Nerve, February 2001    » Visit the original URL for this article
The New Fantasy
By Emily Nussbaum

When I was eighteen, my boyfriend and I got into a kissing contest. We were dancing, drunk, at an off-campus party, hip-to-hip with my friend Ben and his boyfriend. Madonna’s “Borderline,” that perfect ode to the female orgasm, was probably playing, and probably still is, somewhere, at some eternal freshman year party.

Greg and I would shimmy; Ben and Monte would shimmy. We’d bump; they’d bump. We’d brush lips; they’d brush lips. Soon there was full-fledged deep-smooching going on, a kind of playful one-upmanship of the lips — until Greg dipped me backwards in a sudden dramatic arc, and my Chia pet–like hair went up in flames, ignited by the miniature candles flickering near us on a fireplace mantle. We all screamed, and the boys hit me on the head to tamp out the fire.

It was probably not the first time I’d seen two men kiss, although it was the most dramatic. After all, I was attending Oberlin College, where coming out was only slightly more difficult than declaring one’s major: the boy I was kissing announced that he was gay (or actually, that he was “homophobic” — he thought it meant “afraid of being gay”) two months later. I spent my freshman year enthralled by the gay men around me: not so much crushed out on them, despite the brief fling with Greg, as I was fascinated by their sophistication about sex, the writers they read, their mind-gamey flirtations, their confidence on the dance floor. (Clichéd, yes, but then, these were theater majors.) The gay men I knew were funnier than anyone else, and meaner — two qualities which were not unrelated. If a joke fell flat, they mockingly high-fived, then dismissed it as “straight-boy humor.”

But while I thought they were sexy, I didn’t fantasize about them having sex. Like everyone else, I knew what people (that is, everyone except gay men themselves) thought was sexy: lesbians, and naked women in general. Two females together were beautiful. Two males together were gross. Breasts, excellent for all occasions; penises, practical, certainly, but raw and unlovely. Like so many gut feelings, these impulses felt natural, inevitable — something embossed in the brain.

Part of the problem was that unlike lesbian “what do women do together?” sex, male-male action invoked a singular act — anal sex — as mechanical as a piston. If two male friends of mine were kissing, and my imagination slipped and took it one step further, it was as though a cartoon balloon had popped up over their embrace: butt-fucking! Hard. Thwock, thwock, thwock, two bodies like a reverberating machine that produced over and over again the same slip of paper reading: “Tab A does not fit in Slot B.” (A few years later, watching CNN, I thought I could see that same balloon popping up over the heads of the congressmen debating gays in the military. To vote for change didn’t mean them imagining working with gay men; it meant imagining ass-sex.)

Lately, however, I’ve noticed a change. Like most such social mutations, it’s shown up in strange little snags in the social web: odd jokes, images in ads, ripples in conversation. Most notably, it’s shown up on the Internet, in the form of slash fiction — erotic fantasies written about characters from pop culture. Like romance novels, slash is written largely by women, and a huge proportion of it is about male/male sex: Kirk/Spock, Angel/Xander, Chandler/Joey. Alternately nerdish and brilliant, it’s a vibrant literary subculture with its own celebrities and fan communities and a range of stories from vanilla-sweet to graphically carnal. As gay male sex has entered the culture, it seems, it’s also made a dramatic leap into the fantasy lives of straight people, especially straight women — a shift from disgust to neutrality to active, erotic interest.

I know it has into mine. The other night, watching HBO’s graphic prison drama Oz, I found myself goggling in fascination as charismatic psychopath Keller, played by Chris Meloni, leaned his rippling torso over a weight bench and kissed his prison buddy full on the lips. This wasn’t a peck, or a highly publicized “Hey! They kissed” gimmick (like that moment a few years back on Melrose Place, when the cameras went swooping, like panicked birds, around poor sexless Matt and his companion). No: Meloni’s kiss was a full-on lip-melding seduction, an embrace that mixed force and romance, and that stayed center screen.

And that was the tamest scene in the episode. There was a full-frontal sequence in the shower. There was full, um, dorsal nudity, too, when Meloni taunted an ex-lover by dropping his pants, bending over and spreading his cheeks wide, showing balls, ass and asshole — a gesture which, in the raw prison context of the show, was weirdly moving, a combination of aggression and vulnerability. In the final scene of the episode, when Keller received a blowjob, it was shown complete with pelvic rocking and his face opening and shifting at the moment of orgasm.

By the time the show ended, I felt flushed with the same embarrassing arousal I first remember while watching The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jethro. Except that in Oz, there were two Jethros. And in one scene, three. Who knows what it was that was so affecting: the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing an act in which I could never participate? The strange tenderness of seeing such brutal men made vulnerable? Whatever the source, watching these scenes was unsettling, and weirdly liberating, too — in just the way strong physical feeling frequently is. To feel turned-on or turned-off — aroused, revolted, or both at once, toggling like a strobe — means exactly what it sounds like: to have a switch flipped. To imagine something means you let it in, let it change you (a risk the straight congressman couldn’t take). In the case of Oz, the context may have been a brutal prison drama, and one of the characters a violent psychopath, but marbled into the show were some of the most erotically powerful images I’ve seen in years.

Of course, there’s nothing new about a particular sexual fantasy shuddering through the culture: in the wake of the Starr Report, a thousand Oval Office fantasies bloomed. But straight women fantasizing about gay men does seem new in a way that boss/intern scenarios are not. There’s little evidence in Western literature (most of it, granted, created by men) that women have fantasized about men making love together. There’s no sexual apocrypha that women watch football, say, to make up fantasies about what’s going on in the tackle pile — or that they nag their boyfriends to bring their best friend to bed, c’mon, just once, just as an experiment. Maybe they will now. It’s not hard to come up with a stone-soup theory about what has made this crossover possible: take the gay rights movement; fold in an increasingly visible gay male culture (coming-out films, drag queens, Will & Grace); add pro-sex feminism, the erotic anonymity of the Internet and idealized male torsos flooding the pages of magazines. Stir. But whatever has caused the shift, it’s fresh in a way that many sexual fantasies are not.

And that newness is in itself illuminating — because while it’s just one small example, it’s a helpful counter to the other virus-like fantasy spreading across our culture, sociobiological explanations for human behavior. The media is flush with assertions that the body is a blueprint: everything from depression to shyness to intelligence is predetermined at birth. And that goes double for gender and sex. At parties lately, I’ve been hearing a repetitive refrain: someone will assert that a cliché is true (men cheat; women like old, rich men) by asserting, “it’s fashionable to say that all sexual behavior is culturally created, but … ” But it’s all in the genes, but it’s evolution, but we should just admit it. We want what we want because that’s what we’ve always wanted, and that’s what we’ll always want. It’s natural. (What’s really fashionable, perhaps, is to call cultural theories fashionable.)

It’s a comforting perspective, in a way: like religious pre-determinism, defaulting to sociobiology means there’s no point in chafing at what seems unfair about the world’s power structures — if it can’t be changed, we might as well just learn to live with it. It’s appealing because it’s mathematical, a straight arrow from a hormone to a behavior. But most of us know from experience that these generalizations are too simple to describe accurately how sex is lived, how sex is felt. Kissing seems gross, then queasy/fascinating, then hot, then a million things at once. Experience shifts our “types,” shifts what feels good, shifts what feels possible. We may be wired toward certain tastes, but those wires get bent, early and often. And sometimes, a new fantasy appears. Like Greg and I dancing side-by-side with Ben and Monty, we pick up moves from one another, then alter them as they enter our bodies. And sometimes, it sets us on fire.