Reparative therapy and “ex-gays”

By now, talking about the lack of success in changing sexual orientation can feel a little repetitive and boring.  Still,  enough people continue to fall prey to these fraudsters that I think it is worth a little more conversation.

Gabriel Arana recently wrote an excellent and very readable report of his own experience with reparative therapy in an article called “My so-called ex-gay life” in The American Prospect.  His article is worth your attention because he has first hand experience with the biggest names in the “ex-gay” field, Joseph Nicolosi and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).  Directly or indirectly, Nicolosi and NARTH have caused untold suffering for thousands of LGBT people.

Another reason to read the article is Arana’s interview with Robert Spitzer, a respected psychologist who in 2001 released a study that seemed to validate ex-gay therapy.  That study has been a foundation of the ex-gay movement.  In his interview, Spitzer asked Arana to print a retraction of his 2001 study because he felt it had been misinterpreted.

For more on the continuing revelations that discredit these attempts to change sexual orientation, I recommend this clip from Rachel Madow’s show.

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What causes homophobia?

What causes homophobia?

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says that a combination of repressed same-sex attraction and authoritarian parents cause homophobia.  Strict parenting – common in fundamentalist households – thwart young people from developing a healthy sense of autonomy.  When a child in such a family starts to feel attraction towards someone of the same sex, that desire must then be concealed and defended against.  And it gets worse from there.

If you’re gay or lesbian, none of this is likely to strike you as news.  It has often been gay “folk wisdom” that the biggest opponents of equality for LGBT people often carry a secret shame.

Self-loathing is a central part of the problem.  The mix of defensiveness about attraction to others of the same sex and rejection of this part of the self is what causes some men and women to remain trapped in the closet.  When that loathing is then projected onto other LGBT people, you get the long list of anti-gay preachers and politicians who end up having their careers cut short by gay sex scandals.

What struck me as most interesting about the study was the link with authoritarian parenting.  “Authoritarian” in this sense doesn’t need to mean physically abusive (though that could be part of it).  This sort of authoritarianism refers to  parents who are strict and demanding and not respectful of their children’s choices – in fact, who may not permit choices at all.  Children of such parents often confuse love with obedience to authority.  For gay offspring of such parents, coming out may feel like a rejection of their parents.  They may experience a terrifying fear losing their parents’ love.

Two responses to this sort of rigid parenting are common.  The first response is fear.  As a consequence of this fear, individuals with same-sex attraction may develop massive anxiety around gay feelings and attraction.  This fear may be big enough that it causes them to repress their same-sex attraction.  The attraction doesn’t go away, of course.  Instead, it expresses itself in unhealthy ways.  These repressed feelings may be behind some of the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church.  Having a sexual relationship with an adult man would require acknowledgement and social interaction.  A clandestine molestation of a child, on the other hand, keeps everything secret.

An alternate response is that individuals may become aggressive as a way of defending themselves against that part of the self that feels bad, broken or unacceptable.  That aggression may be overt, as with the guy who goes out to physically assault LGBT people.  Or the aggression may take a more political form.  I suspect these people fill the ranks of the American Family Association, the National Organization for Marriage and a host of other groups fighting against equality for gay and lesbian people.

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More questions about “normal” sexuality

Is kink OK?

Experimenting with sexuality is normal and healthy, and variety truly is the spice of life.  “Kinky” is a very broad term that covers many, many activities.  Playing with erotic power and exploring your sexy inner bad boy (or girl) can be ways to enjoy and enhance healthy sex.  Something may not be “normal” in the sense of “statistically average,” but that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with it.

The key words in kinky play are safe, sane and consensual.  Safe means just that – nothing unhealthy, dangerous, etc.  Sane means not doing things that are unacceptably risky one way or another.  Consensual means that both partners must agree to whatever is being done.  If someone feels coerced or intimidated, they aren’t in a place where they can give their consent.

As with anything, talking with your partner about fantasies, limits and boundaries is the key to making sex work – and making it good.

What about fantasies?

Not everyone has them, but most of us do.  Fantasies are a normal part of sexuality.  It’s often said that the brain is the body’s biggest sex organ, and there is truth to that.  Fantasies keep us from getting bored, help us understand our wants and needs, and can keep us from getting stuck in a rut.

It’s also important to understand that not all fantasies are something we would actually want to do in reality.  Some fantasies are meant to stay that way – strictly fantasies.

At what age do people stop having sex?

Sexual energy may or may not decline with age; testosterone typically declines, and a drop in libido results.  But there’s a wide variety in what is normal.  If a person is reasonably healthy, there’s no reason why sex can’t be part of life at least into the 70s and 80s.  Sex may look a little different than in younger years, but that may be just as much from knowing more about what works for you and how to be intimate as from physical changes.

Why don’t I have as much of a sex drive as my partner? Is that normal?

It is rare for two partners in a relationship to have exactly the same sex drive.   One person usually initiates more often or wants sex more frequently.  That doesn’t need to present a problem, but it does require communication and mutual care and concern.  Talking about sex can be more difficult if one partner or the other feels “wrong.”  It’s so easy for us to feel shame around sex, or to feel that something is damaged about us if we want sex less – or more – than someone else.

Pat Love has written several books about desire discrepancy, including “Hot Monogamy,” which I think of as a classic.

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What does “normal” sexuality look like?

What does “normal” sexuality look like?

What’s sexually normal?  That’s a question most of us ask ourselves at one point or another.  Small wonder; our society doesn’t make it easy to find basic information, even though talk about sex is everywhere.  Funny how “normal” is just another word for “average.”  The former sounds better than the latter!  Still, it is, um, “normal” for people to wonder about these things.

How often do most couples have sex?

There’s a lot of variability from couple to couple.  It is typical for couples to have more sex early in the relationship, and for the frequency of sex to decrease as the relationship goes on.  Surveys show that most heterosexual couples who have been together for a few years and are between mid-30s and early-40s typically have sex 4-8 times a month.  Comparable statistics for same-sex couples are tougher to find, but my clinical experience is that frequency is probably similar.

So are the things that interfere with sexual frequency:  work stress, health problems, medications (especially antidepressants), etc.  Sex often becomes less frequent (but no less pleasurable) as we get older.

What about masturbation and porn?

Almost all men masturbate, regardless of whether or not they are in a relationship.  Women are less likely to pleasure themselves, which is something of a shame, since masturbation is one of the ways we become more knowledgeable about our bodies and more comfortable with our sexuality.  Maybe because of the gender differences, women sometimes are uncomfortable when they find they find a male partner masturbates without them, maybe feeling it implies a criticism of their sexual attractiveness or proficiency.  That’s usually a source of unnecessary anxiety.

There’s a similar difference in interest in porn:  men are much more frequent consumers of it.  Anyone familiar with porn can pretty quickly see that it is aimed at men.  Women as a group have less interest in it, though of course some women enjoy it quite a bit.

In the internet age, porn is easy to come by, so to speak.  In fact, the ease with which it is available can itself be a problem when the search for more and more erotic stimulation becomes compulsive.  How much is too much?  Learn more about sex addiction.

Is my penis small?

If your standards for “normal” come from watching porn, you might think so.  There’s a reason these guys are in movies.

The average length of an American erection is about 5.25 inches, give or take a quarter inch or so.  You can be an inch or two shorter than that and have no trouble physically satisfying a partner.  Most preoccupation with size is all about the psychology of it.  We connect size with power, and power with pleasure.   That’s unnecessary.  As someone once said:  it’s not the size of the pen, it’s the penmanship.

Have a question about sex?  Email me and I’ll try to address other issues in future blog posts.

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Inside the mind of a closeted gay man

Inside the mind of a closeted gay man

It is getting easier all the time to live an openly gay life.  So why are a significant number of gay men still in the closet in 2012?

Life is getting better for many of us.  Compared with even 10 years ago, our relationships are more likely to be recognized (Maryland, Washington and New York have legislated marriage equality in the past 12 months), we’re more visible than ever on television and elsewhere, and the national conversation on bullying is bringing greater awareness and support for the struggles of young gay men and women.

Those successes speak to progress in society as a whole.  For too many gay men and women, their individual circumstances are significantly less optimistic.

  • Gay men and women from highly religious families or families with very conservative social views may fear that owning a gay identity means ostracism from parents and siblings.
  • Ethnicity can complicate coming out in cultures where marrying and having children is seen as fulfillment of family obligations.
  • Lack of emotional support from friends or access to a positive gay support system can make coming out seem frightening and lonely.

Some men avoid coming out because they have internalized the message that gay is not OK.  They have a limited view of masculinity, one that doesn’t allow for intimacy and tenderness between two men.  This is true even if they are having sex with men while staying in the closet.  By compartmentalizing sex and keeping it separate from a deeper sense of relationship, they can express same-sex attraction without lowering their emotional guard.  Sex is just…sex, perhaps understood as a bad habit that needs to be controlled (like smoking).

Relationships with men who are still in the closet tend to be limited, but very intense.  The sense of secretiveness, even danger, turns up the volume on just about everything.  Encounters may seem especially passionate.  But the limitations become especially frustrating.

Closeted men may have quite a bit of sex – especially when technology and social networking allows for anonymous, casual encounters.  But closeted men lead lives that are highly compartmentalized:  sex is one thing, relationships are another.

It is simplistic to think of being out/being in the closet as a simple, either-or choice.  In reality, coming out is a process.  The first stage involves moving from a vague sense of being different to acknowledging to one’s self that the sense of “differentness” has a name:  gay Think of this phase as coming out to yourself.  Denial is not always easily overcome, especially if gay is something seen as alien.  While most males reach this stage between the ages of 13 and 18, others come to this understanding younger in life or quite a bit older.

The next stage involves disclosing same-sex attraction to someone else.  That may be a trusted friend.  It may happen the way many adolescents explore their sexuality – by experimenting with sex.  If the experiences of disclosure and exploration are positive, the man who is coming to terms with himself experiences an increase in self-esteem.  Reassurance that he’s valued by friends and family is a powerful force for self-acceptance.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen, or it doesn’t happen quickly.  That makes the newly-out person particularly vulnerable to self-doubt, anxiety and depression.  He needs support in this phase.

Next comes exploring relationships for the first time.  Dating may seem new and strange, particularly if those initial dates come later in life than most heterosexual first dates.  Starting serious dating in your 20s or 30s, for instance, can feel like entering foreign territory where everyone else seems to speak the language that you are just learning to speak.  But eventually, the language gets learned and relationships start to become more fulfilling.

Finally, a stable gay identity gets established and integrated into the man’s self-understanding.  This may involve rethinking old friendships and relationships (if they aren’t supportive), work choices, places where the newly-out guy chooses to live.  It can be challenging, but it is also rewarding.

Leading a double life is hard.  It is depressing.  The sense of not fitting in to either the straight world or the gay world can be painful.  At its worst it can lead to self-hatred.

While things may be better than ever for many gay men and women, for some coming out is the most challenging thing they will ever do.  It can be an act of heroism, really.  It means facing our demons.  Thankfully, our fears are often not as realistic as these demons would have us believe, and facing them opens up the possibility of fulfillment and authenticity in life.


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I’m on TV today talking about closeted gay men

I’ll be appearing on TruTV’s In Session today between noon and 1 pm EST giving insight into the thinking of Tyler Clementi and M.B., the closeted gay man with whom he was videotaped just prior to Tyler’s jumping off the George Washington Bridge in September, 2010.  The case is tragic.  Tyler’s suicide came in the midst of the suicides of several very young men who had experienced anti-gay bullying taking their lives.  The outcry helped energize the campaign against bullying.

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