How many times have you been in a sex positive space, whether online or in a group of friends, when a gay boy says, for one reason or another, “vaginas are gross?” In the best case scenario it can be awkward, and in the worst case, it can be exclusionary and hurtful. I remember how horrible I felt when a group of lesbians brought up, unprompted, that penises were disgusting at the LGBT resource center at my university and I didn’t feel like stepping foot in it since.
I remember how this made me feel truly alone on a campus populated mostly by stuffy, upper class students who all wore essentially the same outfits: men had polos, seersucker shorts and Rainbows sandals and the women had dyed blond hair, uggs, jeans and blouses. The homogeneity was fierce, and your expected orientation was implicitly supposed to match how you look. “Passing” is a gay code word most people know about today, recently spoofed in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, for “looking, sounding and acting like a straight cis person,” which is in itself a polite and indirect nod to the societal hegemony of white anglo-saxon protestants in America. This was part of the traditional idea that if you were a man, you had a wife, a few kids, a dog, and a house with a white picket fence, which is severely criticized concept in films like Edward Scissorhands and Pleasantville.
Boys and girls are taught early in American schools to give opposite gendered students candy as a sign of affection on Valentines day before we get to experience our first signs of sexual attraction. Women are taught that they are supposed to have babies. Boys are swaddled in blue from birth, girls in pink (even though this used to be the opposite before the beginning of the 20th century). There is a point in many a man or woman’s life when they first recognize that not only is the hegemony real, but that they had been trained by advertising, school, their parents, and interactions with other children to reinforce this structure themselves without even realizing it.
Most people have extreme reactions to this discovery after they experience their innate desires and sexuality, because it is a shocking revelation, and for some it can be emotionally tantamount to taking the correct pill in The Matrix which reveals the true world below the surface, resulting in feelings of confusion and betrayal. A bisexual person can experience attraction to both genders on a varied scale, but get sighs of relief from peers and figures of authority when they express interest in their purportedly correct attraction, resulting in stations of simultaneous privilege and erasure. Sexuality can be fluid. Sexuality can change. Sexuality can also be very rigid for some.
Those of us inclined to such rigidity, mostly straight people and mostly gay people, tend to have something interesting in common: when it comes to our sexual fantasies, they can be incredibly exclusive.
The straight example is easy enough to point out in media. Almost every romance, especially big budget films, are going to star straight protagonists. Queer people might exist as side characters, and have their own love interests if we’re lucky, but we aren’t going to see them naked together in bed, or see them in a titillating make-out scene unless the queers in question are bi and making out with the opposite sex. (This is where bi people can still say “yay, content I might be be able to enjoy” and gay people go “well… maybe I can put my thumb over one of them and pretend….” We have a scarcity of gay romance in film (most where the central conflict is being gay as opposed to something more nuanced) but straight people have a treasure trove of films flourishing with different genres, time eras and complicated plots to explore.
Video games, strangely enough, have more gay representation and chances to explore a gay fantasy than films do at the moment. Some games (particularly furry) offer content solely aimed at gay men, such as the dating sim Morenatsu and the bejewled-esque Kemono Colosseum (which is still in development and probably will be for years to come.) Lesbians can explore games with fantasy immersion like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Stardew Valley and Long Live the Queen along with representation in games such as Gone Home and Life is Strange just to mention a few.
But outside of video games and chat rooms, life for gay and lesbian youth can be pretty bleak. Finding a group that not only has people like you, but shares sexual content that you like, seems extraordinary. It’s the same breath of fresh air a young straight boy has when he finds his brother’s playboy magazine, feels funny, and then discusses it with his friends who can empathize with the new sensations he’s developing as he transitions from child, to teenager, and eventually into a young man.
A straight boy has this opportunity when he’s around 13 usually. Sometimes a gay boy has to wait until he’s 20 to have his first experience like this, especially if they’re in the religious south, or a rural, Christian area. That’s a vast difference. That’s about seven years of keeping desires and fantasies to yourself, which not only makes you guarded, but it makes you paranoid about when somebody is going to find out. That’s changing some, which is good, but it’s not changing for everybody in every part of the world.
So in America, while straight boys get locker rooms and boy scout camping trips to come to terms with their developing sexuality with friends (and yes, I know these are stereotypical scenes in gay porn) gay men in the real world have things like chat rooms and grindr. Some of them share their mutual attraction to boys with bi and straight women, but a lot of them don’t have other boys to talk to, and so they get their first real opportunities to do this in college or a gay bar. Except, not everybody gets to go to college, and most towns don’t have gay bars. So, to reiterate, we have chat rooms where gay men and lesbian women can explore their sexualities. They can do this through erotic role play, sharing pictures of themselves, or just talking about their experiences and forming friendships.
When young gay people have a good time in these chat rooms, they can treat it like an idealized paradise without thinking about the real people they’re interacting with as much as they should be. These spaces, through the magic of character creation and anonymity on the internet, can be treated much like the aforementioned immersion based video games where the sexuality of anything other than gay can be ignored by the player, which is a problem, because you’re interacting with real people as opposed to characters in a story tailored for you.
The adolescent gay fantasy comes from a habit of fantasizing about idealized gay spaces for years without a chance to interact with gay spaces in the messy realm of the real world, where gays coexist with lesbians, bisexuals, straight, trans, genderfluid and nonbinary folk, and people who fluctuate between these sexualities and more.
When a chat room is made up of primarily young gay men, if a woman posts images of herself (or, if the reverse is true: a man posts a penis in a chat room of mostly lesbians) this can set off mental sirens to panic. To a young gay man, a picture of a vagina or boobs can trigger painful thoughts, all of which include everything from “look, here is the thing that all of the popular movies and music and acceptable culture says is supposed to make your penis hard” to “are you broken because you don’t react to this?” This is going to be more upsetting to a young gay person than a bisexual person, or an older gay person, because the gay fantasy is broken, and is subverted by a paranoid nightmare: “There is a world outside of your safe space, and it wants to come in so it can eat your world up, destroying the only place where you feel like you can be yourself, and replace it with the real world, where there is only one night club in town, and it only serves normal people.”
That suspicion of “gay space sabotage” is, of course, ludicrous. The person “invading” the gay fantasy, who is sharing a bit of themselves, is looking to join in on the fun, and to explore their desires in a friendly place. They could be (and usually are) some type of queer person looking to find a place to be themselves, too. But a gay male can feel even more threatened when a person starts saying things like “this place sure is a sausage fest” and “wow, sure is super gay in here,” which is sometimes exactly the point of the safe space. I consider that extremely rude, and it’s not a nice thing to do. But what’s worse behavior is when a gay man responds “vaginas are gross.” Sometimes this is an honest sentiment, spoken out of ignorance or a lack of a filter, but often it’s a way of implicitly excommunicating the woman. It’s a way of saying “we aren’t buying your hot wings, hooters girl, no matter how much the commercials imply we’re naturally inclined to succumb to your wiles.”
But in reality, not only does such a statement alienate the women, but it alienates the bisexuals, too, who feel invisible as-is. Women are already bombarded by society with images designed to whittle away their self-esteem and self-worth for the heinous purposes of marketing gendered products. This marketing is often tied to pressures of societal expectations of women such as dating, dieting, modeling, securing a family, or dressing severely to look less soft in positions of power within business or government.
Women in society are seen as “other” to an American hegemony that recognizes straight white protestant men as default primary authorities, which thankfully seems to be changing, so there’s no reason to ostracize women in sex-positive spaces meant to be fun, to be exploratory. In gay male spaces, women and trans men can feel bodily dysphoria when told that a body part they have no control over owning is disgusting. I think a gay man should be able to relate to this insecurity if they’ve crushed on a straight guy, or on another man who solely wanted a particular body type.
When “vaginas are gross” arises (and I do see it enough for it to be a problem, hence my decision to write this post), I think there’s a crucial misunderstanding that occurs during the public shaming of a gay boy. I’ve seen “gay boys are the worst” (sometimes coming from gay and bi folks!) and “why is this community so gay? It sucks.” I believe these statements are, despite their good intention, homophobic, even if I think they come from a place of righteous indignation that isn’t necessarily wrong in condemning a very hurtful statement. I don’t think bad behavior should be excused, and this blog post is in no way attempting to excuse toxic behavior. But mass shaming a member of a minority over social media does feel a lot like revealing a person’s ignorance, inexperience and insecurity to the world purely as a means to embarrass and laugh at them. I find this to be cruel. A public shaming from a gay boy’s own community could be a harsh master for the stubborn, but it could also trigger a suicide, or harden them emotionally, and I can’t consider that wager a moral or ethical one.
I think young gay men and lesbians are more prone to “your penis/vagina is gross” than more experienced adults who had the time and opportunities to mingle with other sex positive adults. If you see this behavior, try telling them that is isn’t a very nice thing to say. If they’re told enough, they might listen, and they’ll almost certainly grow out of it with age and experience. We all have ugly aspects of adolescence that we’re ashamed about, and I believe this to be just one of the many.