If daily life for many boys entails running a gauntlet of homophobic insults, how do they avoid being permanently labeled as Ricky was? Boys defend against homophobic teasing and harassment by assuring others of their heterosexuality. By engaging in a number of cross-gender rituals, a boy can relatively successfully defend himself against ending up in Ricky’s position, the object of harassment, derision and violence. In the same way that boys’ homophobia is not specifically about a sexual identity, compulsive heterosexuality1 is not only about expressing love, desire and intimacy, but about showing a sexualized dominance over girls’ bodies. The sort of gendered teasing in which boys engage takes a toll on girls as well as other boys. In my research I found three components of compulsive heterosexuality: rituals of getting girls, rituals of touch, and sex talk.
Perhaps the most obvious example of “getting girls” is having a girlfriend. Having a girlfriend seems a normal teen behavior. For boys who are identified as feminine and teased for unmasculine practices, having a girlfriend functions as some sort of protection against homophobic harassment. Justin told me that some boys have girlfriends “so they look like they’re not losers or they’re not gay.” David told me that a lot of the kids at his high school think that he is gay because of his preppy clothing choices and his lisp such that for him “it’s better to have a girlfriend . . . because people think I’m gay. I get that all the time.” In order to defend against teasing and harassment boys like David need to establish a sort of baseline heterosexuality by proving they can “get a girl.” Because of the difficulty in avoiding all of the behaviors that might render one vulnerable to teasing, having a girlf riend helps to inure one to accusations of the “fag discourse.”
Similarly, cross-gender touching rituals establish a given boy’s heterosexuality. These physical interchanges may first appear as harmless flirtation, but upon closer inspection actually reinforce boys’ dominance over girls’ bodies. The use of touch maintains a social hierarchy (Henley 1977). Superiors touch subordinates, invade their space and interrupt them in a way subordinates do not do to superiors and these superior—inferior relationships are often gendered ones. Boys and girls often touch each other as part of daily interaction, communication and flirtation. In many instances cross-sex touching was lightly flirtatious and reciprocal. But these touching rituals ranged from playful flirtations to assault-like interactions. Boys might physically constrain girls under the guise of flirtation. One time in a school hallway a boy wrapped his arms around a girl and started to “freak” her, or grind his pelvis into hers as she struggled to get away. This sort of behavior happened more often in primarily male spaces. One day for instance, in a school weight room, Monte wrapped his arms around a girl’s neck as if to put her in a headlock and held her there while Reggie punched her in the stomach, albeit lightly, and she squealed. A more dramatic example of this was during a passing period in which Keith rhythmically jabbed a girl in the crotch with his drumstick, while he yelled “Get raped!”These examples show how the constraint and touching of female bodies gets translated as masculinity, embedding sexualized meanings in which heterosexual flirting is coded as female helplessness and male bodily dominance.
While people jokingly refer to boys’ sex talk as “boys will be boys” or “locker room” talk, this sex talk plays a serious role in defending against acquiring an identity like Ricky’s. Boys enact and naturalize their heterosexuality by asserting “guys are horndogs” or by claiming that it is “kind of impossible for a guy” to not “think of sex every two minutes” as Chad does. Thinking about boys’ sexual performance in terms of compulsive heterosexuality shows that asserting that one is a horndog and cannot help but think about sex is actually a gendered performance. Boys’ sex talk often takes the form of “mythic story telling” in which they tell larger than life tales about their sexual adventures, their bodies and girls’ bodies that do not reflect love, desire or sensuality, but rather dominance over girls’ bodies. Pedro, for instance, laughed and acted out having sex with his girlfriend by leaning back up against the wall, legs and arms spread and head turning back and forth as he continued to say proudly “I did her so hard when I was done she was bleeding. I tore her walls!” The boys surrounding him cheered and oohed and aahed in amazement. Violence frequently frames these stories. Much like the touching rituals in which boys establish dominance over girls’ bodies, these stories show what boys can make girls bodies do. Rich, after finishing lifting weights in his school’s weight room, sat on a weight bench and five boys gathered around him as he told a story, after much urging, about sex with his now ex-girlfriend. He explained that they were having sex and “she said it started to hurt. I said we can stop and she said no. Then she said it again and she started crying. I told her to get off! Told her to get off! Finally I took her off,” making a motion like he was lifting her off of him. He continued, “There was blood all over me! Blood all over her! Popped her wall! She had to have stitches.” Boys start cracking up and moaning. Not to be outdone, other boys in the circle begin to chime in about their sexual exploits. Even those who don’t have stories about themselves, asserted their knowledge of sex through vicarious experiences. Troy joined the discussion with a story about his brother, a professional basketball player for a nearby city. He “brought home a 24 year old drunk chick! She farted the whole time they were doing it in the other room! It was hella gross!” All the boys crack up again. Adam, not to be outdone, claimed “My friend had sex with a drunk chick. He did her in the butt! She s*** all over the place!” The boys all crack up again and yell out things like “Hella gross!” or “That’s disgusting!” These graphic, quite violent stories detail what boys can make girls bodies do — rip, bleed, fart and poop.
To understand the role of sexuality in maintaining gender inequality it is important to look at sexuality, and specifically heterosexuality, not as a set of desires, identities or dispositions, but as an institution. Adrienne Rich (1986) does this when she argues that heterosexuality is an institution that systematically disempowers women. Similarly, compulsive heterosexuality is a set of practices through which boys reinforce linkages between sexuality, dominance and violence. This heterosexuality is a defensive heterosexuality, not necessarily a reflection of an internal set of emotions.
Many boys’school-based lives involve running a daily gauntlet of sexualized insults, as they simultaneously try to lob homophobic epithets at others and defend themselves from said epithets. In this sense masculinity becomes the daily interactional work of repudiating the labels of fag, queer or gay. Unpacking the definition of what appears to be homophobia clarifies the gender policing at the heart of boys’ harassment of one another and of girls. Homophobic epithets may or may not have explicitly sexual meanings, but they always have gendered meanings. Many boys are clearly terrified of being permanently labeled as gay, fag or queer, since to them such a label effectively negates their humanness. As a part of boys’ defensive strategy, girls’ bodies become masculinity resources deployed in order to stave off these labels.
The practices of compulsive heterosexuality indicate that control over girls’ bodies and their sexuality is central to definitions of adolescent masculinity. If masculinity is, as boys told me, about competence, heterosexuality, being unemotional, and dominance, then girls’ bodies provide boys the opportunity to ward off the fag discourse by demonstrating mastery and control over them. Engaging in compulsive heterosexuality also allows boys to display a lack of emotions by refusing to engage the empathy that might mitigate against such a use of girls and their bodies. It is important to note that many of these boys are not unrepentant sexists or homophobes. In private and in one-on-one conversations, many spoke of sexual equality and of tender feelings for girls. For the most part these were social behaviors that boys engaged in when around other boys, precisely because they are less reflections of internal homophobic and sexist dispositions and more about constituting a masculine identity, something that is accomplished interactionally.
This gendered homophobia, as well as sexualized and gendered defenses against it, comprises contemporary adolescent masculinity. Fear of any sort of same-sex intimacy (platonic or not) polices boys’ friendships with one another. The need to repudiate that which is not considered masculine leads to a very public renunciation of same-sex desire. Heterosexual flirtation becomes entwined with gendered dominance. What this means is that the public face of adolescent sexuality is rife with reproduction of gender inequality, through processes of the fag discourse and compulsive heterosexuality.
1 This concept draws upon Adrienne Rich’s (1986) influential concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” as well as Michael Kimmel’s (1987) notion of “compulsive masculinity.”
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