Straight, With an Asterick

Same-sex experimentation among straight women is trendier than ponchos these days. The L Word is a mainstream hit, and if you go to any nightclub around three in the morning, you’ll see two pink-cheeked girls in a banquette, sucking face, often as their boyfriends watch. Gay experimentation for straight men is becoming more popular, too, even if you don’t see it in a dark corner at Vento. From the bisexual plotline in Alexander and the hot gardener on Desperate Housewives to those shaved-chest guys on the covers of men’s-fitness mags, men are inundated with homoerotic imagery these days, and not all of them are turning away.

Those who experiment tend to do it covertly, and often stop short of intercourse. Such men maintain that they are not gay or even bisexual, just sexually progressive. And though in some cases this may just be denial, many say their interest in men comes from their frustration in the role limitations of straight sex.

Thomas, 37, an investment banker who considers himself straight, has had sexual encounters with three men. What got him curious was, of all things, straight porn. “You see these girls doing certain things and you think they’re really hot, but sometimes the way they’re totally submissive you wonder what it’s like to be the woman. And most pornography involves an element of the guy’s anatomy, which is usually huge.”

On a bad vacation in Argentina with a girlfriend, he met an attractive German guy on the beach wearing a “banana hammock.” They saw each other again in the locker room, and one thing led to another—a gay Heartbreak Kid. Though Thomas said it wouldn’t happen again, they hooked up a few more times before the end of the vacation.

There were two others after that—a trainer-masseur whom he generously repaid, and an Australian he found on Like a typical macho guy, he views his exile in Gayville not as a sign he might have some thinking to do, but as an educational experience that’s made him a better lover to women. “Now when I’m with a woman and she’s into being submissive, I know it’s exciting for her and I don’t feel guilty,” Thomas says. “I understand the fantasy of being taken by a man.”

Still, he doesn’t tell girls about his trysts. “The same women who play up the whole bi thing with each other are freaked out by the idea of men touching each other. Women are always worried about being replaced—not just by women but by men too.”

Jonny, a 32-year-old Web designer, also describes himself as straight, though he’s had several dozen same-sex experiences. “I’ve slept with enough men to know that I’m not gay,” he tells me over dinner at Café Orlin as I cough on my tea. “But I like the idea of playing with sex roles and the way I am the object of affection with men, instead of the typical hetero male sexual aggressor.” He says he’s sure he’s straight because he’s always the submissive, he doesn’t find men physically attractive, and “I have 30 gigabytes of porn on my hard drive and it’s all women.” If it weren’t for the several dozen men he’s hooked up with, this might sound more convincing.

He, too, has had bad luck with women when he’s tried to talk about it, except for one woman who listened intently and then had a threesome with him. He sees himself settling down with a woman someday, but she would have to be someone who is okay with bending the rules. “I wouldn’t be happy with a woman who only wanted to play one role.”

If most straight women are in the dark about their boyfriends’ proclivities, gay men are all too aware. Daniel, a 23-year-old gay musician, has had about twenty straight guys try to seduce him since he was a teenager. The pattern is the same—a friend, usually one with a girlfriend, gradually starts spending more time at his apartment, initiating closer and closer contact, until one day they make out and the guy stops coming around. “It comes very close to courtship,” says Daniel, “in terms of how slowly they progress. I think that’s the only way they know how to do it.”

Though he’s vowed to communicate early on the next time he picks up signals, he says communication itself can make the experiences even more depressing and strange. “In one case, after we made out, I asked what was going on. The answer was, of course”—he puts on a dumb, frat-boy voice—“ ‘I dunno,’ which is the wrong answer. It’s supposed to be, ‘You’re so fabulous I couldn’t help myself.’ ”

Straight, With an Asterick