Gay Culture and Sex Addiction: Coming Out, Acting Out?

Support for gay marriage is on the rise. Every new survey shows greater tolerance and greater acceptance of the fact that homosexuality is a personally integral and relational truth that warrants equal rights.

With this support, we also see the rise of greater diversity in gay culture depicted by the media. Certainly the suburban gay parent is a fairly recent standard prototype in the collective consciousness that has gained traction from popular fiction, namely Modern Family and The Kids Are All Right, and from real-life celebrity parents like Rosie O'Donnell and Neil Patrick Harris.

The suburban gay parent does much to humanize the prevailing stereotype that depicts lesbians and gay men solely as promiscuous and unstable, propagated just last month by the conservative, religious website LifeSiteNews in response to Newsweek's recent cover story on sex addiction: "[H]omosexuals are known for having superficial, short-term relationships and hundreds of lifetime sex partners..." (That's perhaps the least offensive quote in their homophobic article.)

I have to wonder about the degree to which any so-called "deviant" lifestyle traits displayed by LGBT people are ultimately an inherent psychological reaction to institutionalized homophobia at every level.

Let's take this trip. First, there's the closet, this toxic idea that it's not OK to be gay, compelling LGBT children to hide their truth. Gay kids live in silence for fear of the repercussions of disclosure, which can include rejection, abandonment, and bullying to the point of suicide. Gay bullying is perpetrated by peers, parents, teachers, community leaders, and world leaders.

While many minorities suffer oppression, from disenfranchisement to outright discrimination to persecution, few minorities additionally experience such extreme degrees of intimidated relational repression during formative years as the LGBT community. What effect does this have on people? As a result of this coerced repression, there exists insufficient co-regulation to explore appropriate relational valuing, which is the process of integrating personal reality with authentic expression that results in healthy, intimate relationships.

Instead, an abyss has to be crossed where a child "comes out." For LGBT people, this is a rite of passage with a wide range of emotions that is experienced mostly in emotional isolation.

The process of coming out results in highly emotive events that border on the traumatic, and these initial experiences have a profound effect on the psyches of LGBT people, especially while brains are still forming in teenage years. Such traumatic, emotionally isolated events can become psychologically idealized, because there is so much personal meaning behind the experience of reaching a positive state of self-acceptance. This ideation is often transposed onto the attending circumstances, which might include conflict, denial, deception, fear, anonymity, and sexual experimentation. This is practically a recipe for an involuntary pattern of sex addiction and/or love addiction to emerge over the long term. To state this clearly: sex and love addiction have little to do with actual pleasure and more to do with unconsciously replaying the emotional features of repressed trauma. The just-released film Shame eloquently underscores this reality.

Coming out is, of course, a long and painful process. In the initial stages, anonymity reflects a crucial and reasonable need for self-preservation for any closeted gay person, whether cruising the Internet or the gay scene. Early casual sex hookups provide not only a sexual release for pent-up stress but also a means of connection with the larger gay community and even sex education through those with shared experiences. As a result, gay sex often becomes synonymous with gay identity.

Most addictions of any nature can be traced back to early childhood trauma. For example, masturbation often becomes a coping mechanism at the onset of puberty, when family power dynamics first start to implode. The release of neurochemicals preceding orgasm numbs painful feelings and creates pleasurable feelings. Seriously, who wouldn't want pleasurable feelings in place of painful feelings? The problem with any addiction is that it does not get rid of painful feelings. They only become dormant and thus prolonged, sometimes reinforced by shame and grief, over time growing more painful until they are finally processed, either through heroic confrontation or utter chaos.

Most sexual acting out is often an attempt at recreating the original emotive trauma as a means to heal it. Usually the effects of years of denial and compartmentalization have gone unprocessed, despite any appearances to the contrary. Lacking new tools, the trauma merely becomes reinforced and can become a pattern. When this pattern becomes unsatisfying and inescapable, this might be considered an addiction.

One of the roots of sex addiction is an inability to cope with trauma and shame, feelings that LGBT people may struggle with as a community more so than their non-LGBT counterparts. However, gay sex addiction is no different from straight sex addiction.

Still, there can be impenetrable denial on the part of the gay sex addict, who often equates promiscuity with personal empowerment, a self-avowed lifestyle choice that expresses hard-won gay rights. Likewise, sex addiction treatment via professionals or 12-step support can appear as a moralistic judgment against LGBT freedoms rather than what it really is: modeled guidance to greater freedom and choice in relational intimacy and the true individual expression of functional and fulfilling lifelong LGBT values.