2 (1)Grab the tissues:

In his book named after the idea, sociologist Stjepan Meštrović describes contemporary Western societies as postemotional. By invoking the prefix “post,” he doesn’t mean to suggest that we no longer have any emotions at all, but that we have become numb to our emotions, so much so that we may not feel them the way we once did.

This, he argues, is a result of being exposed to a “daily diet of phoniness”: a barrage of emotional manipulation from every corner of culture, news, entertainment, infotainment, and advertising. In this postemotional society, our emotions have become a natural resource that, like spring water, is tapped at no cost to serve corporations with goals of maximizing mass consumption and fattening their own wallets. Even companies that make stuff like gum.

As examples, Meštrović describes how our dramas and comedies feed us fictionalized stories that take us on extreme emotional roller coasters, while their advertisements manipulate our emotions to encourage us to buy. Serious media like the news lead with the most emotionally intense stories of the day. Our own lives are usually rather humdrum, but if you watch the news, you vicariously experience trauma every day. A cop killed another kid. An earthquake has killed thousands. Little girls are kidnapped by warlords. Immigrants die by the boatload. Do you feel sad? Angry? Scared? Your friends do; you know because of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Do you need a pick me up? Here’s a kitten. Feel happy.

Importantly for Meštrović, the emotions that we encounter through these media are not our own. The happiness you feel watching a baby laughing on YouTube isn’t really your happiness, nor is it your sadness when you watch a news story about a tragedy. It’s not your daughter who has treasured your tiny offerings of love for 18 years, but you spend emotional energy on these things nevertheless.

In addition to being vicarious, the emotions we are exposed to are largely fake: from the voiceover on the latest blockbuster movie trailer, to the practiced strain in the voice of the news anchor, to the performative proposal on The Bachelor, to the enthusiasm for a cleaning product in the latest ad. These emotions are performed after being carefully filtered through focus groups and designed to appeal to the masses.

But they are so much more intense than those a typical human experiences in their daily lives, and the onslaught is so constant. Meštrović thinks we are emotionally exhausted by this experience, leaving us little energy left to feel our own, idiosyncratic emotions. We lose our ability to detect our own more nuanced emotions, which are almost always small and mundane compared the extraordinary heights of grief, rage, lust, and love that we are exposed to when the news chases down the latest mass tragedy or the movies offer up never-ending tales of epic quests. Meanwhile, in consuming the emotions of others, we get lost. We end up confused by the dissolving of the boundary between personal and vicarious; our bodies can’t tell the difference between friends on TV and those in real life.

Meštrović is worried about this not just on our behalf. He’s worried that it inures us to real tragedies because our hearts are constantly being broken, but only a little. When we are triggered to constantly feel all the feelings for all the people everywhere — real ones and fake ones — we don’t have the energy to emotionally respond to the ones that are happening right in front of us. His work was originally inspired by the bland global response to the Bosnian genocide in the ’90s, but applies equally well to the slow, stuttering response — both political and personal — to the refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and the constant news of yet another mass shooting in America. The emotional dilution that characterizes a postemotional society makes us less likely to take action when needed. So, when action is needed, we change our Facebook profile picture instead of taking to the streets.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.

Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1

The ending of Mad Men was brilliant. It was like a good mystery novel: once you know the solution – Don Draper creating one of the greatest ads in Madison Avenue history – you see that the clues were there all along.  You just didn’t realize what was important and what wasn’t. Neither did the characters. This was a game played between Matt Weiner and the audience.

The ending, like the entire series, was also a sociological commentary on American culture. Or rather, it was an illustration of such a commentary. The particular sociological commentary I have in mind is Philip Slater’sPursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970, the same year that this episode takes place. It’s almost as if Slater had Don Draper in mind when he wrote the book, or as if Matt Weiner had the book in mind when he wrote this episode.

In the first chapter, “I Only Work Here,” Slater outlines “three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture”:

(1) the desire for community – the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one.

(2) the desire for engagement – the wish to come to grips directly with one’s social and physical environment.

(3) the desire for dependence – the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.

The fundamental principle that gives rise to these frustrations is, of course, individualism.

Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in America is to “free” us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people. Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this, the more we have felt disconnected, bored, lonely, unprotected, unnecessary, and unsafe.

Most of those adjectives could apply to Don Draper at this point. In earlier episodes, we have seen Don, without explanation, walk out of an important meeting at work and, like other American heroes, light out for the territory, albeit in a new Cadillac. He is estranged from his family. He is searching for something – at first a woman, who turns out to be unattainable, and then for… he doesn’t really know what. He winds up at Esalen, where revelation comes from an unlikely source, a nebbishy man named Leonard. In a group session, Leonard says:

I’ve never been interesting to anybody. I, um –  I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down…

I had a dream. I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.

People are silent, but Don gets up, slowly moves towards Leonard and tearfully, silently, embraces him. 3

On the surface, the two men could not be more different. Don is interesting. And successful. People notice him. But he shares Leonard’s sense that his pursuit – of a new identity, of career success, of unattainable women – has left him feeling inauthentic, disconnected, and alone. “I’ve messed everything up,” he tells his sometime co-worker Peggy in a phone conversation. “I’m not the man you think I am.”

The next time we see him, he is watching from a distance as people do tai-chi on a hilltop.1b

And then he himself is sitting on a hilltop, chanting “om” in unison with a group of people. At last he is sharing something with others rather than searching for ego gratifications. 1c

And then the punch line. We cut to the Coke hilltop ad with its steadily expanding group of happy people singing in perfect harmony. 2A simple product brings universal community (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”). It also brings authenticity. “It’s the real thing.” Esalen and Coca-Cola. Both are offering solutions to the frustrated needs Slater identifies. But both solutions suffer from the same flaw – they are personal rather than social. A few days of spiritual healing and hot springs brings nor more social change than does a bottle of sugar water.It’s not that real change is impossible, Slater says, and in the final chapter of the book, he hopes that the strands in the fabric of American culture can be rewoven.  But optimism is difficult.
So many healthy new growths in our society are at some point blocked by the overwhelming force and rigidity of economic inequality… There’s a… ceiling of concentrated economic power that holds us back, frustrates change, locks in flexibility.

The Mad Men finale makes the same point, though with greater irony (the episode title is “Person to Person”). When we see the Coke mountaintop ad, we realize that Don Draper has bundled up his Esalen epiphany, brought it back to a huge ad agency in New York, and turned it into a commercial for one of the largest corporations in the world.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog and Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

2 (1)A substantial body of literature suggests that women change what they eat when they eat with men. Specifically, women opt for smaller amounts and lower-calorie foods associated with femininity. So, some scholars argue that women change what they eat to appear more feminine when dining with male companions.

For my senior thesis, I explored whether women change the way they eat  alongside what they eat when dining with a male vs. female companion. To examine this phenomenon, I conducted 42 hours of non-participant observation in two four-star American restaurants in a large west coast city in the United States. I observed the eating behaviors of 76 Euro-American women (37 dining with a male companion and 39 dining with a female companion) aged approximately 18 to 40 to identify differences in their eating behaviors.

I found that women did change the way they ate depending on the gender of their dining companion. Overall, when dining with a male companion, women typically constructed their bites carefully, took small bites, ate slowly, used their napkins precisely and frequently, and maintained good posture and limited body movement throughout their meals. In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally constructed their bites more haphazardly, took larger bites, used their napkins more loosely and sparingly, and moved their bodies more throughout their meals.

The unbearable daintiness of women who eat with men
The unbearable daintiness of women who eat with men

On the size of bites, here’s an excerpt from my field notes:

Though her plate is filled, each bite she labors onto her fork barely fills the utensil. Perhaps she’s getting full because each bite seems smaller than the last… and still she’s taking tiny bites. Somehow she has made a single vegetable last for more than five bites.

I also observed many women who were about to take a large bite but stopped themselves. Another excerpt:

She spreads a cracker generously and brings it to her mouth. Then she pauses for a moment as though she’s sizing up the cracker to decide if she can manage it in one bite. After thinking for a minute, she bites off half and gently places the rest of the cracker back down on her individual plate.

Stopping to reconstruct large bites into smaller ones is a feminine eating behavior that implies a conscious monitoring of bite size. It indicates that women may deliberately change their behavior to appear more feminine.

I also observed changes in the ways women used their napkins when dining with a male vs. female companion. When their companion was a man, women used their napkins more precisely and frequently than when their companion was another woman. In some cases, the woman would fold her napkin into fourths before using it so that she could press the straight edge of the napkin to the corners of her mouth. Other times, the woman would wrap the napkin around her finger to create a point, then dab it across her mouth or use the point to press into the corners of her mouth. Women who used their napkins precisely also tended to use them quite frequently:

Using her napkin to dab the edges of her mouth – finger in it to make a tiny point, she is using her napkin constantly… using the point of the napkin to specifically dab each corner of her mouth. She is using the napkin again even though she has not taken a single bite since the last time she used it… using napkin after literally every bite as if she is constantly scared she has food on her mouth. Using and refolding her napkin every two minutes, always dabbing the corners of her mouth lightly.

In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally used their napkins more loosely and sparingly. These women did not carefully designate a specific area of the napkin to use, and instead bunched up a portion of it in one hand and rubbed the napkin across their mouths indiscriminately.

Each of the behaviors observed more frequently among women dining with a male companion versus a female one was stereotypically feminine. Many of the behaviors that emerged as significant among women dining with a female companion, on the other hand, are considered non-feminine, i.e. behaviors that women are instructed to avoid. Behavioral differences between the two groups of women suggest two things. First, women eat in a manner more consistent with normative femininity when in the presence of a male versus a female companion. And, second, gender is something that people perform when cued to do so, not necessarily something people internalize and express all the time.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kate Handley graduated from Occidental College this month. This post is based on her senior thesis. After gaining some experience in the tech industry, she hopes to pursue a PhD in Sociology. 

 

2 (1)What creeps us out? Psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke wanted to know.

Their hypothesis was that being creeped out was a signal that something might be dangerous. Things we know are dangerous scare us — no creepiness there — but if we’re unsure if we’re under threat, that’s when things get creepy.

Think of the vaguely threatening doll, not being able to see in a suddenly dark room, footsteps behind you in an isolated place. Creepy, right? We don’t know for sure that we’re in danger, but we don’t feel safe either, and that’s creepy.

 

They surveyed 1,341 people about what they found creepy and, among their findings, they found that people (1) find it creepy when they can’t predict how someone will behave and (2) are less creeped out if they think they understand a person’s intentions. Both are consistent with the hypothesis that being unsure about a threat is behind the the feeling of creepiness.

They also hypothesized that people would find men creepy more often than women since men are statistically more likely than women to commit violent crimes. In fact, 95% of their respondents agreed that a creepy person was most likely to be a man. This is also consistent with their working definition.

Generally, people who didn’t or maybe couldn’t follow social conventions were thought of as creepy: people who hadn’t washed their hair in a while, stood closer to other people than was normal, dressed oddly or in dirty clothes, or laughed at unpredictable times.

Likewise, people who had taboo hobbies or occupations, ones that spoke to a disregard for being normal, were seen as creepy: taxidermists and funeral directors (both of which handle the dead) and adults who collect dolls or dress up like a clown (both of which blur the lines between adulthood and childhood)

If people we interact with are willing to break one social rule, or perhaps can’t help themselves, then who’s to say they won’t break a more serious one? Creepy. Most of their respondents also didn’t think that creepy people knew that they were creepy, suggesting that they don’t know they’re breaking social norms. Even creepier.

McAndrew and Koehnke summarize their results:

While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual nonverbal behaviors… odd emotional behavior… or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This activates our “creepiness detector” and increases our vigilance as we try to discern if there is in fact something to fear or not from the person in question.

Re-posted at Mental Floss.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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“Lumbersexual” recently entered our cultural lexicon. What it means exactly is still being negotiated. At a basic level, it’s an identity category that relies on a set of stereotypes about regionally specific and classed masculinities. Lumbersexuals are probably best recognized by a set of hirsute bodies and grooming habits. Their attire, bodies, and comportment are presumed to cite stereotypes of lumberjacks in the cultural imaginary. However, combined with the overall cultural portrayal of the lumbersexual, this stereotype set fundamentally creates an aesthetic with a particular subset of men that idealizes a cold weather, rugged, large, hard-bodied, bewhiskered configuration of masculinity.

Similar to hipster masculinity, “lumbersexual” is a classification largely reserved for young, straight, white, and arguably class-privileged men. While some position lumbersexuals as the antithesis of the metrosexual, others understand lumbersexuals as within a spectrum of identity options made available by metrosexuality. Urbandicionary.com defines the lumbersexual as “a sexy man who dresses in denim, leather, and flannel, and has a ruggedly sensual beard.”

One of the key signifiers of the “lumbersexual,” however, is that he is not, in fact, a lumberjack. Like the hipster, the lumbersexual is less of an identity men claim and more of one used to describe them (perhaps, against their wishes). It’s used to mock young, straight, white men for participating in a kind of identity work. Gearjunkie.com describes the identity this way:

Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the lumbersexual is on the rise (here).

Many aspects of masculinity are “comfortable.” And, men don’t need outdoor gear and lumberjack attire to be comfortable. Lumbersexual has less to do with comfort and more to do with masculinity. It is a practice of masculinization. It’s part of a collection of practices associated with “hybrid masculinities”—categories and identity work practices made available to young, white, heterosexual men that allow them to collect masculine status they might otherwise see themselves (or be seen by others) as lacking. Hybridization offers young, straight, class-privileged white men an avenue to negotiate, compensate, and attempt to control meanings attached to their identities as men. Hybrid configurations of masculinity, like the lumbersexual, accomplish two things at once. They enable young, straight, class-privileged, white men to discursively distance themselves from what they might perceive as something akin to the stigma of privilege. They simultaneously offer a way out of the “emptiness” a great deal of scholarship has discussed as associated with racially, sexually, class-privileged identities (see herehere, and here).

The lumbersexual highlights a series of rival binaries associated with masculinities: rural vs. urban, rugged vs. refined, tidy vs. unkempt. But the lumbersexual is so compelling precisely because, rather than “choosing sides,” this identity attempts to delicately walk the line between these binaries. It’s “delicate” precisely because this is a heteromasculine configuration—falling too far toward one side or the other could call him into question. But, a lumbersexual isn’t a lumberjack just like a metrosexual isn’t gay. Their identity work attempts to establish a connection with identities to which they have no authentic claim by flirting with stereotypes surrounding sets of interests and aesthetics associated with various marginalized and subordinated groups of men. Yet, these collections are largely mythologies. The bristly woodsmen they are ostensibly parroting were, in fact, created for precisely this purpose. As Willa Brown writes,

The archetypal lumberjack—the Paul Bunyanesque hipster naturalist—was an invention of urban journalists and advertisers. He was created not as a portrait of real working-class life, but as a model for middle-class urban men to aspire to, a cure for chronic neurasthenics. He came to life not in the forests of Minnesota, but in the pages of magazines (here).

Perhaps less obviously, however, the lumbersexual is also coopting elements of sexual minority subcultures. If we look through queer lenses we might suggest that lumbersexuals are more similar to metrosexuals than they may acknowledge as many elements of “lumberjack” identities are already connected with configurations of lesbian and gay identities. For instance, lumbersexuals share a lot of common ground with “bear masculinity” (a subculture of gay men defined by larger bodies with lots of hair) and some rural configurations of lesbian identity. Arguably, whether someone is a “bear” or a “lumbersexual” may solely be a question of sexual identity. After all, bear culture emerged to celebrate a queer masculinity, creating symbolic distance from stereotypes of gay masculinities as feminine or effeminate. Lumbersexuals could be read as a similar move in response to metrosexuality.

Lumbersexual masculinity is certainly an illustration that certain groups of young, straight, class-privileged, white men are playing with gender. In the process, however, systems of power and inequality are probably better understood as obscured than challenged. Like the phrase “no homo,” hybrid configurations of masculinity afford young straight men new kinds of flexibility in identities and practice, but don’t challenge relations of power and inequality in any meaningful way.

Cross-posted at Feminist Reflections, Pacific Standard. and Inequality by (Interior) Design. Image borrowed from here.

D’Lane R. Compton, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans. Tristan Bridges is a sociologist at the College at Brockport (SUNY).  You can follow them on twitter at @drcompton and @tristanbphd.

The authors would like to thank the Orange Couch of NOLA, Urban Outfitters, the rural (&) queer community, and Andrea Herrera for suggesting we tackle this piece. Additional thanks to C.J. Pascoe and Lisa Wade for advanced reading and comments.

Bentham and Foucault might have been interested in the panopticon but every December we get a view of  true social control in the form of an overweight man at the North Pole. Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws, as he is sometimes called) is just the latest in a long line of beings whose sole purpose is to control children through fear (Krampus is another example, as is the Belsnickel, as Dwight demonstrated on The Office). Recently, though, Santa has been doing his spying by proxy (giving him more time to bully young reindeer).

In Santa’s place are his elves on the shelves, a team of small elves who began taking up residence in people’s homes in 2005. These elves observe the behavior of children and then fly back to the North Pole to report their observations to Santa each night. The magical ability to do so begins when the elves are named (before this point they are apparently in some sort of coma during which they can be sealed in boxes and sent to stores around the country) but the elves are in danger of losing their magic if touched. Upon returning each night, the elves hide in a new place and children delight in finding them each morning. Apparently, some of the elves also like to get into mischief, making them both spies and hypocrites.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

If you have continued reading, prepare yourself for a shock. The elves are actually inanimate objects with neither magic nor the ability to report to Santa Claus each night. Instead, adults in each household are responsible for moving the elves around (thus touching them and ruining any magical potential that they may have had). As you can imagine, this creates quite a bit of work for these adults, to the point that there are posts dedicated to dealing with the fact that they forgot to move the elves. The elves have also been copied in various ways. Telling children that Santa can see them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake and knows if they’ve been bad or good seems much easier, especially since adults are likely to run out of creative places to hide the elf after about the third day.

Assuming that the intention of Santa, Krampus, the Belsnickel, and the elves on the shelves is social control, it seems that the elves would be both the least effective and the biggest pain in the ass. Imagine if the prison designed by Bentham made it possible that prisoners could be observed at any time unless they touched the prison wall, in which case a door came down that cut off the potential view of the guards. There might be no escaping Santa’s creepy spying or the Belsnickel’s judgment, but if I was a kid and I wanted to get away with bad behavior you can bet that the first thing I would do is touch the damn elf.

John is a pseudonymous assistant professor at a small liberal arts college (SLAC).  He finished his Ph.D. at a top-25 sociology program in the summer of 2009. He blogs at Memoirs of a SLACer, where this post originally appeared.

National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day has come and gone, falling this year on Friday, December 18th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a”safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.

Log onto any website where men who have sex with men (MSM) go to meet partners, and a key classification is whether a man is a “top,” a “bottom,” or “versatile.” These terms to refer to whether, when having anal sex with men, a man prefers to penetrate, to be penetrated, or is open to both. But are these durable roles?

We examined how much college MSM specialize as tops or bottoms. We find that, among college men who have ever had anal sex with a man, most have been both a top and a bottom sometime, most have done both across the course of their most recent relationship, and some have done both within a single date or hookup.

We use the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS) that surveyed more than 20,000 US students in 21 colleges and universities between 2005 and 2011. We use data from all 493 men who have had sexual interaction with men, and on the 826 events with men on which these men reported. The types of events respondents were asked to report on were their most recent hookup, their most recent date, and the most recent time they had sex within their most recent (or current) relationship of at least 6 months.

First, we found that only a small minority have only topped or bottomed. Of the men who have ever had anal sex with a man, 14% said they had only topped, 10% said they had only bottomed, and the vast majority, 77%, said they had done both.

Among MSM who have ever had anal sex, percent who have only topped, only bottomed, or done both

3

While the graph above shows that most MSM have tried both roles at least once, it is still possible that men tend to take only one role within any given relationship. In fact, this is true for 30% of men whose last relationship of at least 6 months in duration was with a man. But a large majority, 70%, played both roles with their partner sometime during the relationship – that is, they were both top and bottom at some point in that relationship.

Our most striking finding is shown in the next graph: often men are both top and bottom within a single event. In MSM events that involved anal sex, over 25% entailed both partners being top and bottom in that event. Men did both in about 20% of hookups and dates. They were even more likely to have been top and bottom the last time they had sex in their most recent relationship — 41% of the time. Thus, combining the previous graph with this one, we see that 70% of MSM relationships involved the man doing both sometime across the duration of the relationship, and 41% of specific times they had sex with relationship partners involved doing both.

Among MSM events involving anal sex, percent in which men both top and bottom, by type of event

5

Everything we have shown above is limited to events involving anal sex, or men who have had anal sex with men. But how common is anal sex among college MSM? The graph below shows how often it occurred in specific events. Only about a fifth (19%) of events men labeled dates involved anal sex, compared to about a third (34%) of hookups (that difference is statistically significant). So most college MSM hookups and dates don’t involve anal sex at all. They generally involve oral sex (results not shown). But a majority of times when men have sex with a male relationship-partner, they do have anal sex — in 63% of cases. These findings bear some similarity to what we find for heterosexual students — that students are more likely to have intercourse in hookups than dates, but most likely to do so in relationships.

Percent of MSM events that involve anal sex, in hookups, dates, and relationships

 6In sum, the clear message of our analysis is that being versatile is common among college MSM — most men have been both tops and bottoms sometime, most relationships involve switching between roles, and a significant minority of single events involve both, especially when the event occurs within a relationship.

Methodological details included at Contexts, where this post originally appeared. 

Eliza Brown is a PhD student at NYU with interests in the sociologies of knowledge, health, and sexuality. Also at NYU, Paula England is a professor of sociology,  the Director of Graduate Studies, and the principal investigator for the Online College Social Life Survey. If you are a researcher and would like to have the OCSLS data for analysis, contact Dr. England for information.