Yesterday, Wesley Hill started a helpful discussion about the way that different people use words like “gay” to mean different things. One reply, given by Denny Burk, is a common one I’ve heard many times before. The basic idea is that talking about a “gay” (or, in my case, “bisexual”) orientation is by definition referring to something sexual, and desires for things like friendship are desires I share with straight people and shouldn’t be lumped together in the same category.
The practical problem I have with this way of thinking is that I can’t always separate my feelings neatly into these two categories of desire. They often seem to arise from the same phenomenon. I think this experience is something I share with many others, and why we talk about how our orientation is “not reducible” to lust or a desire to have sex. This manner of speaking seems kind of fuzzy, but I think this is so precisely because the underlying phenomenon is hard to categorize.
In order to partially get across what I’m talking about with my “orientation,” why that is “not reducible” to wanting to have sex, and why I can’t separate everything out as nicely as people (including myself!) might like, I think it would be most helpful to talk about my experience. Of course, I can’t speak universally for everyone, and others may have different experiences.
I think it’s correct to point out that if there is no sexual component to a person’s desire for the same sex, words like “gay” and “bisexual” are misleading. Part of the reason that I do readily use words like “bisexual” is that I find relating sexually to attractive men to be tempting, while most men seem to find the idea repulsive. And when I’m strongly attracted to a particular guy, lust is something I am prone to. In these respects, I differ from straight men. (On the other hand, I differ from gay men in similar ways when it comes to women, hence my use of “bisexual.”)
Even when I am attracted to a guy in a way that includes sexual temptation, there’s a lot more going on than wanting to have sex. It typically starts in a way that is physical but not genital: I notice that the guy is nice to look at. I can find myself desiring him. I don’t actually mean that I desire to do particular sexual things with him, but simply that I desire him in a relatively vague sense. If I have a natural opportunity to befriend him, there’s an energy that my feelings bring. In fact, much of this is true even in many cases that don’t lead to lustful thoughts, and whether I experience sexual temptation has more to do with the intensity of the feeling than the kind. It’s not clear to me where precisely my experience starts to differ from a straight man’s.
Some of the ways I differ from many straight men have become much clearer based on certain conversations I’ve had, though. For example, I remember talking with some staffers of a college ministry whose men’s conference I was about to take part in. They were complaining about how hard it was to get guys to come to the event, since many college men just saw college ministry as an opportunity to meet women.
This thought was fundamentally alien to me. I was, if anything, more excited for the male connection than I would have about connecting with women. This was true even though I had no intention whatsoever of trying to find a romantic relationship or a sexual hook-up. My motivation wasn’t sexual per se, but it was quite analogous to the way meeting women motivated a lot of straight guys. I realized this had always been a pattern: before returning to college every fall semester, a disproportionate amount of my excitement and anticipation revolved around getting to know the new guys on the floor and reconnecting with the returning ones. In and of itself, I wouldn’t associate this with my sexual orientation, but in the larger context in which it was occurring, I don’t think it was totally unrelated.
Another example came when I was was talking to a straight male friend about the experience of listening to good music. He talked about how it often made him think of his girlfriend, and before had always made him think of some woman he was particularly attracted to. I realized that it had always been similar for me, except that it was more frequently another guy. I didn’t usually have explicit sexual thoughts in such moments, but I don’t think he did either, and my attraction to men was operating in a quite similar manner to his attraction to women.
It seems to me that, speaking phenomenologically and mechanistically, much of my attraction to men springs from the same parts of my constitution as a straight man’s attraction to women does. Too many of the details are the same, and in ways that are not just about wanting to have sex, to pretend they are unrelated. More importantly, I don’t know how to clinically separate something that has “sexual potential” or a “sexual component” from everything else, beyond simply responding to immediate lust and sexual temptation as such and using basic wisdom to avoid compromising situations. This leaves important practical, biblical, and theological questions about how to think, talk about, and respond to this basic reality. Ron has been working on a post that should help address some of these questions, but in the meantime I hope my reflections have provided at least some modicum of increased clarity and food for thought.
Jeremy Erickson is a software engineer in Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.