The Frontal Cortex

More on Sexual Fluidity

After posting on some new research that suggests we are more sexually fluid than we typically assume – in other words, our strict sexual categories are largely cultural – I got a fascinating email from a reader:

I thought you may find my own experience, having lived in both eastern and western societies, interesting. I was born and lived the first 18 years of my life in Iran, and have been in the States for the last 21 years. Although Iran is an extremely conservative and mostly religious society; social and sexual norms are not what one may expect them to be in a muslim society (or at least in Iran).

Most people assume that in Iran, a very macho and conservative society, homosexuality is very rare. In fact, the opposite is true, but with a very different picture. Since contact between opposite sexes is extremely limited, and forbidden (in fact, since the revolution, the religious police routinely stop couples on the street to check if they are either married or related; and if they can’t prove that they are , they will be arrested), and also because girls are expected to be virgins when getting married, many young male teenagers, during and after puberty, often sexually experiment with other male teenagers. This, of course, is never acknowledged, and almost always stops when one is 17 or 18, or gets married.

Most of my friends are surprised when I tell them of this, because after all western societies are assumed to be more tolerant of homosexuality. And of course this is true, since as a gay man, if I were in Iran, I could be prosecuted and sentenced to death by stoning (Islamic punishment for male homosexuality), but I think sexual experimenting among male teenagers is far more prevalent in eastern cultures that it is here. This, I think, proves your point about human sexual fluidity. And you know, they do not think of themselves as “gay”, and almost always stop when they are no longer teenagers. The other bizarre cultural thing there (and here I digress) is that the top sexual partners do not consider themselves to be “gay”; only the “bottom” position in male homosexual activity is considered “gay”, although for the most part their sexual activity is limited to mutual masturbation. (I do apologize if I am being too explicit, but I have always found this distinction odd.) I have since talked to other middle-eastern immigrants (from Turkey, and Syria) and they said that they witnessed the same thing during their teenage years.

I thank the reader for the informed comment.


  1. #1 Yikes
    January 14, 2008

    Hang on to your hat, it’s about to get weirder. I used to think my ideas on sexuality were pretty much correct. And complete. And universal.

    Was I ever wrong.

    Check the following URL and look at Brazil and Papua New Guinea.

  2. #2 alcoolworld
    January 14, 2008

    These two posts indicate what I have suspected for a long time:

    the two “gender role” paradigm is just clap-trap.

    Also, it appears you have a bot spamming you with ads….

  3. #3 Lisa
    January 14, 2008

    On a related note, The Atlantic had a fascinating article last year on the prevalence, practice and rationalization of homosexuality in Saudi Arabia. Here’s a clipping:

    In The History of Sexuality, a multivolume work published in the 1970s and ’80s, Michel Foucault proposed his famous thesis that Western academic, medical, and political discourse of the 18th and 19th centuries had produced the idea of the homosexual as a deviant type: In Western society, homosexuality changed from being a behavior (what you do) to an identity (who you are).

    In the Middle East, however, homosexual behavior remained just that–an act, not an orientation. That is not to say that Middle Eastern men who had sex with other men were freely tolerated. But they were not automatically labeled deviant. The taxonomy revolved around the roles of top and bottom, with little stigma attaching to the top. . . . Being a bottom was shameful because it meant playing a woman’s role. A bottom was not locked into his inferior status, however; he could, and was expected to, leave the role behind as he grew older.

  4. #4 Riverwolf
    January 14, 2008

    I agree that sexuality is very fluid, although I’m of the opinion that the degree varies from person to person. Some people, however, never discover this about themselves because of social rules and gender roles. It’s difficult to sort out all the meanings of orientation, gender and so on, but I think any society’s attitudes (public or private) about homosexuality, particularly among men, say more about it’s overall view of women more so than it does about the men. Being a “bottom” in sex is considered shameful for men only because it reminds them of being a woman, and to them, being a women is degrading. But being a “top” is ok, even manly. This to me is completely crazy, but it’s a way to rationalize behavior that makes some people uncomfortable. I wish we didn’t have to have labels. We are all human, and we are all sexual. That’s all that we need to know.

  5. #5 Dr X
    January 15, 2008

    I’m going to confine my comments to men, since I think the situation of men and women differs.

    We should draw a distinction between fluidity in sexual expression or activity and fluidity of sexual attractions. It may be that there is considerable flexibility for some people when it comes to sexual activity, but I suspect that attractions are far less flexible for most (not all) men.

    When we think of sexual orientation, we’re often thinking about attractions, which is not the same thing as what a person is willing to do for sexual discharge. Consider that there are men who use all kinds of objects and props in masturbation. Just because a man uses say, an inflatable doll, that doesn’t necessarily mean that such a man is attracted to inflatable dolls or that his sexual orientation, as the term is commonly construed, is to inflatable dolls.

    In many cases where fluidity of sexual expression shows itself (e.g., sexually repressive cultures or in prison populations), males who otherwise live heterosexual lives (when given the option) show a distinct preference for younger, more stereotypically feminine males who, one could argue, most closely reflect the real attractions of imprisoned heterosexual males who lack sexual access to females. The sexual pairings in these circumstances tend to occur between men with complementary attractions and as well as complementary gender-stereotyped appearance and mannerisms.

    When a man in prison thinks of himself as straight, even though he has sex with other men, some are tempted to dismiss such a person as merely homophobic instead of considering the possibility that such a person is referring to his attractions. If the same prisoner was fucking a pillow on his prison cell cot and saying that he is heterosexual, it is unlikely we would consider him a pillow-phobe who is denying his attraction to pillows due to cultural pressure to deny attractions to pillows. We would, instead, recognize that there is a great deal of adaptive flexibility involved with sexual discharge that is not akin to attraction or “orientation.”

    Accordingly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in sexually repressive cultures that limit contact between single persons of the opposite sex, we would also see a great deal of same-sex expression akin to prison homosexuality. When we observe this, we should not conclude that it indicates fluidity in attraction as much as it indicates fluidity in the means of discharge.

    Finally, it’s worth noting, as many have in these discussions, that despite all of the historical and current disadvantages of being gay, men with an enormous amount to lose persist in their homosexual behavior, suggesting that sexual attraction might not be “very” fluid.

  6. #6 Ken Stofft
    October 7, 2009

    I find the current posting from the man born in Iran to be interesting only because it sounds like the culture has ‘forced’ male teenagers to explore m2m sexual contact, not because the teenagers would have explore it on their own. It’s similar to men in prison…using one another or focusing on one man as their “bottom” to relieve their sexual tensions.

    I believe male sexuality is more fluid despite the cultural constraints if a man were to explore his sexual energy and can refrain from masculine stereotypes.

    I work with men as a sex coach. Many straight men come to me in midlife, a time when men can tolerate those issues that in young adulthood they could not or would not face. So, in midlife straight men have the opportunity to delve into their beliefs and behavior with more ‘wisdom’ and experience, enough that they will not be ordinarily overwhelmed by their exploration. For gay men it is usually exploring their sexuality mindfully as well rather than following the stereotypes pressing in upon them by ‘gay’ society.

    I have found the men who recognize and acknowledge with respect their sexual drives, fantasies, fetishes have a wonderful opportunity and embrace it as a way toward self-discovery and living authentically.

  7. #7 vicky
    November 19, 2009

    The email dosen’t nessaserily prove anything about sexual fluidity. It mearly states views of a diffrent society. Its important to note that sexual experimentation among teenagers, as the email states, is not considered “sex” the same way western society would.

    Ferther more, the assurtion that sexual experimentation being more prevalent, in the east, is in error. Where I live, sexual experimentation amont the youth males is almost a pass time and I live in the Northwest Washington. But the differance is that we don’t deny what it is. Most everyone here keeps their sexual desisions to them self.

  8. #8 vicky
    November 19, 2009

    A minor correction to my privious post. I live in a farming community, it’s very conservitive here inspite the fact that I live in “liberal Washington”

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