My girlfriend can't get over that I experimented with men

Originally Published: March 5, 2010
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Dear Alice,

My girlfriend of one year still cannot get over that I have experimented with men. I told her pretty early on in the relationship that I had fooled around with men. I disguised it in many ways but after a year, I just told her for a period of my life I use to have sex with men. I told her I don't have any tendencies to go back to men, I love her, and I want to be with her, but this is a fact of my past. She has tried to get over it, says she loves me, but whenever a gay issue comes up, she looks at me wierd and says how she can't get the image of me "recieving anal" out of her head. I have answered all her questions about it, I have been brutaly honest with her about it, and she still cannot get over it. What should I do???

Thanks Alice,
Ghosts of the Past

Dear Ghost of the Past,

First of all, kudos to you for being open and honest in sharing information about your sexual history with your partner. These topics can be very difficult to bring up, but you plowed through anyway and have maintained an open, honest, and patient stance in the face of her concerns.

How does the fact that she cannot get over this aspect of your sexual past make you feel? How do you feel when she raises it or when a gay issue comes up and you get the weird look? These feelings can help guide your response and possibly spark a helpful discussion. It may be helpful to clarify exactly what's behind her concern. Is it primarily that you might leave her for a man? Or is it about discomfort with a certain sexual act? Is it a combination of these factors? Or something else entirely?

Maybe sharing some basics on human sexuality with your partner would be useful. For any given person, sexual orientation is made up of 3 parts:

  1. Attraction: Specifically, the gender(s) for whom one experiences feelings of attraction, which can be physical and sexual, emotional, intellectual, and/or spiritual. This aspect of sexual orientation can be complex. Some people may experience all these attractions at once with a particular gender, while others experience some forms of attraction with one gender, and other feelings of attraction with another gender.
  2. Behaviors: This is what we do about those feelings — who we sleep with and how. Sometimes, people act on sexual attraction and sometimes people act even if they do not feel a sexual attraction.
  3. Identity: This is the name (if any) we give to ourselves as a sexual being. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, pansexual, queer, homosexual, heterosexual, etc.

Here's the kicker: these aspects of people's sexuality don't always "line up" the way some people believe they should. For example, if someone identifies as male, is attracted to only men, and has had sex only with men, then he must be gay right? No, not necessarily. Not everyone defines sexual orientation words in the same way, not everyone identifies with the many of the popular terms, and human beings don't usually come in neat little categories like the example above.

For example, the famous Kinsey studies found that about 37 percent of males and 13 percent females report having at least one homosexual sexual encounter to orgasm in their adult life. However, a lower percentage of adults identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (identification averages out to about 10 percent according to the studies). So if her concern is that you are gay and that you will not want to be with her, it may be helpful to break down sexual orientation and explain where you fit in with each of those three categories. Looking at sexuality this way is sometimes uncomfortable, because it introduces ambiguity and dispenses with easy labels. Some people respond to this type of information with confusion, disbelief, or even anger, while others find it a welcome relief to not have to fit people into boxes and labels. What is your reaction? How do you think your partner will react?

On another note, is it possible that her concern is motivated by homophobia (fear of or dislike of lesbian, gay, bisexual people or belief that heterosexuality is superior)? If so, is she willing to work through that? If not, can she simply accept your past anyway? If the answer is no, then ultimately you may have to decide if you want to continue trying to reassure her. 

It can indeed be very difficult when a person's partner takes issue with some aspect of her or his history or experience. You cannot change your partner's belief system, but you can decide how much you want to be exposed to it. While you care about your partner, you also express an unmet need to be accepted fully, for who you are now. Continuing in the relationship, asking your partner to speak with trusted others about this issue to take some of the pressure of you, breaking up... only you can know what's right for you. Whatever you decide, please remember that there is nothing strange, wrong, or unusual about having had same-sex sexual partners.

Best of luck,
Alice