It’s a given that queer people are the rule breakers, the ones who stand outside what is conventional and challenge social norms. That’s why I’ve been surprised to discover, in my conversations with gay men over the years, that sexual guilt and self-doubt are alive and well in our community, even among many who feel completely at ease with being gay.
I think of a man who sex life consists mostly of internet hook-ups. He says that, at this stage in his life, he thoroughly enjoys what he’s doing. He loves the variety, and isn’t interested in finding a regular partner. Still, he wonders out loud “Does this mean I’m a sex addict?” “Does it mean I’m immature and don’t want to grow up?” “Am I afraid of commitment?” And so on. At the other end of the spectrum is the man who has never had casual sex in his life and is completely satisfied with monogamy. He wonders why he’s so “out of step” with his friends, and asks if it means that he’s hung up or fearful about sex. “Am I hiding out in my relationship?” he asks.
One of the most frequent sources of sexual guilt among gay men is the power dimension of sex. Despite the fact that s/m has been out and visible for decades, many guys who are turned on by fantasies of submission or domination still worry that they suffer from some deep pathology. The man who’s turned on by acting out fantasies of being abused wonders if this means he really hates himself. He sets appropriate limits: the “abuse” is just role playing, and he’s self-respecting in every aspect of his life. Still, he asks “If I improve my self-esteem will these ‘tendencies’ go away?” (And he admits, guiltily, that if they will, he’s not at all sure that he wants more self-esteem.) Another man, who is a loyal and tender partner to his lover of many years wonders why he is “unable to really love” because he and his partner act out fantasies in which he owns and dominates his partner. They both have a lot of sexual fun with each other, but he still he suspects (against all the evidence) that he must harbor some deep, unconscious hatred of his partner.
Another man confesses that, while he loves having sex with his boyfriend, he always comes the same way – by privately fantasizing his favorite porn scenes. He wonders if this is a form of “cheating.” After all, “normal” people don’t fantasize when they’re making love with someone they care about, do they?
The man who is attracted to younger men wonders if he has a “Peter Pan complex.” The man who is attracted to older men wonders if he has a “father complex.” The man who is attracted only to men of another race wonders if that means that he “unconsciously” hates his own, while the man who prefers his own race wonders if that means he’s racist. A little psychology is a dangerous thing.
It’s alarming to see how many gay people are willing to surrender authority over their lives to “experts” who supposedly know better than they how they should live. Periodically, a client asks me “Am I normal/healthy/well-adjusted if I…” followed by a description of some sexual turn-on that he’s worried about. I’m apparently then expected to issue a ruling – either “Yes, my son, you’re normal, go in peace,” or “No, you have deviated from the path of normalcy, you need therapy.” In view of the history of my profession’s treatment of sexual minorities (which, until fairly recently, was abysmal, and even today remains less than ideal) I’m disconcerted to talk with so many guys who are willing to surrender their power to professional helpers.
The problem is that all these “normalcy” questions are inherently alienating. When people ask if their behavior is “normal” they’re assuming that some scientific yardstick of “normal behavior” exists which doesn’t merely reflect social norms. They’re also assuming that being “normal” is something they should want, although they’re rarely able to explain why. And of course, the only ones who have the credentials to apply the normality yardstick are a cadre of mental health experts on whom they have to pay to answer their questions for them.
I usually respond to “Is this normal?” questions with questions of my own, such as, “Do you enjoy what you’re doing? Does it bring you pleasure and fulfillment? Is it harming you or anyone else?” When we redirect the focus of the discussion from “normal” to a discussion of happiness versus unhappiness, or harming versus non-harming, the client becomes the expert, because each of us is the world’s greatest living authority on what brings us joy and fulfillment, and what doesn’t. Competent therapists may be able to help facilitate reflection on these kinds of questions, but they have no corner on the answers. Sexual confusion, shame, and guilt are the price we pay when we buy into the idea that someone else knows better than we do how we ought to feel or what we ought to enjoy.