Sexual Orientation and Preference Issues


Staff member
Sexual Orientation and Preference Issues
Even the terms "sexual orientation" and "sexual preference" are controversial. I have visited with a number of gay men who strongly prefer the term "sexual orientation" rather than the term "sexual preference." The vast majority of gay men believe that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice but is instead genetically programmed at conception. They do not see sexual orientation as anything that is chosen any more than eye color is chosen. The term sexual preference suggests a degree of choice. That being gay is genetically programmed argues that environmental effects (home, parents) have no impact at all on whether an individual is straight or gay.

To a certain degree, contemporary science is moving toward the view that sexual orientation is genetically programmed, although existence of a gay gene or genes have not yet been confirmed. There have been some intriguing clues that genetics does indeed play at least the major role.

The basic problem with the genetic explanation for sexual orientation is that it suggests that everyone is either straight or gay. But the real world contains many individuals not so easily explained in such a simple categorization. Not only are there guys who can be sexually aroused by either sex, there are many guys who are quite uncertain of their sexual orientation.

Many gay guys I have visited with are absolutely certain that they are gay because of their genes, These guys "knew" they were gay at a very early age, often even before puberty, some even as young as age seven or eight. These guys are often quite convinced that sexual orientation must be as simple for everyone as it is for them. Guys who appear to be less certain of their sexual orientation are sometimes viewed by these individuals with a certain amount of disdain--as individuals who are psychologically not confident enough yet to be "out". I have visited with many men who are well past their teens and are still quite uncertain of their sexual orientation. I conclude that this is actually quite common. The media portray male sexuality as if most men are either straight or gay, with but a few men falling in a middle category that is potentially aroused by members of either sex. Many gays are aware of their sexual preference at a very early age, perhaps nearly from the moment they realized they were male and obviously there are many men who are clearly heterosexual, or straight, and have no same-sex interests whatsoever.

However, I have visited with a surprising number of men where the preference is not nearly that clear. One book I have--Sexual Happiness for Men: A Practical Approach--that discusses sexual orientation issues lists seven different categories of sexual preference, depending on the relative arousal in and preference for same-sex versus different-sex activities. These categories are based on the original work by Alfred Kinsey (who, interestingly, was an entomologist by training). Using this categorization, bisexuals are only those who are equally aroused by both same- and different-sex activities, and thus have no preference for one over the other. Most men, however do have some preference for one or the other.

Sexual orientation (preference) is, at least to a certain degree determined by whether a man is aroused by a member of the opposite sex or by a member of the same sex. You don't get to tell your brain what you find arousing: your brain tells you! Very few straight men are so straight that there are not certain kinds of same-sex activities that are at least slightly arousing. Most heterosexual men, for example, would likely get a bit aroused if they were placed in a room with a group of other men who were all masturbating! Similarly, few gay men are so gay that they would not be aroused by any form of different-sex activity.

Sexual preference is often expressed by who the man falls in love with, and while what (or perhaps who) triggers the arousal mechanism is important, other factors are also involved, and expressions of same-sex sexual interest are quite common in situations where contact with members of the opposite sex is limited (army, boys schools, prisons, etc). When the situation changes these interests may recede as well, and many of these men return to a heterosexual life. Once a man discovers an activity that he finds very arousing, other available activities that are less arousing normally recede into the background. Thus, if a predominately though not exclusively heterosexual individual determines that certain kinds of different-sex activities are highly arousing, interests he might have had in same-sex activities will likely recede. Psychologists refer to this as a "psychodynamic" situation with outcomes that vary depending on the available options.

While many gays seem convinced that theirs was not a choice, this is not always the case, and it is possible for a man with some same-sex interests to go through life as a straight. I'm convinced this is part of what makes "coming out" difficult for many men with an interest in certain same-sex activities, because making a final decision is often not easy, and is a decision that cannot be easily reversed. This struggle seems to be critical for many of the men I have been visiting with who are having difficulty in deciding what their real sexual preference is. It is not surprising that this can be a difficult situation: A man who has come out as a gay will have difficulty if he decides that he wants to attempt to begin dating women, for example.

Men who do not appear to have a preference for one sex or another often face a lot of problems, and are largely treated as if they were gays by the straight community, but these individuals are frequently rejected by the gay community as well for not being truly gay or comfortable with their "true" sexual orientation. Some recent research has suggested that a much higher proportion of men can be aroused by same-sex activities and images than is represented by the percentage of men who actually go into same-sex relationships and live as gays. Most of the remainder of these men undoubtedly primarily if not exclusively live as heterosexuals. So being gay or being straight involves both the arousal triggering mechanism and the ultimate choice of a partner. Even more interestingly, these choices do not necessarily remain constant over time.

I had a chance to discuss sexual orientation issues with two different men, both in their 30s or 40s who both were married, and both, I believe, also had families. Both claimed to have "normal" sex lives with their wives. Interestingly, however, both of these men occasionally had same-sex encounters (not with each other but each with another man) leading to orgasm. The wives in each instance were apparently unaware of the gay relationship.

The decisions these two men faced were not simple. In one of the two cases, I was able to help the man come to the conclusion that ultimately the gay relationship could mean that he would have to leave his wife and family. He ultimately reached the conclusion that this was not a price he was willing to pay for the same-sex relationship.

In the other case, however, it was clear that the man was gradually leaning toward leaving his wife for the man he was having the affair with. I never did hear exactly what happened in this case, but I suspect very strongly that this man is no longer living with his wife. Despite the similar circumstances, each man likely made a different choice. I cite these cases to illustrate how complicated sexual preference can become!

No one yet fully understands the mechanism by which sexual preference is ultimately determined, and theories cite genetic and environmental factors, with the theories involving primarily genetic factors gaining increasing support, in part based on studies of identical twins. Interestingly, if sexual orientation is entirely based in genetics, then identical twins should always have the same sexual orientation. Studies have indicated, however, that if one identical twin is gay, the odds that the other twin is gay is between .6 and .7. This argues that environment does play a role in some instances.

However, the fact that many gays appear to have already determined a sexual preference at a very early age supports theories which suggest only a limited role for the environment and family-related factors. The determination of what is arousing and what is not is not a matter of conscious decision. Being gay does appear to run in families, and there are many instances where both a father and son are gay. Many gays are also able to identify other close relatives--siblings, uncles, etc., who are gay.

Gay men are very much like straight men, except for the fact that the sexual arousal mechanism is primarily if not exclusively triggered by persons of the same sex. Gays are just as mystified by why women trigger the arousal mechanism in straights as straights are mystified by why other men trigger the arousal mechanism in gays. From the gay perspective, it is the straight world that is "abnormal." Interestingly, other than for the problems in dealing with discrimination while living as a gay in a predominately straight world, I have yet to visit with a gay man who has expressed an interest in waking up tomorrow morning as a straight. The vast majority of gay men are not in any way dissatisfied with their sexual preference, which these see as the very essence of their being.

Gays are largely mystified as to why they are treated as they are solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Discrimination against and other acts of hatred toward gay men is a sad component of American culture as well as in cultures of many other countries where treatment by the majority can be even worse than it is here. I have a theory that many of the men who discriminate against and otherwise preach hatred toward gays are themselves struggling with their own inner unresolved conflicts with respect to their own sexual orientation. Acting in anger against gays is a way of dealing with their own anger with regard to inner conflicts about their own sexual preference!

Those who cite religious and biblical teaching against gays are on shaky ground as well. First, the biblical passages relating to this topic are not at all clear, and can have many different interpretations. The basic message of Christianity deals a lot with topics like acceptance, understanding and love, and speaks out boldly on issues such as hatred and discrimination. How anger and discrimination toward gays can be rationalized on the basis of religious doctrine remains a great mystery to me.

Many of the sexual stereotypes of gay men portrayed in the media--that sexual orientation is almost exclusively a sexual attraction--are inaccurate. Complicated story lines are difficult to follow, particularly in a half-hour television show. Many straights (in part, based on media stereotypes) believe that most gay men are really women living in men's bodies, that is, men who would have preferred to be women, if given a choice. I have found that this characterization, popular in the media, to be a description of only a tiny percentage of gays. The vast majority of gay men are very happy being male, have no interest in dressing or acting like women, or undergoing a sex-change operation. Indeed, from all outward appearances, they are indistinguishable from their heterosexual counterparts--except that their sexual arousal mechanism is triggered by persons of the same sex. In our predominantly heterosexual culture, this one tiny difference presents some major issues for our society.

Straights often assume that the behavior of all gays is similar to what they see of a few gays in the news media. The vast majority of gays are living lives very similar to men in the straight culture, holding down stable jobs in all types of work and searching for loving, lifelong relationships with a partner--just as straights attempt to do. In terms of length of a same-sex relationship, the gay men who have written me all seemed to be convinced that their relationship is representative of the group as a whole. I have heard a gay man who has been in stable relationships for 20 years and is convinced that this is quite "average" for gay men of his age and normal. I have heard from another gay men who moved in and out of relationships for 20 years with each relationship only lasting from 6 to 18 months. Interestingly, he was equally convinced that his particular situation represents the "normal" pattern of gay behavior. I conclude that there are no truly reliable data on this. I do believe, however, based on the conversations I have had with gay men, relationships, on average, tend to be somewhat shorter lived than in the straight community, often measured in weeks or months, but usually not in years. I also note that a number of gay men I have talked with also strenuously dispute this. They cite the fact that many heterosexual relationships are very short-lived as well. There is apparently some research evidence to suggest that the pattern of short-lived relationships tends to recede as gay men age, just as it does among heterosexuals and that the AIDS epidemic has tended to foster a movement toward more long-term, monogamous relationships among gays.