteronormative’ is a term first coined by academic Michael Warner in 1991. Heteronormativity is the belief that the binary genders of male and female are required for people to perform the natural roles in life — assuming that heterosexuality is the default and preferable sexual orientation.

I’m not making any moral judgements about anyone’s relationship. If it works for you, then that’s great. If you want to settle down with a husband and live happily ever after, then all power to you — that’s what equality is all about.

But it is helpful to occasionally challenge ourselves by asking if our thoughts or actions are being influenced in some way by the heteronormativity that we’re all exposed to every day.

Here’s an example. A friend of mine has been with his boyfriend for years. They live together, they bought a flat together, they decided to get married. They’ve always had an open relationship — that’s worked for them. The weekend before the wedding, he was in the toilets of XXL — a club in London — getting worked over by two muscle-bears.

My instinctive reaction was — “That’s not right…” It’s the heteronormativity talking. In my head, marriage is about monogamy, and that if you were continuing to enjoy an active and open sex life then maybe marriage is not for you. But clearly I’m applying made-up rules to situations that don’t fit the heternomative model.

Obviously, an open relationship isn’t incompatible with marriage. Neither is a monogamous relationship. But this is an illustration of the complexity that we’re all navigating as marriage equality offers additional options for how we define our relationships.

It’s too easy to apply a Hollywood-happily-ever filter to our view of a marriage between two guys. But gay guys are different, we’ve been told that all of our lives, and in that difference there’s power — just because we can get married doesn’t mean that our marriages have to look like anyone else’s, the only rules that need to apply are the ones that make sense to us.

It’s important that we don’t perpetuate the perception that ‘good gays get married’ or that marriage is only meaningful if it looks like something out of a mid-career Sandra Bullock movie.

It’s not easy to find someone that you want to spend time with, to make compromises for, and perhaps it would be a lot easier if there was a black and white set of rules that all relationships had to follow. But whatever your sexuality, relationships are messy and complicated things that really only ever make sense to the people that are in them.

Embrace love, forget heteronormativity.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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