There is a widely held perception that gay men are, by nature, hypersexual. This is not in fact the case. In reality, gay men are no more or less sexual than their straight and bisexual counterparts. Perhaps some of this “oversexed” belief arises from the fact that “gay sex” is still an attention-getter in both the media and private conversations, despite the many recent worldwide advances in the “normalization” of homosexuality and homosexual behaviors. And perhaps there are legitimate reasons for this commonly held misperception.
In days of yore (as little as ten or fifteen years ago) gay men searched for sex in gay bars, in adult bookstores and theaters, in sex clubs and bathhouses, in the steam room at their local gym, in public parks and restrooms, and on notorious street corners. These choices were adaptive ways of finding men who shared similar needs, wants, and desires in an age of profound cultural repression, but none were ideal. Oftentimes these behaviors were actually dangerous. In fact, many older gay men remember when “gay hotspots” were routinely raided by police, with patrons herded into paddy wagons and hauled off to jail – with their names and “crimes” published in the next morning’s paper. (This was actually commonplace in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and even into the 80s in some locales.) And because many people’s exposure to gay life in that era was limited to newspaper narrations of the local police blotter, the common perception of gay men was understandably skewed toward the “sex crazed” label.
All of this is now changing, albeit slowly. More realistic versions of gay culture are everywhere these days, from Modern Family to films, books, plays, and other public media. Plus, gay men now seek intimate connection in much safer (and less public) venues – primarily through online dating/hookup websites and apps like Adam4Adam, Grindr, Bear411, Manhunt, and the like. Heck, even mainstream dating venues like Match.com have specialized sections for gay men. Nevertheless, the perception of gay men as hypersexual persists to a degree, even within the gay community, which can sometimes make it difficult for gay sex addicts to recognize and address their problem.
Put simply, living in a counterculture in which sexual activity is expected and even celebrated can enable compulsive sexual behaviors. (Yes, gay life is still a counterculture, though it’s becoming more mainstream by the day.) This relatively open expectation/celebration of gay sexuality is in many ways a natural reaction to the once ubiquitous (and still ongoing in some places) repression and abuse of gay men. On the plus side, this assertive response to living in a shame-based, homophobic culture has helped many men to “come out” and live honestly, developing healthy intimate relationships with the partner(s) of their choice. Conversely, this newly developed “community approval” of unfettered sexual expression has also enabled the sexual addictions of countless gay men. Consider alcohol as an analogy for this. An alcoholic who spends all of his free-time in bars will likely find it easier to rationalize, minimize, and justify (to deny) his alcoholic behavior, since everyone else is also drinking (though not alcoholically in most cases). In similar fashion, if a gay sex addict thinks everyone else is also having lots of sex, it is easier to rationalize, minimize, and justify his own sexual activity, even after it has spiraled into addiction.
Sexual Addiction Is NOT About Sexual Orientation
Gay male sex addicts are not compulsively sexual because of their sexual orientation. Rather, they are compulsively sexual as a way to self-soothe stress, emotional discomfort, and the pain of underlying psychological issues like depression, anxiety, attachment deficits, and unresolved early-life or severe adult trauma. In this respect, gay sex addicts are exactly like straight and bisexual sex addicts (of both genders). They are also exactly like alcoholics, drug addicts, gambling addicts, compulsive spenders, etc. With addicts of all types, it’s not about feeling better; it’s about controlling what you feel by “escaping” through use of a substance or activity.
In most respects, gay and straight (and bisexual) male sex addicts are incredibly similar. They act out in the same basic ways, for the same basic reasons. Regardless of their sexual orientation, male sex addicts in today’s increasingly digital world locate porn and sexual partners/games/activities via websites, apps, social media, online text and video chat, sexts, and the like. The only real difference is gay men log on to Grindr, Bear411, and Manhunt, while straight guys use Tinder, Blendr, and Ashley Madison.
Sometimes therapists worry that diagnosing a gay man as sexually addicted might be homophobic, and sometimes gay sex addicts in denial about their addiction reinforce that fear by saying things like, “You just don’t understand our lifestyle.” Sadly, this statement is not always without merit. The simple truth is there are at least a few psychotherapists out there who willingly bring their own morality and/or religious beliefs into the therapy space, and these clinicians are often ready to label sexually active gay men as sexually addicted based more on their personal beliefs about homosexuality than any sort of clinical reality. In truth, an accurate diagnosis of sexual addiction has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation. Instead, it is based on the same three factors as every other form of addiction:
Sex + Meth = Relapse
Sex addicts of all sexual orientations and genders tend to struggle with co-occurring addictions. In one survey of male sex addicts, 87 percent said they also abused an addictive substance or another addictive behavior. The survey did not separate gay and straight male sex addicts, but it’s reasonable to assume that gay male sex addicts might report even higher rates of co-occurring addiction, since the LGBTQ community in general has higher rates of both substance abuse and, interestingly, domestic violence, than the larger culture. This likely relates to centuries of cultural and personal oppression more than anything else, as gay men have consistently been devalued, dismissed, overlooked, called child molesters, and forced to hide their self-identity. (In America in general, minority populations tend to experience greater challenges with drugs, alcohol, and violence – again directly related to centuries of cultural oppression and prejudice.)
With gay male sex addicts, crystal meth is often the co-occurring drug of choice. Alcohol, GHB, MDMA, and various other “party drugs” are also used in conjunction with sexual addiction, but meth is more prevalent. This is because meth allows users to be sexual for hours or even days at a time, especially when an erection-enhancing drug like Viagra, Levitra, or Cialis is along for the ride. Unfortunately, meth, like most illicit drugs, is disinhibiting, which means the user’s beliefs about the need for safer sex may fly out the window when high. On top of the increased risk of HIV and other STDs, meth use is highly destructive in its own right, both physically and mentally. Furthermore, sex and meth may become so intertwined that they form a single, fused addiction. When this occurs, assessment, treatment planning, and recovery become much more difficult. Essentially, the addict must heal from both addictions simultaneously; otherwise he may not recover from either. For these “dual addicts,” seeking intense anonymous sex often leads to the people and places that have drugs, inevitably resulting in drug relapse. Similarly, thoughts about drugs may lead to sexual relapse.
The treatment and recovery process for gay male sex addicts is very much the same as it is for straight and bisexual male sex addicts. Often recovery best occurs in mixed hetero/homo environments. Certainly some gay men may not feel comfortable around straight men, especially if they’ve been victimized by “gay bashing” at some point. Nevertheless, for those who can tolerate it, gay men are well-served to learn that heterosexual men have similar problems and not all of those men are homophobic. As such, mixed treatment settings allow everyone present, gay and straight alike, to identify as men first while reducing both internal and external homophobia.
Generally speaking, sexually addicted men, both gay and straight, find recovery in individual and group therapy with sex addiction treatment specialists, coupled with twelve step recovery and other support groups. Usually Sexual Compulsives Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous are the most gay-friendly twelve step sexual recovery programs. For some gay men, intensive outpatient treatment or inpatient treatment may be needed as a way to jump-start sexual healing. The International Institute for Trauma & Addiction Professionals and the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health are excellent sources for information and therapist referrals.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction,and coauthor with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.