Two ongoing critiques of the male/male romance genre include the fact that physical intimacy in this genre is too focused on anal sex and that it “fetishes” gay men for the pleasure of straight women. While I understood and had sympathy for the first critique (“focus on anal sex”), I thought the second critique (“fetishizing”) to be a little ridiculous, especially how much queer men fetishsize each other. Until today.
Let me start by saying overall I am a big fan of male/male romance, having read (and posted mini-reviews) of hundreds of works over the past few years. I also realize most of this genre is written by women for women, and I am very supportive of writers writing whatever inspires them and readers reading what they enjoy (and that I am not the intended audience for this genre).
A post I read this morning finally opened my eyes to the substance behind some of the critiques of this genre. I hate to say this, but I’m almost offended by the question posed in the post. Basically, I do find much/most of the sex written in male/male romances to be overly focused on anal sex, which can be somewhat problematic and rather hetero-normative, as I and others have discussed before. However, the limitation by some of the definition of sex to intercourse made me finally realize just how much this genre does fetishize gay men.
Anal Sex as a Replacement for Heterosexual Intercourse
As a queer (bisexual) man who really enjoys male/male romance, one of my biggest pet peeves is how often m/m romance sex scenes read like the (male/female) heterosexual encounters I have had rather than the sex I have had with men. Basically, a common focus by writers on the characters experiencing ultimate, fulfilling, completing intimacy only by having full penetrative intercourse is much closer to my experience with women rather than men.
Indeed, most of the men with whom I have been intimate did not particularly physically enjoy being penetrated during anal sex, and certainly not without very long, significant preparation. Even then, in my experience the bottom usually does not stay hard, let alone orgasm. In early gay erotica and porn (which I find more reflective of reality), having an orgasm from being penetrated was rare, and often only happened with quite some dexterous extra work on the bottom’s erection (if he were even able to have one). Indeed, the chances of the penetrated participant having an orgasm without a hand rubbing him off was a extremely rare and extraordinary and therefore a very remarkable thing. Also, while the prostate is remarkably sensitive for some, for most it does not magically turn the penetrated individual into being suddenly hungry and receptive, or even act like as much of a trigger as a clitoris can with the right, careful, stimulation.
On the other hand, just about every time I have penetrated a woman seems to have resulted in significantly enhanced arousal and almost always orgasm for both partners (often with some loving, caressing, and/or otherwise appropriate attention to the clitoris and/or g-spot). In other words, male/male sex where the bottom slowly turns to putty simply by being penetrated, and especially when they become super-receptive just because their prostate is touched, seems very evocative of male/female intercourse and not male/male intercourse in my experience.
Indeed, while anal intercourse was certainly a small but sometimes significant part of how I loved men, the vast majority of experiences (including the most intimate, fulfilling ones) did not involve penis in anus action (as opposed to general ass attention/manipulation/play, which is another category altogether).
Fetishization of Queer Men
The focus on “anal intercourse” is the main thing that consistently strikes me as “not quite right” or “not true to my experience” in m/m romance. If that’s what writers and readers like, that’s fine, but it often doesn’t ring true for me. But if we take it one step further, and only count anal intercourse as “real” or the ultimate destination in sex (which the huge focus on anal intercourse in the genre seems to reinforce), then I understand how queer men feel some of the common writing in this genre simply fetishes them . Basically, it puts an otherwise hetero-normative template onto a physical sexual relationship, but “spices” it up (fetishizes) by switching it to two men.
If sex is only “insert penis” intercourse, and therefore sex between men only includes anal intercourse (and not oral sex, which is penetrative, but not sex?), that would mean I never had sex the man whom I loved for several years and almost married, even though we slept together and physically loved each other for years. (And does this mean lesbians can never have “real” or “culminating/fulfilling/soul-connecting” sex? Or do dildos count? Or do fingers count for lesbians and not gay men? Or fingers only count if they penetrate, so lesbian hand jobs can count but men stroking each other therefore do not? Or women who prefer other things than being penetrated?)
When I read a male/male sex scene and I find it so incredibly evocative of my experience with women rather than men, I sometimes I wonder why the writer didn’t write an m/f story. But now I think I get it the argument. Perhaps part of the community could give a flying fig if their entertainment reflects queer male reality, but simply want their stories to read like their own experience, with just the extra fetish of imagining it’s two guys instead of a man and a woman.
I don’t expect my fiction to be absolutely reflective of reality. (I like to read about wolf shifters, so unrealistic fantasy is clearly part of what I like about romantic fiction). I also enjoy “fetishizing” plenty of the characters I read (I’ve been reading erotica for 25 years, so I have fetishized plenty of types of people before). However, reading in black and white that some readers of male/male romance don’t consider anything but penetrative sex to be sex, combined with a very frequent (almost exclusive) focus in the genre on anal sex being the culminating, ultimately defining sexual connection between two men, brings it home to me just how much some in this genre seem not to really care about the types of people being explored in the writing, but are simply using them to get off.
Should it bother me that characters are fetishized, especially in the works that are more erotica than romance? Probably not, given what I have read myself over the past decades. However, for the first time, I think I do fully understand the “fetishizing gay men” critique regarding the genre.