Connor Robinson, a 17-year-old British TikTok star with rosy cheeks and a budding six-pack, has built a large following by keeping his fans thirsty. Between the daily drip of shirtless dance routines and skits about his floppy hair, Mr. Robinson posts sexually suggestive curve balls that, he said, “break some barriers.”
In an eight-second video set to a lewd hip-hop track by the Weeknd, he and a fellow teenage boy, Elijah Finney, who calls himself Elijah Elliot, filmed themselves in a London hotel room, grinding against each other as if they’re about to engage in a passionate make-out session. The video ends with Mr. Robinson pushed against the tiled wall.
But as racy as the video is, fans are under no pretense that the two are in the throes of gay puppy love. Mr. Robinson and Mr. Finney identify as heterosexual, but as some TikTok influencers have discovered, man-on-man action is a surefire way to generate traffic. Uploaded in February, the video has gotten more than 2.2 million views and 31,000 comments (lots of fire and heart emojis).
“Normally, I do jokey dance videos and stuff like that, but it seems like things have kind of changed now,” Mr. Robinson said from his bedroom in Cumbria, England, which is painted forest green to stand out on TikTok. He estimates that 90 percent of his nearly one million followers are female. “Girls are attracted to two attractive guy TikTokers with massive followings showing a sexual side with each other,” he said.
Gay and bi-curious male followers are welcome, too. “If watching my videos makes you happy and stuff, that’s cool,” he added.
As devotees of TikTok’s young male stars know, Mr. Robinson’s hotel seduction video is veering toward becoming a modern-day cliché. The youth-oriented social media platform is rife with videos showing ostensibly heterosexual young men spooning in cuddle-puddle formation, cruising each other on the street while walking with their girlfriends, sharing a bed, going in for a kiss, admiring each other’s chiseled physiques and engaging in countless other homoerotic situations served up for humor and, ultimately, views.
Feigning gay as a form of clickbait is not limited to small-fry TikTok creators trying to grow their audience. Just look at the hard-partying Sway Boys, who made national headlines this summer for throwing raucous get-togethers at their 7,800-square-foot Bel Air estate in violation of Los Angeles’s coronavirus guidelines.
Scrolling through the TikTok feeds of the group’s physically buff members can feel as if you’re witnessing what would happen if the boys of Tiger Beat spent an uninhibited summer in Fire Island Pines. There is a barrage of sweaty half-naked workouts, penis jokes, playful kisses and lollipop sharing.
Josh Richards, 18, one of the group’s breakout stars, has posted videos of himself dropping his towel in front of his “boyfriends” Jaden Hossler and Bryce Hall; pretending to lock lips with another buddy, Anthony Reeves; and giving his roommate, Griffin Johnson, a peck on the forehead for the amusement of his 22 million followers.
It certainly hasn’t hurt his brand. In May, Mr. Richards announced he was leaving the Sway Boys and joining one of TikTok’s rival apps, Triller, as its chief strategy officer. He also hosts two new popular podcasts — “The Rundown” with Noah Beck and “BFFs” with Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports — and is the first recording artist signed to TalentX Records, a label formed by Warner Records and TalentX Entertainment, a social media agency.
“These boys feel like a sign of the times,” said Mel Ottenberg, the creative director of Interview magazine, which featured some of the Sway Boys in their underwear for its September issue. “There doesn’t seem to be any fear about, ‘If I’m too close to my friend in this picture, are people going to think I am gay?’ They’re too hot and young to be bothered with any of that.”
Fun to Be ‘Gay’
As recently as a decade ago, an intimate touch between two young men might have spelled social suicide. But for Gen Z, who grew up in a time when same-sex marriage was never illegal, being called “gay” is not the insult it once was.
Young men on TikTok feel free to push the envelope of homosocial behavior “because they’ve emerged in an era of declining cultural homophobia, even if they don’t recognize it as such,” said Eric Anderson, a professor of masculinity studies at the University of Winchester in England.
By embracing a “softer” side of manliness, they are rebelling against what Mr. Anderson called “the anti-gay, anti-feminine model attributed to the youth cultures of previous generations.”
Mark McCormack, a sociologist at the University of Roehampton in London who studies the sexual behavior of young men, thinks that declining homophobia is only one aspect. He believes that many of these TikTok influencers are not having fun at the expense of queer identity. Rather, they are parodying the notion that “someone would even be uncomfortable with them toying with the idea of being gay at all.”
In other words, pretending to be gay is a form of adolescent rebellion and nonconformity, a way for these young straight men to broadcast how their generation is different from their parents’, or even millennials before them.
Foster Van Lear, a 16-year-old high school student from Atlanta with 500,000 followers, said videos showing him kissing a guy on the cheek or confessing feelings for his “bro” make him look cool and dialed-in.
“In the new generation everyone is fluid and so men have become less hesitant about physical stuff or showing emotions,” he said. “It would seem ridiculous if you were not OK with it.”
As a matter of fact, his father has called his videos “really weird” and “gay.” His mother was also taken aback by his public displays of affection with male friends, but now appreciates the pressure that high school boys are under to stand out.
“If you are just straight-up straight now, it’s not very interesting to these kids,” said his mother, Virginia Van Lear, 50, a general contractor. “If you are straight, you want to throw something out there that makes people go, ‘But, he is, right?’ It’s more individual and captures your attention.”
Parents are not the only ones perplexed; these videos confound some older gay men, too.
Ms. Van Lear said that one of her gay male friends came across a TikTok video in which her son joked about a man crush and told her: “You know, if Foster ever wants to talk to me if he’s gay …” She had a good laugh. “People of my generation don’t get these boys are straight,” she said. “It’s a whole new world out there.”
Meet the ‘Homiesexuals’
But there’s no confusion among the mostly teenage fans who can’t seem to get enough of these gay-for-views videos.
Whenever Mr. Robinson posts videos of himself getting physical with another male friend, he is deluged with feverish comments like “Am I the only one who thought that was hot”; “I dropped my phone”; “OMG, like I can’t stop watching.”
Ercan Boyraz, the head of influencer management at Yoke Network, a social media marketing agency in London, said that the vast majority of the commenters are female. And rather than feeling threatened or confused by guys who are being playful with other guys, they find it sexy.
“Straight guys have always been attracted to girls being flirtatious with each other,” said Mr. Boyraz, who has worked with Mr. Robinson. “Girls are just taking the same idea and switching it around.”
Call it equal opportunity objectification.
Meanwhile, straight male fans feel like they are in on the joke. And while they may not find these videos titillating, they want to emulate the kind of carefree male bonding that these TikTok videos portray.
“Showing emotions with another guy, especially when expressed as a joke, brings a smile to someone’s face or makes them laugh,” said Mr. Van Lear, who took his cue from hugely popular TikTok creators, like the guys at the Sway House. Plus, he added, it “increases the chances of higher audience engagement.”
There is even a term to describe straight men who go beyond bromance and display nonsexual signs of physical affection: “homiesexual.” A search of “#homiesexual” pulls up more than 40 million results on TikTok. There are also memes, YouTube compilations, and sweatshirts with sayings like: “It’s not gay. It’s homiesexual.”
Queerbaiting or Clickbait?
Still, videos of straight men jumping into one another’s laps or admiring each other’s rear ends for the sake of TikTok views can feel exploitative, especially to gay viewers.
Colton Haynes, 32, an openly gay actor from “Teen Wolf,” took to TikTok in March to call out the homiesexual trend. “To all the straight guys out there who keep posting those, ‘Is kissing the bros gay’ videos, and laughing, and making a joke of it: being gay isn’t a joke,” he said. “What is a joke is that you think you would have any followers or any likes without us.”
“So stop being homophobic,” he added with a vulgarity.
But some gay fans see it as progress.
Steven Dam, 40, a social media forecaster for Art and Commerce, a New York talent agency, said he initially assumed that these videos were homophobic. But the more his TikTok feed was populated with young men calling each other “beautiful,” he said, the more he started to recognize that there was “a new kind of definition of heterosexuality for younger men.”
The popularity of these touchy-feely videos, he said, is “less about gayness” and more of a “paradigm shift of some sort for an evolving form of masculinity that is no longer ashamed to show affection.”
Even so, some of them can’t stop watching, regardless of whether they deem these videos homophobic or progressive.
For the past year, Nick Toteda, a 20-year-old gay YouTube personality from Canada, has been posting videos on his channel, It’s Just Nick, reacting to what he called “bromance TikToks,” usually with a mix of sarcastic humor and bewilderment.
In one clip, two teenage boys are seated next to each other in class, when one drops a small stuffed animal on the floor. As they both reach down to pick it up, they lock eyes and move in for a kiss. Mr. Toteda likes what he sees.
“When I was in high school four years ago, maybe it was uncool to be gay, but maybe now being cool is gay,” Mr. Toteda says in the video. “Even straight boys are pretending to be gay to act cool. Just like when I was pretending to be straight to act cool, they’re doing the opposite now.”
“You know what,” he adds with a laugh, “it helps that they are attractive.”