My longtime friend and colleague Dr. Joe Kort has been treating and writing about gender and sexual orientation issues for nearly three decades. In his Royal Oaks, Michigan, practice, Joe specializes in Gay Affirmative Psychotherapy and IMAGO Relationship Therapy , often treating men who are questioning their sexual orientation. This population is the focus of his new and much-needed book : Is My Husband Gay, Straight, or Bi? A Guide for Women Concerned About Their Men . I am pleased that Joe has written this book, as I have had to deal with these questions in my own practice relatively often, as have many other therapists. I recently spoke with Joe about the book, and I wanted to share a few of his thoughts below.
What prompted you to write this book?
There are two main reasons. Number one is the high incidence of male-female couples entering my office because the woman thinks her man might be gay. More often than not, he’s not gay or even bi. He’s actually straight, but for whatever reason, he’s been looking at gay porn or he’s been having sex with men. Number two is that I wanted to write this book for the men themselves because they’re usually very confused. A lot of the time these men come in on their own and they’re holding my book about coming out as gay, and they want to know, “Is this me? Am I gay?” Again, most of the time they’re not. And I think it’s very important to state right here that I’m a gay man, yet here I am saying that most of the time these men who are being sexual with other men aren’t gay. That’s unusual, because most gay men, even most gay therapists, believe that if a guy is having gay sex, he’s gay.
So how do you determine if a man is or isn’t gay?
There are some basic questions that I ask. These are covered in detail in the book. I should probably state up-front that these questions are based on my clinical experience, not on any scientific research, but I’ve been doing this for a very long time and I can assure you that these questions are definitely on-point. First off, I want to know if the man had any “youthful noticing.” Was he noticing other males in a sexual way when he was young? Most gay or bisexual men will say yes. A lot of the time they didn’t know what to call it, but they knew that they had an attraction to men—the locker room, the boy scouts or wherever. Straight men will say no. They almost never report youthful noticing.
I also use what I call the “beach test.” I always joke with clients that for me, as a gay man, when I’m walking on the beach and checking people out, the women are in the way. I’m looking at your boyfriend, so get out of the way. With gay clients, they say they feel the same way; with bisexual clients, they say they’re looking at both the men and the women; with straight clients, they say they’re looking only at the women. Straight guys don’t even notice the men.
Another thing that I look for is homophobia. When a man is in a long-term relationship with a woman but being sexual with men, either looking at porn or having actual sex, he either will or won’t be homophobic. Interestingly, it’s the gay men who are homophobic. The straight men have no homophobia at all—to the point where they’re willing to seek counseling from me, an openly gay therapist. A lot of times the gay men never even make it to me (without prompting from their wife, anyway) because they’re riddled with homophobia and I’m too gay for them. I threaten their sense of denial. So if a client is struggling with his sexual orientation and he’s got a lot of homophobia, he’s probably gay. The straight guys are not like that.
The final thing that I ask about is romance. Who does the man want to go to dinner and a show with, who does he want to spend the holidays with, who does he want to wake up next to in the morning? A gay guy wants to do all of that with a man, a bisexual guy might want a man or a woman, and the straight guy wants to only be with a woman in that way.
What is it, typically, that drives these men into treatment, whether it’s on their own or with their wife?
The Internet is doing it. Usually, the wife discovers his history on the computer. He’s been looking at gay porn or he’s been hooking up with guys he meets through Craigslist.
A lot of them don’t know about Grindr. And that’s too gay for them anyway. Craigslist is where they go.
What are the psychological underpinnings for this behavior? And does that differ depending on the man’s true sexual orientation?
It does differ. The gay man is doing this because it’s his sexual identity. Even if he’s confused and doesn’t want to come out as gay, this is who he is and over time that will come out. He may be telling himself that it’s a purely sexual thing, just like the bi and straight guys are doing, but over time his true identity will come out.
For straight men, the most common reason is sexual abuse. They’re reenacting the abuse. I call this returning to the scene of the sexual crime. Usually, the way I learn this is by asking: “How are you having sex with these men? What exactly are you doing?” And they’re reenacting the abuse.
The second reason is kink. It’s a fetish. They might be into BDSM or they might be into power exchange, and they think they can only find that with a man. Or they might be into cuckolding, where two men and a woman are engaged in sexual play but one man is submissive and the other guy is dominant and the submissive guy gets the dominant guy hard. So it’s a fetish. It’s sex play between two men and a woman, but if the woman were to leave the scene the two men would be completely turned off.
Sometimes guys just want quick, anonymous sex, so they seek out another guy because women don’t generally have quick, anonymous sex. The person they are with doesn’t even matter to them, because it’s about sex and not any sort of intimate connection. When a straight guy is giving oral sex, he doesn’t care what the other guy looks like. He probably doesn’t even remember that afterward. But the gay man cares. This can be tough for the woman to understand because male and female sexuality is so different. Women’s sexuality is more relational, whereas men’s sexuality is more about objectification.
Another factor is father hunger. It’s the search for a father, the search for masculine connection. So this is a way of bonding with men—ironically, through sex—and it happens not because the man is gay but because he doesn’t know any other way to get this need met.
Last but not least, a lot of guys are into anal stimulation and they’re afraid their wives won’t do it, or they’re too embarrassed to ask, or they’ve asked and their wives have said no. So they find a guy who will take care of that for them.
They’re receiving anal sex?
Yes. And then they ask me if this makes them gay. My response is, “As a sex therapist, I have a duty to tell you that your anus doesn’t have a sexual orientation. It’s not gay or straight, it’s just your anus.” In other words, they’re doing this because to them it feels good. Then I tell them that a lot of gay men don’t do anal at all, either giving or receiving. They’re just not into it. So anal sex isn’t about sexual orientation.
Do the men in these relationships usually want to stay together?
Yes. And the wives do, too.
What advice do you give to these couples?
If the man is straight, the main goal is helping both parties understand why he’s been doing this. So I try to help them understand that this is about sexual abuse, or father hunger, or kink, or some other unexpressed need. Usually, when the man understands this he can then stop the behavior, even though the desire doesn’t go away. And when the woman understands this she can start to connect with him on that level, supporting him and bonding with him instead of obsessing about what he’s done. Sometimes the relationship actually gets stronger over time as the partners develop compassion and understanding for one another.
If the man is gay, the relationship has less of a chance of survival. About a third of these mixed-orientation marriages end in divorce right away. In another third, the couple stays together for two years and then divorces. And in the final third, half stay together long-term and half still end in divorce. The reason is that the guy really is gay and he wants to express that sexually and romantically. However, more and more of these couples are deciding to stay together, mostly after the age of 60.
When the man is bisexual it’s all over the map. In might depend on how bi he really is. Some guys are mostly heterosexual, and the marriage has a better chance in those cases. Sometimes with bisexual men, there’s a period of time when it becomes very important for him to express his same-sex attraction. That might last for two months or two years, and then it may recede, but this typically causes all kinds of problems in the marriage.
Do the women always want the man’s same-sex behavior to stop?
Most of the time they do, because it’s threatening their marriage. Either they’re worried that their man will eventually decide he’s gay and end the relationship, or they want monogamy, and his cheating is a threat to the marriage regardless of who he’s doing it with. And I should point out here that the men when they’re engaging in this behavior (regardless of whether they’re gay, straight or bi) nearly always tell themselves that what they’re doing is not cheating because they’re doing it with a guy. The women feel differently, of course, but the men only see that once their behavior is uncovered and they’re confronted. That said, I do see a lot of couples where the woman says she’s OK with the man continuing his behavior, as long as it’s only with other men. If he has a need that she can’t meet or doesn’t want to meet, then she’s OK with him cheating, as long as he’s not doing it with other women.
What advice do you have for the women in these relationships?
I always advise the women to not need all the details of what their man has done. It’s distracting and it doesn’t matter. I also want them to know that the marriage can survive. And finally, I try to make sure that the women in these relationships understand that their man’s behavior is not about them, it’s about him and his unmet needs. These are his issues, not hers, even though they can and usually do affect her and her relationship rather profoundly.