In kink, I'm a panty fag. When I bottom, I like rough, degrading sex while wearing lacy, feminine lingerie.
I still feel a twinge of something negative -- embarrassment, shame -- when I tell people this. I use these words intentionally -- "panties" and "faggot" -- because they are erotically charged words for me, but both elicit strong reactions in queer men, each for different reasons. I won't go into the debate over "faggot" -- a word containing such cultural weight it needs space to unpack that I don't have here (though I will in my next book). This article is about panties: Are cisgender men allowed to fetishize women's underwear when it's used as a marker of subservience?
I think the answer is: Yes, absolutely. I love my fetishes, and my panty fetish might be my favorite. But there's something in it that feels wrong, and not in a good way -- because of what it suggests about my views of women. Our culture sees women's lingerie in different ways: as garments to glorify, shame, celebrate, objectify, empower, or exploit women's bodies.
As a cisgender man, am I allowed to participate in all that? This is a worthy question in a time when the rules of clothes and gender are being broken for the better -- cis men from Harry Styles to Lil Nas X are being celebrated for breaking gender norms and exploring the fun of femininity -- and when the bodily autonomy of women is again, shamefully, a subject of debate in the U.S. Supreme Court.
I wear panties to role-play as a docile, slutty schoolgirl with her legs spread, which is to say: I use femininity for degradation, to take a step down, to lower myself for an alpha top. In that role-play, I like when tops say I'm "not a real man." I don't believe that, but the words turn me on. Many people of all genders and orientations wear these clothes in this way -- for objectification, degradation, even sexual punishment. Because it's fun. Surely that can't be wrong?
I'm a feminist -- I don't think it's radical to see half of humans as equal to the other in every way. But I wonder if, as a cisgender man, it's an ugly sign of privilege that I can role-play the real violence that women experience as sexual performance for fun. After the intense fuck, I can step out of my panties and back to my life as a cis white man.
There's much about fetishes we still don't know, and debate continues among experts over how they develop. Current data suggests fetishes are quite common -- more so than you think -- and many play off social taboos and norms. In kink, gender roles are often bucked, and the typically private nature of sex is turned out: Female domination and public BDSM are standard features of any fetish gathering. So it makes sense that many cis guys are turned on by wearing women's clothes. It gives us the thrill of rule-breaking and takes us to new headspaces that make for great sex. But what do women think?
I asked Sarah Gardner, a queer photographer in New York. Gardner uses she/her pronouns but enjoys playing with her gender and prefers a suit and tie over a dress. (I asked how best to identify her for this piece, and she said, "I don't have a clear idea of what I am or what my gender is, so I trust whatever you say.")
I asked if she felt there were situations in which it was wrong for a cisgender man to fetishize women's underwear. She sighed. "These questions only come up when bad things happen," Gardner says. "Like when someone is assaulted and we ask, 'What was she wearing?'" She adds, "There's nothing wrong with wearing any kinds of clothes. We only ask these questions when violence happens." Her point is apt. Violence has no real relationship to what we wear. To suggest otherwise is to skirt into misogynist territory: She was asking for it.
Gardner's girlfriend "sometimes hangs out with very femme, you know, lipstick lesbians, and that's not really my vibe. They recently went to something like a gender swap party, where they were going butch, and they asked if I wanted to go more as a lipstick lesbian, since I'm more masculine. And I said I would rather take my skin off than do that."
Gardner just doesn't feel sexy in feminine clothes -- but she said it's great if I do, even if only for sex. "If we're opening everything up and letting people wear what they want, and you're a cis man wearing women's clothes, you're showing others that you're open to being vulnerable," Gardner says. "You're opening up the conversation over what makes you feel sexy. I don't think that's a bad thing. In fact, I think cis men should do that more. I don't think it's cosplaying someone else's suffering."
So she says it's OK. What does the kink community say?
In the '70s, Tom of Finland drawings set visual standards for gay leather culture by homoeroticizing traditionally straight, masculine archetypes -- construction workers, bikers, cops, and so on. But despite this exaggerated, hypermasculine ethos that so many kinky queer men still connect with, most kinksters I know foster a come-as-you-are space. (I thank the women and trans folk in kink for making that increasingly so.) I see this as evidence that the kink community has evolved. I've not felt very subversive wearing lingerie at kinky events. But I can't say the same for gay culture in general: For nonkinky queer men, it's usually a big turnoff.
And I understand why.
In high school, when everyone was watching the football game, I was behind the bleachers talking to whoever would speak to me. I was closeted, awkward, gangly, and didn't help myself by wearing corduroy pants, a pocket watch, and fishnet fingerless gloves from Hot Topic in Georgia's triple-digit heat. Like a scene from a movie we've all watched, some kids from the opposing school -- tough-looking country boys -- came looking for trouble and found me. I didn't get physically hurt only because a kid from my school felt trouble brewing and ran to tell an adult, who came to break it up -- but not before the guys called me a faggot and sissy and everything else they could think of. My dad sat me down that night for a lesson: Men were supposed to be masculine. This was my fault. Masculinity would have prevented this.
The lesson stuck. I joined the football team the next year and learned how to "talk like straight boys." As I grew, my swish vanished and voice deepened, and I became masculine. I still can't say for certain if this was a deliberate effort or just natural aging, but it's how I am now.
This is why I believe so many cisgender men both fear and fetishize feminization: It triggers a shame we were taught, and overcoming that shame by wearing pink lacy thongs is empowering and fun. Wearing panties helps us unlearn all the ugly shit about being men we were taught by our dads, and more men -- queer and otherwise -- should give it a try. Be a good girl.
Alexander Cheves is a writer, sex educator, and author of My Love Is a Beast: Confessions, from Unbound Edition Press. @badalexcheves
This article is part of Out's July/August 2022 issue, now on newsstands. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.