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27 August 2022

Harry Styles and the paradox of male sexuality

Men’s lust is simpler if the man in question doesn’t seem completely straight.

By Marie Le Conte

Does Harry Styles enjoy having sex with men? It shouldn’t really be any of our business but somehow the question keeps cropping up. Every few months he gets interviewed and says something oblique about the topic. Every few months the internet is set aflame by it.

“Sometimes people say, ‘You’ve only publicly been with women’, and I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “If someone takes a picture of you with someone, it doesn’t mean you’re choosing to have a public relationship.”

Is this a wink? A nudge? Should we treat it as cynical “queerbaiting” and a way to get attention? Is this the result of a culture in which famous people are forced to publicly discuss what they should have every right to keep private? No one knows. Everyone keeps discussing it regardless.

Does Harry Styles enjoy having sex with women? Well, the hints there are certainly clearer. In the video for “Watermelon Sugar”, he teases a slice of watermelon with his – impeccably manicured – finger before greedily biting into it, eyes staring straight into the camera. The next shot features a woman, back arched, mouth open, eyes closed, head tilted back. See if you can spot the subtext.

It is a strikingly sexual video, especially in the context of a mainstream culture that keeps shying away from sensuality. We live in a world of impossibly perfect movie stars and influencers that look like porn cartoon versions of themselves and yet they all feel smooth, like Barbie and Ken dolls.

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As an especially sharp essay for the digital magazine Blood Knife put it last year, “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny”. It is especially noticeable when looking at the male actors portraying ever-popular superheroes on screen. Endless pictures of glistening abs and thighs thick as tree trunks get released on social media, but few of those movies feature more than a peck on the cheek.

Entire interviews are dedicated to the gruelling regimen the actors undertook to get in shape, and it always sounds soul-sucking. “When a body receives fewer calories, it must prioritise essential life support systems over any function not strictly necessary for the body’s immediate survival,” the Blood Knife piece pointed out. “Sexual desire falls into the latter category… Is there anything more cruelly Puritanical than enshrining a sexual ideal that leaves a person unable to enjoy sex?”

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The author blames the bleak state of our world, and argues that focusing on the soft pleasures of life can be tough when we do not feel safe, on a personal or national level. Another likely culprit is the gradual Disneyfication of media; the more art is swallowed up by big corporations, the blander it becomes.

Still, it feels like a piece of the puzzle is missing. In young liberal circles at least, female lust now feels celebrated when it was once hidden. From Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” to the various Slut Walks, the idea that women can and do want to have enjoyable sex with men is largely accepted.

Similarly, LGBT culture has been thriving – on social media, in movies and on television. The odd one out, then, remains straight male sexuality. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise; we are still facing the aftermath of the only partially successful Me Too movement. We still live in a patriarchal society where male lust and male violence remain too closely intertwined.

The meteoric and terrifying rise of the extreme misogynist Andrew Tate is a case in point. One day he was no one; the next he was an influencer with millions of followers, bragging about mistreating women.

In this context, it probably makes sense that politically engaged and socially conscious circles do not quite know what to do with men who have sex with women. This is where Harry Styles and his fondness for watermelon sugar become relevant.

It doesn’t really matter whether Styles does or doesn’t sleep with men. What does matter is that he sometimes presents as someone who does, who says that he might and who dresses in a suitably androgynous fashion. His lust for women is obvious, but it is defanged by the hints that he may not lust solely for them.

Styles is simply a beautiful man with a charming taste for earthly delights, in whatever form they may take. Once upon a time, this would have made him more controversial; in the odd world we’ve found ourselves in, it somehow simplifies his attraction to women.

The patriarchal implications of the lovely time he is clearly having are, rightly or wrongly, dimmed by virtue of him not seeming completely straight. He, a man, sings about enjoying going down on women in a music video mostly full of women who, it is heavily implied, also enjoy going down on each other. Would it have been received differently if he’d been singing about a different sex act? What if he were an entirely pleasant but wholly heterosexual man? Would his unashamed lust be treated in the same way?

It would be easy to dismiss those questions as irrelevant – after all, the various urges of straight men have been both in the spotlight and a frequent blight on everyone else for a very long time. The only problem, really, is that nature abhors a vacuum. If Hollywood is to be sexless and liberal culture queasy about heterosexual male desire, troubling porn and misogynistic influencers will step in and fill that gap.

Countless young straight men grew up to disrespect women because it is what they were taught to do. Finding a way to express straight male lust in a way that is healthy without being patronisingly sanitised would be in everyone’s best interest. Well, maybe not Styles’s – he seems to be doing just fine.

[See also: Of course what Joe Lycett said wasn’t funny – that’s literally the point]

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