4 min

Op-ed: Who are men who have sex with men?

It’s a touchy thing, talking about “men who have sex with men.”

All puns aside, the actual term is pretty self-explanatory. Also known as MSM, it has been bandied about by a lot of researchers, epidemiologists, sociologists and many, many more.

In fact, the first time I heard the term “men who have sex with men” was from a person who works in healthcare and health promotion. At first I thought of it as an umbrella term for gay, bisexual and queer men, but they corrected me. No, it included straight men, they said. They pointed out that some men identify as straight but choose to have occasional sex with men. (This was not news to me.) From their perspective, it wasn’t necessarily important why they chose to do so, let alone how they identify. Their argument was that if health information needed to be distributed to men who have sex with men, including those men who don’t identify as bi, gay or queer – even though the men they have been having sex with do – then they could be missing a part of the population that they want to reach. Why not cast the net as wide as possible?

(On a side note, it is worth mentioning that it could be argued, however, that maybe the net should be tighter, since people who live under the queer umbrella, (ie identify as such) already have enough problems accessing healthcare and health information, and that it would be more effective to target them. But that's another story and another op-ed.)

But let’s get back to sex.

According to a recent blog post by pyschotherapist/sex therapist Joe Kort over at The Huffington Post, even therapists have started to use the term MSM. Kort talks about how he sees clients who don’t identify as gay, yet they do engage in acts that others may view as being endemic to being gay, ie having sex with men.

Kort takes a more psychological (and you could even say pathology-based) approach to the reasons these things happen, but to be honest, those don’t interest me. I don’t care why certain men who identify as straight have sexual encounters with men. What I do care about is the flipside: how we, who do not identify as being heterosexual or heteronormative, talk about these men.

Kort explains that:

When I write about straight men who are attracted to or having sex with other men, I receive numerous negative responses, mostly from gay men who have lived in the closet, convincing themselves that they were straight, and may have even had relationships or marriages with women. "You are keeping these men closeted and harming them!" they shout at me. But what these gay men don't realize is that I am not talking about men like them. These gay men were suppressing an identity: a sexual and romantic identity of being gay. These are not the men I am addressing here.

Although I don’t necessarily agree with the rest of Kort’s post – or his beliefs as to why straight men have sex with men – he does bring up an interesting point. For a long time, gay, bisexual and queer men have worked hard to find all sorts of connections with one another and with society at large, often in a framework that stigmatizes them, even as they assert themselves. It’s a lot of work – personal, social, even political – to get to the point where one can feel as if one can live within society.

I can’t speak to other people’s experiences, but I don’t feel I chose to be gay. The only thing I chose to do is to identify openly as such.

Which brings me back to sex.

If I think back to when I was younger, and the people I had “exploratory fun” with, none of those people identify as gay. I’ve even had sexual encounters with people who did – and continue to – identify as straight. In one case, the person just wanted to know what it would be like to have sex with another man. They enjoyed themselves but didn’t see the need for a second round. I wouldn’t want to peg that person, or any of my former teenage flings, as being gay. I don’t think that would be fair to them, to their lives or to the choices they have made that have led them to their present state in life. The same way that if I had ever, as a youth, had any sexual encounters with a woman (which I never have), would be pegged as "straight."

If I ever did decide at some point to have a sexual or emotional encounter with a woman, would that make me less of a gay man? I don’t think so. Some people – including me – may joke that I would no longer be a “gold star” gay, or one who has exclusively had sexual relations with the same sex.

That’s the clincher in all this: men who have sex with men is a moniker that depends on acts – not identifiers, not social constructs, nor sexualities. It can be difficult to quantify those things from a statistical perspective. Statistics tend to be reductive. I don’t mean reductive in a negative way, just that it simplifies things. Sexuality and identity are inherently personal and individual things, and ascribing values to them is a dangerous and difficult thing to do. Does the gay guy who occasionally sleeps with women but doesn’t identify as bisexual get lumped in with bisexual men? Does it matter? Should it? 

It may be easier, from a statistical perspective, to identify the acts rather than the individuals. But that leaves something very important out of all of this: the individuals. 

What matters is that we still live in a society where labels are felt to be necessary to explain human experience, rather than looking at the impact those labels have. Impacts such as men having sex with men who then feel a social push to identify in certain ways, ways that are not necessarily genuine to their life experiences. 

So for statistical purposes, I am a gay man, a queer man, a man who has sex with men.

But I identify as myself.