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The Gay Difference

Gay and straight men have different concepts about nudity and sex. How does this work out in real life?

Communal bathing, steam rooms and showering all go back to the time of ancient Rome. According to historian Ray Laurence, it was a sensual and social pleasure that was akin to modern commercial saunas, gay and straight. It also involved massage and depilation. These spaces were sumptuous, well-decorated and provided ample opportunities for gazing longingly at younger men’s bodies and checking out other men’s endowments. Single-sex facilities provided opportunities for sexual interaction and later assignations.

(It should be noted that there are some differences between Roman gender and sexualities and those within contemporary western societies. The cinaedus might have been stigmatised because he was an adult male who enjoyed ‘passive’ penetrative sex, but he could also be mocked for providing oral sex to his female partners. No such stigma appears to have been attached to equivalent lesbian sex, but then no documentary first-person records exist about female single-sex bathing arrangements and Roman lesbian identities).

As with their ancient Roman counterparts, young straight men often like to engage in defiant boundary testing. This lends itself to things like streaking at sports events or during stag nights, or prancing about naked in rugby players’ locker rooms. They disregard the Crimes Act provisions against public nudity out of a sense of bravado and the thrill of defiance, chase and pursuit. Or else, they have nicely configured bods and want the rest of us to know about it. While some straight women may appreciate this display, they aren’t the only ones. Liberal straight male boundary testers don’t mind this- look, but don’t touch, they grin. This raises some interesting questions about Welsh Rugby hero, Gareth Thomas, given his recent disclosure of his sexuality.

In other cases, it’s look but don’t do much else. In 1998, Vincent Bethell (28) stripped off in London and was imprisoned awaiting trial for contravening Section 5 of the Public Order Act. In a jury trial, he was accquitted, which happened several subsequent times, although the police still bring them to the courts. Bethell has retired. Apparently, his quest was to normalise public nudity, unlike nudist rambler Steve Gough, whom he criticizes. Sadly, nothing like this happens in South Africa, apart from political protests or art installations or streaking at international cricket and rugby games.

Gay men have a different relationship to nudity, which can be summarised as follows. For us, removal of clothing is often erotically charged, especially if one is adjacent to what one considers a pleasant looking male body. In certain social contexts, nudity serves as a prelude to active sexual pursuit and consummation. This time-hallowed narrative has some implications- it can be used to incorporate condom use into any staged, unfolding sexual spectacle.

In other contexts, it can be just as useful. After all, the spectacle of an athletic naked male body may tap into the exhibitionist/voyeur dichotomy. In cases like the obligingly unclad straight males above, we may have no trouble complying with actual tactile non-contact, given that it may form pleasant content for later self-arousal. And why not? Voyeurism and self-relief are both perfectly permissible forms of safe sex.

Sometimes, it gets even better, as the boundary turns out to be fluid. Initially, the boundary tester may want no tactile contact, but after mild inebriation and unrelieved sexual tension with the other sex, he may be amenable to further boundary testing, such as enjoyable sex with other men after naked hijinks, or even fully fledged bisexuality if he enjoys it particularly and realises what he’s been missing out on.

Undressing can be an erotic act in itself, as is the presence of minimal clothing that doesn’t leave much to the imagination, like speedos. Mind you, given that they don’t leave much to the imagination, they can be easily removed. Granted, the locker room experience can be alarmingly ambiguous for younger gay men, given that their hormonal surges are triggered by the aforementioned adjacent spectacle of male undressing and athleticism in certain contexts. Unfortunately, it’s also an opportunity for conservative adolescent straight male disavowal. It is a stimulating yet worrying spectacle, given concerns about detection.

Much also depends on who is removing the clothes. In locker room or changing room situations, it is usually one and the same person, whose primary objective is en route to appropriate dress for sporting or athletic endeavour. Afterwards, the aforementioned garments are removed to bathe and relieve oneself of unpleasant sweat.

If it’s someone else, then anticipated sex is one reason for being undressed. Power and authority is another, as in strip searches of those suspected of illegality. Given reduced nudity taboos today though, it may not be as intimidating as it used to be. And of course, simulated power and authority transactions can also be erotically charged and this structured play permits further (…) – insertion of condoms within this scenario.

In gay nudity scenarios, undressing can be an erotic act in itself. It then leads on to other things after the display of the desired body, or as a prelude to equally pleasant delayed self-gratification, sudden pleasant boundary renegotiation, cruising and the act itself. Gay sex involves a series of stages in stories or narratives, with ample opportunities to get it on. Str8 men just don’t have that.