We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. This week’s topic is a little different: How do I know if I’m a lesbian and should I seek conversion therapy to "cure" it?
Q: I’m a girl who's been been having fantasies about other women. I’ve become obsessed with lesbian porn, but I'm not sure I actually want to do sexual things with actual girls. How do I know I'm really gay? I’m super scared that I might be, because my dad’s always saying that being gay is a sickness you need to cure, and I don’t wanna be sick. Should I try to get gay conversion therapy to fix myself?
A: Sexual feelings can be really hard to figure out, particularly when you’re young and testing things out with other people or thinking them through by way of mental fantasies or pornography. This inner turmoil can be compounded if you’re surrounded by people who aren’t supportive of certain lifestyles or desires, which sounds like what’s going on with your father. Unfortunately, no one can tell you who you want to be with — you have to work it out for yourself.
Really Important Disclaimer: I am not a sexual identity therapist (yes, they exist) or expert. If you’re in need of personal support, find a professional to talk this over with. What I’m going to do in this article is provide a high-level review of what the research community knows (and doesn’t know) about the roots of desire, so that you have some context to draw from while you’re working out your own wants and needs.
Use Your Words
Before we get started, let’s define our terms.
LGBTIQ: Acronym standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer.
Gender: Identification with masculine or feminine qualities. Gender is a socially constructed concept, which means that it is based in environmental factors (which is why men/women are supposed to behave in different ways depending on where they are on the space-time continuum … for example, did you know that heels used to be seen as masculine garb?)
Sex: Identification of a person based on their anatomy (genitalia, reproductive organs, DNA).
Sexual Orientation: Who you want with you in bed. What types of gender and sex presentation get you turned on.
Transgender: An individual whose gender identification doesn’t match with the sex they were born with.
Gay: A male-identified individual who has sexual desire for other male-identified individuals. Gay is also used as an umbrella term for both male- and female-identified individuals who have same-sex desire.
Lesbian: A female-identified individual who has sexual desire for other female-identified individuals.
Straight: An individual who has sexual desire for individuals who identify with a gender identification that is different from theirs.
Homosexual: An individual who has sexual desire for individuals who identify with a sex that is the same as theirs.
Heterosexual: A person who has sexual desire for individuals who identify with a sex that is different from theirs.
Bisexual: A person who has sexual desire for individuals of two sexes.
Queer: A broad term used to refer to LGBTIQ individuals. Queer is also often used to define individuals who don’t identify with cultural standards, such as monogamy or the gender binary (male/female).
Coming Out: The act of recognizing one’s sexual identity (generally as not heterosexual/ straight) and telling it to others.
These are just the main terms that I’ll be using in this article, but there are so many more words involved in the discussion of human desire. This glossary is spectacular and pretty comprehensive, check it out!
Am I Normal?
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: Desiring people of the same sex and/or gender identification as you is completely normal and healthy and does NOT mean you are ill or disturbed. This antiquated notion was institutionalized in our country for many years — homosexuality was even listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the bible of psychological diagnosis handbooks) as a psychological illness. The concept that people with homosexual desire are sick was debunked in a famous study in 1957, although it took until 1973 for homosexuality to be declassified as a mental disorder.
Redefining homosexuality or same-sex desire as normal (because it is) is not just accurate science — it has helped a lot of people feel more secure in their desire, and has also protected them from scientifically sanctioned punishment or institutionalization.
The Science of Sexual Identity
Trying to figure out if you are gay, straight, or somewhere in-between always results in the age-old question: nature or nurture? Was I born homosexual, or did something in my upbringing make me this way? Everyone and their mother has something to say about this argument, and scientists are no exception.
So … what does the research show? Well, it’s pretty complicated and there’s much work left to be done (calling all budding researchers in the audience), but through a number of studies — starting with a bunch of vintage ones from the 1950s looking at identical twins — researchers have found that there is something biological going on that makes us lust after who we do. This doesn’t mean there’s necessarily a “gay gene” (although many people are working hard to find one), but scientists have found patterns in families that lead the research community to feel pretty confident in saying that your DNA make-up contributes to who you like. However, the research also shows that environment is a factor on top of biology. Furthermore, research done by the now famous Alfred Kinsey and colleagues in the late 1940s found that sexuality is less of a binary and more of a spectrum, meaning that you can feel desire for people with more than one sex or gender presentation.
If all this conflicting evidence makes your head want to explode a bit, I feel you. The answer seems to be “both, and”: both nature (biology) and nurture (environment) combine in ways we are just beginning to understand to result in who makes your mouth go dry and your whole body tremble when you think about them. And ultimately, does it really matter why we feel the way we feel? That’s a question with a very personal answer, so it’s up to you to make the call about whether the scientific research helps you or not.
In this section, I’m going to describe a couple different types of therapy options that have been traditionally used with people who are struggling with same-sex attraction. Some of them have proven to help, others just the opposite.
Conversion therapy is a method that attempts to “fix” homosexuals by converting their desire into heterosexual desire. The scientific community has overwhelmingly rejected the effectiveness of conversion therapy. This method is really a holdover from when homosexuality was still seen as an illness that could be cured. The increasing evidence that desire is at least in part rooted in our biology provides another knock against the efficacy of therapy — you can’t talk your way out of your skin color or genetic disorder, so why would you be able to talk your way out of other elements of your biological make-up? Further, the existence of methods to try to cure gayness just serves to stigmatize homosexual desire, which research shows is very unhealthy in and of itself.
In contrast, psychoanalysis and other types of talk therapy are a great support if you’re trying to work out your sexuality, gender identity, or just questioning yourself in general. Contrary to common misconception, you don’t need a “mental illness” for therapy to be helpful. At its core, this method is designed to help you deal with any negative feelings you are having and develop healthy, positive solutions to those thoughts. While talking to whomever (friends, family, partners, strangers on the street) can be extremely helpful, talking to a professional is often even more so — because they’re trained in helping you figure things out about yourself!
The Scientific Bottom Line
The research clearly shows that homosexual desire is just as natural as heterosexual desire, as is anything in between. The research also clearly shows that you can’t be “converted” from being gay into being straight, if the way you really feel is that you are sexually attracted to people of the same sex. The scientific community has stopped preferencing heterosexuality above homosexuality, and profusely apologizes for its legacy of really bad research that tried to show that same-sex desire was rooted in psychological illness. To which we say: THANK YOU.
Images: Lionsgate; Giphy