Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 766–773 | Cite as

Maintaining a Heterosexual Identity: Sexual Meanings Among a Sample of Heterosexually Identified Men Who Have Sex with Men

  • Cathy J. Reback
  • Sherry Larkins
Original Paper


Heterosexually identified men who have sex with men are an understudied group for whom there is little knowledge of the social and sexual meanings of their same-sex encounters. This study employed qualitative methods to better understand the maintenance of a heterosexual identity in the face of discordant sexual behaviors. Open-ended, in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 21 heterosexually identified men (M age, 39.85 years) who reported at least one sexual encounter with a male in the previous year but not more than one sexual encounter per month with a male. Of the participants, 61.9% were African American/black, 28.6% were currently married, 71.4% reported current substance use, and 57.1% were HIV infected. Participants did not consider their same-sex activities as discrepant with their heterosexual identity as these activities were coded as infrequent, recreational, accidental, or an economic necessity. They avoided intimacy by depersonalizing male sexual partners, limiting gestures (e.g., kissing, hugging, eye contact, conversation), and by distancing themselves from gay-identified venues. Participants transferred responsibility for their same-sex sexual activities by blaming external factors, such as a fight with their wife or substance use, for the sexual encounters. Despite their ability to compartmentalize these sexual encounters, many participants expressed guilt and shame when discussing their same sex experiences.


Heterosexual men Men who have sex with men (MSM) Sexual identity 



This study was supported by the City of Los Angeles, AIDS Coordinator’s Office, contract #C-102523. The authors wish to thank Kevin Shone for his outstanding work as the field interviewer, the collaborating social service agencies and key informants, and the 21 participants who provided their invaluable narratives.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Friends Research Institute, Inc.Los AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Integrated Substance Abuse ProgramsUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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