Ask the Doctors: Questioning My Sexual Orientation

Dear Doctors:

I don’t really know where to start, and I don’t want to make this too long, because the issue might not be as complicated as it seems to me. I’m 24 years old, and this is my first year as a graduate student. For most of my life I identified as heterosexual, just a few boyfriends, my last relationship ending sometime last year after long bouts of long-distance, etc. From the very beginning of my sexual life, I had trouble with sex – this is a bit hard to explain, because I’ve explained it in so many different ways without being sure that I’ve ever actually gotten it right: I loved kissing and cuddling, but when it came down to vaginal sex, I had intimacy problems and panic attacks. These came and went, and ultimately got better, but never really fully went away. My senior year of college I fell in love with one of my best friends, who was a girl – this precipitated a big internal crisis, but nothing came of it, because my friend insisted she was nothing but straight. Later I fell in love with another female friend. So I guess I started to somehow feel that I could identify as bisexual, but somehow this didn’t really strike me as important, especially since I was in a relationship with a man. Last semester I fell in love with a close friend who is female – and though the feeling was mutual, she says she’s not in a place to try a relationship with me. During this time I got together for the first time with a girl, but this was while I was in love with my other friend, so it fizzled out fast.

I guess what I feel right now, is really, really confused. Frankly, I feel that I might be gay – I know that sexuality is complicated, and it fluctuates, and it can change, but I’m surrounded by people for whom it seems like it doesn’t change. Until this past year, I’ve been a person who was generally mainly emotionally attracted to people – but ever since last semester, when I fell in love with my friend, I’ve started to notice women. For the first time, I feel really sexual – as in, sexually attracted to people, and not just as a result of emotional attraction. At the same time, I’m worried I’m making something up in my head, I’m worried I’m too old for this, and I’m also worried that I’ll never find anyone. When I go to LGBTQ gatherings or parties, I’m always alone and I feel like a creep. I’m not shy by any means, and I think I’m fairly nice and interesting, but I feel like I don’t really understand “the scene” at all. And even though suddenly I feel like I’m hearing all about how complicated and fluid sexuality is, I feel like right now I am not interested in men at all – but maybe this is another excuse not to trust them? A friend of mine with whom I talked to about this, said that he thought that I might simply be expressing my disillusionment with relationships by changing identities. I guess what’s really difficult about this is the feeling that suddenly I don’t feel like I know myself at all, like there is nothing stable, even about myself, that I can hold on to. This has the potential to be exciting, but right now, it’s all very, very lonely.

Do you know any books or materials or resources or techniques that might help me in trying to sort this out for myself?

I would appreciate any advice you would be able to give. Sorry for the onslaught of information.

–Confused and Alone

 

A lot of information is actually better for creating a reply that might be useful to you, so no apologies needed! First I want to tell you that your experiences and feelings could point, fairly simply, to your coming out as a lesbian — certainly as bisexual, if it’s the case that you continue to stay attuned to erotic attractions to men as well. Your early experiences with guys — the panic attacks and lack of erotic comfort and intimacy — could certainly be the responses of someone who doesn’t want to have heterosexual sex, or at least not intercourse. This might mean that you don’t want it because you don’t desire it on a very fundamental level (i.e., you don’t really experience heterosexual attraction), or simply that you were with guys who couldn’t help you feel comfortable or sufficiently aroused, or you knew you weren’t ready for intercourse yet. All of those explanations are possible — and in fact, another thing to consider is whether you’ve ever had negative sexual experiences as a younger girl, because abuse, rape, and other painful or problematic experiences can evoke distress or resistance too. I have even met people who have grown up female whose issues with heterosexual response were confusing until they realized that they were transgendered, and their reaction to assuming a female role with men was part of the problem, not the actual men themselves.

So in some cases, realizing that you never really liked straight sex could lead to a fairly straightforward conclusion: that must mean you’re gay. It may or may not be that simple. Plenty of very heterosexual women have had mostly (or exclusively) bad sex as teens and young women; that’s pretty common. They still continue to feel attraction to and fall in love with men, because that’s how their desire is wired. But they don’t realize until somewhat later in life that sex can feel very different — and very much better — than it did when they were in high school or college.

I am not, by saying this, trying to urge you into a continued openness to men as sex partners or lovers — I think being exclusively gay is perfectly splendid, as is being exclusively straight, provided it’s what someone wants, not just an unappreciated default setting. And being bisexual: also lovely! Or trisexual, pansexual, just sexual… whatever eventually you determine is the right identity for you. It certainly does look like most people already have that figured out, I know — but many people around you may be grappling with similar questions, may not in fact feel that their orientation is solid, known to them, able to be part of the public image they present. I have met people who have come out as queer, trans, lesbian or gay or bi from junior high age all the way into their fifties or sixties, and have heard about people who’ve come out younger and older. This culture does not make it simple, between homophobia and compulsory heterosexuality, to understand difference, even difference in yourself. But there are many resources, and people of all orientations living good, satisfying, pleasurable lives full of love.

Now let me try to come at your question from a different direction. If I’ve read your letter correctly, you have begun speaking about your attractions to other women, and you’ve sought to make contact with LGBT community. As you’ve discovered, this can be difficult to do. Getting crushes on straight women is good practice as far as exploring erotic or loving feelings for a woman is concerned, but not usually so good when it comes to finding a girlfriend (or even exploring those erotic feelings with her, on the physical rather than the fantasy plane). Not every woman who seems straight actually is — you’re (probably) not, for example, even if others may still continue to think of you in default heterosexual mode, especially likely if you haven’t cut your hair, started walking around campus holding hands with other women, or sporting gay message t-shirts. (These are not required for you to be a lesbian, by the way! They do tend to make it easier for others to recognize you as queer, one reason so many people adopt dress and behavior modes that signal their participation in the “club.”)

So — ironically, sometimes it’s easier to come out as gay or bisexual to your non-queer friends; even if they are not logical girlfriend material, unless they are homophobic, they may take you more seriously than queer-identified peers to whom you still have to prove yourself. They may see you as straight, and that very perception may stand in the way of fitting into the LGBT community and actually finding a girlfriend. Let me share with you that this ALL happened to me in college, and it took several years from me to go from bi-curiosity to lesbian identity (and then back out the other side to bisexual identity, in my case, because it became clear to me that I still did love and desire some men.) And as you are experiencing now, this difficulty breaking into lesbian culture continues, for some of us, to happen today. You might think about whether it would be worth a style change that allows you to send a more recognizable message to your new peer group, but please be assured that you do not have to look or act a certain way to be gay or bisexual. Be yourself, and the people who appreciate who you are will come find you — maybe not immediately, maybe not even in the town where you currently reside, but you’ll find the right friends and lover/s. And it is far from unusual for a woman in her teens or twenties to find a first girlfriend who is not already out as a lesbian: two heretofore-straight women finding each other and getting into a relationship definitely happens, and sometimes couples like this don’t ever bother finding the lesbian community.

Another wrinkle: Depending on where you are, and depending on whether you ultimately feel like you probably are bisexual or are more likely lesbian, it may be hard to fit into the local community if it’s one where lesbians don’t accept bi women. In some places this is barely an issue any more; in other places it continues to be a real barrier to bisexuals who want to fit in with the larger queer community. My advice: Don’t be who you’re not, and concentrate on finding intimates in the places where you feel most comfortable and at home. For some people that’s on the dance floor, for others it’s in the chem lab — basically, devoting yourself to things that interest you (extracurricularly if you have time, in your studies and later your work life as well) puts you in a position in which you can shine and impress others, where you can feel the most comfortable and competent and engaged — and these are qualities that allow you to attract other people. Going to a gay club because it’s the only logical place to go to meet women may, ironically, make you feel more isolated, especially if you go by yourself.

Some strategies for changing your situation vis-à-vis this dilemma include: seek to meet friendly gay guys, not other women (that way you’ll know people when you go out to campus clubs, the gay bar, etc., and they can help integrate you into the community, especially if the women and men socialize together in your town); try to meet women without looking at them as potential girlfriends (and you’ll meet other women through them, plus you can go to the queer places in a group); figure out where and whether bisexuals congregate where you are; seek or start a coming-out group where you can read and discuss things with others who are also considering sexual orientation issues;  tell your friends you’re looking to meet new people, which may lead to an introduction to someone you don’t already know; and find out which social causes and organizations are most likely to be populated with the kind of women you like and relate to, and go offer to help out with their projects.

It might be worth keeping a journal as you go; another option might be to have a few sessions with a counselor who’s good with sexual identity issues. Both journaling and therapist (or support group) discussions tend to let you spiral down into the issues that seem insurmountable at first, and begin to find your own answers.

Reading other women’s stories might be valuable: here’s one place to start. The LesbianLife section at About.com is a good place to explore in general. There are definitely subcultural interests and issues that, if you’re up on them, will give you more stuff to chat with other women about as you’re meeting them — this might not be relevant to meeting random non-gay-identified women, necessarily, but if you are going to try to socialize within the lesbian community it might make a difference to familiarize yourself with issues and perspectives others are likely to be conversant with. Here are some other places to do that:

Autostraddle

After Ellen

Lesbian.com

Curve magazine

And there’s a website called The Lesbian Question (remember I said, above, that I could demonstrate to you how far from alone you are? — several questions there have some resonance with yours). This is one of those crowdsourced sites where the answers come from other readers. It’s like being able to get advice from peers without leaving your room.

Now, one more thing. As I implied above, there are lots of ways to be a lesbian or a bisexual woman. Some radical dyke or queer-identified folks are spending none of their time keeping up on TV shows with lesbian characters or planning to go on a women’s cruise. So the kind of woman with whom you’ll fit best will be a woman with whom you also resonate culturally in other ways. If you’re a radical feminist, or an Occupy activist, or a vegan evangelist, you’ll find queer women who match up politically (and who most likely meet and gather apart from lesbians in sororities, dyke softball players, and those pursuing MBAs).

I don’t have a complete reading list for you, though below I’m going to note a couple of things Good Vibes carries that might be interesting for you. But besides the webmagazines, I found a pretty fabulous site called the Lesbrary, with reviews of books by or about lesbians. I liked the GLBT Literature site,  though it’s run by a gay man, and one of the cultural distinctions you find among lesbians has to do with how close and connected they feel (or don’t) to gay men, and how much they identify with LGBT community versus women’s community. If you’re a voracious reader, this site is great for collecting information about book awards that are LGBT-related.

While I don’t exactly like the title of the book I’m about to tell you about, it might have some relevant and supportive info for you and it comes well-recommended: The Straight Girl’s Guide to Sleeping with Chicks.

Sexual Intimacy for Women is a guidebook that addresses the issues of same-sex lovers, and might be worth reading even if you don’t have a girlfriend yet.

Just in case there has been sexual trauma in your past, you might wish to read Healing Sex — there is a video version available as well. Here’s a brief interview with Staci Haines, its author.

And — do you have access to LGBT Studies or Women’s Studies classes? Always a great place to learn and meet likely friends and girlfriends.

Best of luck!


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Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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