Gay4U/Out4U is the Sheikh-Virgin trope of m/m (not that there’s anything wrong with that)

Readers of this blog know that I am not a big fan of the Gay4U trope in m/m romance. I understand why it’s popular and there are certainly authors who are able to do a good job with it. But I’m still not drawn to those storylines.

As a faithful reader of category romances, I am not criticizing these books for being unrealistic (well, not much). I am criticizing readers and authors who defend them on the grounds that they are realistic. This distinction was crystallized for me when I was reading through a thread on a Goodreads board. I followed a link to a post defending a 2011 release against reviewers’ criticisms. I haven’t read the book in question, so I don’t have anything to say about the debate over the book, but these passages caught my eye:

As [the author] says, “Out for You” is how most gay men figure themselves out sexually, at whatever age they come to terms with their sexuality. They meet someone who arouses feelings that makes them question their self-image.” . . .

I would guess that “Out for You” happens more often than not.

I don’t disagree that individuals (gay or straight) learn about aspects of their sexuality through the process of becoming attracted to other people. I take issue, however, with the idea that Out4U happens “more often than not,” especially in the way that it’s depicted in m/m romance. Thinking of oneself as gay and living in society as a gay person involves identity, not just the gender of one’s sexual partners, or everyone who has ever had a same-sex encounter of any type would qualify as gay or bi, regardless of how they thought about themselves. But that’s not the way we use the terms.

I also don’t have a problem with readers enjoying storylines that focus on Gay4U or Out4U scenarios. Sometimes they’re ridiculously unbelievable, but sometimes they’re fun to read. It’s all in the author’s hands.

But readers and authors, please, don’t justify your enjoyment of the trope by referring to real-life scenarios. In real life, a person who has recently come out of the closet has just undergone a profound psychological stressor, and the decision usually has major ramifications for his place in his immediate and extended community. Some people may be able to enter into a healthy, committed new relationship while simultaneously navigating that process, but many will not. There’s a reason why gay men who have been out for a while often avoid relationships with the newly un-closeted. As for Gay4U in real life, I can’t say it better than TeddyPig did:

The truth is Gay Men who accept themselves and their feelings do not like hanging out with losers who do not anymore than any Straight Woman would.

Stories that explore the messy, complicated issues that arise for these individuals and couples aren’t generally what romance readers want to encounter in the genre. And as a faithful reader of category romance, that makes total sense to me. But, as someone who reads both genres, I’m puzzled by the argument that m/m is so very different from Harlequin, especially when it’s made in the context of defending Out4U as a storyline choice. The genres may differ in terms of who loves whom and the amount of explicit sex, but they share a lot of common ground when it comes to their level of (un)reality.

Harlequin readers don’t defend their enjoyment of sheikh-virgin and billionaire-secretary stories by claiming they reflect real life. Gay4U and Out4U are enjoyable, escapist, fantasy scenarios; why not just leave it at that?

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15 thoughts on “Gay4U/Out4U is the Sheikh-Virgin trope of m/m (not that there’s anything wrong with that)

  1. I’ve been thinking about the Gay4U trope a fair amount this week, because it was used in a book I read on vacation. The couple are an out gay man and a younger man who does not identify as gay or even bisexual; the younger man explicitly states that other men, gay porn, etc., do not appeal to him, that it’s all about his lover. And he even ruminates about how it is impossible to be gay for a single person, yet that’s what he’s feeling/being/doing. The author and the characters never really address this, other than through his one observation, and it seemed like a wasted opportunity to explore the trope in m/m or gay romance.

  2. Probably because there is very little realistic or really romantic about the situation involving an older gay man and a young kid who does not understand his sexuality.

    Listen if you want an in depth hard look at an older gay man getting involved with a younger guy then watch Chris & Don: A Love Story. It’s a documentary and it is very in your face and real but it elaborates on even the totally unromantic power play aspects of their relationship.

    It was only when Don was old enough he could express wanting to explore his sexuality away from Chris that the relationship could be seen as a “real” relationship created out of choices made.

    http://www.teddypig.com/2011/07/real-love-is-just-not-pretty/

    • Thank you for the recommendation, Teddypig. I recognize the title, I think, as the documentary about Christopher Isherwood and his much younger partner; it’s in my Netflix queue :)

      The age difference in the book I read (Otter, Bear and the Kid) was not extreme (29/21) but the dynamic bothered me a lot for reasons that I’m still trying to identify and articulate to myself. First, because the two of them were friends from childhood, and there was an implied sexual tension between them going back not only to the flashback periods of the book, but also much earlier on the part of the older man. (Actually, the book’s plot and characters reminded me very much of the movie Shelter, which I liked but also have some issues with.) Second, because the younger man’s sexuality is *never* addressed. He has a long term girlfriend and then he has a boyfriend, and other than saying he doesn’t believe in Gay4U even though that’s what he’s doing, he never really figures himself out. That’s not necessarily because of anything the older man is doing (he’s actually pretty insistent about not imposing) but because there’s so much other drama going on that there wasn’t page space or time within the confines of the book. I’ve been told on twitter that a sequel is in the works, so maybe it’ll be addressed then?

      Of course, on top of the relationship dynamic, the book read like a very rough first draft and needed serious editing or help from betas or a crit group.

      • Yeah, Isherwood lost a few friends over the whole thing but Don hinted he and his older brother were pretty much teenage hookers by the time they got together so um there are no real saints or real sinners it just is what it is which is so LA and you get the feeling there are worse things going on if what Chris and Don were considered the romantic types.

  3. @Jmc I forgot you were reading Bear Otter etc. Yeah, this seems like a Dreamspinner trademark book. Crowd-pleasing setup that doesn’t quite work at closer inspection, reams of publicity and good reviews, even though

    the book read like a very rough first draft and needed serious editing or help from betas or a crit group.

    I don’t know how they do it, but DSP is clearly tapping into an area of demand.

    @Teddypig, I saw your review of the documentary on your site and was intrigued by it. I understand that some m/m readers don’t want the messiness of real-life relationships any more than some readers of het romance do, but the disconnect seems more intense here. Maybe because so much of m/m owes a debt to fan fiction, which has very little to do with gay fiction (with or without romantic elements), as far as I can tell.

    • I don’t make those distinctions especially when you see M/M Writers for sale in Gay Bookstore shelves right… Let’s admit the separations are at best arbitrary and distinctions unjustifiable in the long run. I am all for escapist storytelling but bad writing is simply bad writing.

      I like a trashy book as much as the next person but I do not turn around and argue over the trash designation Secret Babies and all.

      • I’m not making a pejorative distinction (at least I don’t mean to), but it does seem to me that there are different strands of current m/m that come from distinct antecedents. Some m/m reads much more like slash (in terms of characterizations, tropes, plots, etc.) while other seems more like gay mystery or straight fiction. For example, I was reading A.M. Riley’s Immortality is the Suck last week and it reminded me a bit of Death Trick. I’m talking about the books here; I have no idea whether Riley started in fan fiction or not.

        I agree with you that dividing the genre by gender (or by the author’s previous background) is unjustifiable and unfair, and it probably wouldn’t work anyway. But I am curious, from an analytical standpoint, of the literary genealogy of various approaches. G/O4U just stumps me, but that’s probably because I haven’t read enough in the genre.

        • Plus, as I keep pointing out women did not suddenly discover the sexual turn on of “gay for you”. Gay guys have been writing that shit for years in gay porn which is probably where the trope comes from originally. The thing is that it is just inherently a short term condition as a drmrtic device much like virginity and equally over hyped as far as a payoff goes.

          • Ah crap, I think this means I have to read gay porn to see if it seems designed to invoke the same types of reader responses in the two genres.

            Ah, how I suffer for my analytical interests.

  4. Whether or not a particular trope is ‘realistic’ and indeed how desirable realism is in romance are perennial questions in romance. As with most arguments about realism in romance, my starting position is that readers are, on the whole, pretty smart and they know what is and isn’t realistic so I agree G4Y can work and work well and I think readers are canny enough to recognise, as you say, that it’s just like other ‘unrealistic’ tropes in the genre and should be enjoyed as such. So in short, my defence to that trope (and a hundred others in romance) is that realism per se doesn’t fundamentally matter. The difficulty of this particular trope is that some people object to what they see as appropriation – but that’s another question altogether.

    • Well, I don’t think it’s fair to say they are only concerned about “appropriation”. You could also see the “gay for you” trope as being a bit insulting because of the whole implied “I’m not really gay” aspects of it.

      It’s kind of along the lines of the whole gay dating sites using the term “straight acting” and the controversy that type of thing sparks.

    • Hmmm. You always make me think.

      It’s partly about appropriation, but I do think there’s a “realism” element in m/m that is distinct. In het romance there are plenty of tropes which *readers* recognize as divorced from their real-life counterparts (sheikhs, billionaires, maybe even virgins!). They unabashedly enjoy the literary constructions as fantasies. In m/m, the Gay/Out4U trope is not always recognized that way.

      It’s a bit like saying that a reader learns about Scotland by reading Scottish historicals. Yes, it’s appropriation, but it’s also the insistence that this is a valid way of representing the real-life counterpart. And, as Maili has pointed out, you wind up with non-Scottish readers arguing with Scottish readers about the historical authenticity of a fictional construct.

      And, as TP says below above, there is the implicit “not really gay except for true love” aspect, which is as far from being sensitive to LGBT issues as you can get.

      I’m not sure you can write about any culture or community that you aren’t part of without engaging in some level of appropriation. But it seems more egregious when you don’t recognize the fantastical elements introduced in the story. So I think the appropriation and the unreality are interwoven here. Not sure I’m making sense, but I’m still trying to figure it out.

      • RIght it’s not about that whole “your character must be politically sensitive” deal. Fuck that. I just respond better if I think the writer is aware of the edge they are using and why it is considered edgy if you know what I mean.

  5. Sometimes, I like gay4U stories. I know, they don’t have any sense and have no connection to real life. I know it all. Like you mentioned, some readers are addicted to books about sheikh-virgin and billionaire-secretary, even if they’re just a silly fantasy. Well, my silly fantasy is gfy storyline ;) I’m not gonna defend it, cause, if you think about it, it seems to be utterly stupid. Maybe I’m a little bit stupid for reading those stories, but I like them, from time to time. Have no idea why… Of course, some of them are weak even if I forget a reality – I give them low ratings.

    It’s all about fantasy, not about the truth.

    Btw. I prefer books with development from friends at the beggining to something more. ‘Insta lust’ and sex for all the time, make me sick. And I treat MC’s more like bisexual, definitely not straight. Still, those books have no sense, but who cares? I don’t, obviously. Not too smart on my part.

    And sorry if I offended someone in any way. I didn’t mean to.

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