Dr David Ley’s recent Psychology Today article, which argues that closeted bisexual men are being incorrectly diagnosed as sex addicts, raises an issue of relevance to all bisexual people: namely that suppressing unwanted sexual desire can seriously impact our health and wellbeing.
Ley details his clinical experience of bisexual men, married to women, who are troubled by their same-sex attractions and secretly engage in risky and prolific sex with strangers. When such men seek treatment, therapists overlook the individual’s sexual orientation, and opt to diagnose sex addiction.
Ley questions the diagnosis, believing instead that intense stigma around male bisexuality leads some bisexual men to attempt to suppress their same-sex desire. This suppression then leads to explosive outbursts of desire, which in turn can lead to promiscuous behavior. This behavior can then cause relationship and health issues. These men see their same-sex desires as symptoms of a disease which needs to be treated. So do the therapists, hence the addiction label.
I think Ley makes a strong case, and his call for greater understanding of and support for bisexual men is welcome. But I’d add that you don’t have to be married, male or closeted to experience the internalised homophobia and biphobia that can lead to suppression of unwanted sexual desire. Compulsive sexual behaviour is also not an inevitable consequence of suppression. Unhappiness and low self-esteem might be the more common, if less exciting, results of trying to suppress your natural sexual inclinations.
If we’re uncomfortable with our bisexuality, then it’s understandable that we might try to suppress or avoid unwanted sexual desires. Some bisexual people may even have received misguided advice to focus only on their opposite sex desires, as a way of avoiding the prejudice and oppression aimed at same-sex desire and relationships. While same-sex desire is the most likely target of suppression, some bisexual people might want to suppress opposite sex attraction for fear that it might alienate them from a gay partner or community.
When I was younger I was often troubled by my same-sex desires. I reasoned to myself that as I had sexual desires for both men and women, I could choose to focus my sexual fantasy and behavior on women only. This way I could still be sexually satisfied and happy, while also avoiding the struggle of coming out and dealing with prejudice.
The problem is that suppression just doesn’t work. Sexual desire arises naturally whether we want it to or not. By ignoring it or pushing it away, as the men in David Ley’s article did, it actually becomes more insistent and more of a feature in your life than it would otherwise be. The process of battling unwanted sexual desires wastes mental energy, and guarantees that you’ll remain uncomfortable with your bisexuality. And if you’re uncomfortable with being bisexual, then that will undermine your confidence and diminish your overall wellbeing.
To become comfortable in your skin as a bisexual person, you have to give yourself permission to experience all of your sexual desire. When I gave up on trying to push away my same-sex desires, I experienced a new sense of peace and calm. It was a significant moment in my journey to self-acceptance and wellbeing.
How you behave sexually is up to you and will differ for every individual. But when it comes to your inner life, the key thing is to allow your desires to run free. Let your private world of fantasy and desire be a liberal, relaxing place. You don’t need an internal police force to monitor what’s going on there. Everything is permitted!
An enduring sense of wellbeing can only develop when we’re free to experience and enjoy attraction to whoever we like.