Gay, Straight, or HOCD?

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 23-year-old male, and I’ve been suffering from something that sounds very much like HOCD (Homosexual Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).

I have had troubling thoughts ever since a “porn incident” when I was 17: I accidentally saw a gay porn picture and became intensely aroused by it. Following that episode, I had escalating fear and rumination over what this might mean for my sexuality, and it led to my entering the worst period of my life. I could hardly stand to be around people, and I began having strange physical and psychological reactions to things I didn’t find sexually stimulating before. Then I started doing things like thinking about men sexually and checking my responses. Whenever I found myself having any kind of physical response, it devastated me.

My attraction towards women was always steady before this incident. Since then, that interest has seemed to falter, which only fuels my anxiety and depression. I had been much in love with a girl who’d turned me down (today she’s been my girlfriend for more than 5 years!), so I was quite sad because of that. I was also alone for the whole of that summer break, which didn’t help.

I talked to my sister about all this, and she says she couldn’t see how I could be gay. This made me feel better for awhile. But after yet another lonely, depressing, summer break, I’m miserable again. I’ve tried looking at gay porn, and the reactions I have had to it have varied considerably. But most often I feel very anxious and uncomfortable.

Nowadays I look at men all the time without knowing why or what I feel for them. I worry that things I do or don’t do mean I am gay. If I was to estimate how much time I’ve spent on these thoughts I would say that not long ago I spent almost all of my waking time thinking about this and checking and being anxious about it.

I’ve been to a psychologist (among others) who indicated that although what I’ve experienced is extremely like OCD, the extent of my confusion about my sexuality suggests something else and that true OCD rumination can’t be related to “actual” problems. But I’ve also talked to people who’ve gotten diagnosed with and experienced HOCD, and they think my situation is a definite case of it. They also said it’s very hard to be certain about who you really are sexually when you ruminate like this. I wasn’t really unsure of myself until this whole thing started.

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I’ve never had romantic feelings towards men, just women. And I just don’t get how I can be gay when I’ve always liked women so much.

Any input would be appreciated. You can’t know even one-tenth the amount of grief I’ve experienced over this.

Psychologist’s Reply

It would appear to your advantage to keep working with a counselor of some sort, especially one with expertise in the areas of identity issues as well as anxiety-based disorders. And inasmuch as it would be difficult to comment accurately on your situation from such a distance, let me offer only a few general but still potentially helpful remarks.

It’s quite possible for a person to struggle with anxiety, obsessive thinking, and even some depression in addition to having some uncertainty about their personal or sexual identity. One does not preclude the other. And deep emotional ambivalence about things as important as one’s identity can fuel or exacerbate anxiety and depression.

Also, the mere fact that one can or does experience sexual arousal to a particular situation does not in itself define one’s sexual identity, or most especially, one’s sexual preference. Sexual orientation is not so much about what arouses a person (gay men can experience arousal to a woman and vice-versa), but rather where one’s preference lies.

Some individuals can experience sexual arousal to a variety of stimuli. And the nature of a person’s sexual interests and preferences often lies along a continuum. Some individuals are exclusively interested in only one gender. Some individuals can experience arousal to both genders, while primarily preferring relationships with one gender. The most important thing to remember, however, is how important it is for your mental and emotional health to be accepting of yourself, regardless of your inclinations, interests, or orientation.

Ruminations are fueled by anxiety. And sometimes black and white thinking only intensifies anxiety and the tendency to ruminate. Rather than fuel a vicious and possibly endless internal debate about whether you are this or that, or whether this necessarily means that, consider squelching the fires of anxiety by being okay with yourself, no matter what or who you think you are. And if you avail yourself of counseling, instead of using it as just another vehicle to critically debate your identity or worth, regard it as an opportunity to create a deeper level of understanding and acceptance of yourself.

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