How Male Bisexuality Got Cool

From TV bromances to political man crushes, male bisexuality has gone mainstream. But is it a sign of true sexual attraction—or just an act?

Last year, when Charles Forman, the 29-year-old heterosexual founder of the popular gaming Web site I’m In Like With You, was caught on camera holding hands with 22-year-old Tumblr founder David Karp (also straight), the first thing he did was send the photo to the gossip blog Gawker. “Did you see the gay picture?” he instant-messaged the Web site, which then posted an entire photo montage of the two boys in various states of PDA. Forman then linked back to the montage from his own blog.

“He wasn’t the typical macho straight guy,” says one woman of her bisexual boyfriend. “I got off on it.”

The whole episode had more than a whiff of publicity seeking. (Gawker calls Karp and Forman “fameballs.”) Still, the very fact that the pair of Internet wunderkinds decided that cultivating a mystique of bisexuality could help their careers says something about the moment we’re living in. “Why would any straight guy call a press conference to announce his bisexual inclinations, unless the whole thing was intended as a joke?” asks Ron Suresha, editor of Bi Men: Coming Out and Bisexual Perspectives on Kinsey. “I don't know why these famehounds claim to be bisexual, but they don't set off my ‘bi-dar’ one whiff. While I'm hopeful that their posed bisexuality is a harbinger of a new generation of heterosexual men who are actually willing to face their bi desires, from a distance this photo-op male ‘bonding’ seems completely contrived.”

Still, whereas bisexual women had their fling with pop culture in the 1990s—when everyone from Drew Barrymore to Madonna messed around with women, not to mention the famous Vanity Fair cover showing Cindy Crawford shaving k.d. lang—“bromances” are now the driving force behind Hollywood comedies and Style section features, as men find more ways to play for both teams, or at least act like they do.

Examples are everywhere. In John Hamburg’s recent movie, I Love You, Man, the gay guy who unwittingly goes on a date with Paul Rudd isn’t just played for laughs, but to some degree, sympathy. This summer will also see Lynn Shelton’s buzzed-about Humpday, in which two straight male friends decide to make a homemade porn video. And Brody Jenner’s reality show Bromance blurs the line separating friendship and attraction in what Videogum’s Gabe Delahaye calls “basically the gayest thing ever, made more gay by everyone's desperate attempts to provide chest-bumping proof of their heterosexuality.”

The term “man crush”—which, like bromance, connotes a male relationship that resides somewhere between platonic and romantic—is already this year’s official media catchphrase. “Rams GM Devaney Has a Man Crush on Eugene Monroe” gossips manlier-than-thou “Warren Buffett’s Chinese Man Crush” titters the headline on a Business Insider profile of CEO Wang Chuan-Fu. And while it’s not all that surprising to find Newsday’s music critic proclaiming his “man-crush renewed” after a Seal concert, it’s less expected in a Boston Globe story about President Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, or in an AOL News piece about the King of Saudi Arabia.

It’s an emerging version of male bisexuality that’s more pose than sincere. The celebrities who engage in it take pains to make it clear they’re straight—half-ironically goofing around, often as a blatant grab for attention. But the fact that they’re even taking it that far is something new. Take Jimmy Kimmel’s 2008 YouTube sensation “ I’m Fucking Ben Affleck,” created in response to his then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman’s “ I’m Fucking Matt Damon” video. Five years ago, few male celebrities went there, and the ones who did were often already branded as outsiders, like Michael Stipe. Now, the most mainstream of leading men clamor to act bi for the camera.

In addition to these tongue-in-cheek, sometimes tortured expressions of straightish-male love are indications that some men—non-celebrity civilians—are embracing a nuanced version of bisexuality as well. Benoit Denizet-Lewis profiled a bisexual bodybuilder named Todd in his book America Anonymous, which was released in January. Todd’s clients are mostly gay men, but some just like watching him “flex and show off.” These are men who say they’re bi or straight—and Todd believes them. “It’s just a fetish for them,” he says. “Over time, I’ve seen them have successful marriages with their wives. They seem to be very happy, from what I can tell.”

Gay men have long fetishized straight guys, but what’s happening now goes beyond that. It’s not just about being seduced into a same-sex encounter, but about men claiming bisexuality or bicuriosity on their own terms. Hence, it makes sense that, according to Humpday director Shelton, her film, even with the gay sex, is “about being straight. But specifically, it’s about the limitations of straightness and it’s about how absurd the extremities of straightness can be, basically.”

Somewhat surprisingly, women, too, are increasingly open to dating—and are sometimes specifically attracted to—bisexual guys. In December, blogger Jocelyn Nubel wrote about dating a bi guy: “To be honest, I’d never before considered it a turn-on to picture a guy I’m into making out with another guy, but there’s just something about this one. He gets me so worked up, so sexually excited, and I guarantee if I saw that in action, it’d get me all hot and bothered.” That’s a far cry from Carrie Bradshaw’s reaction to the bisexual man she dated in an episode of Sex and the City nine years ago. In that episode, she goes to a spin-the-bottle party with him as the token straight girl, and even makes out with Alanis Morissette, but only so as not to seem like an “old fart.” Throughout the episode, Carrie and her friends make it clear that she finds the world of bisexual men to be disorienting and unreal. “I was Alice in Confused Sexual Orientation Land,” she muses, ultimately deciding she just can’t date someone who can’t pick a side.

A friend of mine dated a guy who called himself straight, but often wound up doing things that belied his bisexuality (like drunkenly making out with men in bars). While he never owned up to it, she found this side of him sexy. “He wasn’t the typical macho straight guy. Even though he wasn’t totally truthful with me, I got off on it.” Alexis Tirado, a Web editor at Martha Stewart Living Radio, is quoted in Guy Garcia’s book The Decline of Men as saying, “It almost seems like the more feminine a guy is, the cooler he is in terms of what’s cool now.” She goes on to praise guys like Justin Timberlake, who she says is “in touch with his feminine side” (perhaps evidenced by his leotard-clad stint on SNL).

Designer Tom Ford has suggested that everyone try bisexuality, just to see what it’s like. “There’s one indulgence every man should try in his lifetime,” Ford suggested to Details a few months ago. “If you’re straight, sleep with a man at least once, and if you’re gay, don’t go through life without sleeping with a woman.” Most men will never take it this far, and there’s still immense pressure to pick a side—witness last year’s frantic is-she-or-isn’t-she tabloid headlines about Lindsay Lohan—but at least now men can hold hands without making each other’s palms sweat.

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Rachel Kramer Bussel is the editor of Best Sex Writing 2009 and host of In The Flesh Reading Series.