Confusions and Uncertainty in Sexual Identity

Confusions and uncertainty in sexual identity: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
A few weeks ago the Boston Study Group thought about confusions and uncertainty in sexual identity and how this plays out in action.

The contrast would be people whose self-assigned identity is clear and either acceptable or unacceptable to the relevant parties. I looked at this in “The Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life”.

Here’s a summary of what the study group talked about.

What started discussion was a member’s interest in understanding a client’s confusion about her sexual feelings and identity. The example involved a young woman who loves a man but wonders if she’s a lesbian. As far as she could say, she hasn’t any particularly strong erotic feeling toward her boyfriend, but believes she should. She was also adamant that she loves and shares a deep intimacy with him. Lately, however, she was feeling what she thought might be erotic stirring when around a woman of her acquaintance.

From this we wondered about a wide class of people uncertain about their sexual identity, confused about what to make of their urges and desires. A variable we considered was whether the people in question accept what they believe are the social norms regarding appropriate sexuality and desire, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or a bit of both. (And then of course, there’s the relational mode of engagement: sadistic, masochistic, and so on, along with the autoerotic. We assumed, correctly or not, that most adult masturbation involves a fantasy object related to in some particular mode of encounter). In any case, the people we wondered about don’t know what category fits them, but they believe in these categories whether they see them as social constructions or given by nature. (The particular people we thought about are a highly educated bunch).

Also, the whole notion of lust is a confusing variable, especially when people believe they should have a stronger urge than they recognize. To make matters more complicated, what does this mean regarding love and intimacy? This last question we tabled for the time being.

Since the study group is interested in behavioral logic, we sorted out three categories of confusion and/or uncertainty regarding erotic behavior.

Three variations of uncertainty regarding I to You:

1. I’m attracted to you but don’t clearly recognize what’s being evoked. I’m curious to find out, so let’s explore if you are willing.

2. When you are near me or I think about you, I feel uncomfortably awkward and defensively attempt to avoid you and what you are evoking. I might become hostile or submissive if you get too close owing to the anxiety, guilt, shame, or other discomfort you stir up.

3. When you (or it) appear, I freeze or panic.

As a first move let’s accept the first relation as healthy (if consensual), since it opens up behavior potential, and the second two as more or less pathological, since they restrict or prevent choice. In the second case the person has a defensive ability to establish distance, at the cost of flexible association, but in the third case the person is simply disabled. I suspect these groupings can be applied usefully to other behaviorally significant issues as well.

Social norms can exacerbate problems in the second case. When self-accepted norms conflict with a hunger for a taboo relationship, fear or hatred for what is desired is unsurprising. This is sometimes the case in incestuous, homosexual, pedophilic, or other forbidden relations and may produce an urge to coerce, eliminate or destroy the anxiety or panic producing “object”. The greater the taboo (the more degrading the desired and feared encounter), the more such an encounter might serve as a hostile provocation. Here desire becomes shameful, inducing a reactive self-hatred and disgust. This can produce violence.

In contrast to a hostile reaction, a submissive stance can also result. This may be a self-deceiving avoidance of blame for what might follow. Here the defensive move attempts to abdicate agency or accountability. The person disowns responsibility by claiming or feeling they were seduced or overcome by desire. This is a variation of the devil made me do it, something I examined in “Sex and a Person’s True Colors”.

When erotic hunger is intense, cognizant or not, all three cases intensify accordingly, with different consequences given a person’s self-awareness and competence to manage and tolerate desire. Given the usual complexity of people’s values, conflict is often a given, the ability to manage and tolerate ambivalence crucial. Rarely is the erotic free of some degree of ambivalence.

So what do you think? What are other useful complexities? Where else can these three grouping of health, defense, and disability apply? (Or what relevant themes would be distorted or misconceived using this model?)

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Confusions and Uncertainty in Sexual Identity was originally published @ Lessons in Psychology: Freedom, Liberation, and Reaction and has been syndicated with permission.

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