AM I GAY BECAUSE OF THE ABUSE?
BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 2002
One of the most frequently asked questions I hear from lesbian and gay sexual abuse survivors is “Am I gay because of the abuse?” This question is asked not only by people who are unhappy or uncomfortable with their sexuality, it is also asked by people who are very happy, accepting, and proud of their sexuality. Lesbian and gay survivors who are positive about their sexuality may know in their heads that the sexual abuse didn’t “cause” their sexuality, yet on a feeling level they, too, can sometimes feel scared and worried that it did.
In a society that assumes that everyone is and should be heterosexual and denigrades gay sexuality, some gay male survivors worry that they are gay because they were sexually abused by men. And, some gay men who were sexually abused by women worry that their gay sexuality was formed out of fear and revulsion for women. Similarily, many lesbians sexually abused by men worry that their sexuality is caused by their abuse. This belief or fear is reinforced by the deep-rooted myth that lesbians just need a “good man” or a “good lay” to make them straight. Additionally, lesbians sexually abused by women often worry that their sexual involvement with women is a re-enactment of their abuse.
And, yet, heterosexual women who were sexually abused by men do not worry that being sexually involved with a man is a re-enactment, or, if they were sexually abused by a woman, that their heterosexual orientation is coming from a revulsion for women. Clearly, this difference, between lesbian and gay survivors on the one hand, and heterosexual survivors on the other, is created by homophobia.
HOW DOES THIS LINK BETWEEN GAY SEXUALITY AND SEXUAL ABUSE GET FORMED IN PEOPLE’S MINDS?
Homophobia plays a big role in creating the link between gay sexuality and sexual abuse. The myth that lesbians and gay men are sexual predators is still very much alive. This kind of homophobia has been evident in some of the discussions following the recent disclosures of sexual abuse of boys by priests. One recommendation put forth was to ban gay men from the ministry, as if that was the reason why the children were sexually abused. No one recommends banning heterosexual priests when girls are sexually abused by priests. And while the vast majority of sexual abuse perpetrators identify as heterosexual, heterosexuality is never blamed, and yet the way heterosexuality is presently socially constructed does play a role in many cases of sexual abuse and sexual violence.
In a society that links lesbian and gay sexuality with sexual predators, and where there is little or no information for youth about lesbian and gay sexuality, many lesbian and gay survivors assume that sexual abuse by someone of the same sex is what being gay is. It is a very sad reality that some lesbian and gay youth learn about the possibility of gay sex through being sexually abused (and that some heterosexual survivors worry that they really are gay because of the myth that sexual abuse by someone of the same sex causes people to be gay.) No wonder so many lesbian and gay sexual abuse survivors feel confused and ashamed of their sexuality. Who would want to have anything to do with something that is remotely similar to sexual abuse or sexual perpetrators?
If as a child, sexual abuse was your only inkling of the possibility of gay sex, it’s important to remember that your sexual feelings were not created by the abuse – even if those feelings were awakened during the abuse. And, if you identify as heterosexual and are worried that you may be gay because your body became aroused when you were sexually abused by someone of the same sex, that does not mean that you are gay. Your body’s responses are simply physiological responses to stimulation and have nothing to do with your own desires. Sexual abuse cannot create your sexual desires, and cannot make you gay.
HOW ARE LESBIAN AND GAY SURVIVORS EFFECTED BY THESE HOMOPHOBIC MYTHS?
Homophobia places a burden of shame, isolation, secrecy, and fear on the shoulders of lesbians and gay men, and leaves many lesbians and gay men feeling ashamed of their sexual orientation. Sexual abuse has a similar effect on survivors, and leaves many survivors feeling deeply ashamed of their sexuality. When lesbian and gay survivors feel ashamed, they often mistakenly attribute all or most of their shame to their sexual orientation rather than to the sexual abuse itself. In contrast, while many heterosexual sexual abuse survivors feel ashamed of their sexuality, they rarely question their sexual orientation. They aren’t plagued with fears that their heterosexuality is caused by the abuse.
Even lesbian and gay survivors who have challenged these homophobic beliefs, and do not feel ashamed of being gay, can still feel the fears they had as a child and need help understanding that being gay does not equal sexual abuse, and is not caused by the abuse.
CAN SEXUAL ABUSE CREATE A PERSON’S SEXUAL ORIENTATION?
We are all socially conditioned through culture, education, family, media, etc. Sexual abuse is another form of conditioning. As a result, sexual abuse survivors can be drawn to or be repulsed by things that have nothing to do with their authentic selves, and have more to do with their abuse. This means, for example, that a woman who was sexually abused by a woman could be repulsed by and/or drawn to sex with women because of the sexual abuse she experienced, and not know whether or not she is lesbian. But, being drawn to or being repulsed by certain behaviours does not define your sexual orientation. The larger question is how do you know when you are feeling and behaving authentically, and when you are feeling or doing something because of the abuse (or any other form of conditioning)?.
Some survivors have said that they felt drawn to specific sexual behaviours (for example, sex with older men, anonymous sex, rough sex, etc.) in an attempt to work through their abuse, while others have said they were drawn to certain sexual behaviours because it was what they knew and felt comfortable with. Later in life, they learned that they were acting out and not being true to themselves. Just as an abused woman may feel drawn back to an abusive partner out of a sense of familiarity, or because of beliefs about herself and her worth, so can sexual abuse survivors feel drawn to sexual behaviours that are coming from abuse. Sexual abuse survivors can be drawn to, or repulsed by heterosexual and/or gay sex, because of the abuse they experienced. However, sexual abuse can’t create one’s authentic sexual orientation.
Sexual abuse can interfere with sexual enjoyment; contribute to a survivor engaging in sexual behaviours that arise from the abuse; and interfere with survivors’ ability to know what they want. But, sexual abuse can’t create a survivor’s deepest passion and desires.
Discovering your authentic sexuality usually involves weeding through layers of conditioning that arose from sexual abuse, as well as other forms of conditioning, to find your deeper, more soulful self where you know who you are and what you want. Overcoming the effects of sexual abuse helps you to do just that. Developing a relationship with your inner child, and teaching her/him the differences between sexual abuse and sexuality also helps. And, developing a gentle and compassionate relationship with yourself, your body, and your sexuality helps.
The truth is that sexual abuse and sexuality are a million miles apart; they truly have nothing in common. Something as wonderful and beautiful as our sexuality could never have arisen out of something as ugly and painful as sexual abuse.
You really can trust yourself to know what you want, if not now then in the future, and to know that your deep passions have nothing to do with sexual abuse and everything to do with who you are, separate from the sexual abuse.