Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"Straight" Boys and Man Love

According to a study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, ten percent of New York City men identifying as "heterosexual" have had sex with a man in the last year. This sheds light on four problems: the overdependence on self-identification in sexual orientation studies, the failure to adequately acknowledge the disconnect between sexual orientation and sexual activity, the prevalence of a disorder known as ego-dystonic sexual orientation, and the mainstream's refusal to acknowledge these problems.

The third problem, the prevalence of ego-dystonic sexual orientation, especially amongst lesbian, gay, and bisexual people is consistently ignored by the mainstream media. Rather than offering a view into the complexities inherent in sexual identity, the mainstream frames the sexual orientation debate around false controversies of nature v. nurture, choice, lifestyle, and whether sexual orientation can be changed. The problems with self-identification and our false correlation of activity with identity rest solidly on our problems with addressing ego-dystonic sexual orientation.

So, what is ego-dystonic sexual orientation? EDSO is an adjustment disorder that emerges when a person's sexual orientation conflicts with his or her ideal self-image. Our "ideal self-image" is built upon a variety of factors: individual personality, the status of our mental health, social expectations, religious ideals, class identity, gender attitudes, and cultural background.

In the realm of sexual orientation, the ideal self-image relies heavily on gender attitudes and the mores and expectations of our society regarding the primacy of heterosexuality. In other words, from the earliest moments of consciousness, we take in messages that girls like boys and boys like girls. The meanings and expectations attached to being male or female is heavily dependent on the idealized heterosexual relationship. From Snow White and her prince to Rapunzel and her prince to Cinderella and her, well, prince, the love story between the beautiful, innocent maid and the knight in shining armor is central to developing our own sexual and gender identities.

What do you do if you're a girl who'd rather be the prince who gets to rescue the damself in distress? Or a boy who'd rather be rescued by the knight in shining armor? What if you're a girl who wants to be rescued by another girl? Or a boy who wants to rescue another boy? Usually, you learn to sublimate those desires to the expectation that someday adulthood will make you a "real" man or woman with all that that entails. These feelings, once experienced without question or consideration, may become objects of shame as you become more and more aware of how "unacceptable" they are. But, you are assured, you'll grow out of it.

Awaiting the day that you finally "bloom," you learn to pass, to conceal your authentic self beneath the socially acceptable facade. Of course, you're never really aware of "why" you have these unacceptable feelings or "why" you feel like things don't quite fit. The "why" questions and their answers generally come with puberty, as your body begins sending unmistakable signals that there's trouble in paradise.

Coming to terms with being gay or bi is a matter of nature trumping nurture. If you're lucky, that transition (while troubling and difficult)passes rather smoothly. If not, the clash between your ego's ideal and your reality sparks chaos and disorder: ego-dystonic sexual orientation.

This disorder may prevent you from acknowledging reality even to yourself. Denial, the attempt to change one's sexual orientation, self-destructive thoughts/feelings, depression, rebellion, alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, self-mutilation, and suicide are the inevitable consequences.

EDSO is experienced by people of all sexual orientations, however, it is most prevalent amongst homosexuals due to what I've described above. In fact, EDSO was once referred to as ego-dystonic homosexuality for that very reason.

So, it is no surprise that men who identify as heterosexual are out gallavanting with men, convincing themselves that this has no effect on their "real" sexual orientation. After all, they sleep with women. Perhaps, they're even married with children. It doesn't matter, they assume, if they have to fantasize about guys to do the deed. They're doing it and that "makes them straight."

It's also no surprise that so many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people attempt to "fix" themselves with the "help" of so-called ex-gay movements. Again, it doesn't seem to matter that (as admitted by many "ex-gays") they have to fantasize about members of the same sex in order to function. That still "makes them straight."

Or does it? Sexual orientation and sexual activity would, in an ideal world, be directly related to one another. We would only feel the need to have sex with people we truly desire and can, in the end, truly love. The world is far from ideal.

However we identify, those of us who are biologically gay, lesbian, or bisexual are pressured to conform to societal norms that may lead us to heterosexual activity as a means to conceal the truth from ourselves or others or to change the unchangeable. (Why biologically? The most reliable scientific research shows distinct biological differences between gay people and their straight counterparts in a variety of ways, including differences in brain structure. Examination of the animal kingdom has determined that homosexuality and/or homosexual activity exist in nearly 300 animal species. No known social factor or cluster of factors has ever been reliably connected to sexual orientation. Although there are many more questions to be answered, the nature v. nurture debate has been almost conclusively won by the nature crowd.)

The nature of sexual orientation in a society that priveleges heterosexuality has made it difficult to get accurate information about sexual orientation and sexual activity. This has been further complicated by the fact that most studies focus on either self-identification or self-reporting of sexual activity. Hopefully, studies like this one will force researchers to realize that reliable data can only come from a proper assessment of both self-identification and sexual activity in the context of ego-dystonic sexual orientation.

Maybe, if we're really lucky, the mainstream media will also recognize these truths known to researchers for decades. Perhaps then, they can stop "balancing" the scientifically supported data with the ill-informed and misinformed opinions of those that continue to insist that sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice that can be changed if a person wants it badly enough. Of course, that would require real objectivity, the hard work of source analysis, and the courage to speak the unpopular truth. That'll be the day.

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