some thoughts on m/m tropes - gay cops and barebacking
June 29, 2015
People who follow me on twitter will be unsurprised to know that I listen to a lot of m/m romance audiobooks. Being depressed has meant that I basically spent 60% of my waking hours lying in bed and essentially doing nothing but listening to books.
(I don’t read as much these days because it has been over two years since I’ve had much capacity to sit and focus on reading. When I can get the focus/concentration for sustained, deep reading, I try to read articles or something nowadays.)
I occassionally, on twitter, will complain about certain tropes and elements of these m/m books, many of which are written by straight women. Or just women. The audience for these books, as with m/m slash fanfic, is usually considered to be other women. By and large, m/m is a genre for and by women. Except that it has gay men as the main characters.
One of the things I’ve mentioned is that the reason why this is the genre I’m into at the moment is because while I like romance genre fic in general, these days my feelings about sexism and misogyny make reading 99.9% of het romance unbearable. Given that many of the het romance plots use boundary violation as a plot device, I just can’t. I can usually get about half an hour into a het romance (basically around the time that the interactions between the two romantic protags begin) before I have to ragequit or quit out of disgust.
And it is possible that this is one of the things that draws het women to m/m romance too, since it allows for the exploration of romantic themes amongst characters that don’t have a basic power imbalance that colours every aspect of their interaction. It also allows them to escape many of the het romance tropes.
Unfortunately, all this means is that m/m romance has its own set of tropes that usually end up being homophobic and heteronormative in ways that are damaging to gay men. The thing about presumed audiences is that the only ppl reading m/m isn’t just het women. I remember as a young bakla, before the rise of mainstream m/m, that I lived for the very few fun/fluffy gay books I was able to find. Yes, I read gay literature and this was all well and good, but I do like my escapist fiction. I can well imagine that there are many gay youth out there reading these books bc they offer a welcome respite from their daily lives and from (perhaps) literature that is less fun/escapist.
So. What are the tropes that have me ranting on twitter? Here are a few:
1) Gay cops, gay cowboys, and gay veterans.
Between these three professions, I think almost half (if not more) of m/m books have at least one gay character in one of these professions. The least irritating of these is the gay cowboys. Whatever.
Perhaps the most irritating is all the gay cops. Many of whom are closeted when the book begins.
The thing about cops is that they tend to be one of the most violent and outright oppressive groups of ppl towards gay people. Many gay people don’t report crimes against them because cops either don’t care or further traumatize them. This is a real problem in many, many places.
Does this mean that there are no gay cops? Well, of course not.
The problem I have is in the romanticization of them. Because this isn’t a neutral occupation. There are no ‘good gay cops’ because there are no good cops. It is a fundamentally violent and oppressive institution. Yet in these books cops are often presented as moral, masculine, and desirable.
Like. One book I tried (but failed to finish) was about this gay cop who saves a homeless gay man. Which, of course, is ridiculous since cops tend to be violent towards homeless people in general and gay people in general, so why wouldn’t this (gay) cop likewise be violent?
I’m troubled by narratives like this because some stats show that up to (or more depending) 50% of homeless youth are lgbt. But the thing is, is that homeless lgbt youth are generally poorly (if at all) served by many existing social services. And, by and large, it really isn’t cops who are rescuing these youth (or anyone else, tbh).
The military thing… I just. The nationalistic narratives of this are just troubling from an anti-oppressive standpoint. I literally listened to one book where the main character was former military, who then was a mercenary, and the book kept saying over and over again how he wasn’t a murderer… and I’m like, just because your murdering is sanctioned by the state (and not all of it was), doesn’t make it suddenly ‘ok’. By and large, these books are unlistenable for me. Worse than the cops because they always try to make me feel sympathy for white cis d00ds who were in poc countries killing poc. And I just can’t.
(There’s also a bunch to be said here about toxic masculinity and why these specific occupations are considered to be so fucking ‘masculine’ and desirable by m/m authors.)
2) Heteronormative sex tropes
The main thing here is the idea that all gay men have penetrative anal sex and that this specific act alone is the most intimate that gay sex can be. Or, as is often the case, that barebacking penetrative anal sex is the most intimate that gay sex can be. That this is the height and goal of gay intimacy.
The thing is, is that not all gay men do anal. Many, many do not. And they don’t do it for a variety of reasons. The point being, that the gay men who don’t do anal aren’t failing to being deeply and meaningfully intimate with their partners (if this is what they want). Of course, there are also heaps of gay men who do anal and it means all of nothing to them. They do it with anyone they can.
I find the barebacking aspect of pernicious because it sets up this belief that safer sex is less intimate sex and that is…. yeah. Again, this is a heteronormative conception of intimacy because it pushes for obligatory monogamy. This is also, perhaps, one of the most dangerous tropes in the ways that it can possibly influence gay youth into engaging in less than safe sex because they internalize this.
Also? This marginalizes and demonizes those people with STIs (especially those with HIV). People in mixed status relationships (ie. all partners not either negative or positive) who use condoms and other barriers aren’t in relationships that necessarily have less intimacy than those who have sex without barriers. And this is to say nothing of the disgusting way that many of these m/m authors use descriptions like ‘clean’ when it comes to their characters disclosing their HIV status.
Next comes over-investing ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ with heteronormative emotional content. Some of this, yes, does happen within the community, but it generally isn’t quite as deep as some of these authors take it. I read one book where one of the main protags is so deeply conflicted about ‘topping’ and ‘bottoming’ that it is one of the central conflicts of the story. He has no issue suddenly being gay, but rather is emotionally wrought over the fact that he is macho and after bottoming in his first sexual encounter it creates this giant fucking existential crisis for him. Or another book that I just finished where two of the characters (who are now best friends) dated once but stopped bc they are both tops and after one tried bottoming, he hated it so much that it turned off all romantic feelings.
I read shit like this with my face like O.o, because it is just so fucking ridiculous. Again, it isn’t that ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ don’t have some of these connotations within the community, but with the way that this ties into the ‘anal sex is the most intimate sex’ trope, is that this becomes important to a degree that is ridiculous. A relationship falling apart for the sole reason that both men are tops? Absurd. But only possible within a belief that anal sex is something all gay men do and is the most meaningful, intimate sexual act.
Okay. I’m only listing these two for now because I’m done writing and I want to take a shower.
I will say this about why I’m writing this, because I have seen some of the defenses women who write and read within this genre have used against criticism like this, this stuff exists within a larger culture.
Sure. Maybe the heteronormative barebacking anal sex thing wouldn’t be a big deal in isolation and within these books. Except that we are currently at a time where many gay porn studios are showing more and more bareback sex (it is becoming the norm). We are currently at a time where bug chasing has actually become a thing. We are at a time were many new cases of HIV are amongst gay youth because there is a whole generation of people who weren’t impacted by the AIDS crisis (and never learn the history). We are at a time when the HIV epidemic has never actually stopped for trans women of colour.
Within this larger cultural context, pushing this barebacking sex as teh most intimate sex is really fucking dangerous and harmful. Because intimacy isn’t about which sex acts you and your partner(s) engage in. Some acts don’t have more emotional content than others. It is about the people and their feelings, not about the specific activities.