Understanding Straight Men Who Have Sex with Men

Understanding the Difference Between Sexual Identity, Preference, and Fantasy

Joe Kort • 5/28/2017 • 5 Comments

Paul, a slim, attractive, 29-year-old white man who owns a landscaping company, was referred to me by his therapist (with whom he was making no progress) shortly after he attempted suicide. He told me that eight months previously, Julie, his fiancée, had discovered that he'd been having unprotected anal sex with men. When she confronted him, he denied it, but soon broke down and confessed. Devastated and angry, she broke off their engagement, accusing him of being duplicitous (she believed they were monogamous) and secretive. Worst of all, she felt frightened that he'd put her at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Paul loved Julie and said he knew she was the woman for him. They'd dated for three years and been engaged for one. But Julie had rebuffed all his desperate and obsessive attempts to win her back. Ultimately, she'd had a restraining order issued against him. Shortly after this, Paul engaged in a binge of sexual acting-out with both men and women, culminating in the suicide attempt that brought him to my office.

The truth is that many men who have sex with men aren't gay or bisexual. Although their confused mental and emotional state resembles that of the initial stages of coming out, gay men go on to develop a gay identity, whereas these men don't.

Therapists who treat such men need to realize that just because a client is sexual with the same gender doesn't necessarily reflect his sexual or romantic orientation. While we may believe we've accurately assessed whether a client is gay, it isn't up to us as therapists to make this judgment.

Understanding Straight Men Who Have Sex with Men

There's growing evidence that many men who have sex with men aren't all gay or bisexual. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 3 million men who self-identify as straight secretly have sex with other men—putting their wives or girlfriends at risk for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.

To best treat these men, therapists and clients need to be able to differentiate four terms that are often confused: sexual identity and orientation; sexual preferences; sexual fantasies; and sexual behavior. Contrary to common usage, they aren't always in alignment.

Sexual identity and orientation encompasses one's sexual and romantic identity, in which thoughts, fantasies, and behaviors work together in concert. It's the alignment of affectional, romantic, psychological, spiritual, and sexual feelings and desires for those of the same or opposite gender. Sexual orientation doesn't change over time. One's sexual behaviors and preferences might change, but like one's temperament, one's orientation remains mostly stable. The term also refers to how someone self-identifies, not how others may categorize him or her. Some people self-identify as straight, while others self-identify as gay or lesbian, bisexual, or questioning. It's important as therapists to ask your clients how they self-identify, regardless of with whom they have sex.

Sexual preferences refer to sexual acts, positions, and erotic scenarios that someone prefers to have while engaging in sexual activity. The term takes into account what individuals like to do and get into sexually, not necessarily with whom they like to do it. Preferences and erotic interests can change over time, as one becomes more open or closed to certain thoughts and behaviors.

Sexual fantasies are any thoughts that one finds arousing. They can encompass anything—sexual positions, romantic encounters, body parts, clothing and shoe fetishes, even rape. Sexual fantasies aren't necessarily acted out. In fact, in many cases, they aren't.

Sexual behavior is any behavior intended to pleasure oneself and/or one's sexual partner. It doesn't necessarily reflect one's orientation. For example, men who are imprisoned engage in sexual behaviors with other men, but do so out of sexual necessity, not because of erotic interest in another man. They desire the behavior and the sexual release it achieves, and the gender of the partner is secondary.

Why Men Have Sex with Men

For straight men who have sex with men, same-sex encounters aren't about romance or sexual attraction and desire, but about sexual and physiological arousal—"getting off" with another who's male and accessible. They don't sexually desire or get aroused by looking at other men, only by the sexual act. But if they don't actively desire other men, how do they get to the point of having sex with them? These men typically want to bond with and get affection from other men. Their behavior may reflect a desire to experiment, to engage in something that's taboo, or to express inner psychological conflicts involving their sexual feelings and desires that have nothing to do with having a gay or bisexual identity.

Straight men who have sex with men do so for a variety of reasons. Some have been sexually abused and are compulsively reenacting childhood sexual trauma by male perpetrators; some find sexual release with another man more accessible; some have sex with men because it's easier and requires fewer social skills than those required to have sex with women; some are "gay for pay" and get financial rewards; some like the attention they receive from other men; some like anal sex, which they're otherwise too ashamed to talk about or engage in with their female partners.

When I learn that a straight client is having sex with men, I ask a series of questions: What is your interest in men? Do you prefer one type over another? Do you feel drawn and compelled to satisfy your sexual urges with men? Do you care about the physical appearance of the man? Do women play any role in the fantasy? Is it different for you if they aren't? I also try to listen for the themes running through their sexual interests and fantasies, which often decode aspects of their personal identity and histories.

I used this approach with Paul. When I asked him to describe his situation, he told me he was sexually aroused only by women, and that his fantasies mostly were about women and brought him to orgasm. I asked him what the men who were occasionally included in his fantasies looked like, and he told me that they were faceless; even their physiques didn't matter to him. Paul also told me that he always had sexual fantasies about men "controlling him" by telling him to please them. His most common and peak erotic fantasies included being "hypnotized or drugged" by the man whose spell he was under.

Links with the Past

In subsequent sessions, I asked Paul about sexual abuse because it can lead to homosexual behavior (not homosexual orientation), but he denied it. His father, he told me, was an alcoholic who frequently physically abused and humiliated him. Because Paul wasn't good at sports, his father taunted him, calling him a "girly" man. To test his mettle as a fighter, his father once initiated a fist fight that left Paul bruised and bleeding from his mouth. He longed to have his father's love and acceptance, but didn't know how to get it. His mother never intervened; instead, she'd comfort her son after these abusive episodes.

Paul was sympathetic to his mother. He saw how his father humiliated and intimidated her. Although she was never beaten, she lived under the threat of violence. He recalled that, as a child, he hated his father and wished him dead, so that he and his mother could have a nice life together.

I consider sexual fantasies and erotic interests—whether expressed in healthy or unhealthy ways—as inseparable extensions of our core identity. They're clues to the past. Often they're unsuccessful attempts to resolve problems from childhood that are somehow eased in the erotic realm.

I began to see Paul's sexual contacts with men as an attempt to resolve the conflictual relationship with his father. As he attempted, unconsciously, to master the abuse and humiliation he received from his father as a child, he placed himself in sexual situations where he was at risk and felt humiliated all over again. With the other man in control, Paul was "helpless." He was under the spell of the other man, who was intoxicated, just as his father had been.

Paul soon began to understand that he was "returning to the scene of the crime" for several reasons. First, he realized that he was not only angry at his father, but also "hungry" for the father he'd never had. He'd sought sex with men as a way of finding the nurturance and male acceptance he never received from his father. He tried to talk to his father about all the anger he'd accumulated since his childhood, but his father—still an active drinker—just laughed and called him weak.

Fortunately, he was able to feel my empathy for him and my sorrow for what he'd been through. He allowed me to "father" him in appropriate therapeutic ways. For example, he didn't have a lot of money, so he couldn't come more than once weekly, but I thought he needed more frequent sessions. So I allowed him to call me outside the therapy hour on my cell phone if he felt like going out and having sex with a man, so I could help him withstand the urge. He needed to feel that I was there for him when he experienced anxiety and traumatic feelings, and was overwhelmed with what he felt was my sincere interest in being available to him. His calls never lasted more than 15 minutes and were never more frequent than twice weekly for several months. He brought in his journal and left it with me to read, and I didn't charge him for my time.

Ultimately, Paul was able to hold his mother and father accountable for their negative behavior toward him in childhood. Having had an abusive father and neglectful mother, he came into treatment letting them off the hook and reenacting the trauma by displacing the anger and shame on himself and his fiancée. He needed a safe place to explore his sexual behavior without being labeled gay, bisexual, or even questioning. This wasn't a case that revolved around whether he was gay, but rather what his original trauma was and how it could be resolved. Had Paul not been heterosexual, his gay identity would have surfaced during treatment.

Coming Out Straight

Therapists who work with this population have to follow their clients' leads. The work is as much about education as psychotherapy. It's crucial to give each man who has sex with men information about homosexuality and the coming-out process, sexual abuse, sexual addiction, family-of-origin issues, and mood disorders that could contribute to the desire to have sex with males. However, as the work evolves, it's up to the client himself to decide if this is the beginning of the coming-out process, a sign of early sexual abuse, a sexual addiction, or some other form of acting out. It could also just be that once-in-a-while sex with men is something that a man might want, and means nothing more than that. As Freud is often said to have remarked, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!"


This blog is excerpted from "Gay Guise" by Joe Kort. The full version is available in the July/August 2007 issue, Is Your Waiting Room Still Waiting?: How to Create a Successful Private Practice.

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Topic: Sex & Sexuality

Tags: 2007 | childhood trauma | childhood traumas | gay | gay clients | gay men | love | love and relationships | male sexuality | post-traumatic stress disorder ptsd | sex | Sex & Sexuality | sex life | sex therapist | sexual abuse | sexual fantasies | sexual orientation | sexuality | Trauma | trauma therapy | Traumatic memory | traumatized clients

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Saturday, June 3, 2017 2:38:23 PM | posted by Bryce
Why Joe Kort and others want to dance around sexual orientation in order to give adult males an out by letting them have their cake and eat it two, pun intended, leaving "gay" men to do the fighting and be the target of violence, death, job loss, ostracism, hate, scorn, etc.

Saturday, June 24, 2017 10:30:28 PM | posted by Kimberly Brooks Mazella LPC
While I appreciate Dr. Kort's thoughts on the topic of male sexuality, I cannot emphasize enough how confusing and inadvertently painful some of his comments are to the population I work with almost exclusively -- individuals and couples in which a spouse comes out as (or is discovered to be) LGBT. The normalization of "forbidden desires" is healthy and helpful to our clients, and I strongly support Dr. Kort in that. However, I interact with hundreds of "straight spouses" every day online and in my office, as well as with some of their LGBT partners, and I see firsthand how articles like this can muddy the waters and make navigating a couple's "new normal" all that more challenging. In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I am a former straight spouse myself, having been briefly married in the 80s to a closeted gay man. My experience, while painful, gave me a depth of insight into both sides of the equation. I supported, and continue to support, my ex-husband and his thirty-year relationship with his partner. He was in tremendous pain trying to live the life expected of him, when in fact he never should have married me or anyone else. But I got off relatively easy because of the short length of the marriage and the fact that we did not have children. I have no dog in this fight one way or another because I genuinely understand and have empathy for both sides. In Simon LeVay's book, "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why," the author cites several studies of male sexual arousal. His conclusion is that "calling oneself bisexual is often a transient phase on the path to an openly gay male identity," as the men in these studies were primarily aroused by other men. My clinical experience is consistent with this finding. The anecdotal evidence suggests that married men who engage in same-sex contact may initially identify as bisexual or bi-curious, but when all is said and done, they ultimately identify as homosexual. (Let me clarify that I am NOT making a statement as to the existence of true bisexuality; I am speaking only of married men who identify as bi.) To suggest, for example, that your average heterosexual man who craves anal stimulation but is embarrassed to request it from his female partner would then seek it out from another man defies logic. Certainly there are women who would be happy to satisfy that desire; why wouldn't a heterosexual man reach out to a willing woman? Quoting Dr. Kort from another article, "the anus doesn't have a sexual orientation." Quite true. However, it is attached to someone who does. The devastation for the straight spouse is real, and is only amplified when others don't "get it." I see women who have been married 20, 30, 40+ years to closeted men. The stories are all different...and all the same. The sex often stops after the birth of the last child. The women wonder what's wrong with them, why they're not desirable. A wife might stumble across M4M penis pictures on Craigslist or multiple visits to male porn sites on her husband's computer, or even an ad placed by the husband himself. There might be a new male friend who appears on the scene. It is the rare scenario in which the husband initiates a conversation about his sexuality or homosexual fantasies prior to acting on them. Informed consent prior to marriage almost never happens. Women have told me that some therapists suggest they "accommodate" their husbands' sexual experimentation outside of the marriage. Some women do make space for it, and the marriage is able to withstand the infidelity, although this scenario is relatively rare long-term. By and large, the coming out of a partner within a marriage is a trauma for the straight spouse, particularly when accompanied by the realization that they gave their best years to someone who was likely not, in fact, ever attracted to them. Is anything real? Who can I trust, if not my spouse? What's wrong with me that I didn't see it? Am I fundamentally unlovable? Am I not a good wife for not wanting him to "experiment?" In her book "When Husbands Come Out of the Closet," Jean Schaar Gochros described the straight spouse experience as one of "unique isolation." Too often that isolation is even felt in a therapist's office when the emotional experience of both husband and wife are not given equal validation and weight. This can be due to the therapist's lack of experience with the topic; their own beliefs and knowledge about human sexuality; or even one's own orientation and sexual history, all of which can create a blind spot. For example, a therapist acquaintance once asked me, "If your husband is bisexual, how did it feel that he didn't choose you?" A psychiatrist I was working with at the time of my divorce stated that homosexuality "should be treated like it is in Russia, where it's against the law." Clearly, the opportunity for clinicians to inflict additional trauma is great. The narrative around sexual attraction and sexual orientation needs to be expanded to make room for the straight spouse voice. Before closeted married men are encouraged to explore or otherwise go outside of the marriage for sexual gratification, there needs to be a frank and honest conversation with the person a divorce attorney once indelicately referred to as "the left behind spouse." Even if they are not physically present in the therapy office, the impact on their needs, feelings, and well-being should always be considerations. I support every individual's right to live an authentic life. But as we are encouraging our clients to do just that, I believe that as clinicians we also have a responsibility to explore with our clients not only the impact on themselves...but also the collateral damage that will inevitably result. Yes, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." But cigars can burn. Are you prepared to help minimize the scarring?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 11:18:54 AM | posted by Paul
Say hi to Aslan for me, would you Joe?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 1:00:30 PM | posted by Wanda
Joe Kort is simply fulla nonsense. He gives new meaning to allowing the closet to continue. The machinations a straight spouse endures at the whim of their gay ones are inexcusable. They are liars and manipulators of the first order. And they'll spin their web of bullshit for the pure reason of keeping their secret. It mostly becomes a game to the gay one. How far they go means little to them and the emotional trauma they inflict on people they claim to love is truly horrific. Until you've walked the straight spouses life...which you cannot and won't. Stop feeding this drivel to the public at large.

Monday, December 11, 2017 11:19:33 AM | posted by Chip
Although it is not convenient for many people to hear, Joe Kort has some very valid points here. Certainly, there are men hiding in marriages who are predominantly gay and who would rather live their lives as such were it not for the social pressures involved. And many of these men may term themselves "curious" or "bi" as they come to terms with their sexuality. So, yes in these cases, they are misusing the label "bisexual" as a placeholder for "gay" when they finally get around to it. However, there are men, and a great many of them it seems, who genuinely prefer to be with women but who are comfortable or drawn to some contact with men on occasion. These men are self-aware and comfortable with their identities, which are stable over time. While these men may not be fully "straight", to simply call these men "gay" is invalid and is a cop out. Note that these men are men are capable of refraining from acting on these feelings can be as faithful as any other partner. Many 100% straight men may fantasize about another woman occasionally, but not all of them betray their spouses. The same is true for the guy who has an occasional same-sex fantasy. Denying that these men exist does not make them go away.