Life

Why do queer men have so much sex?

Two men kissing
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Jared, a 24-year-old queer artist who lives in Bushwick, had his first consensual sexual experience at 17, when he was still in high school. He met with someone from Grindr who was approximately his age and they hooked up at the back of the guy’s car. After being assaulted at 16, losing his virginity helped him gain back his confidence, and despite the physical pain, he recalls a deep sense of happiness.

“I felt empowered, I felt like a bad bitch, I had a lot of confidence,” he told LGBTQ Nation

Seven years later, sex has grown to be an integral part of his life, something that has helped him grow confident with other people and himself, a way to feel sexy and desired. Growing up in a traditional Christian family, he was unable to express his attraction to other men, a common repression that, in his opinion, explains why sex is so essential for many queer and gay men. “We never got to fully be comfortable in our sexuality, in ourselves,” he said. “So now that we are adults, that’s why we’re such a hookup culture.”

Like many other young people, he has embraced terms formerly used as slurs, like “whore” or “slut” to define his sexual relationships with other gay and queer men. “I do think it’s great to be a slut. We only get one life to live, [and] there’s so many beautiful people,” he said. “You should connect with whoever you want to connect with, just protect yourself.” 

Youth sex frequency has been declining for years and, as professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge published in 2017, Americans born in the 1990s “had sex about six times a year less often than the average American born in the 1930s.” This trend, however, differs among non-straight men. According to a 2020 study by Peter Ueda, from the Swedish Karolinska Institutet, surveying US adults: “An increase in sexual inactivity and having no sexual partners among men was observed in most sociodemographic subgroups but not among gay or bisexual participants.” Additionally, gay and bisexual individuals “were more likely to report 3 or more sexual partners.”

Sex has traditionally been a central feature of gay and queer communities. During the 70s, the gay liberation movement embraced a positive vision of sexual relationships that spurred the rise of social institutions like bathhouses, said Phillip L. Hammack, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The real triumph of that movement was the emergence of this very vibrant sexual culture,” he said.

As a bonding mechanism, sex has allowed gay and queer men to find shared pleasure, establish connections, and form lasting relationships. “Sex is a physical release [and] a way of forming community,” said Michael Bronski, Harvard University’s Professor of the Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. “It’s a way of meeting partners, whether a partner for 20 minutes, two months or for life.” 

The Lifechanging Magic of PrEP

This favorable vision towards sex was cut short by the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. What was once considered a freeing tool against the constraints of a heteronormative society was suddenly rejected by many due to a widespread fear fueled by governmental inaction. For around three decades, Hammack said, there was a sex-negative pendulum swing against the revolutionary achievements of the previous decade. “Promiscuity did become very frowned upon, it was a real setback for the liberated sexual culture that queer men had created.” 

And for Black gay and queer men, they had to navigate a community that further marginalized them. Historically, white culture has depicted Black men as hypersexual beings, a racist conception that, during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, rendered them dangerous in the eyes of white people, said Jesús G. Smith, Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at Lawrence University. “Black men became the exception of what’s too promiscuous,” he said. “Lots of people were associating HIV and AIDS with Black men. White men were saying ‘we can be promiscuous as long as we cut out Black people.’” 

The widespread adoption of PrEP during the last decade has contributed to a renewed sense of safety, said Hammack, and for many younger Millennial and Gen Z men who haven’t experienced the horrors of the epidemic, this medication is another layer of protection to celebrate their sexuality. 

Tully, a 26-year-old man who started taking PrEP around two years ago, is one of them. The Chicago native had his sexual awakening at 12, when he was in middle school, at a sleepover. Although he knew he was into guys before then, that night he was joking around with his friend, pretending to go under the covers to make out, when he realized he was gay. “We played it off as a joke, but it had underlying truth with me,” he said. 

His first shared sexual experience came when he was around 15 with a “significantly older man,” he met through an off-brand dating app. He wasn’t fully out at school and thought that meeting someone older would be more comfortable for him. Afterwards, he felt liberated, and it wasn’t until he found out that the guy, a teacher, had been arrested for having sex with a minor that he grasped the gravity of the situation. “I kinda went into a celibacy phase and I had to work my way back out of that,” he said. 

Once he recovered from that trauma, he had different “slut phases” that allowed him to explore his sexuality freely, experimenting his preferences while getting to know other people. “Learning who to exchange my energy with or who I want to have sex with, I don’t know how I would have done it if I didn’t have these slut phases.” 

Thanks to PrEP, the fear of catching HIV is no longer a constant worry, allowing him to explore his sexuality more freely. The medication has allowed him to get all the sexual experiences that he wanted while still keeping himself and others safe. “That was a really good feeling, it took this anxiety off.”

In the future, however, he sees himself engaging in a closed relationship, putting an end to his “slut phases” once he fulfills his “f**ket list” of sexual experiences. “When I’m in a relationship, I would actually want to be monogamous,” he said. 

The power of being a slut

For other young men like Tully, the heteronormative shadow of monogamy as the apex of any relationship, especially after Obergefell, still looms large. But despite the expectations to conform, the historical exclusion of gay and queer men from socially sanctioned institutions has allowed them to develop relationships outside of the monogamy axis. 

2021 research by Amy C. Moors, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Chapman University, found that “men, compared to women, were more likely to have previously engaged in consensual non-monogamy. Moreover, lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals had previously engaged in consensual non-monogamy at a higher frequency than heterosexual individuals.” Consensual non-monogamy has many facets, from polyamory to open relationships, but a constant pattern is that gay and queer men are practicing it at a higher rate than their straight counterparts. 

“If you don’t fit into the social norms that are prescribed in society, you are likely to critically think, ‘how do I want to live my intimate life,’” said Moors. “People are buying out of social norms, particularly gay men, and probably engaging in different types of sex and relationships.”

Harrison, a 27-year-old gay man from Pittsburgh, is willing to consider an open relationship with a partner in the future. His first sexual experience happened when he was a college senior in 2018, at 22, a “cathartic” encounter tarnished by regret. “[I felt] a lot of shame, of having sex in any capacity,” he said. “There was initially a lot of guilt behind it. It’s something culturally ingrained in us, to feel bad about it.” He grew comfortable with himself thanks to a more sexually-active friend who helped him normalize sex-positive behaviors and, eventually, he embraced terms like “slut” or “whore” to define himself. “It’s almost like an accolade,” he said. 

40 partners or so after that initial encounter, casual sex has been a tool for him to release a physical need, no strings attached, but moving forward, he thinks he will seek stronger emotional connections to feel more satisfied in the long term. Although he pictures himself in a closed relationship, he is open to exploring other sexual arrangements. “I can totally understand wanting to have an open relationship, keeping the sanctity of your partnership with that person but also still being able to explore and express yourself with people that you find attractive,” he said. 

Andy, a 23-year-old gay Brooklyn resident, is also open to the idea of exploring intimate non-monogamous relationships. He lost his virginity at 17, when he went to the apartment of a 22-year-old guy he met on Grindr. Gradually, he embraced an open sexuality, which felt liberatory. “It was powerful being a slut, having sex a lot, being promiscuous,” he said. “Sex can be a way to create community and find relationships with other queer men.” 

Despite still struggling to brush off the monogamous canon from his future, he pictures himself in a polyamorous relationship, something that will allow him to ethically explore different connections. “I love the idea of polyamory, I love that you can love multiple people and share loving, romantic, sexual energy with many people at once.”

The Pressure of Societal Sexpectations

An open sexuality might also come with its own set of challenges. Andy thinks that there are high sexual expectations among some queer communities, setting an unattainable standard for many not-so-sexually active men. “I feel that there’s a pressure to be promiscuous, to be slutty,” he said. “I think people who are more sexually active are more respected in the queer community.”

Sam, 24, who lives in Pennsylvania, echoes his words. At 17, he had oral sex for the first time with a “much older guy” from Grindr. Growing up in a rural area, all of his friends —straight— had been having sex since middle school, but it took him some time to discover how to accept himself and embrace his sexuality. “My last year of high school, I was working towards accepting being gay, which meant that I was able to freely explore sexual experiences,” he said.

Constantly talking about sex while surrounded by gay friends while being exposed to hypersexual influencers on Twitter has taken a toll on him, especially when he was going through less sexually active periods of his life. “At times, I felt like I wasn’t fitting the status quo,” he said. “I almost felt like there was a quota to keep up with. There are implied peer pressures.” 

For Christopher Stults, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Baruch College, the key to successfully dealing with this social expectation implies embracing the sexual diversity intrinsic to the gay and queer community in its multiple expressions.

“For some people, sex positivity means having one partner that they are monogamous with; for another person, [it] means you’re currently not having sex with anyone but you have a healthy outlook on your own sexuality,” he said.
“For a third person, sex positivity means that they are having five sex partners today at a sex party. There shouldn’t be any expectation that there’s one way to be sex-positive, to be slutty or to be promiscuous.” 

“Do whatever you want to do as long as you’re not hurting yourself or other people,” said Tully. “I think that is the key to having a really healthy sex life.” 

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