Nightlife :: Sex

New Study: Gay Sexuality Defies Stereotypes, Proves Robust, Diverse

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Oct 20, 2011
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New research shows that the sex lives of gay men are neither as narrow as some anti-gay stereotypes suggest, nor so very different from how heterosexuals engage in and enjoy sexual contact.

Moreover, the researchers suggested, it may be time for academics and health professionals to start looking at men who have sex with men as complete human organisms--and not as simply as channels or risk factors for STIs such as HIV.

The new research was carried out by researchers from Indiana University and Mason University, an Oct. 19 media release said. The study surveyed nearly 25,000 gay and bisexual men, and found their sexual behavior consisted of a much richer and broader range of erotic and romantic practices than had previously been assumed, especially from the anti-gay far right.

One continual refrain from the political and religious right is that men who have sex with men (MSM) are promiscuous, uninterested in long-term commitment, incapable of deep emotional attachment, and prone to contracting diseases such as HIV and then passing those diseases along to others. The anti-gay right tends to focus on a single sexual act between men--anal sex--to the exclusion of other practices that MSMs engage in (as well as to the exclusion of recognizing that heterosexuals also engage in anal sex).

But the new study shows that MSMs enjoy a sexually varied repertoire, even as a sizable percentage of them tend to restrict their sexual contact to a single, significant partner. Moreover, genital sex is not the be all and end all of romantic contact for MSMs: Other forms of erotic interaction, such as kissing, are also part of the equation.

"While gay study participants reported 1,308 unique combinations of behaviors, the most commonly reported behavior was kissing a partner on the mouth," noted the media release.

"From a public health standpoint, say the researchers, this study provides professionals with data on the behavior of men having sex with men (MSM) that was missing from the sexual health discussion," the release added. Until now, that discussion has focused all too persistently on sexually transmitted diseases.

"Due to the disproportionate impact of HIV among MSM, the majority of research on gay and bisexual men’s sexual behavior is situated within the context of disease," a co-author of the study, Indiana University’s Michael Reece, said.

"This emphasis has resulted in a body of literature about gay and bisexual men that is risk-focused, with limited understanding of the diversity and complexity of these men’s sexual lives," Reece added. "In order to provide clinicians and public health professionals with the necessary tools to promote sexuality in a positive and healthy manner, a more nuanced understanding of an individual sexual experience was needed."

In order to obtain that "nuanced understanding," the researchers chose to forego generalized questions about sexual preferences, habits, and attitudes, and elected instead to ask, in detail, about only one sexual encounter in each respondent’s experience: The most recent one.

"[T]his study was focused primarily on a single sexual event--the most recent--and therefore these data are able to provide a level of detail about MSM sexual behavior that has not previously been documented," said the study’s chief author, George mason University’s Joshua G. Rosenberger.

The results demonstrate as never before just how similar the sexual lives of straights and gays really are.

"Consistent with other recent studies that have examined similar issues among heterosexual men and women, the study findings demonstrate that gay and bisexual men have very diverse sexual repertoires," the media release said.

Among other findings, the study showed than fewer than 40 percent of respondents practiced anal sex as part of their most recent experience--a far cry from the stereotype of gay sexual conduct, and a result that suggests that the anti-gay religious right is far more fixated on anal sex than are gays themselves.

"Of all sexual behaviors that men reported occurring during their last sexual event, those involving the anus were the least common," Rosenberger noted. "There is certainly a misguided belief that ’gay sex equals anal sex,’ which is simply untrue much of the time." Close to fifty percent of those who did report having anal sex said that they had used a condom.

At the same time, the study challenged another myth used to demonize and scapegoat the gay community: The canard that gays are overwhelmingly promiscuous and incapable of forging deep, lasting connections. Over 40 percent of those queried said that their most recent sexual experience was with a significant other--a boyfriend or life partner.

"In comparison, an earlier study of predominantly heterosexual participants found that rate to be just over half," noted the media release.

The study indicated that there "is immense variability in the sexual repertoires of gay and bisexual men," the release said, "with more than 1,300 combinations of activities during their most recent sexual events.

"Evaluations of the most recent sexual event with a male partner were mostly positive, with ratings of both pleasure and arousal being highest among older men," the media release reported.

But one of the biggest surprises concerned a factor that went beyond the sexual and touched upon romance.

"About 82 percent of men report that they had an orgasm at the most recent sexual event, and men were significantly more likely to report orgasm if their sexual partner was a relationship partner," the media release summarized.

In other words, gay sex is not all about pills and poppers. Gays, like straights, find that meaningful emotional connection enhances sex.

"The study will appear in the November print issue of the Journal of Sexual
Medicine," the release added. Social networking site Online Buddies collaborated with the study through the OLB Research Institute.

The new study reconfirms some of the findings of research published late last year that shows that emotions of love, affection, and deep connection are the same in gays as well as straights.

That research demonstrated that brain activity is the same whether a person is in love with a woman or a man--strongly suggesting that the emotions as experienced by gay and straight individuals are exactly the same as well.

The paper, titled "The Brain Reaction to Viewing Faces of Opposite- and Same-Sex Romantic Partners," was published Dec. 31, 2010, at PLos One. Two University College London researchers, Dr. Semir Zeki and Dr. John Romaya, designed and carried out medical scanning of a dozen individuals of each gender. Half of each group was straight, and half were gay. Ethnically, the participants were a mix; in age, they ranged from 19 to 47.

"Differences between homosexual and heterosexual brains have been described," both in terms of brain structure and neurological response patterns when subjects become sexually aroused, the paper noted. "But such differential activations as have been described have been in response to sexually arousing stimuli," the paper added, "not in response to the sentiment of love.

"Given the profound similarity in the sentiment of love expressed in the opposite- or same-sex contexts, we hypothesized that we would see no differences when females or males, or heterosexual or homosexual subjects, viewed the face of their loved partners," the researchers wrote.

The experiment’s results confirmed their hypothesis, noted an article on the experiment that appeared Jan. 11 at Medilexicon. When the test subjects scrutinized photos of their sexual partners, the medical imaging showed virtually indistinguishable response patterns in their brains. This included activation of pleasure centers, and de-activation of areas of the neo-cortex. All of the research participants said that they were passionately in love with their significant others; the relationships varied in length from several months to more than two decades.

The sexual orientation of the research participants had no bearing on the results. "The pattern of activation and de-activation was very similar in the brains of males and females, and heterosexuals and homosexuals," wrote the paper’s authors. "We could therefore detect no difference in activation patterns between these groups."

When the same research participants looked at photos of friends they were not in love with, no such changes occurred in brain activity. The people in the photos were of the same gender as each participant’s significant other.

The fact that viewing photos led the participants’ pleasure centers to become active, while the portions of the brain responsible for higher-level mental processes such as judgment became less active, invited commentary on the nature of love.

"Passionate romantic love, commonly triggered by a visual input, is an all-consuming and disorienting state that pervades almost every aspect of a lover’s life," the paper stated. "Yet human brain imaging studies show that the neural correlates of viewing the face of a loved person are limited to only a few, though richly connected, brain regions."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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