Bisexuality, Not Addiction
Bi men need help, support and acceptance, not labels
Posted July 2, 2015
This blog deals with, and describes, aspects of male bisexuality.
Driving home from work, Peter felt a sudden impulse to take a detour. A moment later, he found himself pulling into the parking lot of an adult video store. He glanced around quickly, then pulled behind the wooden fence that surrounded the lot. He sat in the car for a moment, the engine running and the doors locked. “What am I doing?” he asked himself. Then, telling himself, “I can do this, I need this,” he shut off the car, opened the door, and entered the store. Inside, he quickly rushed past the clerk, and slipped into a booth in the back section. Over the next hour, he had sex with two different men. Peter returned home, rushing into the bathroom at home, washing his hands and gargling with mouthwash before saying hello to his wife and kids, frantic to prevent his wife from realizing what he had been doing, and terrified that he might have been exposed to disease.
At work a few weeks later, Peter was called into his boss’s office, where he was disciplined after pornography had been found on his computer. When he told his wife, she screamed at him, “It was that gay stuff again, wasn’t it?”
Peter and his wife found a couples’ therapist who listened to their story, and questioned Peter about his secret sexual activities. Embarrassed, he came clean, revealing everything about his sex with men, and his interests in gay porn, and his seeming inability to control these desires, despite his terror at losing his wife. The therapist listened compassionately, and finally suggested that Peter was a sex addict, and would benefit from getting help with controlling these desires
As Peter connected with sex addiction treatment, he found that he was not alone. Almost half of the men in treatment with him disclosed that they also had a history of letting their addiction lead them into sex with other men, even though they said they weren’t gay.
The idea that Peter’s attraction to men and gay sex was an addiction made sense to Peter. As he talked about it more, focused on it, and was open with his wife, sponsor and other group members, he was able to be sexually “sober,” focused only on his intimate relationship with his wife.
But one time Peter’s brother asked him a question Peter couldn’t really answer. “Are you sure you’re not really just bi? Dude, you weren’t just getting off. You were having full-on sex with those other guys. That’s not an addiction. That’s an orientation.”
One group of men are at great risk of being called sex addicts: bisexual men, especially bisexual married men. Male bisexuality is incredibly stigmatized. Bisexual men are seen as inherently unfaithful and untrustworthy. Male bisexuals suffer from the stigma and shame often associated with homosexuality, while the men can “look” straight. When these men live in homophobic cultures or families, they are at intense risk for internal and external shame over their homosexual desires.
The concept of sex addiction was born as our country struggled with the impact of HIV/AIDS, amidst a society enforcing very conservative sociosexual values. Married men who had sex with men were hyperbolically (and inaccurately) portrayed as carriers of disease who risked the lives of their wives and children. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, sex addiction treatment programs proliferated. Some, like Sexaholics Anonymous, or Homosexuals Anonymous define homosexual behaviors as inherently unhealthy based on religious values, and promote the use of 12-step strategies for addiction to suppress homosexual desires.
Such theories commonly view homosexual behaviors as the result of either an uncontrolled sexual need or a tolernance effect leading to more "taboo" types of behavior. Some sex addiction writers such as Rob Weiss write very thoughtfully about addressing and understanding male bisexuality. Unfortunately, more religiously oriented sex addiction therapists are less sophisticated and accepting of what they call "same-sex attractions," a tem which harkens back to the days just after homosexuality was removed from the list of osychiatric disorder.
The media is “addicted” to using the idea of sexual addiction to explain the sexual behaviors of men caught in sex scandals with other men. Politicians and pastors such as Larry Craig and Ted Haggard were labeled as sex addicts, when their sexual encounters with other men surfaced in the news. The concept that these were bi men, caught between a religious rock and the hard place of their conflicting sexual desires, was not even considered at the time. When Haggard's homosexual infidelities were first exposed, he declared that he was heterosexual, but addicted to sex. Years later, Haggard admitted that he was actually bisexual, but that he had not previously had the language, or social support, to accept this.
Calling bisexuality addictive ignores many things now known about sexuality in general, and bisexuality specifically. For instance:
- LGBTQ identified people use more pornography than heterosexuals. Not because porn is addictive, but because porn is a private, safe way to explore stigmatized sexual desires, among many other reasons;
- The sex that men have with other men, very often involves more casual sex, recreational sex, group sex, nonmonogamous relationships, anonymous sex and kinky sex. All of these things have been called sexually addictive behaviors, but these are actually normative characteristics of masculine sexuality and the gay sexual culture.
- When gay and bi men first come out, they often go through a period of intense promiscuity, sometimes described as a “delayed sexual adolescence.” This promiscuity is not symptom of addiction – it’s a celebration of acceptance and exploration of their desires, after years, or decades, of suppression.
A growing body of research about the concept of sex addiction reveals that identification as a sex addict is often driven by two things: libido, and moral/religious conflicts about sex. This point is very important, to understanding why and how bi men might end up with the label of sex addict. If a bisexual man grew up in a family or culture which condemns male homosexuality, then that internal conflict can easily lead to the feeling that his secret desires for sex with men are not just shameful, but are a disease, an internal need which is addictive and must be fought.
Unfortunately, attempting to suppress, fight, hide and contain desires for such sexual expression can lead to unexpected explosions, which can feel like a loss of control. In other words, when a man who wants sex with other men attempts to conceal and tamp down these desires, they can build in intensity, like a pressure cooker. This doesn’t mean those desires and behaviors can’t cause problems for people, putting them at risk of relationship, legal or health problems. But it does mean that these problems are not the result of a disease, nor the result of the sexual desires themselves. Instead, the problems are the result of the internal and external conflicts about the morality and acceptability of these desires. Shaming such desires into silence is a moral strategy, not a medical one.
Bisexual-attracted men need support in understanding and accepting their sexual desires for other men. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they must have the opportunity to engage in sex with other men. I’ve seen men who were bisexual, but monogamous, and had gained feelings of peace and acceptance through coming to terms with their desires, viewing them as normal parts of themselves. Sadly, when the sex addict label is applied to a man’s desires for sex with other men, it becomes almost impossible to view those desires as normal and acceptable, as the man fights against these parts of himself.
Sexuality and sexual orientation are far more fluid and more flexible, than was previously understood. A great many straight-identified men have sex with men, just as most gay men have had sex with women. The recognition that sexual orientation and desire is not a fixed, rigid thing is opening up a wider conceptual world that can be used to help bisexual-attracted men understyand their desires, to give them words, other than addiction, to frame their sexual needs.
This acceptance and personal understanding is important: men who identify as straight, but have sex with men, are less likely to have safe sex. When a man cannot incorporate his sexual desires into his sense of who he is as a sexual being, he is still treating sex with men as something external, something to be hidden and suppressed. The expanding concepts of bisexuality, pansexuality, “mostly straight,” and gender fluidity are all ways in which men can adopt broader, more flexible labels to understand and accept their own sexual desires.
Even when a man views his sexual desires for other men as unhealthy, it’s important that he get help to learn that these desires reflect normal aspects of sexuality. Why and how these desires became part of their sexual “arousal pattern” means less than simply helping these men to accept and “own” these desires as a part of themselves. The temptation to externalize these desires, to label them as addictive, or as evidence of a disease or traumatic reaction, is a sad, lingering vestige of the days when homosexuality was an illness, and conversion therapy was an accepted practice.
When bisexual men seek help to understand their sexual desires, and to exert more mindful control over their choices, they deserve support. However, that support should be thoughtful, affirmative and based on a modern understanding of sexuality. Calling these desires “addictive” is unethical, harmful, and ultimately ineffective.
If you are a bisexual man, struggling with your desires, feeling like you need help, please, please seek help from a licensed therapist who identifies as gay-friendly, LGBT-affirmative, or who has been trained through AASECT. If a therapist, counselor or coach listens to your story, and then tells you they think you’re a sex addict, run away! Find another therapist, one who can help you understand your sexual desires as a part of you, of who you are and not as something to be suppressed or shamed into silence. A bisexual man’s sexual desires are not things to be sliced away by an amateur wielding a psychological scalpel that they got in a mail-order religiously-based
sex addiction certification course. Bi men deserve help that views the range of their sexual desires as normal and healthy.
(I’ve described these as issues for bisexual men. Over 90% of alleged sex addicts are male. Further, while male bisexuality is treated with great stigma, female bisexuality is commonly accepted, even idealized. So, while many of these same issues may apply to women who struggle to keep their desires secret, my focus here is on men, who have the greatest risk of being labelled sexual addicts for their desires.)
Dr. Ley can be found on Twitter, @DrDavidLey.