Gay, Straight, or Somewhere In-Between?
Sharon O’Hara is the former Clinical Director of the Sexual Recovery Institute and sees private clients for individual, group, and couple therapy both in Beverly Hills and San Pedro.
Despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association stopped labeling homosexuals as having some sort of mental disorder 30 years ago, there are many people who still believe that to be gay is, by definition, an indication of pathology. Since my specialty is working with sex addicts and their family members, most of the gay men I’ve seen have been struggling with some sort of compulsive sexual problem. However, this doesn’t mean that all gay men are sex addicts. Many gay men are just looking for someone to love, like human beings everywhere.
It is also true that if you help a gay man to recover from being compulsively promiscuous, he is not likely to turn straight, even if he himself is convinced that to do so would solve his “acting out” problem. Many of these self-loathing gay men get married in the hopes of finding a woman who will “cure” them, a situation that most often leads to an ongoing pattern of a shame-based double life. However, I have discovered over the last nine years of struggling to understand intimacy disorders, that when it comes to questions of sexual identity, human beings are capable of immense variation
This topic of “gay, straight, or somewhere in-between” is explored further in this selection of questions and answers culled from the last four years of Sharon O’Hara’s column on “Love & Sex” appearing monthly in Steps For Recovery newspaper. Perhaps one of these problems may match your own.
Q. I’m 24, and I moved to L.A. from Tennessee right out of college. When I first moved here I went a little nuts sexually, having anonymous sex in adult bookstores and in public bathrooms. I felt so ashamed of my sexuality back home, and there’s so much freedom here. Maybe there’s too much freedom, because a few months ago I tested positive for HIV. My problem is that I don’t know what to tell my parents, if anything. They don’t even know that I’m gay. Meanwhile, they want to come to L.A. for Christmas. My live-in lover, who has AIDS, says that I have to tell them at Christmas or he’s going to move out. I feel coerced on all sides. The only good news is that I’ve stopped acting out sexually since I started to attend Sexual Compulsives Anonymous meetings. Sign me: Anonymously Gay.
A. First of all, A.G., congratulations on attending SCA and taking a major step towards sexual recovery. Whenever you have major decisions facing you, it is usually a good idea to first do some research among people struggling with similar decisions. If you haven’t contacted them already, it would probably be a good idea to call the folks at Aids Project Los Angeles. They can steer you to support groups for people with HIV, as well as other community resources.
You need to give yourself time to explore a variety of issues associated with “coming out” as well as living with HIV. Now is the time to find a therapist to help you to sort through your priorities. Don’t let your lover push you into making disclosures before you’ve had a chance to process your own feelings. Perhaps you can ask your parents to put off their visit for a few months, and meanwhile embark on a journey of self-discovery.
Q. I’m a 45-year-old married man, and I’ve been reading your column for months, yet I’ve never seen anyone write in with my problem. I’m not gay, but occasionally I find myself having oral sex with men in “gay” bathrooms, certain places I discovered in a local park. I’m always on the receiving end, and I don’t want to get involved with men in any kind of romantic way, so I don’t think I’m gay. It all started when I was about 14 and this older boy introduced me to oral sex. I didn’t think of it as “real sex,” but my orgasm was very intense.
Later on, I got married and had a couple of kids. My wife was not interested in oral sex of any kind, and I didn’t push the issue. Two years ago I had an affair with a woman I met at work, and my wife found out and threatened to divorce me. I broke off the affair, but this woman liked to perform oral sex, and now I can’t stop fantasizing about it. Then I found out about these “gay” bathrooms in the park, and I started going there because I get the release and there’s no romance involved. So I don’t feel like I’m being unfaithful to my wife like with the affair. And I don’t see how I could get HIV as there is no anal sex. My only problem is, I seem to be going more and more often. And I gave my phone number to one of the guys in the park, and now he’s invited me to his house. I haven’t gone yet, but every time I get into an argument with my wife I find myself looking at the telephone. What should I do? Mr. Double-Life
A. Tell the truth and tell it faster. To somebody, preferably to a counselor who specializes in treating compulsive sexual behavior. At the very minimum it would be a good idea to attend Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) or Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) meetings, where you may find out that there are other people struggling with the same or similar sexual problems.
Mr. Double-Life, you appear to be quite good at rationalizing your behavior, but there are several major flaws in your line of thinking. Number one: You can get HIV from unprotected oral sex. Yes, it’s less likely than participating in anal sex, but there’s still a risk. That means that you’re putting not only your own life on the line, you’re also putting your unsuspecting wife’s life on the line, too, as I don’t imagine that you’re using condoms with your wife. Number two: You may feel that having anonymous sex with men is less a threat to your marriage than having an affair with a woman, but your wife might feel differently. For many women, infidelity is infidelity, whether it’s due to prostitutes, lovers, or same-sex partners.
The main thing is, you’re leading a double life, which usually means that you may have a true intimacy disorder. Lastly, you are risking being arrested by a vice cop and having your reputation (and marriage) put in jeopardy. I know several men who have been arrested by vice cops who hang out in public bathrooms for the purpose of arresting people such as you. The fact that your behavior is escalating (giving out your phone number) is especially indicative that you are crossing over into addiction territory. This is not about being gay or straight, it is about living outside your own sense of integrity. You need more help, my friend, or it is likely that your consequences will get much worse.
Q. I’m a recovering alcoholic, 34 years old, and I happen to be a gay man who is in a committed relationship with a 25-year-old man. Last week I found out that he has been going to adult bookstores every couple of weeks, where he has been having sex with strange men. Of course, he—I’ll call him Mike—insists that it isn’t real sex because it’s mostly manual and oral, but I’m devastated. Mike says that because he’s only 25 he has a greater sex drive than me, that he doesn’t have any emotional feelings for these men, and that he didn’t want me to feel bad because I don’t want to have sex as often as he does. So of course now I feel even worse, that I drove him to have sex with strangers because I don’t have as high a sex drive as he does. He says that after doing these sexual things with strangers that he then feels more emotionally close to me. How can this be so? This isn’t the first time that this has happened to me, but I thought that this time it would be different with Mike. I’m beginning to think that all men are pigs when it comes to sex. Faithful and Gay
A. Dear Faithful: Usually I hear this “all men are pigs” comment from women, so it’s bizarrely refreshing to hear it from a man. But of course it isn’t true—if it were, you’d be one too, and it doesn’t seem to me that you’ve done anything pig-like yourself. Your friend Mike may or may not be a sex addict, but he sure has the sex addict rationalizations down pat. It is one of the most painful things for the partners of sex addicts that they not only have to deal with the very real problems of loss, betrayal, and possible sexual infections, but they, the partners, also are often blamed for causing the problematic behavior. This is true across the board, for both gay and straight couples. This is a projection of guilt by the sex addict and you shouldn’t fall for it.
It is possible that Mike feels more emotionally close to you after having anonymous sex with somebody else simply because at that moment he’s feeling needy and you’re there. Plus, because he may be feeling guilty, he may be willing to put effort into pleasing you in some way. However, it doesn’t really matter what the rationalization is, the truth is that the person who is unfaithful in a committed relationship is a liar, living out of his/her integrity. This Mike fellow just wants to have his cake and eat it too, and he wants to blame you for giving him an appetite to sneak a piece from another person’s plate.
Your basic problem is that you are very vulnerable to blaming yourself for this situation. Now is the time to go to S-Anon, or Al-Anon, or Adult Children of Alcoholics, any of the partner-type 12-Step meetings. You need supportive people around you as you sort out what it is that you are responsible for and what it is that you are not responsible for when it comes to Mike.
Let yourself grieve the loss of the vision you had of your relationship, so that you can deal with the reality of the one you have. It is likely that your lover Mike has a history of compulsive sexual behavior that pre-dates you. It is highly unlikely that you caused this situation. If Mike is willing to go to Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, great. Then you might eventually go to Recovering Couples Anonymous. There are lots of places where you—and he—can go for help. But right now you’re the one who is suffering the most, and you need help to let go of this misplaced sense of responsibility.
Q. I have an unusual problem. My boyfriend “Tom” told me that he used to be gay, but now he’s not. Everyone I’ve talked to about this situation is sure that Tom will “revert to being a homosexual” because once you’ve had sex with a man you’re evidently branded forever. I’m not a young girl—I’m 43. And Tom is 41. Tom had a sexual relationship with a man I’ll call Bill who was a composer when they were both in college. Tom even says that he thinks that he loved the way Bill played the piano as much as anything. In fact, Tom didn’t like the sex part very much. Tom stopped sleeping with Bill after 3 years and has only been with women since then. Actually he’s only been with one woman in the last 10 years since Tom is the monogamous type—one of the things I like about him. Do you think that Tom is going to revert to being gay? Or can I trust him to “stay straight” like he says he will? Confused but Hopeful
A. Dear Confused: If you’re looking for sexual guarantees, you’re going to have to look elsewhere than at human beings. The more I work with people who have love and sex problems, the more I’m convinced that human beings are pretty complicated when it comes to matters of the heart. It is true that there are a number of men whose sexual orientation is primarily homosexual, but because of societal consequences connected to coming out of the closet, they end up married to women but have secret liaisons with men. It doesn’t sound as if Tom is in this category, but I’m not sure how well you know Tom.
On the other hand, there are certainly a number of men who had homosexual encounters of one kind or another when young who go on to have successful heterosexual relationships. Very few people are 100 percent gay or straight anyway. The standard thinking is that a person’s primary orientation is linked to which sex he or she fantasizes about, or, to put it another way, with whom can he/she fall in love? I think that you need to take things slowly with Tom. Perhaps you could both benefit from some couples therapy as you explore your respective relationships to your own sexuality. One good sign is that Tom appears to be talking openly to you about his past. Keep on talking. Secrecy and shame are the real relationship killers.
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Sharon O’Hara, MFT, CSAT, has offices in the Beverly Hills and Torrance/San Pedro area, specializing in treating sex addicts and their partners. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.