It is commonly held that gay men have greater problems with sexual addiction than their heterosexual counterparts. This may be because of a broad misunderstanding of the origins and nature of gay mens’ sex lives.
The societal influences on gay men’s sexual expression cannot be overstated. Because of society’s deep-rooted prejudice against homosexuality and the overwhelming predominance of the heterosexual culture, adolescents are expected to conform to the heterosexual norm. Positive gay images and role models – in advertising, media, education, and social outlets – are near non-existent. In forty years, homosexuality has come from a subject only mentioned in hushed tones to a publicly debated issue with gay rights at the forefront. Yet, the typical young person sees no positive reinforcement for being gay. (Although some of what I am describing may also pertain to lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, in this post I will restrict my observations to gay men.)
While adolescence presents obvious challenges – hormones are exploding and sexuality is blossoming – there is pervasive support and guidance for heterosexual young people. Madison Avenue is awash in images of boy meets girl. Schools institutionalize social opportunities for children and adolescents to meet each other and interact. There are proms and dances and discussions of mating and dating. Questions are asked with the opposite sex in mind that always assume heterosexuality:
“Do you have a boyfriend / girlfriend?”
“I have a nice girl / boy for you to meet.”
“What do you think of him / her?”
“Do you want to get married someday?”
When parents try to discuss sexuality with their children – an already fraught subject – homosexuality is rarely mentioned. Elaborate sets of boundaries, rules, and curfews govern the adolescent without regard to the possibility that the adolescent may be gay. How does this heterosexual-centric culture affect the child who is gay or questioning his sexuality?
Given peer pressure, parental discomfort, a puritan social culture and a lack of modeling at home, at school and in the society at large, the gay boy learns to keep his blossoming sexuality hidden at all costs. There are no outlets for gay adolescents to explore relationships and learn about intimacy through dating, social events, and talking among friends. Because there exist no avenues to normalize gay sexual development, gay adolescents learn to experience lust and sex as the sole outlets for their sexual expression.
This absence of social outlets for gay boys restricts the possibility of connecting to the object of their romantic desire except through sex. The whole process of socialization and integration of sexuality becomes truncated such that sex becomes the only initial way for many gay adolescents to explore their sexuality. Initial encounters are based on sex first since there are so few avenues to connect in other ways. If the adolescent is lucky, he may go on to develop a romantic relationship, but only after the initial sexual encounter. As the adolescent becomes a young adult, this behavior becomes a template used to meet prospective partners. Sex first becomes the norm for developing romantic relationships.
Failure to understand society’s role in gay adolescent development leads to the common interpretation of gay men’s sexuality as sexual addiction. This misconception leads to the erroneous assumption that gay men suffer from sexual dysfunction because of their sexual orientation. This misjudgment absolves society of the responsibility of guiding gay adolescents during the maturation of their sexuality.
We can only hope that in the future society will recognize its responsibility for guiding young people through their sexual development regardless of where they fall on the sexual spectrum.