"Is this testing whether I'm a replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?": Honesty, intimacy and sex in gay and straight relationships

Intimacy is arguably the primary goal of any romantic relationship (if not of life) for both men and women. The difference, to speak in very general terms, is that men typically seek such intimacy corporally – for example, through sex – while women typically tend to seek it socially – for example, through deep and meaningful conversations.[1]

From the perspective of most guys, I presume, those who are not actively interested in sex are missing out a big part of what it is to be human.[2] As a friend recently remarked, “If you don’t like fireworks, you’re a little dead inside.” However, I imagine that from the perspective of most women, people who restrain themselves in their emotional expression are failing to reassure others that they are human.

The burden of proof falls on each of us to prove our emotional credentials to others - lest someone label us a monster.[3]

It don’t think that men and women differ that much in their capacity to benefit from each form of intimacy; rather, they have varying degrees of enthusiasm to pursue each, and different ways of expressing it. Men and women simply bring different ‘strengths’ to their relationship. Gay women can obviously be physically intimate, [5] and yet many heterocentric researchers and critics would argue that lesbian couples do not, and cannot, have ‘real sex’. Similarly, men obviously have feelings, but express those feelings in ways that are at odds with how women would like them displayed.[6]

Homosexual couples typically have an advantage in such regards – they are more able to empathise with their partner’s needs; in fact, they usually share those needs to the same degrees. Furthermore, gender roles amongst gay and lesbian partnerships are less pronounced than amongst their straight counterparts:[7]

“Notably, same-sex relationships, whether between men or women, were far more egalitarian than heterosexual ones. In heterosexual couples, women did far more of the housework; men were more likely to have the financial responsibility; and men were more likely to initiate sex, while women were more likely to refuse it or to start a conversation about problems in the relationship. With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally.” – Tara Parker-Pope

However, gay and lesbian partnerships also lack the (sometimes grating) checks-and-balances that more gendered partnerships have. In other words, while they distribute responsibilities more evenly, they are also likely to lose the balance in how they achieve intimacy.[8] Lesbian partnerships, for instance, help create the most nurturing environments, yet are subject to the notorious ‘lesbian bed death’.[9] Gay men, on the other hand, “are nicer than straight people during arguments with partners” yet possibly because their sex lives are less reliant on harmony in the relationship, they are “worse than straight or lesbian couples at ‘repairing’”. This is not to say that because of some idealistic notion of ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’, heterosexual relationships are innately superior – divorce rates are testimony to the significant lack thereof - rather, that a relationship’s strength can often lie in the flexibility and diversity of its constituents. Different is good.

In The Sex Diaries: Why Women go off Sex and other Bedroom Battles, Australian therapist Bettina Arndt argues (in a nutshell) that women should put out more if they seriously want their marriages to continue. Journalist Nina Funnell (and surely others) find such sentiment offensive – after all, one of the great milestones of feminism is having empowered women to have the freedom to say ‘No’ to sex whenever they want. Pressuring a woman to be physically available at all times – to have sex even when she is not interested, to be tactile even when it is uncomfortable, whatever – is unacceptable. It is each person’s prerogative as to when, how, and with whom he or she is intimate.

However, should men not have the same right in regards to verbal intimacy? Should men be entitled, for instance, to say ‘No’ to a conversation whenever they want, without fear or suffering a serious penalty in the relationship? After all - pressuring a person to ‘open up’ (to explore a touchy subject, to justify a decision that they have painfully made, to give up their own emotional space, whatever) does seem slightly akin to pressuring someone to ‘put out’. Telling a man to prove their love through conversation sounds a little similar to telling a woman to prove their love through sex.[10]

If we agree to such (albeit loose) parallel, how do we respond and remain consistent in our behaviours and values? Should we suggest that men and women are entitled to their own emotional and physical territory? Should each person in a relationship have the right of veto any incursions into his or her space – whether it involve talking about their childhood traumas, or having sexy time – without the risk of resentment from the other?

Maybe heterosexual relationships are an elaborate marketplace where each person barters one form of intimacy for another, and where both parties need to feel like they are getting a good deal to continue trading. If no one is putting anything on the market, the economy of the relationship slowly stops. Relationships are all about give and take, right? Most would agree that a healthy relationship requires a balance of both verbal and physical intimacy. Those without sufficient quantities of sex and discourse will be poorer for it, or simply not endure. To paraphrase Tim Ferris - the number of uncomfortable conversations they are willing to have can usually measure a couple’s success in the relationship. Additionally, as Bettina Arndt argues, couples should work to match the libido of the hornier partner.

The question however is how we can ensure that such constant trade-offs and compromises are not going to kill the romance by a thousand cuts. One solution might be for all couples, gay and straight, to keep in mind that it is only through the fusion of both expressions of intimacy that a relationship will be both enjoyable, and lasting. The respective, typical strengths of men and women can, and should, be a source not of tension but of pride. Furthermore, if straight guys and girls are to learn anything from the research into queer cohabitation, it’s that plenty of relationship mess can be avoided when each person is willing to look through the eyes of their significant other.[11]

In the classic science fiction film Blade Runner, there was a simple solution: use a Voight-Kampff machine – a futuristic device used to determine whether someone is a human or an automaton.[4]

Image by kaytaria


[1] You can cite as many exceptions to this summary as you want, including yourself – or give as many arguments for why it might be true but not fair – but this is how it is, now, for most people, most of the time.

[2] I would not go so far as to say that they are inhuman - it turns out, for instance, that Morrisey, a poet of outstanding calibre, is likely asexual.

[3] At least men are not as bad as the Elcor of ‘Mass Effect’ – a species that need to spell out their state of mind at the beginning of each utterance. Then again, maybe guys could learn a thing or two from them.

[4] Think of it as a futuristic CAPTCHA test – which, incidentally, stands for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart’.

[5] “Lesbian couples took more time having sex, with sexual interaction beginning with whole-body contact and proceeding with kissing, hugging, touching and holding before breast or genital contact was made. In heterosexual couples, "rarely more than 30 seconds to a minute were spent holding close or caressing the total body area before the breasts or genitals were directly stimulated." - Suzanne Iasenza

[6] “The problem is not that we [men] are insensitive. The problem is that we differ with women on what we need to be sensitive about. Some things just blatantly do not merit the amount of attention and energy our women demand of us. Some things are better left alone, only to slide off the back and slip away into oblivion.” (AskMen)

[7] “Straight couples often argue along gender lines: the men are at turns angry and distant, the women more prone to lugubrious bursts. Gays and lesbians may be less tetchy during quarrels because they aren't forced into a particular role.” – John Cloud

[8] Because of the relative egalitarianism of homosexual couples, I am inclined to believe that gay and lesbian relationships are a truer reflection of the desires of each respective gender. That is, men and women in heterosexual relationships want to behave like men and women in homosexual behave. Gay partners are more likely than their straight counterparts to get what they want – however, it’s debatable whether they are more likely get what they NEED.

[9] “The women themselves are (understandably) reluctant to say that it’s because they are not interested in sex. They do, however, often cite the difficulty of initiating it. They want it to happen “spontaneously,” which is perhaps a quaint way of saying that sex should occur without either of them having to make the first move or risk rejection by asking for it. Many researchers have interpreted this to mean that the sticking point with lesbian sex is that no one wants to take on the role of initiating sex, because that it typically a man’s role, and there is obviously no man in a lesbian relationship.” (Baumeister, Roy F., Is There Anything Good About Men? How cultures flourish by exploiting men. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p.231)

[10] Obviously, there are differences - communication is a basic human skill, vital in almost all interaction, unlike touch, which is a lot more personal. It would be absurd to suggest that giving someone the third degree, even if is an actual interrogation, is anything remotely likely rape - however, I’m talking about pressure, and not coercion; a fine distinction, yes, but still an important one.

[11] “The findings suggest that heterosexual couples need to work harder to seek perspective. The ability to see the other person’s point of view appears to be more automatic in same-sex couples, but research shows that heterosexuals who can relate to their partner’s concerns and who are skilled at defusing arguments also have stronger relationships.” – Tara Parker-Pope