At my first football game a couple of years ago, I was making my way to my seat when a young guy passed by, took one look at the oversize, overpriced hot dog in my hand, and shouted, "That girl loooves the cock!"
It was an appropriate introduction to a game that screams sex to me -- from the hulking warriors on the field to the buxom, bouncy cheerleaders on the sidelines to the free-flowing testosterone in the crowd, which I swear gave me a serious contact high. How could anyone watch football and experience the intensity of the crowd without feeling a little randy? I thought: Surely the hundreds of red-faced, grunting men around me have sex on the brain, too. With the approach of Super Bowl Sunday I decided to talk to some die-hard sports fans to actually find out.
It turns out sex and football are more commonly at odds. None of the fans I talked to exploded my assumptions as powerfully as Eric Celeste, 43, of Dallas, Texas. He may have lost his virginity while watching the second half of a Dallas Cowboys game, but he says, "It was not my idea, and I remember wanting her in the non-reverse cowgirl position so I could watch the game and not be noticed." (I told you I set out to interview die-hards.) From his experience, game time is "often a time women will test you with a promise of sexual favors or whatnot, to see if their pull is stronger than the event itself. So perhaps it sets up a specific type of sexual dance/seduction. It did for me. You see who won." There certainly is something alluring about fans' singular focus during the game. I remember the surprise of sidling up to a crowded bar during the World Series and feeling completely and utterly invisible -- something women aren't accustomed to in rooms full of drunk men.
Celeste says that playing sports gets his motor running because "it raises your testosterone and makes you feel in all ways more manly," he says, adding, "But watching -- no, that's sacred time. That's guy time." Although the libation accompanying game-watching can do the trick: "Drunk and happy is a good combination for getting in the mood." Interestingly enough, a 2008 study found that men report having better sex after their team wins a game.
But what about the cheerleaders, shaking their -- ehem -- pom-poms for the slavering throngs? Paul Kix, a contributing writer for ESPN: The Magazine, tells me, "They would put me in the mood if the cameras lingered on them. But what every television network does instead is a quick pan of the cheerleaders coming out of a commercial break. So you get to see, like, three seconds of 10 hot chicks. And then right back to football. If the goal is arousal, that doesn't cut it." What's more, this year, for the first time in history, the Super Bowl will have zero cheerleaders. But you can count on there being babes in beer commercials, and let's not forget the panics about a spike in sex trafficking surrounding major sporting events: Dallas' police sergeant warned that as many as 100,000 prostitutes could show up in town for the big game -- an estimate the Dallas Observer shrewdly questioned.
Alyssa Rosenberg, a senior Web editor at Washingtonian and a serious Red Sox fan, is wary of talk about football making guys horny. "That gets us into the realm of, 'Are football players sexually assaulting women because they're taking steroids and have too much testosterone?' -- and that's sort of junk science," she says. "We're not actually Cro-Magnons. We're not Greek warriors. We don't go out and, like, slay 40 people and then come home and bonk our mistress." It hasn't been a good year for disproving that stereotype, though, what with the sexual assault accusations against the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, the alleged harassment reporter Inés Sainz faced from the New York Jets and, of course, the "sext"-happy Brett Favre.
The flip side to all this aggressive heterosexuality is, of course, the inherent homoeroticism. My co-worker, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who's also written for ESPN.com, tells me, "The jock-talk legions who marvel at players' bodies and describe the game in terms of sexual metaphors usually aren't aware of how gay this all sounds to the uninitiated."
Kix says, "There are a few times when I'm confronted with an athlete's sexuality: a baseball player adjusting what has to be an absurdly over-sized nut cup; or, during the Olympics years, a male diver wearing nothing but a Speedo that is a size too small for him. In those moments I think, 'Oh, wow. Look at that guy's junk.' But these are fleeting moments." And where there is homoeroticism there is, of course, homophobia: Consider the gay-themed ads submitted by fans for Dorito's Super Bowl commercial contest.
If you want to get academic about the subject, social scientist Toby Miller is your man. He's the author of "Sportsex," a book that explores the intersection of sports, gender and sexuality. Miller says homoeroticism abounds in the world of professional athletes -- beyond just butt-slapping and towel-whipping in the locker room: "Think of the moment when the men are training in the gym together and they're picking up weights -- the emanation of sound from the man's throat, the extraordinary strain on his face. This is something that in heterosexual life women see a lot of when guys are coming. It's not something that straight men see very often." The Super Bowl also has its gay audience, but he says with a laugh, "From what I can see on gay blogs, there aren't considered to be any great hotties on the lineup this year."
Of course there's another group of fans that can be unapologetic about ogling players: Straight ladies. "Over the last 15 years, the NFL, like other major league sports, has woken up to the fact that the consumers are very important and that one of the ways they can sell their product to a wider audience is by playing up its sexual elements. So for straight women, the idea of the cute ass being displayed by the linebacker becomes a selling point." He points to the appearance of the New York Jets' Joe Namath in a panty hose commercial in 1974. "That disclosed that there was this sexy element to playing football and what [the NFL has] done since is play that up -- both in terms of the idea of the blue collar subject who is massive and strong and powerful but also the cute guy with the cute ass who is maybe metrosexual." Of course, there are plenty of women who aren't interested in checking out anyone's ass -- they're simply there for the game.
Rosenberg recently got into a debate with a male writer on the Atlantic about the role sex plays in sports. "What bothers me about the argument that sports are just about guys bonding and being brutal is that there are a lot of different ways to appreciate sports," she says. Being a serious sports fan doesn't preclude checking out the players: "I don't think I'd have a lot in common with the women on 'Basketball Wives,' but there is a great Boston baseball blogger who is totally serious about the game and anoints a baseball boyfriend every season, ya know? Being able to live in multiple ways of fandom makes the game a richer experience."
The Super Bowl is "this big trashy and wonderful American celebration that is about people banging into each other and women wearing not a lot of clothes," says Rosenberg. "Sex is on everybody's brains" -- just not in all the ways I initially thought.