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I loved him... then he told me he once had sex with a guy.

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claudine_2345 asks:

I'm 19 years old, and I've been dating a guy who's 22. We've been seeing each other for a long time, about a year or so. Recently we were having a close talk, admitting things to each other we hadn't told anyone before, and he admitted to me that he had experimented with another guy when he was 16 by having anal/oral sex with him. At the moment, I didn't act shocked or anything, even though I was going crazy in my head. I've never experimented nor have I wanted to with the same sex because I'm completely straight. It's been a month since this happened, and I feel as if I don't love him anymore. I don't want to move forward with this relationship and it hurts because he's perfect in every other way. Am I making a mistake by breaking up with him? I just can't stop thinking that if he were truly straight, he wouldn't have gone so far with another guy, or have been able to finish (orgasm) during the situation. I'm just really, really disgusted by him now. Please help if you can, I know this situation is really weird.

Heather Corinna replies:

Many people who identify as heterosexual have had some kind of sexual or affectional feelings or interactions with someone of the same sex, especially in childhood or adolescence.

When Alfred Kinsey's data was published in the late 1940's in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a cultural ruckus ensued, particularly around the data regarding same-sex sex or attraction. His data in that book, collected by interviewing thousands of males across the United States, showed that, "nearly 46% of the male subjects had "reacted" sexually to persons of both sexes in the course of their adult lives, and 37% had at least one same-sex experience." That was a much higher number than the public expected or wanted to accept. Kinsey's studies also found that when it came to people's sexual experiences and feelings, not just how they outwardly identified, people of all genders who were absolutely exclusively heterosexual or homosexual -- who had, per their own reports, NEVER had any sexual feelings or experiences outside those exclusive spheres -- were the rarest groups there were. If you yourself are in that group so far, do know that's more the exception than the rule, particularly lifelong and if we're including people's sexual history in childhood and adolescence, where, on the whole, people more often tend to be more flexible in their feelings of attraction.

I can't know exactly where your disgust is coming from, but in the case that it's about anyone not being heterosexual or having had any kind of same-sex sexual or romantic relationship or experience, I want to be transparent with you before I say more about all of this.

I'm not heterosexual. I identify as queer and have for around 25 years. I have been attracted to and have had relationships with people of more than one gender for as long as I have been having those feelings and relationships, since very early adolescence.

I don't think there's anything disgusting about me or my sexual and romantic history, nor about other people whether they identify as queer, bisexual, gay, lesbian, questioning or otherwise or as heterosexual; whether they do or do not have same-sex experiences and relationships in their history. I don't find anything strongly troubling about anyone's sexual history so long as the kinds of sex they have engaged in have not intentionally harmed other people or themselves and been something they only did with others who gave consent. What I think and what I know, both from my life and from many years of working in human sexuality and relationships, is that orientation and sexual history are massively diverse, just like the way we look is, just like our personalities or skills or talents are. I also know from the field I work in that people's sexual histories don't always "match" their own ideas or the ideas of others when it comes to some or all parts of their identities, and that when it comes to our sexuality, anything we feel is and will ever be 100% certain probably won't be.

People who work in sexuality and sexual health, whatever their own sexual identity and history, tend to be in agreement on those kinds of statements. We can't do the work we do and not honor the reality of this diversity, including the diversity within every identity and orientation where there are people who conduct their sexual lives with care and respect for themselves and others and people who don't. That's not exclusive to any one orientation, and care and respect is the axis where we tend to judge what's healthy and what isn't in the work of sexology and sexual health and well-being. We also can't someone avoid seeing the way that bias against those who are not heterosexual, or who are outside other social "norms," at any given time (social norms tend to be fickle, and often change over time) harms many people very deeply, even including straight people like yourself. What I see when I read something like this is what sounds like a relationship you care a lot about, with someone who cares enough to be fully honest with you, that may go down the tubes because of bias, I see one way bias hurts everyone.

I want to let you know that I'm not going to judge your character here. I understand bias often isn't something someone chooses, and don't think it's some kind of essential part of who someone is. I understand and know that negative attitudes about others are often learned when people are very young, without the information or filter to know them to be biased, and that unlearning them can take some real effort and time. Even finding out one has them to unlearn sometimes doesn't happen for a long time, especially for people who haven't had queer people or allies as parts of their families or communities. I am always somewhat uncomfortable answering questions like this, as some of the statements you've made don't make me feel good, just as you may feel uncomfortable with me being the person to answer it, but maybe we can both figure that's a discomfort we both can sit with to each make efforts to best accept and care about all people, even when anyone makes us uncomfortable or challenges our own feelings, experiences or ideas.

In part due to the physiological and chemical changes of puberty, adolescence and the years around it are usually a huge time of sexual and interpersonal development. It tends to be the time when people start to try and figure out who they are sexually and what they might want in sexual relationships. For many people, that involves sexual or romantic experiences with people outside their same sex, including pre-puberty. As a former early childhood educator, it was always clear to me that children often pursue or engage in some kinds of same-sex sexual or physical experimentation many won't even remember later in life. You may have even done so yourself, believe it or not.

The American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry explains what I'm talking about here:

Growing up is a demanding and challenging task for every adolescent. One important aspect is forming one's sexual identity. All children explore and experiment sexually as part of normal development. This sexual behavior may be with members of the same or opposite sex. For many adolescents, thinking about and/or experimenting with people of the same sex may cause concerns and anxiety regarding their sexual orientation. For others, even thoughts or fantasies may cause anxiety. These feelings and behavior do not necessarily mean an individual is homosexual or bisexual.

The experiences and relationships we have in every phase of life give us information about who we are, and what and who we may or may not like, want or have interest in. Many people don't go about that like some kind of intentional fact-finding mission: rather, folks tend to follow the feelings and interests they have and see where they lead them and how they feel about them. Some people have a very strong sense of what their orientation is from childhood through adulthood: some for their whole lives, some without ever experimenting outside that orientation's bounds or without having many -- sometimes without any -- sexual relationships or experiences within it. In other words, there are some straight people who feel strongly certain they are straight who have never had a sexual relationship with any partner at all. Same for some queer people. There are also people who aren't so sure, at any given time of life, and who become more sure through their experiences, or seek out experiences to try and find out. There are people who have had a wide diversity of sexual relationships, experiences and attractions for 50 years and still don't feel they know what their orientation is. There's no right or wrong in any of those scenarios, just ways we're all different as people, living different lives with different opportunities, experiences and arcs.

Orgasm provides only limited information about a person's romantic or sexual feelings. Orgasm is one way our bodies respond to nerve stimulus, usually a combination of physical and mental stimulation that is frequently sexual, but not always. Last week, I explained to another user that some rape victims orgasm during rape, despite not having sexual feelings, not being attracted to the person raping them, and very much not wanting their rapes to be happening. People also frequently reach orgasm during masturbating (more often for most than with partners, even), and the fantasies people have while masturbating are not always indications of something that person actually wants in real life, even though they stimulate in such a way as to play a part in orgasm. Some people have orgasms with partners they can't even believe they're sleeping with in the first place, because they know they strongly dislike those people. There are also a lot of people who have very strong feelings towards a partner but don't or can't experience orgasm with them. Orgasm is neither a valid proof or lack of proof about our feelings for people.

You might also want to know that an awful lot of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or queer only had opposite-sex relationships and experimentation through childhood and adolescence; some even decades into adulthood. Just like it would not have been accurate to figure that if they had sex with only people of a different sex or gender, they must be straight even if they feel and say otherwise, it's not accurate to figure that if your boyfriend had sex with one guy and says he's straight, that experience tells you more than his own words, the whole of his experiences and his own sense of identity.

The only reliable way we can know what orientation someone is is based on what they tell us, ideally coming from an honest self-assessment of their feelings at that point in their lives. You tell me you're straight, so I believe you. Unless you told me you doubted your orientation yourself, I'd believe you no matter what your sexual history was. I'd do that both because I trust your own sense of self, and because I know that our histories are a big part of how we find out who we are, and I'd trust whatever information you took away from yours in this respect. Given how honest your boyfriend was with you about his history, I'd say it sounds like you can believe whatever orientation he says he feels he is. I think you can also expect honest answers from him if you ask him what he wants, and for whom he currently has feelings, a discussion I'd suggest you have in you're serious about this relationship rather than just bolting out of fear or making assumptions.

We all get to choose who we do and don't get and stay involved with, and we all get to have our own criteria in that. While I would encourage you to take a look at any homophobia you might have in general, because I'm not of the mind that anything based in bias makes for great criteria when it comes to fulfilling relationships, if you have a criteria that's about only wanting to be with someone both heterosexual and who has never, ever had any same-sex sexual experiences, you absolutely get to have that criteria. But for both of your sakes, given it sounds like you've really valued this relationship, I think some honest self-assessment first, rather than just ditching the whole deal, is a good idea.

Given your reaction, I'm sure you can imagine there are people who would react just as strongly, some of whom lash out with verbal abuse, physical attacks or through abandonment. Men are often particularly vulnerable: our culture right now tends to be more accepting of women who have had same-sex sexual experiences than of men. So, his disclosing this to you was a big deal. It certainly showed that he wants to have a high level of honesty with you, and also showed that he trusts you and is willing to be vulnerable with you. He's going to remain very vulnerable in this, so I'd urge you to bear that in mind in how you two talk, how you treat him, and how you enact any choice you make with this moving forward.

Before you can talk to him about your feelings, and have a sense of what choice is going to be best for you in this, you're going to need to know what those feelings are and have a grip on where they're coming from. Did you grow up hearing or getting the sense that same-sex sex was disgusting, or that only opposite-sex sex was acceptable? Did you ever have any fears or worries about your own orientation? Does his previous experience make you feel uncomfortable, insecure or threatened in your own gender? Are you having some fears around this like that he may want to leave your relationship for a male partner, or a fear that you are in some kind of competition with men for his attention you worry you won't be able to win? Those are some common fears, reactions and basis for feeling disgusted like you do, all, some or none of which may be yours. I'd advise you give yourself some time to think through this deeply and assess where these feelings are coming from before you make a decision or talk to him.

It may help to talk through this with someone before you talk about it with your boyfriend, or while you do, if you choose to continue the relationship. Working out these feelings often takes processing over time, and the help of people who accept both of your realities and won't judge either of you. You're more than welcome to come have conversations with us over at our message boards, but you have other options, too. You could talk to a counselor or therapist about this. You might even see about looking into a local PFLAG meeting: even if both of you are straight, I think some exposure to people who aren't, and to their families -- some of whom have had the same reactions as you -- might help you out a lot. Looking at the guide to being a straight ally at this site might also help you unpack some of your feelings and start to recognize misconceptions.

You may need to work through your idea that he was once perfect, and now he isn't. None of us are perfect. Not him, not me, not you. If you thought he was perfect, recognize that was not a fair expectation of him or anyone else who's human. We can't be perfect. We all tend to have things we need to work on and places we need to grow. All of us also tend to have internalized bias of some kind, sometimes in places that surprise us, that we didn't see coming, or that we don't even know we had until we found it triggered by something. All of us will have some part of our histories or who we are that someone else won't be comfortable with or used to. It might help to remember that he is the same person you have known and cared about throughout, with this part of his past a part of who he is and was before you knew about it. It may even be that this part of his past influenced something you really like about him now, for all you know.

I do want to check in with one possibility: if you went from deeply loving someone to feeling like you don't love them at all in nanoseconds, it may be that your feelings were not all that strong to begin with and this relationship was not something you were all that invested in, after all. In other words, maybe you were looking for a way out of this without being aware of your desire to end the relationships? To go from being WAY into someone and loving them deeply to radically different feelings because of something in the past like like this is a huge change, so if you have had that kind of massive shift, it may be it's less of a shift than you thought, if you catch my drift. It may be this relationship is one you feel done with regardless, and the way you felt about this event was how you got in touch with that. If that's the case, then moving away from this relationship is probably your best bet, I'd just be sure to do your partner a good turn and be honest that this isn't just about his past experience, but about other feelings you've had.

But if that doesn't seem sound to you, if you do deeply love this person and very much want to be with them, and vice-versa, I have some more advice.

Some people think of relationships as having only two settings: on or off. But those aren't the only two that there are, especially when we're deeply invested in a relationship. We also have the ability to make adjustments. We can adjust our model of relationship, like by changing the boundaries or rules, like spending more or less time together, communicating in different ways, or to making it more or less sexually exclusive. We can change our type of relationship, like by shifting something from a romantic or sexual relationship to a platonic friendship or more familial relationship. We can also push a pause button if and when we need everything to stop for a bit so we can get grounded to figure out how we're feeling, where we stand and what we want. For example, if you need some time to figure out what you're feeling and where it's coming from, and what you want and need, you can ask your partner to put everything on hold for a few days, weeks or even longer if you need that time. All of these kinds of adjustments are things we'll need to talk through with a partner and negotiate: we can't make those kinds of decisions for both of us by ourselves like we can when we just up and walk out. But if we have been seriously invested and engaged, having a relationship where people are truly connected, then we'll want to communicate throughout any changes and we'll want to work things like this out together.

Once you have a sense of where these feelings are coming from, and what fears you're feeling with them, fill him in, being honest about your reaction as kindly as you can, taking responsibility for your own feelings. In other words, unless he told you he had no partners at all before, or told you he'd given you his whole sexual history when he had left this out, this isn't about his having done anything wrong. It seems to primarily be about a bias you have, and likely fears stemming from it. So, when you talk, you'll want to be caring and speak with integrity, taking responsibility for your own ideas and feelings, rather than assigning his past or feelings as disgusting. In other words, you felt disgust: that doesn't mean he was or is disgusting.

Obviously, if you have strong feelings of revulsion around him because of this past experience that you do not feel you can get over any time soon, or at all, then this relationship probably isn't going to be a good one for either of you. That's a big barrier to both of you feeling good about yourselves and each other. This relationship may or may not be the place for working your feelings out: it may be too loaded in this context. As well, your partner may or may not feel comfortable working through this with you since the feelings of disgust you're having are towards him. Most of us want to be in intimate relationships where we feel accepted, rather than where we have to work to earn someone's acceptance we're close to, so when he knows how you feel, he may feel more comfortable pursuing serious relationships with someone who doesn't have that bias right from the start. Again, we all get to have our own criteria for what we want in relationships. This will obviously be something you two will need to talk about, and see how you both feel and what you each want. In serious relationships when people have all been good to each other, I'll always advise talking through a possible split, rather than just cutting and running, leaving someone in the lurch.

If, on the other hand, you think you might be able to work this out, if he feels comfortable being with you in that process, and if you deeply love each other and value this relationship a lot, I'd say it sounds worth a try. Sometimes we just can't grow enough at a given time, or in a given situation, to keep or pursue something good, and that always stinks. But what stinks a lot more is realizing later we ditched or missed a good thing when we could have grown in it, and when doing so would have really benefitted us and the people we care about.

One of the best things relationships offer us are opportunities for growth. Getting and being close to someone who isn't just like us, who is going to come to the relationship with a different history, a different personality and a range of other differences is one of the ways we can grow in relationships, because in them, we can learn how to understand, love and accept people besides ourselves. Bias -- whether it's homophobia, racism, classism, sexism, transphobia or other types -- is ultimately a lack of empathy for other people, a lack of acceptance for others and the ability to see different people as just as human as we are, as worthy of all the good stuff we are. In my book, for those of us who aspire to be most compassionate, loving and humane people we can be, if and when we find we have biases, we'll always want to work on addressing, unlearning and outgrowing them.

I don't think there are right or wrong choices in this, beyond doing all you can to treat your current partner and this situation with care and sensitivity and beyond being very honest with yourself and each other. Whether or not you want to continue this relationship, whether or not you can currently handle his sexual history doesn't make you a good or a bad person in my book. I think the best choice for you in this, and the one with the most integrity, is about what feels best for both of you once everyone's cards are honestly and kindly on the table, and about what each of you truly feels capable of and wants at this time. I do hope that in time, for your own sake and the sake of others, you can feel more accepting of all of our diversity, but just like everyone else with anything else, what pace that happens at can only be one that works for you, and that's always okay.

written 26 Aug 2010 . updated 27 Aug 2010

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