Most of us assume that sexuality is fixed: either you’re straight, gay, or bisexual. Yet an increasing number of young men today say that those categories are too rigid. They are, they insist, “mostly straight.” They’re straight, but they feel a slight but enduring romantic or sexual desire for men. To the uninitiated, this may not make sense. How can a man be “mostly” straight? In Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity among Men, Ritch Savin-Williams introduces us to this new world by bringing us the stories of young men who consider themselves to be mostly straight or sexually fluid. By hearing about their lives, we discover a radically new way of understanding sexual and romantic development that upends what we thought we knew about men. Her is an excerpt from Mostly Straight which shows us how these young men are forging a new personal identity that confounds both traditional ideas and conventional scientific opinion.
What we know is that the mostly straight male is the new kid on the block. We hear a lot about the Big Three Sexualities — straight, bisexual, and gay. Most of us assume that these three orientations encompass the universe of sexual identities. If we are prepared to accept mostly straight as a fourth sexual identity, we gain an increasingly nuanced understanding of sexual orientation — and its close cousin, romantic orientation. We won’t stop at four; no doubt we will soon recognize additional sexual identities.
To the uninitiated, “mostly straight” may seem paradoxical. How can a man be mostly heterosexual? Women, we know, can be sexually fluid, as the sizable literature on the subject attests. But if you’re a young man, you might assume that either you’re straight or you’re not, meaning you’re bisexual or gay. Yet mostly straight men exist. In fact, the evidence suggests that more young men identify or describe themselves as mostly straight than identify as either bisexual or gay combined.
In the most general sense, a mostly straight young man is sexually and / or romantically distinctive; we might say that he’s fluid or flexible, supposedly an alien feature of male sexuality. Traditionally, our understanding has been that if you’re male and have even a slight attraction to the same sex, then you must be bisexual or gay. Even if this isn’t immediately apparent, it will become so once you come to terms with your true self and exit your “phase” of bicuriosity or questioning. Women, by contrast, can be mostly straight because they are less constrained than men by culturally strict gender and sexual norms. This kind of thinking dictates that the only options for men are straight, bisexual, or gay, not something else. If you’re a mostly straight young man, you know these assumptions are wrong, and you’re not alone.
A recent U.S. government poll found that among 18-to 24-year- old men, 6 percent marked their sexual attractions as “mostly opposite sex.” That’s more than fifteen million young men. Yet when these men were forced to choose either straight or bisexual as a sexual identity, about three-quarters marked straight because for them bisexual, even if it is understood as “bisexual-leaning straight,” is too gay to accurately describe their identity. Given such constraints, these young men were left with no place to truthfully register their sexuality, thus forcing them to be less than honest.
The category “mostly straight” is a recent addition that was not readily available to previous generations of men. A new survey revealed striking contrasts across age groups. One question asked, “Thinking about sexuality, which of the following comes closer to your view?”
— “There is no middle ground — you are either heterosexual or you are not.”
— “Sexuality is a scale — it is possible to be somewhere near the middle.”
A majority of millennials endorsed the second option, which means they believe in a spectrum of sexuality. Adults from other generations preferred the first, which signifies a two-category approach — straight, not straight — to sexuality.
Millennials were also less likely than other groups to label themselves as “completely heterosexual.” And even among those who identified as straight, they were more likely than their parents’ generation to respond to the following three questions with “Very unlikely, but not impossible” or “Maybe, if I really liked them.” The lead-in was, “If the right person came along at the right time . . .”
— “Do you think it is conceivable that you could be attracted to a person of the same sex?”
— “Do you think it is conceivable that you could have a sexual experience with a person of the same sex?”
— “Do you think it is conceivable that you could have a relationship with a person of the same sex?”
To each of these questions, their parents’ generation overwhelmingly responded with “Absolutely not.”
Identifying as mostly straight is now largely possible because the millennial generation is adding new complexity to sexual and romantic relationships. Over the last several years the Pew Research Center has reported on the characteristics of millennials. The New York Times branded the cohort as “Generation Nice.” What does nice mean? Contrasted with previous generations, young people today are more confident, connected, introspective, and open to change. They’re skeptical of traditional institutions and ways of viewing the world, and they are willing to improvise solutions that are both creative and good for the environment and future generations. As adolescents and young adults, they are happier and more satisfied with their lives than previous generations. They express liberal, progressive attitudes toward religion and race relations, social policies, and sexuality.