Gay, bi or heterosexual?
Many men have fantasies about, and sexual contact with, other men, both in their teenage years and in adulthood, and yet they would never dream of describing themselves as gay. So how is a young teenager who feels attracted to other boys or older men, or a married man who feels an urge to seek out sexual contact with other men, going to identify himself sexually? We all seem to have a need to label ourselves one way or another, which I personally don't think is helpful, but like penis size, it's almost an issue that is forced on us by society's expectations. The idea of this page is to offer some thoughts, guidance, information and reassurance about sexual feelings and activities between men, and some interpretation of what it all might mean for you - especially if you are a teenage boy or a married man.
What proves a man is gay? (Or bisexual?)
Is it the way he thinks? If, for example, you fantasize about men when masturbating, or you find yourself with an erection in the showers, does that mean you are gay? Here is an email from one of the visitors to this site:
I might have a stupid question, but I do not know who to ask. I am 19 yrs old and still have no control when I get an erection. It is like I am in 8th grade and just hitting puberty. I am terrified to take showers with other guys because of it. I am not gay or turned on by the other naked guys or their penis, but just being naked and around other naked people just makes it pop up. I do not even think about sex and it happens. I have tried everything. I think about other things and try to stay focused on something but it never works. Is this normal or does it mean that I am indeed gay?
I do understand how embarrassing this may be for you! Whether a man is gay or not, he might not want to get an erection at the drop of a hat in a room of naked men! (Although the good side is that you are obviously very virile and sexually healthy....even if it is inconvenient, that really is something to be proud of....it affirms your manhood and masculinity). Men stop getting spontaneous erections in their twenties or thirties, and then need physical stimulation for their penis to become erect.
Second, are you gay? Let's think about it. I have met many gay, bisexual and straight men over the years. One thing that is clear is that there isn't always a clear division between these three ways of being sexual. You probably know that many married or apparently heterosexual men have had sexual experiences with another man in adult life. There are many possible reasons for this: simple curiosity, lack of a sexual partner, it's simply exciting because it's "forbidden", feelings of affection or admiration spill over (as they do so easily in men) into sexiness. No doubt you could think of many more reasons. Does this mean these men are gay? I don't think so, because men who see themselves as gay will often tell you that they are not sexually attracted to women at all, even if they have close female friends.
I think anything which is mutually consented, based on respect and equality, and fun, is perfectly acceptable for adults to do together, whether they are the same sex or not. Of course there is always the issue of avoiding hurt to any one else in the situation, which is very important too. However, if you do feel attracted to men, what I'm saying is that it might mean you're gay - or it might not. But you need to keep in mind that admiring the look of other male bodies - whether or not you are attracted to them - is quite normal! And in fact the male body in general and the penis in particular are both wonderful. A male body is a sexy thing - the evidence of this is a penis dangling in front of every man for him to see, all the time. In this way, with such overt stimuli, and the sexiness of your 19 year old body, I wouldn't necessarily read gayness into your erections. I could read sexual frustration and sexiness there, instead.
Third, how do you know if you are gay? Well, the classic advice is that if your fantasies center on men or their penises when you masturbate then you're probably gay. (By the way, are you masturbating?...I guess probably you are, but if you're not, then doing so might give you pleasure and reduce your tendency to get an erection in the showers.) But even this isn't a perfect guide: many straight men fantasize about having sex with other men, and never do it. This is emotion spilling into the realm of sexuality, which happens because those two things are so closely linked in men. But I think there is enough truth in this for it to be helpful in deciding where your interest might lie: if you fantasize about one or other sex and find it feels right then that may well be a sign of your sexual orientation. The bit about "it feeling right" is very important: men who don't want to be gay - which I believe applies to most gay men before they come to terms with their orientation and learn the happiness and acceptance that being gay can provide - often deceive themselves for years that their attraction to women is strong or comfortable for them, when it just doesn't feel right - and, more to the point, they know it isn't right, at some level, even if they aren't admitting it to themselves yet. Finally, your sexuality will probably evolve anyway as you get older, and as you get more sexual experience.
Did my reply help? I don't know. In general, though, I guess that if a man is really deeply involved with the question of whether he's gay or not, the process of coming to terms with it is a long and slow one. He needs to gather as much information as possible, assess the facts, and experiment sexually to find out what is right. This process, of course, is no different for anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.
I mentioned above that one of the classic indicators of gay sexual orientation has always been assumed to be the nature of a man's fantasy life. However, this is a statement that needs to be qualified. Here are some questions based on extracts from Jackin'World's questions and answers page:
Now, look at these amazing facts from Jackin'World: this was a response to one of their survey questions, a survey in which over 2000 men and boys took part:
Now, what about this:
So it seems you aren't going to be able to rely on what you fantasize about while masturbating as a guide to your sexuality!
All in all, it seems that a better guide to one's sexual orientation may be one's capacity to fall in love with men, and to experience a romantic attachment to a man that follows the usual pattern of idealization, obsessional thinking about the loved one, and sexual arousal and fantasy about the loved one. Even this is not a great guide during puberty, because of course a classic experience of the teenage years is having a crush on your schoolmates, older male teachers or male relatives - although it is dignified by the term "hero worship". This is probably just a natural part of learning what it means to be a man by identifying with other men's experiences.
It is, however, a striking fact that many gay men say that they knew they were gay from a very early age. Often you hear men say that they were about 8 when they first realized they were different - one man told me he had realized when he was five, looking at his twenty year old brother's penis. I think what these comments reflect is the fact that gay men must feel different in some way from other boys - that there is actually some physiological or psychological difference that distinguishes them from other boys. But would this only be true of men who found that they were "exclusively" gay? How would one reconcile this with men who occasionally have gay sex but identify themselves as heterosexual?
In terms of numbers, about six percent of men in one survey conducted in 1994 said they found the idea of sex with another man attractive, while only 2.8 per cent said that they thought of themselves as gay or bisexual. These days generally it's accepted that about 1 man in 20 is predominantly gay. But if you're a married man, with kids, it isn't going to be that easy to admit that you are gay: there was a famous case in England a few years ago when a conservative MP was arrested coming back from Amsterdam with gay pornography, and yet his family - with whom he lived - supported him to the hilt: his wife and daughters had known of his gayness for many years, and loved him as father and friend. But this kind of easy acceptance and staying together is very rare. When a man decides he is really gay in later life, he often has a lot to lose if he acts on that decision by taking up a gay lifestyle.
The truth is that there is a spectrum of sexuality which extends from complete gayness to complete heterosexuality. Where you end up on this scale will be the product of a mixture of upbringing, experience and genetics. (I feel a lot of lesbians - and gay men - are attracted to their own sex because of profoundly disturbing experiences with their opposite sex parent when they are young. I don't necessarily mean sexual abuse, although I have come across many lesbians and gay men who were abused in this way. Rather, I am thinking of emotional abuse, which scars children just as much as sexual or physical abuse.)
There is evidence from a survey done by Dr Dean Hamer (on admittedly a rather small sample), and reported in the book Sex, A Man's Guide, that there may be a genetic influence at work: gay men have more gay relatives than you would expect by chance, especially on their mother's side, and one conclusion which this evidence supports is that men inherit gayness through the X chromosome they get from their mothers. One must always interpret such findings cautiously, since even identical twin brothers only show a fifty percent probability of both being gay - clearly there are powerful environmental factors at work as well. But what difference does it make anyway? If you are gay, you're gay? Well, perhaps. But of course it isn't that simple, because if you are gay you have different challenges in life to the ones faced by a straight person. The first, and greatest of them, may be accepting yourself. Here are some words from a friend of mine, a counselor who has experience of issues around sexual identity.
Sex and sexuality
As a counselor I have worked with men both young and old who have presented issues relating to sex or their sexuality. Each one of these men is unique both in terms of their experiences, and the feelings associated with this often difficult subject. However, many of these men obtained comfort from the knowledge that their experiences and sometimes difficulties were shared by others. In the same way I respect that each one of you who are visiting this site looking at issues around "The Penis" will be doing so for very different reasons and each will have his own story to tell...
Some of you may be visiting this site out of curiosity, in order to explore more fully feelings that may be being awakened through puberty and a growing realization of your sexuality. For others it may be for a need for information on a specific issue about the penis which is causing you concern. Some of you may be struggling with these issues in isolation, and may be in need of support or guidance.
It is important also to recognize that you will all be coming from very different cultural and religious backgrounds and that the values placed upon sex and sexuality in your communities will therefore be equally diverse. Many of you, I am sure, will find that issues around sex and sexuality are often difficult for you to express, even to the point of it being a taboo subject. For some there may be a very strong feeling of shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. This could be based upon your immediate family circumstances, or because your community at large feels uncomfortable with, or even positively hostile to, discussions on these subjects. If so, they may not tolerate openness on these subjects. And some of you may either be fearful of your sexual preferences or sexual difficulties, or experiencing direct hostility or prejudice because of them.
This hostility and prejudice - whatever form it takes - can have very serious and lasting effects upon the person experiencing it. It is important to stress at this stage that prejudice and hostility are based largely upon ignorance and bigotry, and you are not to blame. I very much hope that if this is a part of your experience that you seek and find a way of living your life as you would wish - and to be happy!
Very often it will be teenagers or young men, whichever term you feel most comfortable with, who develop deep anxieties concerning the issues surrounding sex and sexuality. Although painful at the time, these will often be worked through as a natural process during adolescence and early adult life, causing few, if any, lasting problems. For some however, this natural process of development may be prevented from continuing. As adults, they may go on to have problems around their relationship with sex, and their sexuality, which have lain dormant for some time. It is important to stress that sexual development and our sexual identity are fluid and continue to grow and change throughout our lives.
Broadly speaking, this is how we identify ourselves sexually, both in terms of our emotional and sexual needs, and in terms of those who we choose to relate to in order to satisfy those needs. I am sure most of you will remember a growing realization of your sexuality through puberty and early adult life, in which you became aware of the sexual changes occurring in your bodies, especially the growth of your penis and testicles, and the growing realization of your attraction sexually, and maybe emotionally, towards either persons of the opposite or same sex.
Who am I - What am I ?
Many of us have struggled with this question, especially as teenagers and young adults, when we were trying to make sense of our sexual needs, and seeking reassurance through identification of our sexuality. This is a natural process, and for many people results in them feeling comfortable and assured of themselves and their sexual identity by early adult life; this enables them to establish and satisfy their own particular sexual and emotional needs, whatever they may be. However, there may be reasons why a person's sexuality may not be expressed or developed to its full potential. It is possible that cultural or religious beliefs may act to suppress a person's ability to realize their sexuality fully, if at all. An example might be a boy brought up in a strict devout catholic family where issues of sex and sexuality are a totally taboo subject. The boy grows up into adult life largely ignorant of what sex is, and sexual relationships are frowned upon, and even masturbation is considered a mortal sin and should be avoided at all costs.
Therefore there is already potentially a heightened anxiety around sex and sexuality which may result in suppression of a desire to seek out sexual relationships, or a denial of sexuality. An example being suppressing homosexual (gay) feelings, possibly to the point that they are never expressed openly, but remain a secret throughout that person's life. I do not wish in any way to express any judgment upon either individuals or religious communities, or societies, whose beliefs result in them making choices in the suppression of sexual desires or sexual identification. Again, understanding and tolerance are required by all, from both sides of the equation.
Being heterosexual ("straight" )
Generally in most communities throughout the world, being heterosexual is the norm, and therefore it's unlikely that if you're straight that you have experienced hatred or discrimination based upon your sexual identity. It is more likely that you may experience disapproval based upon your sexual behavior if it goes against the beliefs or values of your religious or cultural communities. An example might be having sex outside marriage, which might in some communities be strictly forbidden by custom or even in law, resulting in prosecution or isolation from families and friends. So being straight and living a heterosexual lifestyle can have its own difficulties, as there may be more pressure from family and the community to adopt their values. An example would be getting married and having children, which may be commitments you are not ready to make.
Being homosexual ("gay")
I am sure that there will be lots of men both young and old who are visiting this site who feel that they are gay, or are confused as to whether they might be. It is a tragedy that even in the 21st Century, many gay men experience prejudice and discrimination from their families and communities throughout the world. This may take the form of being isolated, or their sexuality just not being recognized as a valid alternative to a straight lifestyle, to rabid and violent homophobia from individuals and communities resulting in persecution, imprisonment, and even death. And since adolescents experience so much pressure to conform to the expectations of their peers and families, it is quite understandable that adolescents who have gay feelings might ignore or suppress them out of fear of the consequences. In many communities, especially in western countries of the European Community, laws are being introduced to protect the rights of gay people. Nonetheless, there is still a great deal to be done in this area, to raise people's awareness of the pain and distress caused by ignorance and prejudice towards gay people.
For young people who identify as gay, or feel that they might be, there are particular pressures upon them which need to be acknowledged and respected. A feeling of isolation can be very real as they may be unable to share their feelings with their friends, for fear of being socially cut-off or ridiculed. Their biggest question often is "Who can I trust ?" Again, and for the same reasons, sharing this knowledge with family members may not be an option. Their sense of isolation can result in feelings of great distress, even depression. For example, it could be that a young person has been identified - by others - as being gay and is being isolated or bullied at school or at home as a consequence. Although some communities don't provide services designed for young lesbians and gay men, in quite a lot of western countries large cities do have specific services to offer support and counseling to them. This often takes the form of safe social groups with strict age limits to protect the young people, which are run by qualified youth workers. If you do want support and are a young person, then you probably could find out if there is a group near you through a lesbian and gay telephone help line, or through a local youth group. The important message is that help is out there, and you don't need to feel totally cut off, without help or support. There are links to stories of other young men's experiences below.
Many gay men come to an understanding of their sexuality much later in life. Earlier in their lives, they may have consciously suppressed their feelings, and when circumstances change later, they are able to experience these feelings and perhaps act upon them. Oddly, there are some men who have no idea at all that they have gay feelings, and a one-off event triggers a reaction which results in them adopting a gay lifestyle. This is a clear example of the need to understand that sexual identity is a fluid and ever-changing process which continues throughout our lives. However, even with older men, support and understanding are needed to help them adapt to what it might be like to be gay. If you identify yourself in this category, there are organizations in many communities which can help by supporting you through this process of change. Many communities run lesbian and gay telephone support lines which can in themselves be very supportive, and can also inform you of what groups or counseling are available to assist you at such times in your life.
I appreciate that some of you who are gay may be struggling with this issue. I want to reassure you that being gay does not have to be the end of the world, although it may seem to you to be just that! There are very many gay men living full and active lives, who see their lifestyle as being different rather than inferior to that of straight people. Another myth I wish to shatter is the belief that you must tell everyone you are gay if you are to live a gay lifestyle. Sure - in an ideal world that would be great, but based upon the society you may be living in, it might not be possible. It is important to seek support and the friendship of both other lesbians and gay men, and also other straight people who you know you can trust to be supportive of you. Being "out" to yourself is what counts, and coming out to others can wait until you are ready and willing to do so.
Being Bisexual ("Bi" )
This is where a person is either able to or needs to establish sexual or emotional relationships with persons of both sexes. Some people may think, "Wow, aren't they lucky!". But for some bisexuals this is not the case, and bi people are sometimes misunderstood by both the straight and gay communities. Some married men may identify themselves as being bisexual, in that they have a steady and loving sexual relationship with their wives, but seek relationships with men also, in order to satisfy a deep need that seems like it must be fulfilled. There is a growing awareness that bisexuals have very specific issues that often go unaddressed by main-stream gay support organizations. In many communities there are support groups and help-lines in major cities aimed at providing support to bisexuals.
In our search to identify our sexual preferences we can too often get into categorizing ourselves into a particular camp - being gay, straight or bisexual. In my experience both personally and as a counselor, it's not quite so simple. Sexuality and sexual desire are fluid: being gay, for instance, does not mean that you cannot be sexually attracted towards a woman. The important thing is to come to this subject of sexual identity with an open mind, and if you do not wish to identify yourself with a particular label then you do not have to.
Some final thoughts .....
In writing these notes on sex and sexuality, what I have tried to convey is that it is both a complex and fascinating subject. Some of you may be visiting this site because you do have very real concerns about your penis, sex in general, or your sexuality. The most important message I wish to leave you with is that if your concerns and anxieties are very deep, and causing you real and acute problems in your life, you will benefit from seeking help and support from whatever source you feel appropriate. You may have friends and family who can help; if not, there are self-help books and web-sites that may assist you. You also have the option to seek out the support of specific support groups, telephone help lines, counselors and sex therapists who may be able to help you. Nonetheless, all this starts from a base point of you wishing to help yourself. Sex can be fun, it can be satisfying and give great joy both to ourselves and others. A deep understanding of our sexuality - whatever it may be - can be a source of personal pride, celebration and fulfillment. I appreciate that it does take courage and determination to achieve our full potential in life, but that goes for every aspect of life; sex and sexuality is part of that great journey.
A response from a teenager
Hello. I am a 14 year old gay male. And yes I know for a fact that I am gay and have no problem with it. Anyway, I was reading your column on male sexuality and gays and bisexuals. In it, you stated people shouldn't judge other people's sexual preferences because it's their own choice. Although the first part was true, it is untrue that it is our sexual preference or choice. I'm sure you've already heard this but preference means we chose this. That is not true. I did not choose to be gay. It is just what is. It is not a choice and I think that's what a lot of people don't understand. If I had a choice to be straight would I take it? Hell yes. It would save me a lot of shit and it would let me concentrate more on life. As for the people who don't know if they're gay, they should stop trying to label themselves and just live life. The answers will come. Don't try to push it. All gay really means is who you choose to love. If loving a guy seams more pleasurable then loving a girl then fine. Just take life as it comes. Well, that's all I have to say. I hope you take the the time to change that sexual preference bullshit. Thanks for your time, and peace.
And my response to what he says
The fact is a lot of gay men do say they always knew they were "different" from a very early age. And to that extent being gay is not a choice - you have the certainty that you are different, you then live differently (to the numerical majority of men in society, I mean, not to your fellow gay men). So far so good. But you cannot say with certainty at 14 how you are going to be sexually for the rest of your life - our sexuality is a fluid thing and it changes as we grow older. Witness the men who come out as gay later in life - were they always gay? Possibly, but they were also exercising some choice - choice about how to live their lives, if not a choice over their basic natures.
And I will say this again, unpopular though it may be - I have seen in my work as therapist and counselor many gay men and women who have a deep-rooted fear or hatred of the opposite sex due to experiences at the hands of their parents, and who I believe have been inhibited from developing sexual or emotional responses to the opposite sex by these traumatic experiences. I agree this does not mean these men and women have much choice about how their sexuality is expressed - the feeling of being gay is a compelling one; and, for goodness' sake, you feel sexually and emotionally attracted to the same sex. But I think it does leave open the possibility that as life is lived, and the pain of childhood trauma is dealt with, there is opportunity to exercise a choice to move away from a gay lifestyle to something different, perhaps incorporating a freer, more fluid sexuality with both men and women. I think what I am saying is that I think there can be a choice about how you express your sexuality at different stages of life, though it can be equally desirable for someone to live as a gay man or woman. It is their choice.
Some links to other websites and information that you may find useful
Recommended books - good for all ages
Outing Yourself by Michelangelo Signorile, published by Abacus. How to come out as lesbian or gay - a brilliant read, which helps you through the steps of letting the world know and be happy about the way you are.
How to be a Happy Homosexual - a guide for gay men by Terry Sanderson, published by The Other Way Press. Classic work which deals with all aspects of being gay, including relationships, life and work, and coming out.
Coming Out Every Day - a gay, bisexual and questioning man's guide by Bret Johnson. This book is a supportive and structured manual on facing the frightening processes of self-examination and change. You will examine the many aspects of your identity, work through barriers of shame and guilt, and take steps to integrate sexual feelings and needs into a conscious sense of self. An indispensable guide.
Childline ChildLine is the UK's free national helpline for children and young people in trouble or danger. If you want to talk to someone, call ChildLine free on 0800 1111
Gay search directory: Coming out pages As many references as you could ever wish for! For any young person coming to terns with their sexuality, many of the sites linked here will provide reassurance, hope and support. The references range from personal home pages to support and campaigning organizations.
Gay sexual positions - a guide to sex for gay men
Other pages on this site
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