Why can’t gay sex be equal sex?

Grayson Perry, the tranny potter, says no one has sexual fantasies about equality. Men and women don’t get off on wearing the same fleece and cruising down the aisle together in Waitrose sharing the same responsibility to find the mung beans, he says. I’ve heard him make this point a couple of times now: first was during his keynote at last February’s Being a Man festival at the Southbank Centre and most recently he said it again last Saturday, at the Southbank’s open think-in where people came to help them plan the next festival. Perry’s point is that sex always has a power dynamic going on. He implies that sex needs a power dynamic in order to work: you need one person doing the thing and one person having it done to them, whatever it is. They can switch roles of course, throughout their partnership or even in the space of a single night. Someone who has lots of power in society might want to wield this in the bedroom too, or he (yes, probably he) might want the opposite when the sexing hour starts. It’s why chief executives like to dress up as babies and be spanked, or whatever.

So Perry argues that even the most liberal, paternity-leave-sharing Scandinavian will want to exercise power, or to be subservient to someone else’s. It’s a fascinating point. I remember first hearing it at Perry’s keynote last year and feeling utterly depressed. How can we achieve equality between the sexes in the workplace, on the street, on the billboards, if the way we do sex thrives on its opposite? If the very creation of our next generation relies on inequality, how can we be trusted to raise our children to oppose that?

The fact is, if I wanted to have sex with a woman, and if I got close to it, and we were getting naked and starting to play, I’d feel really crap about doing anything that I controlled more than she did. After years of reading feminism and talking to people in feminist movement and chatting with women, I’ve come to understand just how pervasive men’s control over women’s lives can be. Look at parliament, look at the police, look at boardrooms, look at famous chefs, look at average incomes—men are coming out on top. Look at men and women around you—men interrupt and dominate the conversation. Look at the incidence of rape and domestic violence—common crimes committed most usually by men against women. There’s something going on here. Gender inequality is profound. I’ve learnt to see it as bizarre, as an aberration, as not at all fair and not natural. Freedom is a natural gift, and we conspire to hold it back. Since I’m a man I can’t help but take this personally. I don’t need to atone for the 3.5 billion men, but I do need to go out of my way to ensure I’m aware of the privilege of being a man and to not act unfairly, unconsciously against women. I’ve previously tried to dominate conversations with women; I’m still trying to cut this back.

But imagine if I got into bed with a woman. (As a queer, I can’t imagine what I’d want to do, actually, but it’s a hypothetical so stick with me.) The second she let me take control or the second I asserted a desire about something I wanted to do to her, I’d feel crap. All my work on understanding how control works in society would disappear in the time it took to orgasm.

This worry isn’t the reason why I only have sex with men. I only have sex with men because that’s the sex I like. But as I’ve had sex with men, I have thought about this equality thing. (Well, maybe not during the sex much, but certainly afterwards, when I’m nibbling on the chocolate that serves as my post-orgasmic fag.) You see, gay men live in the real world. And unfortunately that real world is filled with those gender inequalities I mentioned earlier. Our world thrives on inequality, whether it’s all the men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus books that prop up the publishing industry, or the Hollywood films in which blokes can lift up the heavy things and women can look pretty, or whatever. And what many gay men seem to do… is they bring these same inequalities into the bedroom. Their bedroom has two blokes only, but they seem to want to recreate society’s gender-based inequality. It’s bizarre. “Dominant looking for a servant,” a gay dating profile will say. “Bottom looking to be dominated,” says another. (Perfect match!) Even men who are not explicit about this division upfront will more often than not want to rely on it when you get naked together. This has happened to me enough to know that this is a thing. And of course one way it splits is between the top-bottom dichotomy. A top is a gay man who wants to use his penis during anal sex, while a bottom is the one who wants to his bum (get me?). There is a correlation between being or wanting to be a top and manhood, I believe. That’s not explicit in how men talk about it, in my experience, and it is possible for a bottom to behave in a controlling or dominant way, but it’s there. Tops are often played out in porn and real life as having the more masculine role.

There are even so-called tribes within gay culture that thrive on this. Jocks and daddies are just two types of men who are usually more dominant. I suspect there’s a correlation between the amount of body building gay men do and their propensity to want to ‘be the man’ in the bedroom. Looking strong and muscly or even just toned is a big thing for a lot of gay men, and you can’t split that lifestyle choice off from how they want their bodies to perform and appear in the bedroom—and you can’t split that off from the big powerful pictures we see of men on the billboards and in music videos.

The best sex I’ve had hasn’t been when I’ve been wearing the same fleece as my partner, but it has been equal. By this I mean that it’s been possible for both partners to play top and bottom (twice the fun!). And it also means that neither of us play a distinctly more controlling role. It feels freer to me when sex is like this. I feel I can just be myself, the myself I’ve learnt to become through watching inequality elsewhere and stripping back the crap we pile on top of our inherent freedom as people. In the queer bedroom, gender difference falls away because there is no difference present. The last thing I want to do in that situation is replicate the crap we’ve got going on beyond the bedroom door. It’s why gay sex feels liberating to me as a male feminist, because I don’t have the pressure to be a man or the worry about being a man who gets off on inequality.

So I think Perry is probably right, but that’s because he’s talking about straight people. Queer people by their nature have the chance to have more equal sex. It doesn’t mean that straight people can’t have that, somehow. And I’m not saying that straight people should become gay, although I suspect that’s what the women who made a political choice to become lesbian in the 70s were doing. I just mean that gay people can and should recognise this inherent beauty in what we do. Finally, some gay privilege.

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