Sexual Orientation When many people think about sexual orientation, they think about someone being either “straight” or “gay”. Some people even think about a person being bisexual (attracted to both men and women). Everyone is supposed to fit neatly into a category and if there is any deviation from that category (contradictory behaviors or thoughts), it can be alarming for some people. Sexual orientation is very complex. More people than you may believe have had sexual feelings and thoughts about the same sex and/or had sexual experiences with individuals of the same sex who consider themselves heterosexual.
Understanding the Complexity of Sexual Orientation You may have heard of Alfred Kinsey who is a pioneer in the field of sexuality. Kinsey developed a scale of sexual orientation as a way of explaining the different variations of sexual orientation. His scale ranges from 0 which is exclusively heterosexual to 6 which is exclusively homosexual. The midpoint of the scale reflects an individual who is bisexual. Many people fall somewhere in between exclusively homosexual and exclusively heterosexual. For example, someone may only engage in sexual behavior with opposite-sex individuals, but may have fantasies about same-sex individuals. Another person may have fantasies about same-sex individuals, feel an attraction towards same-sex and opposite-sex individuals and engage in sex with both same-sex individuals and opposite-sex individuals. Variations in sexual behavior, feelings, and attraction are normal.
What to do when you are confused about your Sexual Orientation The first thing to know is that many people go through periods of their life where they may be confused about their sexual orientation and it is not uncommon to have thoughts, fantasies, or dreams about the same sex. It is also not uncommon to engage in sexual behaviors with the same sex. It is a part of experimenting with what you want and what feels most comfortable.
- Think about your sexual experiences or thoughts. Have you experimented sexually with the same sex? How did you feel about it? Did you enjoy it? Do you have fantasies about the same sex, opposite sex or both? Who have you had “crushes” on? Have they been the same sex or the opposite sex or both? If you have never been sexual with someone of the same sex, do you continually find that you would really like to do it?
- Think about your feelings about individuals who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Many individuals in our society have different ideas about what it means to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Some religions think it is a sin and some people have negative feelings about it. Think about the messages you received growing up about gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Do you have negative thoughts and feelings about them? What would it mean for you if you were gay? What would it mean for your family and close friends? What would it mean for you to be gay in our society? These are all important questions to consider. There is a lot of negativity around being gay or lesbian in our society which can contribute to feelings of shame, hatred, anxiety, and depression in individuals who think that they may be gay or lesbian.
- Visit areas where gay and lesbian people gather. It could be a gay bar or bookstore. See how it feels for you to be in that setting and talking with others. Some places that you could try in Philadelphia are Giovanni’s 348 S. 12th Street (map) which is a gay/lesbian/feminist bookstore, Woody’s 202 S. 13th Street (map) which is a gay bar, or Sisters 1320 Chancellor Street (map) which is a lesbian bar.
- Talk about your feelings, thoughts, and fears with someone you trust. If you do not have anyone in your life that you are comfortable talking to at this point, seeing a therapist can be a great way to explore these issues safely and confidentially. It is important to choose a therapist who is comfortable talking about gay/lesbian issues.
- Consider dating and spending time with gay/lesbian individuals. For most of us, finding a significant other or dating partners is a trial and error process. We learn through that process what qualities we like/dislike and what types of relationships and individuals work best for us. It is hard to know what fits for you without having different types of experiences.
- You do not need to label yourself as gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, etc. At some point, you will likely feel comfortable with putting yourself in one category or another. Right now, you are in an exploration process. Give yourself permission to be there. Usually labels are helpful to those around you. It makes it easier for other people to digest the information. But for yourself, remember that just because you label yourself one way today, does not mean it’s who you are one year from now. Think about all the different jobs you’ve had, or hair styles, or even stages in life. One minute you’re single, the next you are partnered, and some go back to being single. Life is fluid. Categories and boxes function by helping us to process information.
Confusion about sexual orientation is not uncommon and you do not have to figure it all out on your own. A good friend, family member or therapist can be a great ally in this process.