Title: And Then I Became Gay: Young Men's Stories
Author(s): Ritch C. Savin-Williams
Affiliation: Department of Developmental Psychology, Cornell University
Citation: Savin-Williams, R., And Then I Became Gay: Young Men's Stories, New York: Routledge, 1998.
This book is based on interviews with 180 gay and bisexual males aged 14-25. The study used a "narrative or interpretive interview approach" which is considered ideal for exploratory studies of hidden populations. The author felt he created a safe and accepting environment for the youths as he asked them to tell their own stories and give specific details.
The sample in this study is not representative of all gay youth, since those included were volunteers. However, the author believes that this study contributes to an understanding of sexual minority youth by describing "normative experiences of growing up gay or bisexual during the present historical time and within North American culture."
In the sample, 77% of the youth were white, 10% were African American, and 7% were Latino. Sixty percent were from a small city or large suburb, 16% from urban areas, and 10% from rural areas.
Although the study's purpose was certainly not to focus on relationships between men and boys, such relationships were unavoidable since they were a part of the lives of a significant minority of those in the sample, and the author wished to portray the full range of their experiences.
For the most part, this summary includes only information related to man-boy relationships, however some background information is given to provide context. Descriptions of these relationships appeared in two chapters: those entitled First Gay Sex and First Gay Romance.
Twenty-five percent of the youth in this study experienced gay sex for the first time with males at least 5 years older than themselves, and 10% with a man ten or more years older. When the age difference was over 5 years, the initiator was almost always the older partner.
The location of first time experiences (regardless of age difference) was usually the home of one of the two partners. The youth was less likely to have repeated sexual encounters with this first partner when there was a large age difference, perhaps because these encounters were most likely to occur when the older partner was someone the youth had not known before.
When the first sexual experience was with a moderately older individual—such as an adolescent for a pre-pubescent child, a young adult for an adolescent, or a man for a young adult—the younger youth almost always welcomed and enjoyed the sexual relationship and wanted it to continue.
However, when a youth was considerably younger than his partner, negative personal reactions to first sex with a male were most likely to ensue. Also in this situation, youths were more often fearful of the consequences or meaning of their behavior.
This does not imply, however, that having a considerably older partner was necessarily negative, although the ratio of positive to negative experiences dropped to 50/50 when the partner was more than five years older than the youth. Thus, having an older partner was not necessarily distressing or disturbing to a youth. For some it may have been, but for many others it was not.
In general, regardless of the age of the first partner, the author writes,
the most frequent consequence of the initial sexual encounter was a confirmation of the youth's gay or bisexual orientation...The second most frequent response was that the sexual encounter had 'no effect' because the youth already knew that he was gay or bisexual. The sex was merely fun—something that he had wanted to do for some time...Less than 15 percent of the youths reported that the sexual encounter upset them because it meant that they would have to admit to themselves that they were gay or bisexual...A significant age difference between partners did not alter the effects of the initial encounter. (p. 70)
The book then discusses first sexual experiences for boys in various age groups. Nearly one-half of the interviewed youths experienced gay sex before high school, either before puberty, or in early adolescence.
In general, two-thirds of those whose first gay sexual experience occurred in early adolescence enjoyed it, but this was fewer than those who enjoyed it when it occurred before puberty. Those who reacted negatively did so due to feelings of guilt, shame, and fear regarding sex—feelings that had been mostly absent before puberty.
However, the boy's reaction to sex, whether positive or negative, was usually not related to an awareness of being gay: Only rarely did an early adolescent believe that his first gay sex helped him develop a positive view about being gay. Equally uncommon were reports that the sex was upsetting because it might mean that he was gay.
None of the subjects who first experienced gay sex prior to puberty did so with adults, but 10% of those who first experienced it in early adolescence did so with an adult. Typically the adult was a man the youth did not know. The author writes, "At that time the encounter was not construed by the early adolescent as abusive but as serving a very important function."
The one youth in this situation quoted by the author was 13 at the time and had sex with a man in his early 30s at a shopping mall restroom. The youth said the man "initiated the fondling in the stall but it was honestly mutually wanted. I was curious but a little nervous that someone would walk in....I was pleased, glad, and scared. I wanted to explore more. I wanted a man in my life who was accepting, there, and caring. I told no one and I didn't want to. Society said 'bad!' so I didn't talk about it. I wanted it to repeat so I returned to the mall, but I never saw him again." (p. 77)
Regardless of the age of the partner, first gay sex at this time was
heavy, rife with meaning beyond the sex act itself. One youth worried and was emotionally upset because, “This meant I was gay and thus I would become a fit target for all those gay jokes.” Nearly as many youths rated the first sexual experience negatively as positively—very much unlike the glowing evaluation given by their earlier-starting cohorts....gay sex confirmed that which they could not imagine during childhood, feared but suppressed during early adolescence, and came to accept during late adolescence and young adulthood—that they were gay or bisexual. (p. 83)
Almost one-half of first sex partners of middle adolescents were men more than four years older than the youths, usually a stranger who picked up the youth in an anonymous but consensual situation. Perhaps because of this anonymity, high schoolers were least likely of any age group to follow up their first sexual experience with more encounters with the same person (only one-third did so).
The author quotes a boy who at age 15 had sex with a 45 year old man he met at a gay theater: "I came out thinking, finally I did it! I did it! I guess this is what is supposed to happen. I was nervous but I had a fake ID to get in. Looking back it made me feel really cheap. I didn't like it because of the circumstances. Not dirty but it made it difficult to accept the whole gay thing until I fell in love in college." (p. 83)
The author writes:
[The] need to have a “rite of passage” might explain, in part, why many of the adolescents had their first sex with strangers and older adults outside of their friendship network. In these settings youths could test their sexuality, not among friends who might turn on them or not appreciate their struggles, but among strangers in a one-time act. If it did not work out, they could always return without friends or family ever knowing about their experiment...The older age of the recipient of these experiments may also have served a purpose - someone more experienced and sure of his sexuality might better serve as the acid test for a youth's uncertain gay sexuality.
One boy said, "It was a really wonderful experience because he was so patient and gentle. I discovered it really was a confirmation, a solidification of who I am." (p. 84) Another youth wanted to know if he was really bisexual. Unable to trust anyone at his suburban high school, he referred to an alternative newspaper to discover where gay men hung out in a nearby city. He then went to that location seeking an anonymous experience with a mature man.
Five percent of the sample experienced their first gay romantic relationship in junior high school, and 30% did so in senior high school. These adolescents most often met their first lovers at school, part-time jobs, through friends, or in the neighborhood. Almost 70% of first romantic partners were older, usually within two years of the youth's age.
However, 20% of adolescent first relationships were with a man ten or more years older, and were likely to have been initiated by the older man. Most youths wanted romance but were hesitant to make the first move, perhaps because of their younger age.
The respondent who experienced his first gay romance at the youngest age was 12 at the time, and he did so with a 22 year old man. The relationship lasted 9 months. The boy said the man was "a science teacher in my school. It developed over time and was great. We became friends and I invited him over once when my parents weren't home. I practically had to force sex on him because he was afraid about losing his job. Ended when I went away for the summer and he wasn't a teacher at my school no more." (p. 163)
The author quotes two more adolescents who experienced their first romance with an older man:
"I answered a personal ad. He wanted youth and I wanted age! I'm 'slender, fun-loving, and cute'; he was 'bearded, masculine, and worked out.' He was forty-six and I was sixteen at the time. We were together for ten months until I finally came to Penn State. I never lived with him....He sends me holiday and birthday cards. I think of him as my uncle. It was good for the time." (p. 164)
"I was fifteen and he twenty-seven, the mailman, honest to God! On and off for two years....He was very forward, connected with me, and told me how hot I was. Talked about our backgrounds. It ended when he suddenly got transferred and contact became difficult. We visited each other and had sex, but it was hard and we agreed mutually because of the distance that it was better that we be friends and not lovers." (p. 172)
The author discusses these "age-discrepant relationships" in a special section. He includes in this category both those in which the younger partner was a minor, and those in which he was above the age of consent, finding no differences between them in quality or consequences.
Age-discrepant relationships did not vary from those in which the two were of similar age in terms of the meeting place, the length of the relationship, or who was most likely to initiate the relationship....Also, similar to all other relationships, these romances could have both positive and negative outcomes...These relationships were more likely to be terminated by the younger partner. However, it was extremely rare that the age-discrepant relationships ended in a fight in which one of the two participants was distressed or angry. (pp. 175-176)
He again quotes from one youth:
“It lasted about a month. I was fourteen and he was twenty-six. This friend was a friend of this guy, and he introduced us....That night we slept together. I was thoroughly infatuated with him. It was my third experience and it never did get beyond the infatuation stage. I finally woke up and realized this wasn't what I wanted. He kept on visiting me and hanging around and sort of helping me with my physics. He left to go back to the West Coast when I told him it wouldn't work out.” (p. 176)
Similar to other first relationships, age-discrepant relationships often ended due to physical separation. Another common reason involved differing perceptions of the relationship. Most frequently, the older partner wanted sex and the younger one wanted a romantic, emotional relationship.
The author concludes,
Perhaps the most striking differences in these age-discrepant relationships was the manner in which the younger partner viewed the relationship. They seldom regarded it as merely an infatuation but as an opportunity for growth and development....Another benefit of many age-discrepant relationships was that they helped a youth feel better about being gay. This was seldom anything but an extremely positive outcome...Very few youths who coupled with a considerably older man viewed this first romantic relationship as a negative experience. Most concluded that the good outweighed the bad, even if they ultimately discovered that it was not what they wanted. They were slightly less likely than other youths to have continued contact with their partner after the breakup...
Contrary to stereotypes, the older partner was not a “lecherous old man” but someone in his twenties with whom the youth was infatuated and to whom the youth was grateful for being a positive influence on his development. Also, in contrast to stereotypes, relationships with widely discrepant age differences between the partners appeared quite similar to those in which the two were of the same age. They tended to be positive relationships which, on reflection, helped the adolescent more readily identify as gay, feel better being gay, and learn much about himself. Tensions within the pair were largely based on the youth feeling that he needed more growth than the relationship was able to offer him, that the older partner wanted sex and not romance, and that the two were too different in their personalities, interests, and goals.
[Regarding both peer and age-discrepant relationships:]…Instances in which a youth was mistreated were seldom reported in the narratives. Few, if any, felt that their first same-sex relationship was one that they did not want or, however subtly, did not arrange or manipulate into existence. Many of these romances, however, were hidden from friends and family because the youths knew that they would be deemed deplorable and seldom recognized, supported, or celebrated. Although these conditions may have delayed their initiation into same-sex relationships, youths did not as a consequence deny their desire for or their participation in romantic trysts. Whatever the price, these gay-bisexual youths were not defeated. They had their first romance, loved it, grew from it, and moved to other, more developmentally appropriate and helpful romantic relationships. (pp. 177-179)