Now that I’ve spent two posts on introductory information (which you should read if you haven’t already), today, as promised, I’ll be talking about twinks. Twinks are an appropriate place to finally begin this extended discussion of gay male labels, as they are almost without question the most widely-acknowledged, the most heavily stereotyped, and therefore the most misunderstood of gay male labels.
Unlike most of the other labels I’ll be analyzing in later posts, twinks don’t have a very cohesively visible subculture all their own; rather, they seem to exist both at the core of mainstream gay culture and on the fringes of the various subcultures (bears, drag queens, etc.). As such, they also have the dubious distinction of being the most pervasive stereotype associated with gay men: lisping, limp-wristed, fashion-obsessed men who (try to) look like teenage boys and act like the dumbest and sluttiest of college sorority girls. Non-twink gay/bi men recoil from and wholly resent the association, and actual twinks are torn between being offended and recognizing that at the heart of that caricature resides the primary means by which they may appear desirable to potential partners. The narratives of many a young gay man paint their early lives as dominated by disapproving fathers, homophobic bullies, and straight crushes who, at best, were friendly and oblivious; who wouldn’t want to look young and cute and glamorous (and maybe even a little vapid – all the better to hide the emotional problems) and have men lined up waiting to take you to bed?
The etymology of the term isn’t very clear, though I’ve heard assorted anecdotal explanations. The name may come from the same source as “fairy” and “twinkle-toes” when used as insults directed at effeminate men. It may also be a reference to Twinkies, which are (to some people, apparently) delicious but lacking in any lasting value – implying either that the standard twink is stupid and lacking in substance or that they are unsuited for long-term relationships. Despite the less-than-flattering origins of the term, however, I must emphasize that “twink” is not an inherently derogatory term. Many people proudly self-identify as twinks, and some non-twinks are unashamed to talk about their sexual preference for twinks.
Of course, I’ve yet to answer the most important question: What exactly is a twink? At the most basic level, only two criteria are necessary to define a twink.
1) Youth – Twinks are young, ranging from the age of consent (often presented as uniformly 18, though in reality it varies depending on location) up until about the mid-late 20s. The upper boundary is poorly defined, and some truly fortunate twinks can continue looking youthful into their 30s. Being a twink is treated as something of a “starter” label, and after one can no longer reasonably carry off the youthful look one generally has to make the transition to another label. The fate of twinks who can’t do this is a major source of anxiety within the community, because those who’ve outlived their label are often treated in art and sometimes even in real life like the gay equivalent of the 19th century old maid: washed-up, useless, and tragically ridiculous.
2) Lack of body hair – Body hair is Serious Business in the gay male community, and next time I’ll be spending an entire post on hairy men and the many subdivisions thereof. Twinks are naturally smooth and/or shave religiously, though increasingly armpit and pubic hair may be either trimmed or left intact. While it doesn’t exactly fit here, most twinks treat their facial hair similarly, though some do grow small goatees or the like.
Really, that’s it. Twinks are not necessarily effeminate, small, weak, or inclined to bottom, though these assumptions are present and problematic even within the gay male community. Such is the reason for the more recent creation of the label “twunk” designating a conventionally masculine – but still smooth – young gay man. As with similar labels like “masc” and “str8 acting,” crises of masculinity and gender presentation and the fear of emasculation crop up all over the place, which is hardly surprising when homophobic heterosexual men have been imposing the stereotype I mentioned above on any male who might even be perceived to desire sexual intimacy with another male.
That’s why non-twinks have such a love/hate relationship with twinks, though I’m afraid I’ll have to save the “love” part of that for part 2…of part 2. Ugh, there’s just so much to discuss…. Anyway, coming up in “Twinks, Pt.2,” we’ll be looking at the enduring legacy of Greek pederasty, “gay initiation,” and Dad/Lad relationships.