A married man of 21 years is sitting across from me in my office. His wife is horribly upset and has threatened to leave him. She told him to get into counseling right away — and he agreed. Now he is in front of me, telling me a secret he has kept for over 30 years. After a long period of silence he softly says, "I have had sex with men as far back as I can remember. I am not romantically attracted to men. Men just seem to be available to hook up with and I get a sexual release. I have tried to stop but I keep going back to it. I really love my wife and I want to stay married. Both my wife and I wonder... am I gay?”
As a counselor, the question "am I gay" is not an easy one to answer. And in fact, the question itself is really not for me to answer. I can help him explore and understand himself better, which may lead him to an answer on his own.
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Through my work with sexually addicted people, I have encountered a group of men who identify as heterosexual (they are attracted to and want relationships with females), but act out sexually with anonymous men. These men are revolted by the thought of having a relationship with a man, however, they find that the sexual release they get from these encounters is exactly what they are seeking.
There are several ways in which the encounters are acted out. Below are eight possible reasons why men who identify as heterosexuals may engage in sexual activity with other men.
Curiosity prior to age 25 can be totally normal, developmentally speaking; some kids ask themselves, "am I gay?" Prior to age 25, it is too early to answer this question with certainty. The interest in the behavior may or may not extinguish, as the person develops a more mature sense of their sexuality.
2. Trauma repetition
Sometimes, when a boy has been traumatized by childhood sexual abuse from an older male, he will develop a trauma bond. Unconsciously, the boy will reenact the trauma over and over again, hoping for a different outcome. He will even convince himself that he is in control of the trauma by choosing to put himself into "harm's way".
3. Sexual release
This behavior is seen in the example above. The man identifies as heterosexual, but wants a sexual release; anonymous men are readily available to provide this act for him. Women are much less available — they require emotional engagement or money to provide the same service, and he is not willing to put that much effort into getting his release.
4. Attraction to men
Some men who clam to be heterosexual may actually be bisexual or homosexual; they just have not come out, even to themselves. They may have some attraction to men and spend a lot of time resisting that feeling. They may even be married, to appear as if they are heterosexual.
5. Rites of passage
Many hazing rituals in college fraternities and sororities include some homosexual acts, including nudity and same-sex touching. Additionally, many rituals around the world throughout history and today include homosexual acts as a rite of passage to manhood.
6. Sex workers
Male escorts may participate in homosexual sexual behaviors to earn money, or for the sense of power they feel in making the exchange. Many, but not all, of these men also identify with the trauma repetition group.
8. Sex addiction
Some people find themselves addicted to sex and will do anything to get it; it is their drug of choice. They may identify as heterosexual, but their drug-seeking behavior outweighs their sexual orientation.
Some people are only out for their own sexual satisfaction and don't care about other people. They get a thrill out of controlling and manipulating others to do what they want to serve their own purposes. Their goal is to have others do things for them.
The above client I mentioned is a hypothetical example from many different stories I've heard. Since the explosion of online pornography and hookup sites, more and more people are finding ways to act out sexually. They are finding novel ways to hook up, which leads to acting out in more extreme ways. One thing we know about human brains is that they are able to create new neuro-pathways all the time, based on what our input. If we input new exciting sexual images and experiences, our brains want more of that to make us feel good. This is a slippery slope toward sexual addiction; how much is too much novelty?
The question of "am I gay?" will continue to be asked by men in committed, heterosexual relationships. With the Internet exposing people to new ways of acting out their sexuality and redefining their sexual orientations, there is much to learn in the coming years. As I did the reseasrch for this article, I had difficulty coming up with a cohesive definition of of the word "gay", because different groups of people had different meanings for this particular word. For example: "If you have one homosexual experience, you are gay" to "if you embrace the gay lifestyle and are living it openly, you are gay". Those definitions are pretty far apart, if you ask me.
The research done in the 1950s by the Kinsey Institute stated that most people were on the spectrum somewhere between heterosexual to homosexual. This means most people have had some sort of homosexual experience at least once in their lifetime; does it mean practically everyone is a homosexual? Or can it be that sexual orientation is defined internally; that heterosexually-identified people sometimes engage in homosexual behaviors? I don't have all the answers, but I'd love to further discuss your opinions on this topic. Please comment and keep the discussion going.
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