Anyone with a marginalised identity is well acquainted with the trials and tribulations of being reduced to, confronting and dismantling stereotypes. As a gay man, I can attest to a wealth of experience in wrestling with such famous tropes as the ‘gay best friend’ and ‘sassy gay boy’. However, there are two stereotypes about gay people which I must admit hold strong claims to truth in my friends and my own experiences. The first is that of the ‘U-haul lesbian’ or ‘U-haul syndrome’ – this refers to the joke that lesbians have an extreme inclination to monogamy and committed relationships, practically moving in together on the first date. The second is that all gay men are promiscuous, living outrageous casual sexual lives but unable to commit to monogamy and relationships.
I must preface this by saying that obviously not all lesbians have an extreme inclination to monogamy and committed relationships, and gay men are not all promiscuous and incapable of commitment. This almost goes without saying – these are, of course, stereotypes, and not essential characteristics of any identity or sexual persuasion. Entire diverse and unfixed identities cannot be reduced to thinking of this kind.
At the same time, there is a strong trend amongst the lesbians I know to date and to quickly become involved in monogamous relationships. I would even go so far as to say there doesn’t really appear to be a lesbian casual sex culture. On the other hand, there is an enormous casual sex culture available at the click of ‘Download Grindr’ for gay men. With articles titled ‘Why is it hard for gay men to find love?’ on major gay publications such as Attitude and a plethora of jokes about the myth of finding a boyfriend on Tinder profiles I’ve seen, it feels safe to say there is a certain veracity around the stereotypes of lesbian and gay male dating habits.
Why is this? What is it about the lesbian and gay male experiences that differentiates dating in this way? There is an obvious answer in the nature of the way stereotypes can work – self-fulfilling prophecy. People tend towards behaviour that seems normal and ‘like what everyone else is doing’, and so conform to stereotypical standards set by what they imagine to be their social environment – in this case the worlds of lesbian and gay male dating. This may explain why trends continue, but it is insufficient to explain the way these standards have come to be shaped as they are.
If we look on a practical and logistical level, there are a number of differences at play. Nightlife – a typical domain in which to find casual sex – provides a point of contrast between gay male and lesbian experiences. Gay bars, clubs and nights are often skewered largely toward a male demographic. They are an opportunity to go into a space where there are enough gay men to pick and choose someone who takes your fancy. There are often far less gay women present at these nights, as male dominated spaces. While lesbian bars and nights do exist, the opportunity for gay women to have the same frequency and possibility of casual sex via this route is not really comparable.
It seems to me, however, that there is something deeper at play here than such logistical and practical aspects of lesbian and gay dating cultures. Both gay men and lesbians have access to dating apps yet the use of Her for casual sex is in no way comparable to Grindr. The dependent variable of gender is perhaps an alternative point of difference. Could it be the socialising of men and women that leads to this state of affairs?
The most simple angle we can draw is that of the public imaginary of men possessing a sexuality and women being deprived of one. A heteronormative understanding of sex being the act of vaginal penetration until a man orgasms emphasises the maleness of sex and sexual pleasure, with female sexual pleasure a secondary by-product. Men prototypically only have their mind ‘on one thing’ and female sexuality is portrayed as for the enjoyment of men, rather its own legitimate claim to desire and enjoyment. Put lots of men together and of course it’s all about sex! Obviously women just settle down if you put them together – they don’t want casual sex!
As anyone would know who has spent two minutes getting to know a girl, they are just as capable of desiring sex and sexual pleasure. However in the dissemination of these tropes about the natures of men and women through media and representation must have an impact – it is likely that this encourages men to be more comfortable in themselves as sexual, therefore less hesitant to the idea of casual sex. Women may feel embarrassed by such desires given the ways in which female sexuality is silenced, leading them to less explicitly seek sex as through having relationships rather than just casual sex.
There are likely many factors, and no one single answer is satisfactory, but my guess is also that it is in relation to the ways in which men and women are taught to be intimate and emotional. The taboo on male expression of emotion – the age old mantra that boys don’t cry – encourages men to reject their own feelings and therefore develop a relationship with sex that is more transactional, practical, removed from emotion. Women on the other hand are taught to be feeling and caring, therefore potentially tending further toward more involvement in another’s life after engaging in the intimacies of sex.
Once again, I must preface what I am saying with the fact that not all gay men just want hook-ups, or that these hook-ups are totally removed from feeling, and not all gay women can’t stop themselves getting involved in the lives of those they sleep with. I am in no way advocating for the misogynistic and limiting understanding of men as rational hard thinkers detached from emotion, and women as hysterically emotional and unable to control their feelings.
I do think, though, that the experience of regimes of gender does shape our lives and behaviour whether it corresponds with our actual feelings or the way we would like things to be. The absence of a lesbian casual sex culture and the prevalence of casual sex amongst the lives of gay men surely are inextricably linked with different experiences of living gender.