Saturday, October 14, 2006

Men on the Down Low (Note: Adult Content)

(Note: Be warned: This one's pretty graphic. But, sometimes, life is that way.)

In recent years, the African-American media has focused quite a bit of attention on the phenomenon of "brothers who are on the down low". "Men on the DL" are in heterosexual relationships, but secretly engage in sex with other men. The media frenzy, which focused on the black community, but which was not limited to black-owned media, tended to blame "men on the DL" for skyrocketing HIV rates amongst African-Americans. Soon there were 'experts' on the phenomenon offering to help worried women tell what their mates were up to.
J.L. King offers lectures like "The Five Personality Types of DL Men" for up to $10,000 a pop. Inevitably, Oprah did a program on the down-low, and scores of books have come out, looking to help women who fret that their boyfriends or husbands spend a lot of time with thier male friends. On the one hand, the term DL, as Jason King has noted, is a way for black and latino working-class men to identify themselves without having to opt for terms like "gay" or "bisexual" that might make them uncomfortable. "Oh, yeah, it's all good. I mean, it's not like I'm gay or anything, bro. I'm just on the low, know what I mean? I have a girl back home, but I'm just out doing me on the D.L. I'm just trying to live." On the other hand, it's hard to listen to our local hip-hop radio station's discussions of the phenomenon without feeling uncomfortable about a sort of hysteria lurking behind this need to get men to 'fess up'. I think we need to radically rethink the entire phenomenon.

The whole thing reminds me of the "tearoom trade", Laud Humphreys's classic sociological study of married men who engaged in "impersonal sex in public places". The study is controversial, and rightfully so, because Humphreys basically "observed" men who would meet in public restrooms for sexual encounters, and researched their backgrounds. Half were Roman Catholic, all were married, and one in six was black.

I think the problem with writing about the "down low" or the "tearoom trade" is that it tends to focus on this as a phenomenon of the closet- these are supposedly gay, or perhaps bisexual men who can't own up to who they 'really are'. So, it's up to their wives to find them out. The problem isn't seen as cheating, which is definitely a problem, it's that these men aren't honest with themselves. But, what if they are being honest, and their desires don't make sense to anyone else? This is my radical rethinking about it:
What if they're just straight men who want to give other men blowjobs?

That sounds ludicrous at first, but I think it's a sign of our rigid sexual socialization that it sounds ludicrous. The good thing about the last decade or so of gay liberation is that people have felt more comfortable opening up about their sexual interests. But, the bad part has been a sort of sexual authoritarianism in which people feel that they have to get with one team or the other, or maybe that third one that most people think doesn't exist anyway. So, the fluidity of sexual desire and behavior gets shoved into narrow little boxes labelled 'sexual identity'.

Ideally, I think men on the DL should be honest with their partners about their desires, and the couples should even be open to finding ways to satisfy those desires. Of course this goal is light-years beyond the realm of current possibility, but it has the distinct advantage of being honest. It's clear why a male who wants to suck dick isn't going to tell his wife- especially if she's fallen prey to the "DL" hysteria. But, why does this mean that their marriage should end? These men clearly aren't looking for love, and I'm not convinced that too many of them are gay. So, why is male desire for other men so much more threatening than female desire for other women, which we're always told is 'every husband's fantasy'.

And, since I'm encouraging honesty, I'll say that I'd feel pretty cheated if I went through my entire life without ever giving another man a blow-job. Am I gay? Nope, not at all. Am I bisexual? Maybe, but it's really hard to call myself that for the simple reason that I've never had romantic feelings for a male, and I don't really think I ever could. I've had plenty of crushes on women, and plenty of relationships with them, and I'm madly in love with my wife. But, I've never had the slightest emotional crush on a male. And I think I'm pretty open to it.

In a sense, I'd say I'm spiritually bisexual. I'm open to beauty wherever it lies. Therefore, a beautiful man is as attractive to me as a beautiful woman. My soul honors masculinity as much as it honors femininity. I worship males as I worship females, and I can't imagine a better way to worship them than to suck them off. It's direct and sexual. When you have sex with someone, you can zone out and let your body take over. But, when your face is buried in their lap, it's impossible to zone out- this is sex. I love giving women head for this reason- it's like a baptism in the female. So, don't get me wrong- it is a sexual thing. It's not some S&M humiliation fantasy- I'm way too into myself for that. I don't want to be humiliated or sissified- I want to feel what it's like to make another man have an orgasm.

But, is this my identity? I mean, to be blunt, I see it in the same way as I see my desire to travel to India before I die. It's a fun experience that I hope to have someday. Sure, it's a sexual experience, but it's not emotional at all. Besides, I'm a devoted wife-sexual- I adore my wife. There's just no chance of emotional attachment here. I just want to suck cock.

I know it's a bizarre question, but why can't we engage in whatever sexual activities we want to without it altering our sexual identity? Why can't a straight man have sex with other men without having to wrestle with the question of 'Who am I?' Who cares! Why do relationships, which are the best parts of life, have to be used as these instruments to preserve the social, sexual and economic order? Why do people have to keep their desires on the down low, or risk being ostracized by their families? Still! Why can't we do away with these concepts of gay and straight that don't seem to match anyone in the world after a few drinks? Why can't we just fuck?


sock puppet said...

I think every sociology student is introduced to the ‘tearoom trade’ in their first methodology course under the sub-heading of research ethics. But I prefer the context in which you are referencing it.

Was it Butler that described "coming out" as having the opposite effect of its intended liberation/celebration? That gay and lesbian identities are still defined in terms of the dominant regime of heterosexuality thus reinforcing and binding people to categories of sexuality?

I increasingly consider sexuality to be fluid, along a continuum. And I enjoy discourse as candid as yours. A provocative and honest post Rufus, thank you.

Rufus said...

Thanks very much. I'm trying to be more thought- provoking as of late, and stop posting so many things that amount to "look at this stupid thing some conservative said! 'Aint it stupid?"

I think Judith Butler is right in a sense. She's sort of expanding Foucault's argument here. I hated the history in The History of Sexuality, but his argument is interesting. Sex goes from being "an economy of bodies and acts" to being an identity that is engraved on the soul. I think he has a conservative tendency to romanticize the past, and I think Butler might be minimizing how bad things used to be, but the economy of acts and bodies is an interesting goal to work towards.

I don't think I've ever had a gay friend who didn't get drunk and confess to me that they sometimes wanted to have sex with the opposite sex, and I haven't had too many straight friends who haven't drunkenly confessed to wanting to fool around with the same sex. Maybe we need to settle with Margaret Cho's argument: "Am I gay? Am I straight? Maybe I'm just slutty!"