Thinking About Sex

You think you’re closeted?

By Steven Ing, Pyschotherapist and author

My gay clients often begin therapy with disclosures of trauma: physical abuse, sex abuse, bullying, stereotyping. Their reactions to this history of youthful trauma span a range of coping strategies. Some develop elaborate emotional defenses like an affectation of not caring about being accepted or treated with respect when, in fact, we all care very much about these things. Some do an amazing job of carefully curating a group of friends to replace a rejecting family. Some seek out geographic solutions and get the hell out of Dodge City. Some develop compulsive self-soothing behaviors like drug abuse or compulsive shopping to numb the pain. And some choose the most destructive option – that of repressing their sexual identities altogether. We understand because, after all, we’re talking about very young people with very little to work with compared to their more mature adult selves. 

Closeting one’s sexuality takes many forms. Some repress any sexual expression whatsoever (“Nothing to see here folks, move along”). Others pretend to be straight and actually buy into that belief themselves. “I’m not gay because I’m a Christian.” “I’m not gay because I date women.” Or, “I’m not gay because look! I’m married and we’re having kids!”

Obviously, as a mental health professional, I’m meeting these individuals because their youthful strategies of dealing with trauma aren’t working for them anymore. Their partner dropped them because in public they couldn’t be who they were in private or they’re sick of having sex with a partner whose sexual anatomy just isn’t what they need or they’re just miserable because of the very strategies (like heavy drinking) that saved them when they were younger. It is with an understanding of this pain that I nevertheless suggest that heterosexuals, especially guys, are perhaps more closeted than most people in the gay community realize.

Most people are surprised to discover how troubled straight guys are about their sexuality. I’ve personally witnessed hundreds of heterosexual men make sexual disclosures in their therapy group that they’ve kept in the closet. Sometimes it’s repressing a thought that gives him sexual pleasure, a fantasy, about a woman other than his wife. Sometimes he discloses a sexual history with a component he finds troubling (like experimenting with guys or having incest history or even just that he merely really loved someone else before he met his current partner).  For one truly heterosexual client who’d been abused as a child by men, it was his arousal to fantasize about BDSM behavior administered by men. Because he couldn’t even conceive of any woman ever understanding that, he’d given up any effort to form relationships. Talk about a prescription for depression!

So. Straight men. Closeted. Who knew? Well, like the gay man who finally comes out, it turns out that pretty much everyone knew. How else can we explain women giving the entire class of hetero males the diagnosis of “lying liars?” At some level, everyone is picking up on their bullshit. “No, I never think about other women, honey. I’m hurt that you would even think that about me.” Please.

But, if we live in a hetero world then why are hetero men so closeted? Consider what happens in group therapy: He makes his disclosure and is met with understanding and acceptance by the other guys (gay and straight). Then the therapist, that heartless bastard, gently asks, “Is this something you can tell your girlfriend?” The answer is always the same: “Oh God, no. She’d kill me if she ever found out.” And that means our hetero group member has more sexual intimacy with his men’s group than he does with his wife or girlfriend. Hardly a sustainable model if we’re looking to achieve an intimate relationship where my partner knows me, understands me, and accepts me just as I am.

The consequence of his strategy? Unrelenting loneliness. No one really knows him because he’s never taken the risk of letting anyone in because of his fears of judgment and rejection.  We all understand that one. But our understanding of sexual repression is not enough to bring the cure.

If the disease is fear – fear of the truth, of being judged for who I am, of being alone again – then the cure is courage. The question: How do we get this courage?

Here’s where you, my wonderful reader, come in. It is the fight that you and your community have fought for your own freedom to simply be who you are that allows you, equips you, and morally requires you to help your closeted straight friends. Yes, they may have once been haters themselves, but really, that hatred was a symptom of their own fear of their own sexuality. It is because gay people have been so sexually persecuted that they have the personal insight to extend love and compassion to the miserably straight people around them.

Yes, you have your own history of closeted thoughts and behaviors. Because of this, you may have a hard time seeing how messed up straight people are and you might have wished, once upon a dysfunctional moment, that you were straight. Well, in your closeted years, you had nothing on the average repressed straight guy. This is so because we don’t live in a hetero world. We live, all of us, in a sexually hostile world. So, on behalf of the entire hetero community, dear gay friends, because we heteros have so little sexual courage, could we please borrow some of yours?


Steven Ing is a psychotherapist, author and TEDx presenter. As a sexuality expert, he teaches how we can manage our sexuality with reason and love. Learn more at StevenIng.com.