Sexual Subcultures

views updated

Sexual Subcultures

The term subculture signifies a class or group that is smaller than the larger mainstream culture and that possesses beliefs, values, or practices that may be at variance with the larger culture. Subculture comes into English in the 1930s as a term used primarily by sociologists and psychologists to distinguish an aberrant and sometimes inferior population; by the late 1970s, however, cultural studies in the United Kingdom recognized subcultural social formations, especially youth subcultures, as a pervasive feature of many twentieth-century societies. Modern youth subcultures take shape around consumerism and popular cultural trends; the cultural critic Dick Hebdige argues that youth subcultures in the United Kingdom, such as punks, mods, beats, teddy boys, and Rastafarians, identified themselves and each other primarily through the manipulation of style and fashion and the use of symbolic objects to confer group identity.

Hebdige's primary interest is in defining and describing youth subcultures organized around musical tastes and fashion, but his paradigmatic subcultural object is homosexual writer Jean Genet's (1910–1986) tube of Vaseline, a lubricant Genet claimed to carry with him as a defiant badge of his sexual identity in a era when homosexuality was against the law. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, a countercultural rejection of established sexual and gender norms, led to new permissiveness in European, South American, North American, Australian, and white South African sexual and gender behavior, though rural areas remained more traditional than urban areas. Sexual subcultures proliferated as part of this permissive social climate, and as with other subcultures, they adopted certain styles of gesture and fashion to distinguish themselves from the mainstream.


Homosexuals constituted the largest sexual subculture of the twentieth century, though a growing tolerance for homosexuals in Europe and North America, the relaxation of sodomy laws, and the influence of gay style have all made homosexuals part of the contemporary mainstream in many urban areas. Homosexuality and its gender expressions were illegal, except in theatrical contexts, in most of the United States and much of the world until the last third of the twentieth century, driving gay men and lesbians underground and contributing to the formation of a thriving subcultural world of bars, nightclubs and theaters, social organizations, and, eventually, political groups. By the 1950s there were bars for men and bars for women in many cities. Sometimes homosexual men and women shared bars and nightclubs as a survival tactic, socializing in same-sex groups when possible and then quickly integrating in the event of a police raid. Social and political groups, such as the Mattachine Society for men or the Daughters of Bilitis for women, first socialized in private homes and spaces where separatism was possible then became increasingly public throughout the 1960s. Because gay establishments were illegal, bars that catered to gay men and lesbians were often run by organized crime and charged exorbitant drink prices to customers with nowhere else to go.

Gay men are a subset of the larger sexual subcultural category of homosexuals, and the word homosexual is used as a synonym for gay men rather than for lesbians. Gay men before 1969 recognized each other primarily by the fashion and behavioral codes that conveyed subcultural membership to others in the know. In various decades a green carnation, red tie, pinky ring, dyed hair, plucked eyebrows, a brightly colored shirt, or tight, fashionable clothes might signal effeminacy, and thus, by extension, male homosexuality. Gay men have always had a niche in mainstream culture as hairdressers, choreographers, dancers, fashion designers, and stage actors. They were often tolerated in entertainment society though never encouraged to cultivate openness or pride in their sexual identities. After the 1969 Stonewall rebellion in New York's Greenwich Village launched the modern gay rights movement, gay fashion entered the mainstream. In the 1970s the clone look of short hair, big mustache, and aviator sunglasses started in the San Francisco gay community and moved outward. Gay men adopted a handkerchief code to signal sexual practices, such as sadomasochism, watersports, or scat, to each other.

In the early twenty-first century gay style in hair, music, fashion, design, and even sex has so entered the mainstream that homosexuality can no longer be considered a sexual subculture. Its expressions are various and diverse and can hardly be said to characterize a common set of values or practices. Shaving the head, a fashion trend that started as a gesture of solidarity with gay men losing their hair because of HIV/AIDS in the 1990s, quickly became the vogue among straight men as well, as did the goatee that usually accompanied it. There are promiscuous gay men, monogamous gay men, fashionable gay men, butch gay men, sloppy gay men, conservative gay men, and radical gay men in many parts of North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Australia. Some categories of gay life have become all-encompassing enough to constitute subcultures in relation to a larger gay culture; these include leathermen, bears, and feeders. Leathermen run the spectrum from gay men fond of leather clothing to sadomasochists who enjoy sexual role playing to men who live every day in dominant/submissive, master/slave relationships. Bears are big, hairy men and their admirers. Feeders are a variant of dominant-submissive relationships where one partner assists the other in growing as fat as possible.

Lesbians are also a subset of the homosexual subculture, though often existing on its fringes. European and North American lesbians in the 1920s often distinguished themselves and recognized each other by adopting a masculine style that included tailored suits, ties, dress shirts, vests, short hair, and competence. By the 1940s many lesbians indulged their fondness for uniforms and their patriotism by joining the armed services. Among midcentury lesbians, membership in a sexual subculture might have been signaled by becoming part of a butch-femme couple in which one woman dressed and comported herself as more masculine than did her stereotypically feminine partner. Feminism steered many lesbians away from femininity in the 1970s, and flannel shirts and Birkenstock sandals became a middle-class lesbian uniform. The 1980s and 1990s brought back butch-femme style, femininity in the form of the hyper-girlish lipstick lesbian, and the androgynous look of the shaved head and slender figure known variously as the andro, grrrl, or boi. Testosterone became part of lesbian fashion, beginning in San Francisco in the 1990s, where many butch lesbians explored their masculinity and sometimes decided to transition into female-to-male subjects, or F2Ms. Male impersonation, especially as entertainment, gained popularity among lesbians in the late 1990s, and by 2000 drag kings and drag king shows were a fixture of lesbian culture in many cities. Lesbian style entered the mainstream in the 1980s with the androgynous, soft-butch suits, ties, and short hair of musicians such as Annie Lennox, and survived into the 1990s with the crew cuts and shaved heads of many Riot Grrrls and Queer Nation activists, but has been largely absent since the mid-1990s. Lesbians of the early twenty-first century tend to be either stereotypically feminine or sporting gay male hairstyles such as the butch flip or faux-hawk.


Queers constitute a subcultural gender and sexual category that rejects normativity and celebrates visibility and activism. The queer movement started in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a coalition between lesbians, gays, transgender people, sadomasochist and leathersex radicals, bisexuals, and queer-identified, nonnormative heterosexuals. Queer was an inclusive category; if one identified as queer it did not matter what gender or sexuality one expressed. Queer style included leather, tattoos, brightly colored punk hair or shaved heads, and body modification such as piercing, hormone therapy, and transsexual surgical procedures. The queer movement helped spawn activist groups such as Queer Nation, ACT UP, the Lesbian Avengers, Riot Grrrls, and Transsexual Menace, among others. It also coincided with an explosion of academic queer theory in the humanities and social sciences. A conservative political and academic climate, economic constraints, and the trend of gender normativity and nonqueer identification among teenagers and young adults have all led to the speculation that queer is over; this debate, however, should help maintain the presence of queer in the social lexicon for some time to come.


Down low, or on the down low, is a term used for African-American men who have sex with other men but do not identify with gay culture or even consider themselves to be homosexual. Men on the down low are often married or have girlfriends, and most are in the closet. They do not identify themselves as a sexual subculture in the way that out gay men identify themselves, but they do combine attributes of masculine comportment and hip-hop/thug street fashion with gestures of gay cruising, such as prolonged looking and repeated sidelong glances, to signify to each other that they are looking for sex. Because members of this group are sexually promiscuous but do not identify as gay, they may be in denial about the necessity of safe sexual practices and have been identified by safe-sex advocates and health professionals as at high risk for HIV transmission.

Swingers are a sexual subgroup of mostly middle-class heterosexual married couples who exchange husbands and wives with each other for sex or have threesomes with people outside of the couple. Swingers find each other through personal ads, friends, and neighbors. Also called wife swapping, swinging is seen as a practice confined to the 1960 and 1970s suburbs or as something that occasionally took place after wild parties. Yet swinging started among Air Force pilots and their wives during World War II and the Korean War, moved into the suburbs, and gained popularity during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Swinging continues in the early twenty-first century as an avenue of heterosexual sexual adventure and bisexual exploration in North America and Europe, and there are swingers clubs all over the world. Urban swinging hit an upsurge in the 1990s, beginning with parties in London. Swinging is also called the lifestyle by its proponents, who recognize each other by behavioral cues such as flirtatiousness with others when one's partner is present.

Nonidentified and bicurious people claim not to identify with either gay or straight sexual communities but usually tacitly pass for straight. Some nonidentified youth are out as pansexual but do not feel they have anything in common with gay men and lesbians; others pass through this phase on their way to becoming gay or lesbian. The same is true for bisexual or bicurious people, who may experiment with same-sex partners or relationships as part of a heterosexual swinging lifestyle or may be bisexual on their way to embracing lesbianism or gay male sexuality. Bisexuals are often queer-identified and may signal sexual availability by adopting gay or lesbian gender, hair, and fashion styles, or by displaying body modifications, such as tongue or nipple piercing, that indicate an interest in sexual experimentation.


Leather communities can be primarily heterosexual, gay, or lesbian. They are usually sadomasochistic, involved in dominant-submissive dynamics, or both, and are distinguished by a preference for leather clothing and accessories, uniforms, and latex and rubber wear. Leather communities enjoy sexual role-playing scenarios, games, spectacles, and private encounters. Roles are primarily those of tops—masters, mistresses, doms, dominators, or dominatrices; and bottoms—submissives, slaves, or boys/bois. Some people enjoy switching roles, though many do not. Bondage and domination, or BD, and sadomasochism, or SM, are now commonly grouped under one set of initials, BDSM or BD/SM. The BDSM leather sensibility entered the sexual and fashion mainstream in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and these days a little bondage play is no longer considered kinky or subcultural. Few people outside the leather community, however, live their roles as often or as intensely as do those who consider themselves part of the BDSM subculture, some of whom are masters or slaves every hour of every day of their lives.


Ex-gays consist of gay men and lesbians who have gone through some sort of program, usually affiliated with a religious denomination, to make them into heterosexuals. Theirs is a lifestyle choice that may involve heterosexual marriage, often to a fellow ex-gay person of the opposite sex. Some members claim to have been cured of their homosexuality, though many former ex-gays, as well as many health care professionals, are unconvinced that it is possible to change one's sexual orientation. Ex-gays are usually religiously affiliated and often signal this affiliation as part of their group identity.

Man-boy lovers are men who feel that consensual sexual relationships between grown men and boys under the legal age of consent should be legal. Their umbrella group, the North America Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), has been the subject of police and FBI persecution since its founding in the late 1970s. Although NAMBLA still meets occasionally, it has been driven underground by ostracism from both mainstream culture and the gay community, which has long sought to distance itself from stereotypes of gay men as pedophiles. In the early twenty-first century little of the organization remains outside of a web site maintained by a few of its members, and it is considered nearly defunct.

Infantilists, or adult babies (AB), are adults who are sexually aroused by dressing and acting as infants. Many enjoy wearing and playing with diapers as well, which makes them adult babies who are diaper lovers (AB/DL). Most are heterosexual males and enjoy being helpless or having no responsibilities. Infantilism involves the fantasy of being a child but has nothing to do with desiring children. Infantilists usually find each other through personal ads and Internet groups and sites.

Plushies and furries are variations on people who enjoy dressing up as either stuffed animals or real animals. Plushies are people who enjoy looking like a stuffed animal or toy; furries are people who enjoy wearing suits that resemble real animals. Furry fandom also includes enjoyment of the humanization of animals. Some plushies and furries are merely hobbyists who enjoy socializing in their characters; others are sexually aroused as plushies or furries and may seek sex with other plushies or furries as an extension of their socializing. They also find each other through Internet groups and sites as well as conventions.

Polygamists are people who have more than one husband or more than one wife; a subset of polygamy is polygyny, the practice of one man marrying several women. Polygamy is officially against the law in most parts of the world but is still practiced as polygyny in many rural places as a matter of custom. In the United States polygamy is still practiced by a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church known as the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. Mainstream Mormons, or Latter-day Saints (LDS), stopped new polygamous marriages in 1890 as a condition of Utah statehood, but some marriages continued into the 1920s. Although in the early twenty-first century the LDS church officially frowns on polygamy, many prominent LDS families in no way affiliated with the FLDS are said to retain the practice of polygamy. The FLDS is mainly concentrated in the West in such places as Colorado City, Arizona. Its members wear traditional clothing, and women often wear homemade, pioneer-style, long dresses.

Trans or transgender people are technically a gender community or set of gender communities rather than sexual subcultures. However, the long conflation of sex and gender in the gay and lesbian communities, which many trans people originally embraced as their own communities before deciding to transition, combined with the particular sexual issues of transgender people, especially those not wishing to have genital surgery, can lead to a solidarity among transgender people that can include sexual partnering. Transmen may identify as queer, gay, or straight, and male-to-female transgender women may also identify as lesbian or heterosexual. They may be members of other sexual subcultures, such as leather and BDSM. They may choose to identify as trans or decide to pass as men or women in the general population. Still, many need the support of a trans community, and sometimes this support leads to sexual relationships. The fluidity between the gay and lesbian community and the trans community also facilitates queer partnerships of various kinds, as transmen may continue to also identify with lesbians and transgender women with gay men, in various ways relating to mutual marginalization as members of subcultural sexual and gender communities. Trans people may signal their membership in the trans community by wearing clothing identifying them as trans, through personal ads and Internet sites and web pages, in queer and trans-friendly organizations, and through body modification practices, such as piercing and tattooing, that ally them with other socially and sexually experimental people.

Celibates, virgins, and born-again virgins are those who have decided to abstain from sexual activity for a certain amount of time or the rest of their lives, claim to be waiting until marriage to have sex, or have had premarital sex but have since decided to abstain from further sexual activity until they are married. While the so-called virginity movement has been gaining popularity among U.S. teenagers in the early twenty-first century, it is also true that many teenagers who claim to be virgins or born-again virgins engage in sexual activities other than heterosexual intercourse, such as anal sex, oral sex, and mutual masturbation. They signal their belonging in this sexual subculture by wearing jewelry and T-shirts with slogans espousing virginity. Although they claim not to have sex, their lifestyle and fashion choices advocate certain sexual practices, such as celibacy and no sex outside of marriage, that are outside the practices of mainstream European and North American cultures, and virgins and celibates should be considered a sexual subculture.


Chauncey, George. 1994. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic.

Faderman, Lillian. 1991. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hebdige, Dick. 1991. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge. (Orig. pub 1979.)

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. 1993. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge.

Warner, Michael. 1993. Introd. to Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, ed. Michael Warner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Weinberg, Thomas S., ed. 1995. S & M: Studies in Dominance and Submission. Rev. edition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

                                            Jaime Hovey