In & Out
Q: I was surprised at the "I know you're gay because..." jokes in The 40 Year-Old Virgin. I don't know if I found them sad or offensive, but I said to my friend that I would have thought our society had moved past guessing someone's sexual orientation based on stereotypes. It didn't bother my friend at all. Since the movie is about sex and you're a sex columnist, we figured that you would have probably seen the movie, too, and might tell us what you think.
A: While on the surface the "gay because" jokes may seem to play into gay stereotypes, I think the insight lies in the way that the joke falls on straight—not gay—men. In the movie, there's a scene where two characters (both straight men) are playing a video game and poking fun at each other with "I know you're gay because" lines that suggest you can tell someone is gay because they bake, dress well or listen to Coldplay. To me, these lines illustrate the intersection of sexual orientation and gender roles, and how rigid we often are when it comes to what men can get away with and still be considered straight. Rather than making fun of gay men, then, the jokes (which I understand were ad-libbed) highlight the way straight men handle their (dis)comfort related to homosexuality.
The sadness lies in what this reflects about men's experiences. Last year, I asked my students how homophobia had affected them personally, regardless of their sexual orientation. Many of the straight men said that they avoided hugging their friends—and even fathers, uncles and brothers—out of concern that someone would think they were gay. Others had good friends who were gay, and while they felt comfortable with them in private, they felt like they had to act more macho or stand farther apart from them in public. The way we lower men's potential through homophobia is what's sad, and maybe that's why we need jokes like these—for the laughter as well as the insight.
Q: A close friend is planning to go out with a man who recently moved into her building. He has several tattoos and seven or eight piercings in his ears and eyebrow. I think he's probably into weird sex things—maybe even painful sex—since his tattoos and piercings show that he's obviously okay with pain. My friend is a classy, professional woman and I'm shocked that she'd want to date him. How can I make her see that this guy is not for her?
A: Recently I was at a doctor's office, where I counted 58 troll dolls with neon-colored hair at the nurses' station. Some were naked; others were dressed as basketball players, nurses, mermaids and tacky tourists. How is this relevant to sex, you ask? It's relevant because, while we might feel that some hobbies or interests are unusual, we rarely jump to conclusions about what they mean about a person. For example, while it's unusual to own 58 trolls, let alone to display them in an office countertop, doll shelves and (I kid you not) even dangling from the ceiling, it doesn't mean that the office staff members are unprofessional or that they dress up like trolls when they have sex. We generally don't worry about how troll-doll collectors compare to others. We don't ask: How is their mental health? Are they good people or will they hurt us? Should we let our children play with theirs? We don't ask these questions because we're comfortable with people having interests—even extreme ones—if they relate to popular culture, but we're less comfortable if we think there's a tie to sexuality. Rather than take the time to understand others, we sometimes jump to conclusions or simply shut ourselves off to certain people. The only way to know what something means to a person is to ask him or her. You or your friend won't know what her date's piercings or tattoos mean about him or his sexual interests unless one asks or takes the time to know him. In the troll collector's case, I asked. It turns out that when their clinic was moved into the basement of the building, their friends in the upstairs offices gifted them with troll dolls as a joke that they were "living underground like trolls," and it grew from there.
This guy's number of piercings may be new for you and for your friend. Luckily, new isn't always bad, and it's often good. More important, your friend isn't just asking you to accept him, she's asking you to accept the part of her that likes and wants to date him. As for his sex life, the fact that he has tattoos and piercings doesn't necessarily mean that he enjoys pain; it only means that he's experienced some pain. (Haven't we all?) Even if he does mix pain with sex, perhaps your friend does, too, only she doesn't feel comfortable sharing that with you. The bottom line is this: There's nothing we can tell about this guy from his various adornments, and there's much to be lost (like a friendship) from jumping to conclusions.
Q: Don't laugh, but I'm a 41-year-old woman who has never masturbated because I don't know how. Are there how-to books?
A: Yes (sort of). Becoming Orgasmic (Fireside, $14) and Sex for One (Three Rivers Press, $14) are great books for beginners. And on September 11 at Early to Bed (5232 N Sheridan Rd, 773-271-1219), Betty Dodson (whom some consider the queen of masturbation) will show excerpts from her latest film, Orgasmic Women: 13Selfloving Divas, which celebrates the variety of women's self-pleasuring. She'll also answer questions about masturbation and sexuality. Call Early to Bed for details.
Send letters to Debby Herbenick, MPH c/o Time Out Chicago, 247 South State Street, 17th floor, Chicago, IL 60604, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.