Homosexuals are emotionally and/or physically attracted to persons of the same sex. It sounds like a simple, straight-forward definition, but what if you are strongly attracted to your own sex but don't act on it, does that make you a homosexual? What if you seek affection with one sex but physically desire sexual activity with the other? What if you are sexually attracted to both sexes? What if consciously you have only heterosexual thoughts and actions but unconsciously desire sex (or relationships) with the same sex? You can see that this labeling problem could become complicated.
How common is homosexuality? Strangely enough, we don't know! For years it was thought that about 10% of us--males and females--were drawn almost exclusively to our own sex, but recently some surveys have suggested that only 2% to 4% of Americans are homosexual. About 2% of us have had one gay or lesbian encounter within the last year (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann & Kolata, 1994). On the other hand, sometime during their lives, 7% of men and 4% of women have had sex with the same sex and between 4% and 6% of both genders admit being attracted to the same sex. So, according to this survey, somewhere between 2% and 10% of us will respond when asked in an interview that we have or have had some homosexual interests. We still have little idea what percentage of our population is bisexual or is attracted to the same sex for only lust (or love) or is only occasionally attracted, e.g. when drunk, to the same sex or has homosexual contacts and thoughts only during certain periods of life, e.g. when young, or is unconsciously attracted in some indirect ways, for instance loves telling dirty jokes to the same sex.
Several other sources have estimated that between 25% and 40% of all men and around 20% of all women have had sex to the point of orgasm with someone of the same sex. These figures may be inflated. It is also claimed, in addition, that between 10% and 15% of heterosexual teenagers and adults are aware of some temptations to explore having sex with someone of their own sex. Moreover, an unknown percentage of people are "turned on" by viewing films of attractive persons of their own gender nude and engaging in some sexual activity. Likewise, it isn't uncommon to be envious of and excited by well endowed persons of the same sex. Still others fantasize, dream, or read occasionally about homosexual activities with some pleasure. Kinsey believed that we all have a mixture of heterosexual and homosexual tendencies; thus, individuals can be placed along a gradient from almost entirely heterosexual to almost totally homosexual, most of us being somewhere between the extremes. So, it isn't an either-or situation, all "man" or all "faggot," all "woman" or all "lesbian."
For many readers, the idea of being even a little gay/lesbian and attracted to our own sex will be very repulsive. For 2000 years, Jews and Christians have been explicitly taught that homosexuality is "an abomination," "a crime against nature," "a sin," etc. (Within most denominations, however, there are groups supportive of gays/lesbians; see Prism Ministries). Anti-gay and lesbian attitudes are deeply instilled in our society. In 1990, 80% of Americans think homosexuality is wrong. Moreover, 92% of homosexuals have been threatened or verbally abused; 24% have been physically attacked for being gay. For centuries, homosexuals have been persecuted, castrated, considered abnormal, given shock treatment, assaulted by "gay-bashers," and killed by the hundreds of thousands by Hitler along with Jews, Russians, and other "undesirables." Why such a violent reaction to people just loving or being attracted to each other and harming no one? We don't know for sure, but we know the anti-homosexual prejudice is culturally or psychologically engendered, not innate, because some cultures have approved of homosexuality. Psychoanalysis suggests homophobia arises because we fear or hate our own unconscious homosexual tendencies. Some sociologists say our culture teaches males to hate anything that is vaguely feminine, including feminine men. Religions and other anti-gay groups picture gays as wanton sinners lusting to seduce small boys. The truth is heterosexual males are, in general, far more abusive towards young victims than homosexual males are. To learn more about homophobia, read Blumenfeld (1992). About 2300 years ago, Plato wrote a defense of homosexuality, titled Symposium. On certain topics we are slow learners.
The real sins here are the vile, untrue accusations heaped on gays and lesbians, and the misery and restrictions created for homosexuals by our culture. Gays are openly insulted and demeaned as perverted, sick, immoral, and less than human. So, when a young person experiences some homosexual urge, it is hard to avoid self-hatred and guilt. A 1989 government report states that gay teens are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide than straights their age. Learning to hide and handle your strong homoerotic feelings is a very difficult, scary situation for a gay or lesbian teenager who may be bewildered by what is happening to him/her. Fortunately, there are several good books for understanding homosexuality which also give advice to gays and lesbians and their parents. Berzon (1988; 1992) and Heron (1983) discuss establishing homosexual relationships, both lesbian and gay. Clark (1987), Green (1987), Tessina (1989), and Doyle (1989) focus on gay relationships and problems. Clunis & Green (1988) deal with lesbian couples. "Coming out" to your family, to straight spouses, to your children, to friends, and at work is a special problem (Brans, 1987; Buxton, 1994; MacPike, 1993; Borhek, 1983; Griffin, Wirth & Wirth, 1986). Parents are sometimes shocked but can understand (Bernstein, 1999; Borhek, 1993; Griffin, et al, 1997). These are not easy matters to deal with.
A common misconception about male homosexuals is that they are all cruising for a quick, impersonal sexual experience. Not true, in fact 75% of lesbians and 50% of gays are currently involved in on-going, satisfying, committed love relationships--and others are looking for meaningful love, just like straights. True, some homosexuals (mostly males) do seek one-night stands, but so do heterosexuals. Lesbians seem to develop an orientation towards females for love first, then sexual urges may follow. Gays seem to develop the sexual orientation first, then the love follows.
Homosexuals simply have the genes, hormones, and/or early childhood experiences that orient them towards their own sex for affection and/or sexual gratification. There are many theories about the causes of homosexuality. And, this needs to be understood better; knowledge would help us give up the notion that it is vile. See Money (1989) for a rather technical summary of the research about homosexuality and unusual sex needs, called paraphilias. I suspect our bodies are built to instinctively respond with interest to almost any kind of sexual activity. Powerful social training is probably necessary to teach us to avoid certain kinds of harmless sexual activity, such as masturbation, and to scorn other activities, such as sex play with our own sex. (Note: we seem to have little interest in theorizing about why heterosexual tendencies, such as breast or buttocks fetishes, occur; we are quite content with the shallow explanation that it is natural. But we seem to need a deeper and more pathological explanation of homosexual tendencies.)
Two interesting recent studies: one compared 27 children with lesbian mothers with a matched group with straight mothers. Will homosexual mothers produce homosexual children? No. Only 2 of 25 children from lesbian families were homosexual (Golombok & Tasker, 1996). The second study found that the more older brothers a man has, the more likely he is to be gay (Blanchard & Bogaert, 1996). Among men with four or more brothers, 70% were reportedly homosexual. Interesting, but that percentage seems too high. Also, just having older brothers doesn't tell us much about the specific causes of homosexuality yet... it is a clue that shouldn't be neglected, however.
Male homosexuals have been degraded in many ways, such as called degenerate and "sick," considered insecure with women, called a sissy and a "Mommy's boy," etc. Research has shown that homosexuals do not have more identity or psychological problems than the rest of us (except for the shame instilled by an intolerant culture). They do not hate or fear women; they haven't had a bad experience with the opposite sex; they were not seduced into homosexuality; they were not the result of bad or neurotic parenting. They should not feel guilty about who they love and find attractive, any more than a straight does. None of us heterosexuals consciously decided which sex we would fall in love with or what body parts would sexually turn us on. It just happened. Why should sexual orientation be considered an immoral conscious choice only for homosexuals?
There is some research that suggests homosexuals are born with a slightly different brain. The significance of this is not known yet. It is known that many gays and lesbians believe they were born that way. Many realize they are "different" by the time they are 6 or 8, others when they are teenagers. Some people convert to homosexuality as adults, sometimes after having children. In spite of these conversions, therapists believe that sexual orientation is hard to change, especially in males. Yet, there are cultures that expect and encourage young males to engage in homosexual activities, including swallowing semen to become a "man," but they easily become heterosexual when the time comes for them to find a partner and father a family.
Females seem more likely than men to change to homosexuality later, even in their thirties or forties. It isn't known how people go from being primarily gay to primarily straight (or the reverse) but a few have been known to change through a religious conversion. Psychotherapy, however, has had very little success in helping unhappy gays become heterosexual (Nicolosi, 1994, reports 8 cases of conversion). Therapists usually believe it is more realistic to help someone adjust to the serious social difficulties of being homosexual than to help the patient actually become heterosexual.
People, especially adults, loving each other and harmlessly having consensual sex are hardly major worries compared to people hating and being mean to each other, such as being prejudice or going to war. Homosexuals who want to love and raise a child are to be supported and praised; children raised by lesbian mothers are just as heterosexual and just as well adjusted as their peers (Tasker, 1995). Likewise, 91% of the sons of gay men (who had been married) lead a heterosexual life style. Gay parents seem to produce straight children.
For additional help with homosexual concerns, beyond the books cited above, check to see if there is a local hotline under "Homosexuality" in your phone book. Write or click to Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, P. O. Box 24565, Los Angeles, CA 90024. There is a general guidebook available for homosexuals (Silverstein & Picano, 1993). Bisexuals might be interested in Hutchins & Kaahumanu (1991) or Weinberg, Williams & Pryor (1994).
Where do teenagers get their sex information and misinformation? From peers 37% of the time! Then from literature and the media 22% of the time, mothers 17%, and schools 15%.
Sources of help with special sexual problems
A variety of books offer extensive, practical, and valuable knowledge about sex (SIECUS, 80 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011 provides a helpful book list). The Better Sex Video Series, including "Becoming Orgasmic," is available from Sinclair Institute, Box 8855, Chapel Hill, NC (1-800-955-0888). Masters and Johnson Institute have set up a sex information hotline at 1-900-933-6868 ($3.99 per minute). For a self-assessment of your sexuality see Valois & Kannermann (1992). For more information about the kind of sexual problems dealt with briefly above, look up the references given above or read Helen Kaplan's (1975; 1979; 1987), Yaffe & Fenwick's (1988), Domeena Renshaw's (1995) or Gary Kelly's (1979) book. They are excellent.
I have tried to cite the best general literature about sex but there are certain specific topics and references I haven't covered.
For information about sexually transmitted diseases, call the National STD Hotline (1-800-227-8922) and look in the phone book under "VD." By the way, while over a million Americans are HIV positive or have AIDS, 12 million more get other sexual diseases every year, including herpes, genital warts, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and others. Write American Social Health Association, P. O. Box 13827, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709 for free information. Read Barlow (1979) or Langston (1983).
For information about birth control and pregnancy, look under Family Planning in the Yellow Pages and see the references in the section above about avoiding pregnancy.
For sexual assault by a stranger, an acquaintance, a relative, or a spouse, call the police or a local Rape or Crisis Line (or the national center at 301-443-1910) and read Brownmiller (1975), Grossman and Sutherland (1982/83).
For a concern about incest, call the local Family and Children's Service agency and see Renshaw's (1983), Bass & Davis (1994), or Russell (1982) or other references mentioned above and in chapters 7 and 9.
For sexual harassment at work (40 to 80% of women) or at school (25% of coeds), contact your local Affirmative Action office and read MacKinnon (1979) or Colatosti and Karg (1992).
If you feel you need a sex therapist, don't just pick one out of the Yellow Pages. There is no regulation of this specialty. Many competent psychotherapists are not well qualified in this area. So what do you do? For help finding a sex therapist or group, contact the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, 11 Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 220, Washington, DC 20036-1207. Or, call 212-920-4576 for referral to a sex therapist. Consider using the Masters & Johnson Institute in St. Louis but it involves daily sessions for two weeks. Their therapy focuses on the relationship--anger, self-esteem, power struggles. It is quite expensive ($5,000+). If you can not afford this, consider other specialized "sex therapy centers" associated with medical centers, universities, or hospitals (many charge according to the ability to pay). Your local Mental Health Center can also refer you to a professional clinic or to an experienced sex therapist. Avoid anyone who does not have a doctoral degree and extensive professional experience with sexual problems. Also avoid any therapist who makes unrealistic promises or takes an unprofessional-unethical approach to your problem.
References cited in this chapter are listed in the Bibliography (see link on the book title page). Please note that references are on pages according to the first letter of the senior author's last name (see alphabetical links at the bottom of the main Bibliography page).