The Frank Ocean Effect and Some “Bisexual” Guys I've Known

I never quite understood the stigma against bisexual men. (There is one, especially among gay men.)

Granted, labeling oneself a “bisexual” is something many men do to ease into full-on homosexuality; it is also a way for men to hold on to a shred of "acceptable" sexuality as they pursue their less mainstream interests (believe me, I've been there). But the idea that one person could be attracted to multiple genders is not inconceivable. People discuss much more far-out sexual proclivities all of the time. I hate being told by clueless straight bigots what’s going on inside of me; I’d hate getting it from gays even more.

I believe men when they tell me they’re bisexual—or, as happens more often, when they claim to be attracted to men and women, but don’t want to be saddled with a label. I believe the four guys profiled below.

Within the past year, all four have slept with (and wanted to sleep with) both men and women. They all say they intend to continue doing so. All of them have hooked up with more men than woman (mostly because of matters of ease and availability), and none feels particularly tied to a monolithic culture, the way a gay guy might (in popular culture bisexuality tends to exist as a nuance or subplot, unlike scene-stealing homosexuality). None of these guys is particularly fond of the term “bisexual.” Call it the Frank Ocean effect.

I parlayed the sexual intimacy I shared with these four guys—all of whom identify more or less as bisexual, all at various points in their development as adults—into an interview scenario. In general, they were less naturally introspective about their sexuality than your average gay guy. Whatever culture results from being a male who sleeps with men and women, it largely happens internally for these guys. But even when they had trouble pointing to an absolute truth, or when their words were inconsistent and contradictory, they were candid, and I appreciated it.

All of the names have been changed and a few details have been obscured to ensure the anonymity of the subjects of this piece.

Allen, 19

When Allen and I were putting our clothes back on, I asked him how he identified sexually. "I’m sleeping with guys and girls for now, but I'll probably just end up doing guys because that's how these things usually work," he said with such tranquility he might as well have yawned it all out. I told him that he was awfully sure of himself for a period that was supposed to be fraught with uncertainty. He shrugged.

Allen is beefy and athletic, with a body somewhere between a football and baseball player. He's laid back, with a stoned personality (though he's not into weed), and is fixated on notions of masculinity and femininity. "There are gay guys and there are faggots,” he told me once.

We were walking in public together recently, and a guy with a stereotypically gay voice was emoting loudly just over our shoulders. "I hate that," he told me. I sighed, exasperated at this puppy that needs training. I reprimanded him, telling him to mind his own business. If he gives effeminate guys a hard time, I told him, he’s no better than a straight homophobe. He shut up. A few weeks later, he texted me about it: "When you tell me things I really do listen I promise. I never thought kids couldn't be flamey and all that idk I know they're still our people and I always would have their backs but I never thought of it like that." He's learning, I think.

In light of this, Allen’s ease with sex is surprising. He's totally versatile and will top or bottom depending on the guy—his age or younger, he likes to top; for guys older than him, he prefers to bottom. "It’s just the whole power thing I guess… I think of it more as a given right type of thing: You’re older so I should bottom." When he isn't holding on to teenage shitheadedness, Allen can be very polite.

When we first met, he wasn't entirely open. When he refused to kiss me on the mouth, I joked that he was acting like a whore in Pretty Woman. "What's that?" he asked. He is, after all, 19.

"Kissing men kind of skeeves me out a little bit," he explained. "I would be completely fine blowing someone over making out with him. It’s just one of those little tweaks I guess. I just don’t like kissing guys. Yet, I should say. I know one day I will. It’s the whole transitional thing again.”

Allen is out to his family and friends in college. He says that they didn't have a hard time accepting him. If anything, the hardest time has been had by Allen, as he accepts their acceptance.

"I’m really comfortable with the situation, but it’s new so I’m insecure about it," he says, having come out a little over a year ago. "I have no problem telling people I’m bisexual or I like guys, but I’m not used to being called bi or gay. When people say that, I still get a little defensive about it."

So is he gay or what? "Gay and bisexual are just labels," he told me. "People are people. I don’t really like the whole label thing. I think when you label someone gay, straight, or bi, you’re judging them. It’s just people. People are people. Your sexuality doesn’t make you who you are."

He finds sex with women to be a "more emotional" experience, and with men, sex is more physical. ("Guys just need a release, really.") "I don’t really run into many vers[atile] guys," he said. "I think more people should be vers, it’s a lot funner. More people should be bisexual, it’s a lot funner."

Allen draws the line between sex and passion: Sex is for all, but passion is for women, or at least, it was when we talked initially. He "didn't want to think about" how many men he's hooked up with, but he told me that it's more than he can count on his fingers and toes, but fewer than 60. He'd hooked up with a female "about three weeks" before we met. It was a booty call from someone at his school. He meets the men that he hooks up with online.

"For the time Grindr works because you can find other masculine guys that are like you," he said. "And then if you never want to see them again, you never have to."

Houston, 25

Houston, on the other hand, is attempting to erase that line between sex and passion completely. It isn’t easy.

“I’m looking for something meaningful and in the gay world, that’s hard to come by,” he said. “Monogamy doesn’t seem to be something that anyone believes in. At least, no one that I’ve encountered so far. It’s a totally weird psychological change for me: Monogamy is always what freaked me out with women, and now I’m looking for it with a man. There is some confusion. Maybe I don’t really know what I want. Maybe I always just want what I can’t have. That seems to be a pattern for me.”

Houston seems to get a lot, though. Once, during a lighter, more casual conversation before I interviewed him, he told me that he has a theory that everyone in Brooklyn is bi, and that he wanted to take advantage of that by fucking his way through the borough alongside one of his female fuck buddies. Among all the power bottoms and power tops, they’d be a power couple.

"Part of the reason I like to keep things ambiguous is that you can seduce anybody," Houston said. If ambiguity doesn’t do the trick, his charm should. Houston is gregarious, taking up a lot of space both via his J.V. linebacker frame and stage-voice approach to socializing. He projects enthusiasm like most people breathe.

And yet, when I sat him down and asked him how he identifies sexually, his response was, “Um…”

After mulling it over for a few seconds, he finally responded, “Probably just gay right now?” He knew the question was coming. It was the point of me turning on my recorder. He knew I’d be asking him all about his sexuality. And yet.

“This feels like a switch over. It could be a phase,” he speculated. The last time he’d slept with a woman was about five months before our conversation for this piece. He told me that if I had interviewed him just a few months before I did, his lifelong split between female and male encounters would have been along the lines of 60/40. However, he’d been sleeping with “way more men” recently. The split had turned to 40/60.

“There are moments when I do miss sex with women,” Houston explained. “There’s something about knowing that you’re both getting this pleasure. I’ve never had a mutual orgasm with a male, and that’s probably the best feeling thing ever. With men it feels a lot more animalistic, just trying to get off, which is fun…I don’t know, it’s just different.”

But dual membership has its privileges, and when I suggested to Houston that in my limited experience, a bi guy is more likely than a gay guy to be fantastic in bed, he had a theory as to why.

“The way you have sex with a woman is so much more…I don’t want to say elaborate, but it’s nuanced,” he explained. “There’s a slowness to it. When I first started having sex with women, I was 18 and just pounding and then you realize that’s not good for them. That’s not what they want. And then you have sex with a woman who shows you what to do and how to be mutually beneficial all the time. You can tell who understands how to please someone else."

While Houston searches for monogamy and meaning, seeking entree to the gay world in the most basic of interpersonal terms, he told me he feels like an inherent outsider.

“Shared oppression creates community. I think for the gay world that oppression has created a very strong bond. But I don’t feel oppressed,” he said. “No one’s oppressing me. I came out to my boss and I got a promotion. Not that those are necessarily related, but maybe they are: it could be a self-confidence thing, a positive mental energy scenario where my life is holistically getting better.”

“I’m having a lot of fun,” he added. But it isn’t all fun.

Houston recently came out to his mom. She didn’t take it nearly as well as his employer. He described her state as “grieving.”

Like Allen, Houston uses the terms “gay” and “bi” almost interchangeably, as if transience is so key to his identity, no one word can describe it. He says he thinks he’ll continue to sleep with women, just fewer and further between. He’s still more comfortable as a top than a bottom.

His comfort level with having a male companion still has room to grow, too. I accompanied Houston to a work party and he skipped introducing me to several of the people he mingled with. During a social lull, when it was just the two of us, I called him out on it, thinking booze was making him oblivious or he just had no manners in this specific arena. His body sunk with frustration. He explained this was all new to him, that he wasn’t yet ready to be so casual about the guy he’d brought along. I told him that I understood.

Park, 29

Park lives about a block away from me. For a few weeks around Christmas, we were fuck buddies in the purest sense of the phrase. We’d hang out, get off, continue to hang out. That was that. We might as well have been video-game buddies.

I didn’t hear from Park for a few weeks, but then I ran into him at a coffee shop in our neighborhood. He apologized for having fallen out of touch, explaining that he started seeing someone.

“What’s he like?” I wondered.

“He’s a she,” Park replied.

Ah.

Out of all the people I’ve ever spoken to about their sexuality, Park is the most fascinating, and his way of handling it is mind-boggling. He’s a bro-ish, Crossfit type, so easygoing that he appears to be on a satellite delay sometimes while conversing. At the time of our interview, he was leading two separate lives: a gay life and a straight life. His gay life is full of gay friends, with whom he goes to gay bars. They all think he dates men exclusively. His straight life is populated by a mixed group, united by the belief that he is exclusively heterosexual. In that world, he has gay friends to whom he is not out. He told me this duality was “stressful and fun.”

“Aside from the fact that they don't know I've slept with men, I'm very myself with my straight friends,” he explained. “I am pro gay rights and I have gay friends that they know about.”

Park told me that it wasn’t until he and I hooked up and talked about his experiences with men and women that he even considered how all of this might be related to an identity. He just did what he did, and organized his social life around it.

“One of the main reasons I think I might be bisexual is because of you,” he said to me. “You put that in my head. I don't think about this stuff. I block it out. This is something I don't think about. Maybe I'm happy you made me do so. Maybe there is a label for me. But maybe I'm still just confused.”

Our discussion for this piece began with caveats: “We’re talking about something I don’t even understand myself,” Park told me. And then: “I don't know if I'm bisexual. I don't know if I'm in denial, which is really scary."

But the fact is that he regularly sleeps with men and women and enjoys both. His first sexual experience occurred with his best male friend at 6-years-old. They fondled each other in Park’s attic. He lost his virginity to a woman at 18. He was with her for the next year having the “best sex” of his life, “in love, floating over the bed.”

Park discovered Internet porn in junior high. Because it’s virtually impossible to consume straight porn without a stray gay image or several crossing your eye line (and vice versa), curiosity led him down a gay-porn K-hole. When he broke up with his first girlfriend, he consumed more porn and much of it was gay.

“It was more intriguing, and I think part of it was feeling like I wasn't supposed to be doing that,” Park told me. He still feels that excitement.

“It's my favorite thing about gay sex: the forbidden fruit,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder if I was openly gay if I would enjoy it as much because it wouldn't be something I'm not supposed to be engaging in.”

When he went to South America at age 22, he lost his gay virginity to a guy in a hotel room they rented by the hour. They had met out at a gay club he’d attended with an older woman (“single mom, really hot”) and her gay son. He traveled the continent, frequenting its gay nightlife offerings until he met a guy that he began sleeping with regularly, and then almost every night. That was Park’s first boyfriend. They were together for five months.

“Nothing made it weird,” he said. “It was so easy for me. But remember, I was out of my element, in a different country. There were so many things that were different that I just let it happen. I didn't resist anything. I was a pretty good boyfriend, I think. Mind you, I was having sex with women at the same time in my hostel off and on. I once had sex with a guy and a girl in my hostel."

He was almost exclusively the bottom in his first male-male relationship. He says he “struggled” with feeling feminine in that role but eventually got over it. Pleasure has a way of ironing out society's mores.

“One of the most special things gay men have that straight people don't have and lesbians don't have is the ability to have that multi-faceted sort of sex where you can penetrate and be penetrated,” Park explained. “For that matter, I can't imagine ever being just a top or just a bottom. Why would you ever want to give either of those pleasures up if you're going to engage in gay sex?”

Since his wanton days running around South America, Park has gone back and forth between men and women.

“There's not a definitive difference between sleeping with men and women, but I will say this: When it comes to sex with men, there's more of a variety of things to do,” Park explained. “There's also a different comfort level. With men, if I'm ready to get off, I'm totally OK with rolling over, jerking myself off and cumming. Nothing about that embarrasses me. Whereas with a girl, I wouldn't just roll over and jerk myself off. In fact, that would feel downright strange. Sex with girls can be more passionate whereas with a guy, it's more sexual.”

Park isn’t out to his parents. He told me that thinking about his sexuality tortures him. “That's why I block it out,” he said. Friends of his have given him little incentive to do otherwise: He came out as bi (or, at least, as someone who has recently slept with women and will again) to some gay friends who did not take it well – worse, in fact, than the few straight friends he has told.

“To make light of the situation, I said, ‘I just like to fuck,’” Park said. One friend in particular didn’t find this very amusing.

“‘I just want you to make sure you’re not fooling yourself,’ my one friend said to me,” Park recalled. “A potentially fun conversation got really serious when he said that.”

West, 45+

West, who’s been openly sleeping with men and women since his mid-20’s, has had several conversations like the one Park described above. He says that his gay friends “universally condemned” him when he told them he had a male lover over 20 years ago.

“One hundred percent across the board, the attitude was, ‘When are you just going to admit that you’re a fag?’” West recalls. “It’s like, why can’t you of all people, you who has been oppressed all of your life, understand there’s a plurality of sexuality? What you identify with isn’t all that there is."

West has the same semantic beef with the word “bisexual” as the rest of the guys I interviewed: he’s reluctant to label himself as such, though he has a girlfriend he’s been with for over 15 years and a stable of about 15 guys that he fools around with on a regular basis. He’s a daddy type who rhapsodizes the momentary love he feels from hookups in a way reminiscent of the way I’ve heard polyamorous people talk on TV. (“Make love to me,” he told me at one point when we were hooking up.) He’s a strapping teddy bear (but not really that kind of bear).

“The contract [with my girlfriend] is: Don’t embarrass me,” he explained. “She knows that I am attracted to men. She knows I have safe sex. She knows I’m not looking for a boyfriend. She knows I’m not into anonymous hookups, like seeing somebody on the subway…I’m not saying I’ve never done that before, but for the safety and disease factor, that’s not something I usually do.”

“We’ve gone through periods that were totally monogamous and periods that were totally open,” he continued, regarding his arrangement. “We’ve lived apart. During some of those times, I was completely straight in that all of the extramarital affairs I had were women. Sometimes it was mixed. I haven’t had sex with a woman besides her in about a year. Women are difficult, especially in New York. Most women want some kind of commitment or relationship or they don’t feel comfortable after random sex. Guys can be like, ‘I’m really horny, can you come over and get off?’ Yes. Go over there, suck each other off, ‘All right man, later,’ boom."

West says that within his network, his bisexuality makes him less of a threat to other men who sleep with men.

“I’m in some ways a very convenient third party for guys in a relationship because he can say to his boyfriend, ‘He’s straight,’ or, ‘He has a girlfriend,’” West told me. “And then there’s no threat, and they figure that I’m a top, therefore lower STD risk.”

West is indeed a top, mostly, “but when I do [bottom], I know what the top is going through, and I’m able to give it up, as it were. With a woman, you have to pay attention to a whole other set of signs.” For this reason, the sheer availability of horny guys and the range of socially acceptable activities, West agrees with the rest of the guys I talked to: Hooking up with men is easier.

West told me that his shrink says he has a “very healthy sexual attitude” and that his libido has been very high. Given his age and years of practice, it’s unsurprising that he was the most settled into his sexuality out of everyone I talked to. But he said even when he first started fooling around with guys, he never had a moment where he wondered what it meant for his identity.

“Your sexuality is always just what it is,” he told me. “It’s porous.”

Allen, 19, Postscript

After meeting Allen at the end of 2012, we kept in contact via texting, but I didn’t see him until May. Like a dog bounding back into my arms after a long absence, he radiated enthusiasm at me almost immediately.

“Guess what, Rich?” What? “I’m not uncomfortable with being gay anymore. Something just happened this winter and I’m OK with it now.”

Later he told me that what happened was falling in love with a guy (and subsequently having his heart broken). And also, he’s still sexually attracted to women, but saying he’s “gay” makes things simpler for everyone.

He kisses men on the mouth now.

[Art by Jim Cooke.]