What are they afraid of?

Vardibidian notes: "Ed Gray, a sports columnist for the Boston Herald, has come out of the closet." Nice column. But one thing Gray doesn't mention is the big logic question that continues to confuse me: what exactly is a straight man in a locker room afraid that a gay teammate will do, even if they're not surrounded by straight teammates? I think the underlying fear, rarely explicitly stated, is that the gay man will be driven by lust to anally rape the straight man, and I think it's a fascinating reversal. It suggests that gay men are not weak limp-wristed girlymen, but rather so strong and powerful that they're capable of physically forcing an unwanted sex act on another athlete.

It also suggests—and I think this gets closer to the real root of this particular brand of homophobia—that what the homophobic straight men in question are really scared of is being penetrated—that is, being turned into women. (A lesser degree of the same issue may have to do with being an object of desire; men are supposed to be the active gazers, women the passive gazees.) Gay men, in this context, are frightening because their sexual acts weaken and feminize other men. Many men are told all their lives that being like a woman is bad; women are weak, men are strong, strength is good. A man who is unmanned or unmanly is shamed.

I could be wrong about all this. But if I'm right, I think it's a telling and very sad indication of how far we still have left to go with respect to gender roles and stereotypes.

24 Responses to “What are they afraid of?”

  1. Amy

    I am not a straight man. But I would wonder if maybe the locker room problem is just a fear of being checked out? Like it’s supposed to be a place where guys don’t need to “perform” in a portraying-manly-sexiness way, or whatever, and the idea that somebody might be eyeing them up and judging them doesn’t fit with that? I guess that would imply though that straight men care about their image in the eyes of gay men, which maybe they wouldn’t, I don’t know.

  2. SarahP

    A related point: I wonder if it’s an assumption, by the locker room guys, that if a man is gay he’s going to want to have sex with *every single man* in the locker room simply because they’re men. The assumption being that gay men find *all* men sexually attractive. Humph. Heh. The way I as a bi woman find all men and women attractive. Every one, in the whole world!

    A sorta-related corollary. I was teaching a composition class a couple of years ago, and this kid wanted to do an argument paper on why homosexuals (men) should not be allowed to be Boy Scout leaders. Why shouldn’t they, I asked the class. A couple of them responded, ‘because they’ll want to have sex with the kids.’ So, I asked, are you saying that homosexuals are pedophiles? A lot of them had conflated the term–both perversions, in their minds.

    But don’t get me started on the Boy Scouts…

  3. irilyth

    I’m sure some of that stuff is true, but I think there’s also a less homophobic desire not to be naked in front of someone who finds you sexually attractive. Are gay reports in the locker room more threatening than female reporters? But we don’t think twice about suggesting that women shouldn’t be around when the guys are naked.

    Maybe that’s a different question: What’s the basis for our wacky idea that men shouldn’t want to be naked around somen?

  4. Jed

    Yes, very good points. I think that a lot of straight people think (mostly unconsciously) something like If that person is defining themselves in terms of their sexuality (I don’t do that, I’m just normal), that must mean they’re really into sex, it’s the most important thing in their life, they go after anything that moves. I think in a sense that’s just a logic gap, a failure to see that homosexuality and bisexuality are parallel to heterosexuality, and that sexual attraction is an odd and idiosyncratic kind of thing.

    (On the other hand, I suppose in some cases it may be over-projecting rather than under-projecting; a straight male friend of mine once commented something to the effect that he was in love at least a little bit with every woman he’d ever met. I imagine he was exaggerating in various ways, but still, there may be guys who are sexually attracted to pretty much all women.)

    I guess there’s also some ego stuff in there—you learn that someone is attracted to members of your gender, you want to consider yourself attractive, the logical corollary is that they’re attracted to you.

    Another related item is that a fair number of straight people assume that bi people can’t be monogamous. The best response to that I’ve heard was a Usenet posting many years ago, which noted that just because a straight man is attracted to both blonde and brunette women doesn’t mean he can’t be monogamous.

    And yeah, the gay man = pedophile idea is still unfortunately widespread. It’s mixed in with stuff about homosexuality being catching (you don’t want to expose kids to that stuff, because pleasurable sin is tempting, and kids exposed to the idea will start doing it), and with the allegedly voracious sexual appetites of gay men, and so on. I suspect it has a lot to do with why so many gay men in modern American media (like the gay sidekick in romantic comedies) have no sex life; as long as you pretend that gays don’t do any of that icky sex stuff, you can be comfortable with them, ’cause after all they’re smart and funny and fashionable and emotional, combining all the best aspects of the female best friend and the male lover, without there being any danger of sex getting in the way.

    Anyway, I’m babbling, tossing in all sorts of mostly unrelated stuff, so I’ll stop now.

  5. Jed

    Interesting point, Irilyth. I don’t think I can answer very well, ’cause I’m personally kinda uncomfortable being naked around anyone other than lovers (I always did my best not to be naked in the locker room at all, back in the days when I had to take P.E. classes), but I did want to note in passing that a lot of gender-separation stuff does seem to assume that (e.g.) any straight woman will be sexually attracted to all men. Interesting parallels there.

  6. Zak

    As tempting as it is for me to conclude that it’s all about homophobia, I have a nagging sense that the phenomenon is more complex. I’m certainly not discounting ‘phobeness as even the major factor, but I also have to wonder if it isn’t simply an issue of intimacy. Locker rooms are comfortable to players precisely because there is no intimacy in it, or the intimacy is carefully cordoned off from ‘real’ intimacy. Having someone who might be attracted to their nudity changes the nature of the space and it becomes harder to maintain that separation between ‘casual’ intimacy and ‘real’ intimacy.

    Of course, I can’t really bring much authority to the discussion since I’ve never been naked in a locker room with other men.

  7. Mike Jasper

    Me, I’m still trying to figure out what the use is having reporters in the damn locker room in the first place! Locker rooms are nasty places, man. Nothing to report there — that ain’t news!

    I always liked the button one of my Clarion classmates wore at a party: “I’m bisexual, and I’m not attracted to you.”

  8. Dan

    irilyth writes: Maybe that’s a different question: What’s the basis for our wacky idea that men shouldn’t want to be naked around somen?

    I, for one, am horribly anxious about thin wheat noodles making moves on me. (sorry… forgive me?)

    On to the main: is it unreasonable to play three-gender-monte and ask the question, “what’s the basis for our wacky idea that women might not[*] want to be naked around [men/someone]?” The obvious rejoinder is that women have more to fear from male sexual predators than vice versa. Is this still a factor in a situation where naked women would outnumber naked men by a factor of 9 to 1, the theorized ratio of straight to gay in a random group? What other factors besides physical danger are at play here?

    [*]”might not”: I replaced “shouldn’t” with “might not” because I don’t think anyone’s said here that straight men *should* be averse to showering with a gay man, just that many straight men *are*.

  9. Dan

    And for that matter: straight women’s reactions to lesbians in the locker room? I’ve heard some women be awfully nasty about that prospect. Still, the male case gets a lot more hype. Is this because it really is a bigger issue for men, or is it just because male homophobes are more likely to be violent than female homophobes?

  10. Nick Mamatas

    The notion of penetration seems to be a leap. The feminization of the gaze is already a sufficient explanation.

    And of course with feminization comes homosexualization — men gaze at women and wish/think/project mutual desire…they want to the woman to want to be gazed at, incorporating and consensualizing the gaze.

    These men can’t conceive of a male gaze that doesn’t do the same for them.

    Anal anxiety is certainly a big problem in prisons, but I don’t think that’s the case in locker rooms.

    Btw, I’m speaking as a former all-county high school wrestler. Talk about a collision between the homoerotic and homophobic.

  11. Benjamin Rosenbaum

    Nick’s last comment illuminates another angle on this: men who play contact sports like to touch other men. I don’t necessarily mean that it’s all repressed homoeroticism. Touching and hugging people and wrestling with them and bouncing off them is just plain fun, whether you want to screw them or not. If you look at other primates, it’s obvious that they have an enormous need for nonsexual grooming behaviors — and I think so do we. Lack of sex is tolerable over long periods of time, but lack of touch makes you kind of nuts pretty quickly, as far as I can tell — and our society’s proclivity for sexualizing everything is part of what makes nonsexual touch difficult for a lot of people to obtain.

    So I think at least part of what male athletes in *contact* sports are afraid of is that the interpretation of the touch will change. The athletes will find themselves suddenly in a sexual situation when they intended to be in a nonsexual physical play situation — and, since gay people are not a part of their world, they don’t really have the tools to explicitly negotiate the boundaries of those situations (with unrelated women they can more or less assume all situations are sexual). Touch will no longer be safe. I think there’s a lot of simple fear of social awkwardness there, even barring the other factors — fear of being thought gay and thus low-status for tolerating the gay gaze, fear of being feminized, etc.

    You’ll note it’s usually men in contact sports that have this issue — you just don’t get as much visceral fear of gay presence in the locker room from runners, swimmers, tennis players, etc.

  12. Rachel Heslin

    I think one possibility deals with power issues in our society (please insert caveats regarding stylistic hyperbole): men are supposed to be the hunters, women are supposed to be the prize.

    At the point that a man fears being the prize for another man, he may lose his sense of identity: Hey! *I’m* supposed to be the *hunter!* If I’m the hunted, where’s my power? How do I survive? Why have I become an object, not the active subject?

    As a woman who has had to deal with issues of rape and such, I will admit to a small part of me that feels slightly smug about rattling someone’s innate assumption of superiority. For all that the greater percentage of males I’ve met in my life are pretty good people, there are those who are still pretty Neanderthal, and I don’t mind shaking up their confidence a bit if there’s a possibility of increasing their empathy quotient.

  13. Jed

    A bunch of interesting comments here; thanks, all! I just wanted to comment further on one item: when I was talking about fear of penetration, I was conflating the locker-room issue with a more pervasive thing I see in the wider culture. Sorry for the confusion. I don’t actually know enough about locker-room culture to be able to comment coherently on it alone; I should’ve said that.

    (Specifically, I hear jokes, generally from straight men, that use terms like “butt pirates,” and talk about how important it is not to bend over in a shower shared with other men to pick up soap (not just in a prison context, I don’t think, but I could be wrong). I’ve heard a man talk about how to erase a blackboard in a way that doesn’t make your butt wiggle. There seems to be a general notion among a fair number of straight men that one’s ass is a major target of those free-ranging predator homosexuals, and that one must do whatever one can to avoid flaunting said ass, to keep from attracting unwanted attention to it. Some of that is presumably about the Gaze and the subject/object thing, but I get the impression there’s also some fear of physical violation there as well. But I could be wrong.)

  14. SarahP

    I’m sorry, Jed, but I burst out laughing at “free-ranging predator homosexuals.”

    Dunno why; it just struck me as funny.

    We talked about the Gaze in class today, what a coincidence!

  15. Jacob

    In both team sports and the military, men are encouraged to form very close bonding within a unit. In war, soldiers will take huge risks to retrieve wounded men in their unit, and will, if need be, die to save fellow soldiers. What word can describe that kind of devotion other than love?

    I have heard it argued that any implication that the love of soldiers or teammates is sexual, homoerotic love can damage this bonding process. If one of the people involved is openly gay, their very presence, it is argued, offers such an implication.

    Others argue that the reason this implication is so damaging is that unit or team bonding really is based on (repressed) homoeroticism, and won’t survive coming out of the closet.

  16. Nick Mamatas

    Hmm, I don’t know if various soap dropping/”cherry daddy” jokes are anal anxiety either. I think they’re primarily anal interest — see the number of straight men who enjoy being penetrated or at least stimulated, even if they prefer a female partner doing it. A lot of that is just ribaldry based on this interest, though of course the interest itself is often sublimated due to associational homophobia.

  17. Dan

    Jed wrote: I did want to note in passing that a lot of gender-separation stuff does seem to assume that (e.g.) any straight woman will be sexually attracted to all men.

    Really? This seems unnecessarily convoluted.

    It seems simpler to say that in mainstream US culture, nakedness = vulnerability and
    nakedness + person-of-the-preferred-sex = sexualized situation. Seems like discomfort in that context would be a fairly natural, gender-neutral response.

    If you’re suggesting that clothed women reporters in male locker rooms is regarded as more objectionable than clothed male reporters in female locker rooms, then I suppose there might be some kind of subtext that all straight women are attracted to all men — but I don’t think that’s what you’re getting at.

  18. David Moles

    I think the active/passive thing has a lot to do with it. That’s still the stereotype not just for gazing, but for actual intercourse.

  19. John B

    Hmm. There is an assumption that ‘straight men are afraid of gay men in the locker room’ which I do not see supported here with any facts. It seems that Nick is the only guy in this comment (myself included) that has spent any time in a male sports locker room.

    I think that fear is too strong of a word.

    But whatever the word, I would definitely agree that “discomfort” would most likely fit, at least for many straight guys.

    Which brings me to the undertone of many discussions like this, that being that all straight men are homophobic. Or at least that all big burly football playing, locker room cursing, towel butt snapping, guys are homophobic.

    Again, I am not sure that is a well founded assumption either.

    I am a 48 year old straight guy, who was raised in a time when gay jokes were socially acceptable. My parents never taught me that, but the schoolyard is a rough place and many sterotypes were thrown out all the time in the sixties and accepted. It is very hard to throw off that influence of one’s early life. I don’t think I was ever homophobic, but I have felt–in the pas–that being gay was wrong. It has taken me a very long time and my own logical brain finally telling my subconcious school yard training to cram it up its —. Sorry. Bad choice of phrases .

    My point is that many of straight guys are not homophobic at all. Others are what I would call homo-wary. And unfortunately, still others are homo-aggressive and homophobic.

    And in the locker room, I would think that all types would be there as well. And that not too many of them would be fearing contact or being hit on. I think that it would be just an unidentifiable discomfort based on that person’s personal childhood training bubbling up under the surface.

    Of course, I’ve never been in a locker room either.

    Good discussion, Jed. It’s this type of topic that will help all of to grow.

    Now…Next topic. Straight guys fascination with lesbians. Discuss!

    John (Oo. I am asking for it!)

  20. Jessica

    One reason a lot of men walk around naked looking at other mens penis’s is that they want to make sure they are large in that department.

  21. Jed

    I don’t have any sort of coherent policy about what comments I leave and what ones I remove. I used to basically allow anything that wasn’t actually spam. But these days I’m feeling less tolerant of certain behaviors. The latest one was an anonymous comment to this entry; the commenter noted, quite reasonably, that fear is not necessarily the relevant emotion, but then went on to say “Get fucked” and “Stop whining.” I suppose I could have interpreted “Get fucked” as a pleasant suggestion for a fun activity, but I’m not in the mood. As I’ve done with the other obnoxious anonymous comments lately, I marked the comment as “unpublished”; that way if I decide to restore it later, I can do so.

    On the very unlikely chance that the anonymous commenter comes back: Anonymous Commenter, you’re welcome to re-post your comment, as long as you stay civil. No insults, no nastiness. If you want me to re-post it with the obnoxious bits removed, lemme know; I can do that.

  22. Christina

    A friend of mine and myself workout together at the gym 5 nights a week. My friend is a lesbian, and I am straight. We do shower after every workout, in a communal shower-room, and I don’t bother wearing a towell back and fourth from the showers and lockers. With all of that said I can honestly tell you that I have no problem at all with my friend seeing me nude! Why should I, were still both girls, and she knows what it all looks like anyway.

    I would however have a problem with any guys being in there while I’m nude.

    My boyfriend and his friends are very conservative when their in the men’s locker room, from what I’ve heard anyway. They have said that it is largely a myth that guys are walking around naked in the locker room. Yeah, they said it occassionally happens, but that in general most guys would consider that to be pretty weird though.

    I have never had any problem with being seen nude in the women’s locker room, and I have never had a problem with the other women being nude in the locker room either.

    I think it is totally insane that women reporters are allowed in the men’s locker room! Why are these women allowed to rape men of their privacy? I would never in a million years want a woman in the men’s locker room while my boyfriend, husband, brother or my son was naked! It probably surprises most of you guys that a woman is saying this, but to be quite blunt any woman who would go into a men’s locker room while their are naked men in there is a total slut!
    I’ve always been currious why you guys don’t protest the double standard that allows women reporters and staff people to gawk at naked athlets, and yet male reporters are never allowed in the women’s locker rooms?

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want men to be in the women’s locker rooms. But I can’t understand why women without morals are allowed into the men’s locker rooms?

    Fell free to give me your opinions on what I have said!


  23. Jed

    Hmm. There was a fair bit of substance in that one, but then there’s the uncalled-for “total slut” line. Can’t decide whether to delete that comment or not. Will think about it further.

    Christina, if you come back here: Please don’t post comments in my journal that call people names.

  24. Paul Adams


    Interesting article on this it explains that it was not possible for Sam Wiche to omit all reporters from the men’s locker room.

    NBA policy is that the doors are open 10 minutes after a game and remain so until after the players leave. For WNBA the doors are closed after 20 minutes. For the NFL the doors are kept open also. So male players have no choice but to get dressed in front of female reporters.

    People instinctively understand that yes we all have rights but that others may have more basis rights that conflict with and override these. Thus normally people have the right that their access not be restricted on the basis of sex but in cases where people have to shower and change the more fundemental right of privacy overrides this right of access. Thus most people would realize that the more basic right of the players overrides the right of the female reporters in this situation. If most people think for 5 seconds they can understand this.
    That said in the case of interviewing players I believe some compromise could be arrived at which all accommodate reporters.

    The crux of the matter is women would not be happy having to dress or even wander around with towels on them in front of strange men but these Peeping Lisa reporters insist that men should.
    The issue is so clear-cut these feminists are fanatical about their own rights but have no concern about the rights of others. If someone were to breach their rights like this they would be outraged. They have a right to access the men’s locker room and this overrules any possible more fundemental right the players might have.

    Female sports reporters are venomous towards any discussion on the issue of locker rooms. They make comments like “We have earned this right” i.e. this arrogance is unbelievable they are saying we have earned the right to watch men naked in the locker room.
    The issue is so clear cut that they cannot tolerate any discussion on it. Notice how any articles by these Eagle Eyed Reporters never focus on the fact that female athletes don’t have to endure strange men going in to watch them change. They report like how great it is that these women have won the right to equality, their God given right to see men naked.

    This example clearly demonstrates feminism at its worst fighting for their right to abuse the rights of men and is damaging to the interests of women and fairness in general. Eventually men become hostile to the idea of women’s interests.

    Players are in a difficult position they are under enough of pressure as it is if they make an issue on this they are subjected to intimidation tactics by the league. They are forced to put up with this infringement. If a team started restricting access like that the league would be down on them. Incredibly female reporters complained about Charlie Ward giving a fellow player a copy of a Wall Street Journal article by Reggie White and he was ordered not to do so by Dave Checketts. This is incredible it just shows how the feminazis can get their own way regardless of logic as they will shout louder than anyone else. The NBA and the NFL have showed complete spinelessness by not confronting properly this obvious abuse of rights of the players. Instead of sticking up for the players officials come down on Charlie Ward for giving a copy of an article to someone else.

    Now few female sportswriters are going to admit being turned on in the locker so they have to say I they hate going in there and they are too busy and professional. It took many centuries for us to even accept that women had sex drives. Many players claim they are ogled by female reporters and are very frustrated by it and I have heard female reporters discussing individual player’s penises it is ridiculous to say women don’t look. Although here is a site which is pretty honest about some women enjoying the locker room setting.

    Most women are turned on by the male body its only natural, thus its only natural women would be very attracted to players who have a natural perfect build and are in peak physical health. We hear women everyday expressing admiration for the bodies of football players.

    That “some guys parade around naked” argument is crap. I know some players don’t mind being seen in the buff by women sure some women don’t mind either but that doesn’t make men stop respecting the rights of women.


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