For quite a while we have thought of human sexuality as fitting into just three categories: straight, gay, and bisexual — although in some dictatorial regimes the latter two are said not to exist at all! As a sex therapist, however, I can tell you that there is a far wider range of sexual desire, and it is called sexual fluidity.
A large part of being blind to more of this range and its nuances is attributable to the culture and the time in which we find ourselves. For instance, children in our culture are raised to believe they are only straight — boys are this way, girls are that way — end of discussion. As I’ve often written about, and which studies confirm, we teach little boys to reject everything even vaguely feminine. We stop touching little boys earlier than we stop touching little girls and we teach them to stop touching each other. When I go to airports, I see women lean on each other, lie against each other, and brush each other’s hair and nobody thinks anything of it. Women also can to turn to each other and say, “Would you like to go to the bathroom?” and they go strolling off together. But if a man goes up to another man and says, “Hey, I got to take a leak. Want to come with me?” people would laugh, and the other guy might even feel threatened.
A transgender man once told me that when he presented as female and used the women’s restroom, there were lots of conversations and talking in there, even women passing toilet paper under the stalls, but no bodily noises. But when he goes into men’s room, no one talks to each other and there are lots of bodily noises. Kind of humorous, but it also reveals the stark differences between how we are socialized as men and women. Males are discouraged from sharing their feelings or displaying any so-called feminine affectations such as tenderness or touching, which stops around the age of eight.
We take on these behaviors unconsciously by observation and upbringing. Men especially internalize them to the degree that we have even one erotic thought about gay sex, we are terrified to admit it because we will be labeled as gay or bisexual. Little girls are able to be tomboys as long as it is for a limited time. Little boys, however, never get to be sissies. My family has a picture of my sister in her baseball uniform when she was 10 years old. We say these were her tomboy years. When I was a little boy, I once put my sister’s black tights on my head and lip-synched into a hairbrush to songs by Cher. Horrified, my grandmother and mother shook me, ripped the tights off and told me, “Little boys can’t be Cher!”
When gay men begin the coming out process, they believe themselves to be straight. It takes a lot of breaking down of their enculturation for them to begin to think of themselves as gay. Their erotic desires for other men are often thought of as kinky or exotic but having nothing to do with their orientation. Once they do realize they’re gay, however, they tend to jump into the box labeled “gay” and sometimes even deny that there may be a “bisexual” box, too. I often hear gay men say that there is no such thing as “bisexual,” that if someone has even one erotic thought about gay sex, he is gay. Period. I think this probably results from having fought for so many years to be recognized and accepted as valid human beings. They are unwilling now to admit that there is such a thing as sexual fluidity in which a man is not in a box but moves more freely along a track of sexual identity. There even are researchers who ascribe to this idea.
However, researchers don’t see patients in a therapy setting. I do, every day, and I can tell you that far more men are sexually fluid than we have imagined. But they come into my office expressing tremendous grief and anxiety because we have given them no permission to be this way.
It’s not the same for women. They are more willing and able to sit with the notion of sexual fluidity, to consider it. There’s little to no stigma. She’s heterosexually identified and knows that she straight but, every once in a while, someone of the same sex comes around for whom she has sexual and/or romantic feelings. She’s not bothered too much by this because there’s room in our culture for her to know she’s straight with some possible same-sex interest. It seems apparent that this is because of the differing enculturation we experience.
On the other hand, women are far more reluctant to enter into a relationship with a man if they discover that he has erotic thoughts of other men. They think that, really, he is gay and will abandon them for the gay lifestyle. Once again, boxes. Gay men, too, are sometimes threatened by the idea of sexual fluidity, thinking it is like having one foot in the gay world and the other in the world of male heterosexual privilege. There is no permission to have one heterosexual thought. You’re either in the box or out of it.
While men are stigmatized for having one non-straight thought, women are fetishized for it. During such a conversation at a dinner party I attended some years ago, a man set down his fork and said, “Joe, if a guy puts his dick in someone’s ass, he’s gay.” I put my fork down and said, “What do you call it, then, when a woman has sex with another woman?” He stopped eating and said, “I call that college” which brought a big laugh around the table, but it reinforced the idea that men are stigmatized, and women are fetishized for their thoughts or actions outside of the permissible boxes.
What I want people and other therapists to understand is that having erotic interests outside of one’s labeled box does not mean you have to jump into the other one. The idea of male sexual fluidity isn’t scary or shameful. Men can even have sex with men and not have to label themselves as gay or bisexual.
It’s also time we understand that sexual orientation is different than erotic orientation. Sexual orientation is defined by to whom one is attracted, whether it be male, female, neither and/or a blend of both. Erotic orientation is what makes up your turn-ons and erotic interests and help you toward orgasm. They are your fantasies around positions, role-play, kink, and vanilla-type fantasies. They may or may not have anything to do with our sexual orientation. how we live and how we show up in the real world. But in our fantasies, we are able to be whoever we want.
I am encouraged to see that millennials and younger folks, in particular, depending sometimes on the region where they grow up, aren’t boxing themselves in as much as earlier generations. They are far more willing to open up, talk about sexuality in previously forbidden ways, and to experiment. Younger straight men are more heteroflexible. They know they are not gay but, rather, straight with a dash of “gayness.” The strict rules no longer apply. Such attractions can be expressed in a range from erotic fantasies to actual behavior. Younger gays, too, are more homoflexible, not clinging to the old identities as much as my generation has.
Presently, though, there is a wide denial of the fact that sexually fluid men exist. It is time we allow them to speak up and have a place in our culture.