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Should I be concerned about his sexuality?

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pagangirl asks:

Although I feel a little ridiculous asking this considering I should be more openminded towards sexuality and experimentation, I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. I started dating a man 10 months ago. I'm 18, he turned 26 around three weeks ago. He was married before, and she left because of her claiming to have been bored in bed and in general. Since the beginning of our relationship, I stated that I am bisexual and have been as long as I could remember. I asked him about his orientation and he told me that he was straight. No rushed answer, no hysteria. So, I believed him.

Months later--two months ago almost--I mentioned that I had heard that one of his friends had had a gay encounter. He shrugged and told me that he himself had experimented when he was 16, and had sex with another guy from school. He had anal sex, oral sex, and watched straight and transgender porn with the other boy (claiming the transgender porn belonged to the friend). He told me he couldn't kiss the other guy, because he felt repulsed, yet was able to perform oral sex on him.

Heather Corinna replies:

(pagangirl's question continued)

To me, my boyfriend had been the perfect picture of masculinity--what I wanted in a man. After this revelation, I feel an aversion to him. I see him differently, and more than anything, I can't get the thought that he's gay out of my mind. I know I should be more open minded about this, but it just keeps circling in my head over and over. I mean, a man who has sex with another man and even goes down on him has to like it, right?

Should I be concerned about his sexuality? We're very serious in our relationship at this point; we've discussed moving in and our wants in life and the future. I don't know if this is an issue with my self-esteem--maybe I'm worrying because I don't think I'm good enough for him to stay? Or perhaps it's the sheer fact that I didn't know and wouldn't have guessed? I'm very confused at this point, but I know that I love and care for him and don't want to leave. How can I get over the fear of his possibly being gay?

There's a lot to unpack here. I'm going to try not to write a novel in response, but I will probably fail.

Let's start by leaving feeling ridiculous at the door. I do think there are some ways you're thinking and some assumptions you're making that aren't sound. But we live, we grow, we learn, and in that process sometimes we think or say some silly stuff. Evolution isn't just about dinosaurs and Darwin: it's also about all of our own emotional and intellectual growth, and that's always an ongoing process at every age.

You asked a loaded question in here I want to start with, which is if you should be concerned about his sexuality. Given how you identify, and because what we apply to one person in a relationship we need to apply to both, the question I'd ask in response is: Should he be concerned about yours? Or your ideas about his? I don't ask that to be sassy, but in hopes of getting to what may be the heart of some misunderstandings about orientation so you can address and clear them.

When and if we are bisexual (which he doesn't identify as in the first place), that may or may not have anything to do with what we want per relationship models in terms of sexual exclusivity. In other words, because someone is bisexual doesn't make them any more or less likely to want monogamy or not than being heterosexual or homosexual would. There are plenty of heterosexual people who don't want to be monogamous or who find that doesn't work for them: there are plenty of bisexual people who do want monogamy and find that's their best model. What our orientation is and what kind of relationship model we want often have little to do with each other.

It can help to remember that heterosexual or homosexual people don't tend to find only ONE person of either the same or opposite sex attractive: being one of those orientations where attraction is solely or primarily to one sex or gender only means that a person's pool of attraction may be smaller than it is for someone who is bisexual. I say may be, because gender isn't the only area where people have preferences or restrictions. People can and do have them around race, shape, size, religion, level of education, location, economic class, hobbies, what language someone speaks; even the way people choose to eat, what hours of the day they are most alert in and if they prefer cats or dogs. A given bisexual person may have many strong preferences in other areas like those while a given heterosexual person has few, resulting in the hetero person actually having a wider net of attraction and a larger dating pool.

Here's the thing though: your guy doesn't identify as bisexual. He had one experience with someone of the same-sex (something common for people of all orientations). Likely based in part on that experience, all his other relationship and sexual experiences and his own emotional and sexual feelings for his 26 years of life, he's come to the conclusion that he's heterosexual. I should also add that men on the serious down-low don't tend to casually disclose same-sex experiences: rather, men trying very hard to hide bisexuality or homosexuality tend to keep those experiences or relationships very deeply hidden. Additionally, male-to-female transgender porn doesn't tend to have a gay male audience (not surprising since MTFs are not male): its consumers are usually heterosexual men.

You asked if, when a man goes down on another man, he has to have liked it. Easy answer: nope.

None of us "has to like" any given thing we try sexually, whether we try it once or eighty times. As well, whether or not we liked one given sexual experience is rarely enough information to figure out something as big as orientation; one person cannot possibly represent a whole gender; one sexual experience cannot possibly represent all of what sex is. That's one of the reasons why we'll often bristle here when someone says they think they might be bi and so they need to try "it" with one person to find out: not only is using a person as a personal identity yardstick pretty ooky, the idea that one sexual experience with one person can tell us all we need to know about all of love and sex with a huge group that person is but one member of just doesn't make any sense. I've had great and not-so-great sexual experiences of many kinds with people of all genders myself, and neither one of the great ones nor one of the not-so-great ones could possibly represent all of who I am or someone else is, nor what either of our sexual identities are.

In other words, I don't think dwelling on the question of whether he liked one experience or not will yield any meaningful information. If you're simply disturbed at the idea he might have enjoyed sex with another man, then we're talking about some bias you need to unpack, which I'll address shortly.

It's perhaps worth positing this: what if he DID like it? So? What would his liking it change? He still identifies the way he does, still draws the conclusions he does about his own orientation and is still the best expert on his own feelings and identity. He also still is able to know if that's something he wants to repeat now or not, and is able to make choices about an exclusive relationship with you right now. If you have had sexual experiences with women you liked, does that change anything on your end when it comes to decisions about your relationship with this guy? Because you enjoyed eating one kind of apple once, does that mean you can't ever totally enjoy the other kinds of apples you have found you liked just as much or more?

Like I said, I don't want to write a novel, but you also said a mouthful when you talked about all of this and masculinity. In short, I'd invite you to unpack some of the ideas you might have about masculinity. There is no "perfect picture" of what that is, and if you had one, it was an ideal, a fantasy, not real life. Men, like women, vary a lot, and so masculinity, like femininity, varies a lot. Everyone's ideas about what those ideas or ideals represent and entail vary widely, so do people's ideas and experiences of what their OWN masculinity and/or femininity is or are. There's no one way to be masculine, nor any right or perfect way to be masculine. And I'm not sure if you were suggesting this or not, but a heterosexual man, or a man who has never had any kind of sex with men, is not, by default, more masculine than men with other experiences. To suggest that suggests that gay or bisexual men are not "real" men, and that ultimate masculinity and femininity must be heterosexual. Suffice it to say, I'd don't agree with that, and as someone bisexual, I'd be surprised if you did. If you do, but only think so about men, that's a mighty double-standard you've got on your hands there. If sex with women doesn't make women less feminine, sex with men doesn't make men less masculine.

One thing I also want to call out is a term you used: "gay encounter." When someone uses a term like that to describe what was, I presume, a same-sex sexual experience, what it implies is that what sex or gender we choose to have any given sexual experience with dictates our orientation, and that's not something that makes much sense. For instance, if and when I'm having sex with a man, I don't see how I could be having a "heterosexual encounter" because I am not, nor have I ever been, a heterosexual person. When a lesbian woman has sex with me, has she had "bisexual" sex? The sex she had with me somehow denied her own orientation and identity and made her something else while we were having it? I feel pretty powerful in bed sometimes, it's true, but I don't think I have to power to alter someone's whole identity and orientation while they're having sex with me.

Bisexual, heterosexual and homosexual aren't terms we can accurately use to describe the sex that we have: those terms are meant to describe personal identity. Identity is how we conceptualize ourselves, and we may choose one of those terms to describe one part of who we are, how we conceptualize ourselves, not what we do or have done. If your boyfriend says he identifies as heterosexual, says he is heterosexual, that is what he knows himself to be. If you say you identify as bisexual, say you are bisexual, that is what you know yourself to be. Sexuality and sexual identity can be somewhat fluid, so later in life either one of you may feel a different identity is a better fit for you, but all you can know -- about yourself and others -- is how you or they identify now. Second-guessing someone's stated orientation based on your assessment or ideas about a certain sexual experience they had, or because an ex of theirs felt bored in bed, just isn't fair or respectful.

You say that you wouldn't have guessed this was part of his sexual history. But I don't know how anyone can somehow guess or intuit much about anyone's sexual history, no matter what it is. No kind of sexual experience or history is something any of us really wears on our face or in our behavior, and I'm wondering if perhaps this isn't another area where you might be bringing some bias to the table. Might you expect men who have had male sexual partners to behave in a certain way? If you do, that's another bias to leave at the door, because it's an unrealistic expectation: men who do or have had sex with men vary all over the place just like men with any other kind of sexual history. I'd also look for double-standards there, too: if you do have that expectation of men, do you have the same of women?

I hear that you're feeling freaked and like his telling you this has radically changed things, or that because he had this experience he isn't who he said he was or who you thought him to be. But what I'd suggest is that if there has been any change, it's in your perceptions, and probably because of some faulty assumptions you made or some unrealistic ideals you're holding him or others up to.

He's the same person you have always known, you just are still getting to know him and you made some assumptions about his sexual history that were not sound. The primary reason he probably didn't mention this to you is that he'd decided it wasn't all that relevant to his own life (understandable since he IDs as straight), and thus, wouldn't be to yours. He also may not have because you still are in a new relationship: he's older than you, so he may have a more vast sexual history than you. Telling it all in the short time you've been together might have been a lot to fit in. He may additionally have assumed it wasn't going to be that big of a deal because you do identify as bisexual, which I think is fair.

One thing I have to remind people of over and over again is that none of us are immune to internalized homophobia, just like none of us are immune to internalized racism, sexism, classism or any kind of -ism or phobia there is. Being a member of a group any of those phobias or biases are about doesn't give us a free pass, either. Plenty of bisexual or homosexual people have and deal with internalized homophobia, biphobia or heterosexism, just like some women have internalized misogyny and some people of color have internalized racism. In fact, sometimes it can be even tougher for us to see any of that bias when we have it, especially if we immediately leap to, and stick to, the idea that we must somehow be magically immune.

In your post, I am seeing some internalized biases. That doesn't mean you're a jerk or a bad person. It just means you, like many people, have some ideas about orientation, male sexuality and masculinity that I think you could stand to look at, unpack and work to adjust. Bias, all by itself, isn't all that dangerous, so long as we have an awareness of it and know it's something we need to manage, work to rid ourselves of, and try very hard not to enact. It's when it's hidden that it can become a real problem, because we can then be thinking with or acting out of bias without even realizing it, sometimes even while claiming we've got none at all. So, the trick is to try and cultivate an awareness of our biases so we can see them when they creep up. Then, when we do, we can identify them as bias or coming from bias, and do a little, "Well, that's a silly thing for me to be thinking, and it's not coming from a sound place," and toss them off. Or, if it's not so easy to shrug off, we can invest our energy in unlearning and getting past our bias.

That said, I'm going to throw something else out there, just as food for thought. It seems unlikely, but what if he IS gay? What if YOU are?

Let's say I'm in a romantic/sexual relationship that I deeply enjoy. It feels good for me and the person I'm with, it's a place of growth, support and love for us both. Later on down the road, my partner figures out that he's gay, and he doesn't want our relationship to be a sexual one anymore: he wants a sexual relationship with someone else of the same sex. So, we switch to being friends. How might that be different from another change in a relationship? It's common for relationships to change over time because it's common for people to change over time. There is absolutely nothing we can do to assure a given relationship will always work, or work in a given model, nor that we or others will stick with a given relationship in a given model for any specific length of time. We can state or enact an intention to stay in a given relationship and relationship model for a given period of time. But I'd suggest valuing that intention and someone working actively and with love to uphold that intention more than whatever the eventual outcome is. No matter what it is that brings about change, change still frequently happens.

If your relationship changed down the road because a partner figured out they were gay, would that be different from it changing because they wanted to be with someone else of the opposite sex, or if they decided they wanted to join the monastery or because they decided they needed to move across the country to go to school or be with family? Or, as was the case with his ex-wife, because she felt bored? Unless one of those things is more personally loaded for you than another, those are all some things that have the same results: they forge a big change in a relationship. No one reason is all that different from another; change can be a challenge no matter the circumstances. We always have to leave room in our heads and heart for growth and change in relationships, and growth and change can be the kind we want or the kind we don't.

That means in any relationship we enter into, we decide if it's beneficial enough for us to invest in it -- and how much we want to invest -- even if somewhere down the road, it changes or goes kablooie. Since that will always be a possibility, that's always something to consider. I think that if a relationship brings you and the other person in it a lot of joy, that if it's healthy, beneficial and supportive, that if it's is a good place for both of you to grow and meets both of your wants and needs at the time it's a relationship very much worth being in, whether it lasts five months or five decades. If it doesn't offer you those things, it may not be worth your emotional investment. A relationship having value is not determined by how long it lasts, or by if no one ever leaves it. It's what actively happens in that relationship while it's going on and what it gives those within it that determines its worth. Not every relationship is worth the emotional risks we take to have it, and we're also not always up to taking those risks at every stage of our lives. What you need to figure out, no matter this guy's orientation (or yours), is where you are with all of that and this relationship, now and when it comes to you making plans for the future.

I feel like I should also ask you to consider if it's possible you're projecting. Do you think an agreement to long-term exclusivity may be an issue for YOU around your sexuality? I ask that not because I think -- because I don't -- that being bisexual means you are inherently less likely to want a monogamous relationship. Rather, often when young women who come here identify as bisexual, it's common that those young women have not yet had any same-sex romantic or sexual relationships. It's normal for us to want to explore sex or partnerships with people, by group or individually, to whom we feel attracted. You haven't said anything to me about your experience with the same-sex, but might you be feeling like that's something you might want to explore in time yourself, or feel was something missing if you can't, and be projecting that concern about yourself unto him? You may also feel less secure or certain about your orientation than he does at this point, and be projecting that unto him: but again, remember that he's had more time to process that than you have.

You also express this might be about your esteem, or worries about your being "good enough" for him to stay. I don't think whether or not someone chooses to stay in a relationship, or chooses to keep a relationship sexually exclusive has much to do with one person being "good enough." What we want and choose in relationships has to do with if our wants and needs are being met, if the other person's are, how we feel in that relationship, how a relationship works in the greater context of our lives, and if that given model of relationship really feels like the right one with a given person at any given time. It's complex, and just not about someone being good enough. Those feelings strike me as feelings you may want to look at, and suggest to me that you might be moving too fast for your comfort, or might want to do some more work on your own esteem first before getting this serious in an intimate relationship.

Talking about cohabitation and beyond after ten months of dating can often be too much too fast, especially if you didn't know this person well or at all before you started dating, or if your own relationship and life experience has been very limited. How about slowing down and spending some more time together before talking about cohabitation and beyond? You may need more time to build trust and communication, more time to see how you two are as a couple, or to develop more self-confidence and autonomy, in order to feel secure and right with taking such a big step forward. You might also want to start by living independently or with a platonic roommate to embark on your adult life independently first rather than going straight to living with a partner. He's probably had the chance to have that for himself already. He is a good deal older than you: more than 40% older from the vantage point of your years, which is major. A pace that's okay for him at his age and at his stage of life might not be a pace that's best for you.

I think it's possible some of this stuff around his having one teenaged same-sex experience may be a smokescreen for something larger, like your own questions or concerns about the relationship, what you want, what he wants, how much you want and feel ready to invest at this point; may be about how you feel about yourself and what you want and need both in relationships and on your own at this stage of the game.

All of that said -- sorry, I did wind up writing a novel -- it seems to me you need to do some thinking and talk all of this out together: your conflicted feelings around what he told you, your concerns about the future of your relationship, your thoughts that you may have some self-esteem issues to manage, and, if you decide some of why you're feeling so wiggy about all of this is about things moving so fast, your thoughts on the pacing of your relationship right now. Maybe you also need to talk about both of your sexual histories and how you feel even just being with someone who probably has a larger history than you do. People who are relatively new to romantic and sexual relationships often have intense feelings when it comes to a partner simply having a history, no matter what it entails.

That seems like a sage place to start. Worry has a way of festering and overtaking when we don't truly see and address the root of what is going on. I am pretty certain that if you don't address some of this with him, as mentioned above, you will continue to worry and that will impair your relationship further.

Good luck sorting all of this out. I'm going to leave you with a few links that might be of help in doing that:

written 26 Aug 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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