Men Who Have Sex With Men: They’re Not All Gay

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Of course there are men who have sex with men.

But they’re not all gay or bisexual.

Or to put it another way, they don’t consider themselves gay or bisexual.

Men who have sex with men and call themselves gay or bi—well, that’s easy to understand. But men who have sex with men and call themselves straight—that’s a little more complicated. And there are millions of such people.

In fact, researchers, health care professionals, and field workers have run into this so frequently that they had to develop a new category—MSM, or “men who have sex with men.” Similarly, there are men in the black community who are “on the downlow,” slang for men with publicly heterosexual lives and secret MSM activity.

In a world that has mostly hated gay people and their sexuality for thousands of years, it’s not surprising that any gay person would hide their orientation. But what about people who have trouble acknowledging to themselves their same-sex attraction? What about people who have same-gender sex, feel shame, and promise themselves they’ll never do it again—and keep wanting to do it again?

Recent history is filled with high-profile men who made their careers damning homosexuality and homosexuals—only to be caught “on the downlow.” These include US Senator Larry Craig, Evangelical leader Ted Haggard, US Congressman Mark Foley, Governor James McGreevey, and “gender disturbance” psychologist George Rekers.

Each of them pursued secret sex in public places and was caught. In each case, the world was stunned: A straight guy having sex with men? A guy having sex with men making the world more hateful for gay people?


Almost everyone in America learns to hate gay people—including gay people. Almost everyone in America learns to tease men who aren’t “manly” enough—including boys and men who feel “UNmanly” themselves. In fact, men who are insecure about their masculinity are among the loudest people telling “fag” jokes, and among the most obnoxious gropers at bars and on the subway. People who feel uncomfortable with themselves are often trying to feel better; some of them will do almost anything to relieve the nagging suspicion that they’re not OK, and that everyone sees through them.

Hence men who live as straight, have sex with other men on the downlow, and talk ugly about “those” gays. But whether the subject is sex or anything else, the harder people deny who they are, the stronger the impulse to act authentically gets. And so periodically we see people act in ways contrary to their public persona. Maybe even contrary to their basic values.

That’s when someone risks everything—when, he says, he “couldn’t help myself.” Such a person deserves sympathy for their internal torment. Not for their political malice (Rekers, for example, was a consultant on Florida’s ban on gay couples adopting kids). But hating yourself, being unwilling to accept yourself, feeling ashamed when you do something that feels like who you really are—that condition deserves sympathy.

In our sex-negative world, almost everyone has some sexual feature that could keep them in the closet: your fantasies, your preferences, a body part, a past decision, a religious belief you periodically violate. In a culture that so harshly judges sexual normalcy, everyone is eligible to be shamed. 

The sexual problem most of us face, however, isn’t our sexuality itself—it’s our shame about it, the resulting secrecy, and the isolation or periodic acting out that we do as a result of the continual denial of who we are.

Don’t find yourself acting out urges you desperately want to believe you don’t have. The world isn’t divided into “good sexuality” and “bad sexuality.” If it’s honest, consenting, and responsible, there’s only one kind of sexuality—human sexuality, in all its glorious, messy, un-categorizable forms.

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