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Healing Sexual Trauma through Sensate Focus

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One of the most difficult things for me to deal with as a therapist is the aftermath of sexual trauma. And I know that the trouble I have with this is only a tiny fraction of the difficulty my client has as he or she faces his/her past. I share with you a correspondence I’ve had with a 36-year-old man from Boston named Trent.

Dr. Dick,
When I was 10 years my parish priest molested me. It went on for over a year. Mostly, I’ve been able to put this behind me. I’ve been married over a year to this really great gal. She’s been very understanding and supportive, and we love each other very much. A couple of weeks ago when we were having sex, my wife started to massage my bottom. This was the first time someone touched me there since I was 10. At first it felt good, but then I remembered how I felt when I was a kid and freaked out. I started to cry. My poor wife was devastated at the thought of triggering this painful memory. I told her it wasn’t her fault, but we haven’t had sex since. I’m worried, but I don’t know what to do.

Working through a sexual trauma, like the one Trent experienced as a kid, is difficult. But it is essential for regaining a healthy sense of the sexual self. I told Trent—and this applies to any anyone else who has had regrettable early sexual experiences in their past—that I strongly suggested that he and his wife engage a sex-positive therapist to help them get back on track.

Many people have dealt with some kind of sexually related trauma in their lives.  However, some trauma is more severe than others. Emotional scar tissue and painful memories may linger, but you can learn to insulate yourself from the disruptive effects of the past in the present. Thanks to the indomitable human spirit, most of us live through our difficulties and go on to develop healthy, integrated sex lives.

Sensate focus is a process that helps individuals move through painful sexual memories and heal the rift between the affected parts of the body and the pleasure they can produce. I thought this technique would be of particular value for Trent because of something he’d said: “At first it felt good, but then I remembered how I felt when I was a kid and freaked out.” This tells me that he was able to enjoy the sensations before the association with the molestation kicked in and ruined everything. Sensate focus offers a way to short-circuit this disruptive connection and rewire it for pleasure instead of pain.

What follows are structured therapeutic touching exercises for couples. They are not a prelude to sex. You need to be clear on that. Your genitals will be involved. There will be pleasure and arousal, for sure. But the object of this process is to desensitize the trigger (in Trent’s case, his butt), then re-sensitize it for pleasure. These exercises take about an hour one day a week over the course of a month. If you embark on this course, make sure that you dedicate that kind of time commitment. Please, don’t short-change yourselves; this is an investment in your sexual health and wellbeing.

You and your partner will take turns being the one touched and the one doing the touching. Both of you will have 30 minutes to touch and 30 minutes to be touched: 15 minutes lying on your front; 15 minutes on your back.

Week 1—Breaking the Ice
Structured touching will be unfamiliar to you at first. I want you to use this first session to connect with each other in a sensual and playful way. I want each of you to explore every inch of your partner’s body from head to toe, first the back of the body then the front. This first week, however, avoid one another’s genitals.

This isn’t massage, where touch is directed toward pleasuring your partner. Sensate focus exercises are about gleaning information. Focus on how it feels to touch different parts of your partner’s body in a non-seductive way. Be aware of the different textures contours and temperatures. Use different pressures—heavy and light; different strokes—long and short. Use fingertips, palms, the back of your hands and forearms.

When you’ve finished the first 30 minutes, swap places. This will work best if the one being touched relinquishes control as much as possible. Keep verbal communication at a minimum. Once the hour is over, thank one another for the experience and get on with the rest of your day. Don’t try to process things right then and there, just sit with the sensations. Or better still; write your feelings in a journal that you might want to share later.

Week 2—Making Things More Interesting
Building on what you learned in the first week; this time, kick it up a notch by expanding the structured touching to include anal and genital areas. These are sexually charged zones, but the touch must remain non-seductive. Begin the exercise with some full-body touching before moving on to the new areas. Again, the emphasis is on obtaining information and awareness of physical sensations.

This is where things got a bit challenging for Trent. When his wife touched his butt, I told him I wanted him to want stay in the moment and focus on who was touching him and why. Trent’s wife was not touching him in a sexual manner; she was gathering information.

Staying in the present helps take the edge off. If anxiety builds, deep breathing can help you to relax. Your partner will probably be very nervous too, so breathing together can be helpful.

A guided touch technique can also be useful. Place one of your hands on top of your partner’s and guide it over your trigger area. Try using more or less pressure as you see fit. Remember your trigger spot is just like every other part of your body. Even though an early trauma has sensitized this area to be off bounds, sensate focus exercises will re-sensitize and reintegrate it with the rest of your body. You’ll have to trust me on this.

Week 3—Mutual Touching
This week, we move on to mutual touching. However, it must remain structured and non-seductive, both in the giving and receiving. Mutual touch will provide a more natural form of physical interaction than the previous weeks. You’ll also be shifting attention from how it feels to touch to being aware of how your partner is receiving your touch. Keep verbal communication to a minimum. Let your body tell your partner how you are enjoying the touch. If you must talk, assign a number code to the touch you are receiving: 5 being, ho-hum, 1 being Yowsa!

Remember, no matter how sexually aroused you become, this is not a prelude to sex. If you need to release your sexual tension, feel free to masturbate afterward. No partnered sex during the exercises. Okay?

Week 4—Bringin’ It Home
This last week of exercises continues the mutual touching, with a focus on overcoming any final reservations you have about your trigger zone and the pleasure you derive from it. More of your partner’s touch should focus on that area. For Trent, I advised that his wife include a nice lotion or personal lube for this investigation. (Touching with a wet hand is different from touching with a dry hand.) While concentrating on his butt with one hand, I suggested she fondle his genitals with the other. By playing with the energy around Trent’s sphincter, his wife was able to redirect it and help him reconnect his ass to the rest of his body.

Try receiving your wire’s touch in different positions. Being proactive will facilitate the healing. While she is touching your trigger area, move your butt toward her to meet the caress. You’ll immediately see how being in control will help you move beyond any remaining anxiety. You are not just being passive recipient anymore; you are actively involved with inviting the pleasure. If there are still reservations, take it slow until they too, melt away.

Once he’d freed up his ass for pleasure, I told Trent be sure to incorporate butt play into his future lovemaking repertoire, but I also reminded him to take as much time as he needed to resolve the issue. There is no quick fix. I assured him, though, with diligence and care, sensate focus would remove the fear and shame of the molestation, and replace it with a sense of wholeness, joy and pleasure.

Good luck

What’s up with me, Doc?

Can we talk about sexual orientation for a bit? I sure hope so, because I’m gonna go ahead and launch into it here, if you’re ready or not.

Among the load of email I get from the sexually worrisome in any given week, I will predictably get a handful of questions, mostly from guys, who are concerned that they might get gay.

The guys writing in are concerned enough by something that is going on inside of them that they’re compelled to broach the issue with me. I hasten to add that rarely are these communications the “Gee, I’m Mildly Curious” type. Rather they’re more likely to be the “Oh My God, What Wrong With Me?” type. They fear that they picked up queer cooties somewhere and their undies are all in a twist fearing they are scared for life. Ya know, kinda like the pox.

Then there are those who write in wanting to me to make sense of their sexual ramblings. They’ve been playing on both sides of the fence, so to speak; and they want me make the call. My response to each group of correspondents is virtually the same — for most of us sexual interests and behaviors are way more fluid than we care to acknowledge. For example, here’s young (20-year-old) Mel.

My first sex was with a guy, and then I got plenty of sex with girls. Then there was the time that I got fucked, it hurts on the first time but as it continued it started to feel tickly and I started to enjoy it. But I still like to have sex with girls. What do you think I am really?

What do I think you are, REALLY? Why would you want me, a total stranger, to offer an opinion on who you REALLY are? I mean, REALLY!

I gather you want me to weigh in on your sexual orientation, right? Well from the bit of information you give me, I’d say you’re able to swing both ways. And that’s a good thing, at least in terms of getting a date. You have it way over all the other folks who acknowledge being interested in only one gender.

Listen, all human sexuality is on a continuum. Have you ever heard of the Kinsey 0-6 scale? The dean of American sex research, Alfred Kinsey, his associate, Wardell Pomeroy, and their colleagues developed this scale as a way of classifying a person’s sexuality in terms of both behavior and fantasy.

This is what they developed.

0 represents an exclusive heterosexual person, who has no homosexual behavior or fantasy.
1 represents a predominantly heterosexual person, who may have incidental same sex feelings — most likely in fantasy only.
2 represents a predominantly heterosexual person, who has more than incidental same sex feelings and experience — fantasy for sure and probably behavior too.
3 represents an equally heterosexual and homosexual person, one who enjoys both other and same sex behavior and fantasy.
4 represents a predominantly homosexual person, who has more than incidental other sex feelings and experience — fantasy for sure and probably behavior too.
5 represents a predominantly homosexual person, who may have incidental same other sex feelings — most likely in fantasy only.
6 represents an exclusively homosexual person, who has no heterosexual behavior or fantasy.

These pioneering sexologists also discovered that an individual can, and often does move around on this scale at different periods in his/her life. So if you really want to know what you really are, look to both your fantasy life and your actual behaviors and make your call with that information. Just don’t be overly surprised if you find that you shift from one position to another as you grow into you sexuality.

Good luck!

To elaborate on what I just said to our young friend, Mel, I’m going to go all egghead on you. Because there is a body of sexual research that underscores just how complex this whole issue is.

For example, did you know that a recent study discovered that gay men and straight women have similar brain organization? It’s true!

Researchers in Sweden found that gay men and straight women share some characteristics in the area of the brain responsible for emotion, mood and anxiety. Brain scans also showed the same symmetry among lesbians and straight men. These findings were published in the prestigious journal — The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers quickly added that their study couldn’t determine whether the differences in brain organization were inherited or due to exposure to hormones, such as testosterone, in the womb. They were also unable to conclude if brain organization is responsible for sexual orientation.

Numerous other studies have examined the roles genetics, biology and environment play in sexual orientation. But little evidence exists that any one factor in particular plays the all-important primary role. This leads most scientists to assert that both nature and nurture play a part.

To make matters worse, some research contradicts other research, and some promising findings never pan out. (Did you know that there was once a belief that male homosexuality and finger length might be linked? Another, later discredited claim, suggested that gays have distinctive fingerprint ridge patterns.) And researchers never agree on how to interpret results even when they find a likely correlation.

Here are some fun facts you might find interesting.

• A study of 87,000 British men published in 2007 found that gay men have more older brothers than straight men do. Only big brothers count. And lesbians don’t show such patterns.

Ray Blanchard of the University of Toronto, an expert on the “big-brother effect” says that each older brother will increase a man’s chances of being gay by 33%. That’s not as dramatic as it might sound. A man’s chance of being gay is pretty low to begin with — perhaps as low as 2%. So having one older brother only ups the chance of being gay to only about 2.6%.

Curiously enough, this “big-brother effect” holds true even for gay men who weren’t raised with their older brothers. This leads researchers to believe the key to understanding this is in the mother’s womb. After giving birth to a boy, a woman’s immune system can create antibodies to foreign, male proteins in her bloodstream. Subsequent sons in the womb could be exposed to these “anti-boy” antibodies, which might affect sexual development in the brain. How freakin’ amazing is that?

• The hand you use to sign your name might have something to do with what gender you are drawn to.

An study containing more than 23,000 men and women from North America and Europe in the year 2000 found that being non-right-handed seems to increase a man’s chances of being gay by about 34%, and a woman’s by about 90%.

Again researchers guess that different-than-normal levels of testosterone in the womb — widely theorized to play a role in determining eventual sexual orientation — could nudge a fetus toward brain organization that favors left-handedness as well as same-sex attraction.

• If exposure to testosterone in the womb influences sexual orientation, scientists reckon that straight and gay people would differ in body parts strongly affected by testosterone, such as a guy’s cock.

Here we get back to Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking work. Researchers at Brock University in Ontario reviewed the data on 5,000 gay and straight men collected by Kinsey and his associates from the 1930s to the 1960s. Their results, published in 1999, showed that gay men had longer, thicker penises than did straight men. On average, about 6.5 inches long and 4.95 inches around when erect, versus 6.1 inches long and 4.8 inches around for straight men.

Again, no one can actually say for certain what this means. One guess is that some male fetuses are exposed to a unique mix of hormones in the womb. Testosterone levels might spike early, causing enhanced penis growth, then drop off later in pregnancy — leading to some feminine characteristics.

As you can see, there’s a still a lot of work to be done in this field. The next frontier looks to be in the subtle differences in how gay and straight brains navigate new cities, respond to erotic movies and react to the scent of sweat and urine.

Stay tuned!

Bye Bi Love

Name: Dan
Gender: Male
Age: 32
Location: Alberta
I am a bisexual that is happily married with children. My wife and I have a great sex life. Every few months I get an urge to have sex with other men. I have acted out on this several times and always practice safe sex. She has caught me surfing gay/bi porn a few times and I think she knows that I have bisexual thoughts. She is interested in anal play with me and has used a dildo on me a few times. Should I come clean with her and risk divorce, which I don’t want, or continue on the way I am going?

I am of the mind that being on the up and up with one’s primary partner is a real good thing, regardless the issue. Practicing a deception, like you’re doing Dan, will take a toll on the quality of life you share. It sounds to me like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too, or to make a pun…your Kate and Eddie too. Can’t rightly say I think too highly of this.

Most of the bisexual men I know wouldn’t approve of your arrangement either. Because most of the bisexual men I know are not living dual lives. Most are “out of the closet” bisexuals. They’re happier and healthier then their closeted counterparts. They also are less likely to seek anonymous connections with other partners just to relieve their horniness, as you apparently do. In fact when a good friend of mine, a bisexual himself, read your message he was totally put off. He said you’re the kind of bisexual that gives bisexuals a bad name. OUCH!

I may not go that far, but skulking around looking for cock, like you do, while keeping the little woman at home in the dark is a huge problem for me. This sort of behavior also militates against you forming any deeper connection with a guy than a quick furtive tryst might allow. How can years of this sort of thing be satisfying?

Also by siphoning off all your sexual energy like this you blunt the need to channel some of that energy into finding a creative solution to your sexual needs and desires with your wife. You say you have a good sex life together. She sounds pretty understanding and open minded. Most wives would freak for sure if they found their man chokin’ the chicken to gay porn. Are you sure she’d fall apart if she knew you are bi? I’ll bet not as much as she would freak if she comes to learn of your other life from someone other than you. Right? You’re skating on some mighty thin ice, my friend. Besides, most wives have this sixth sense when it comes to this kinda thing. She may already know more about you than you give her credit for. Maybe she’s just waiting to see how long it takes you to let her in on your little secret.

And about the anal sex thing. I suggest you incorporate more of that into your love making with your wife? Hell, get her a nice strap as a gift for being so understanding. You can find a nice selection HERE! I’d also suggest that you introduce your wife to your interest to “bi” porn. Check out some of the Recommended Titles HERE! Who knows where this could lead? It could open a whole new world to you both. It’s not inconceivable that one day you could find yourselves in a three way or some group play. Stranger things have happened don’t cha know.

So Dan, why not give the old honest, straightforward approach a try for a change. Jettison the duplicity. It’s only gonna wind up biting you in the ass one fine day…and not in a good way.

Good luck

The Prostate Toy Interview

Hey sex fans,

This being Friday and all, you’re probably expecting a product review. Well sorry to disappoint, but the entire Dr Dick Review Crew is still working their naughty bits to the bone, so to speak, so we’ll have to wait on posting new reviews till another day.

But not to worry, because I have something else that’s charming and delightful for you. Keeping with the sex toy theme I offer you this interview I did with a leading toy company. I figure if the toy company was interested in my thoughts, perhaps you, my dear readers, would be too.

1. Hey Dr Dick, you look like a rather wholesome gentleman, what prompted you to become a Sexologist?

Wholesome? Looks are so deceiving, aren’t they?

I came to this work in a most unorthodox fashion. It is certainly not something I ever aspired to do.

I was a Catholic priest at the time. I was ordained in 1975. (I am the only Catholic priest in the world with a doctorate in Clinical Sexology.) In 1981 I completed my post-graduate work with the publication of my doctoral thesis concerning the sexual attitudes and behaviors of gay Catholic priests in the active ministry. This was unprecedented research back then (and even now, for that matter). There was a firestorm of international publicity. I was soon to be known as “The Gay Priest”. (Yeah, like if I was the only one.) Needless to say, this notoriety (some say infamy) effectively ended my public priesthood. I fought the Vatican for the next 15 years, from 1981-1996, in an attempt to salvage my ministry, but in the end it was a lost cause. No surprise there, I suppose.

My career as a therapist in San Francisco coincided with the advent of HIV/AIDS (1981). My practice evolved into working primarily with sick, elder and dying people. In the mid-90’s I founded a nonprofit organization, PARADIGM, Enhancing Life Near Death. It was an outreach for terminally ill, chronically ill, elder and dying people. This was brilliant cutting-edge work. Alas, I couldn’t find the proper funding to continue. This precipitated a rather sudden move to Seattle in 1999.

I continued to work with sick and dying people here, in Seattle. I started to develop programming for women newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer and men with prostate cancer. I wanted to create videos for people experiencing life threatening and/or disfiguring illnesses to help them deal with reintegrating sex and intimacy into their lives post diagnosis. I soon realized that I would need to fund these projects on my own. No mainline foundation would touch the issue of sex. Faced with how I might do that, some friends prevailed on me to shoot porn. The rational was; I would make loads of money and I could then subsidize my heart’s desire. Thus Daddy Oohhh! Productions was born.

Unfortunately, the “load of money” part never materialized. But at the time, I figured that, since I was actually shooting porn, I would create projects that were different in style and tone from what currently ruled the marketplace. The Daddy Oohhh line features a whole lot more romance, allure and seduction rather than just bumping parts.

2. What are the most common issues you come across during your workshops and counseling?

I continue to be surprised by how few people actually believe there is an essential goodness to sexuality, both as a personal need and as an interpersonal bond.

I see so much unhappiness and anxiety when a person’s sex-negative attitudes alienate them from their own body and the bodies of others. These uninformed attitudes affect not only a person’s sex life, but also his/her ability to relate well with others.

I believe that sexual wellbeing is more than simply being able to perform. It also means taking responsibility for one’s eroticism as an integral part of one’s personality and involvement with others. Between the extremes of total sexual repression and relentless sexual pursuit, a person can find that unique place, where he/she is free to live a life of self-respect, enjoyment and love.

My workshops and counseling practice aim is to provide information and guidance to help people approach their unique sexuality in a realistic and responsible manner, as well as further their independent growth, personal integrity, and have a more joyful experience of living.

3. Everyone seems to be aware of the female G-spot. However, the male equivalent, the P-spot, is shrouded in mystery and taboo. Would you mind explaining what that’s all about?

You’ll excuse me for being contrary, but it is my personal crusade to dissuade people from using the term “male G-Spot”.

Frankly, I don’t see a rationale for talking about the prostate as if it were something akin to the female G-spot. Because that’s like saying a clit is a female penis. And to tell you the truth; I even have difficulty with the overly cutesy term, “P-Spot”.

The G-spot got its moniker because folks couldn’t remember its proper name, the Grafenberg Spot. (It was named after the physician who first wrote about it.) But we don’t need that kind of shorthand for the word prostate, do we? I certainly hope not.

If the prostate is indeed shrouded in mystery and taboo, as you suggest, it’s likely because it’s buried inside a guy’s ass. And our culture is pretty ass-phobic.

Luckily, I see all of this changing. More and more men are discovering a pleasure zone they’ve not known before. And thanks to the growing number prostate-related sex toys in the marketplace this self-discovery can be fun as well as informative.

4. What can men do to enjoy this little gland?

• First, cut and file smooth your fingernails. And before you start playing with your hole, relax.
• Take a relaxing shower, a warm bath, and/or try some deep breathing exercises to help you do that.
• Have a ready supply of a water-based or silicone-based lube handy.
• Start with a nice hand job. Stroke your dick with your lubed hand to get yourself into your happy place.
• Gradually slather some of that lube on to your balls and taint (perineum). While your legs are open find your hole and play with your rosebud. Gently massage the area around your asshole, but don’t side your finger in just yet. Simply let this time be for getting used to the feelings of playing at the opening of your ass.
• Next, let your play include the tip of your middle finger entering your ass.
• If you do this while you’re stroking your cock, you will find that your hole will actually open and invite your finger. That’s the great thing about pleasuring one part of your body while learning to pleasure another.
• Once you’re comfortable with your fingertip inside, try pushing it in further and move it around a little. Then try pushing it and pulling it out of your ass. Ya know, like finger-fucking yourself.
• Once your finger is about an inch or so inside your ass, move your finger in an upward motion along the upper wall of your rectum. You’ll discover a firm, round and flat surface the size of a walnut. This is your prostate. You can only feel this small part of the whole gland, but you will know it when you touch it. It is full of delicious nerve endings and it will give you jolt of pleasure.
• Remember, your prostate shouldn’t be hard to find, particularly if you’re all horned up from pullin’ your pud. It will feel smooth and hard, like a flat stone.
• Give that puppy a nice gentle massage with your fingertip. If you’re still stroking your cock, don’t be surprised if this prostate massage gets you off. In fact, you will find that your prostate actually enlarges a bit and becomes firmer just as you are about to shoot your load.
• As you cum you will also notice that your ass-sphincter muscle will tighten around your finger and pulsate with each squirt. How fun is that?

5. If you enjoy prostate stimulation, does that make you gay?

It certainly would if only gay men had prostates.

6. Is there a difference between a prostate orgasm and a penile orgasm?

Technically, I suppose there is.

Clearly some men do get off on prostate stimulation alone. However, an orgasm (not the same thing as an ejaculation, mind you) is a complex physiological — muscular and neurological — response. Just like our genitals are a composite of parts that work together to bring us joy; so too are our orgasms.

Finding and massaging your prostate is a wonderful thing. But there’s one thing for certain; your prostate has been involved in your orgasmic response from the very beginning, long before you discovered it.

7. Are there any health benefits to prostate stimulation?

Yeah, you betcha! It’s fun, it’s healthful and it’s sexually enriching.

Massaging your prostate stimulates blood flow and that brings more oxygen to your prostate. Unwanted bacteria that grow in your prostate can be removed more efficiently through massage. Fat and proteins can also accumulate over time, which can cause infection or even lead to tumor growth if not flushed from time to time. Massaging your prostate can assist with this.

Studies show that a prostate massage is an effective means of keeping your prostate healthy without the use of pharmaceuticals or resorting to surgery. And of course it also helps a guy become less cock-centric and less ass-phobic. So it’s a win/win situation.

8. Are there any dangers?

Not really. Just remember to use lots of lube, because your asshole doesn’t create its own lubrication. Always start off slowly. And don’t put anything in your bum that isn’t designed for that purpose. All anal toys — massagers, vibrators, butt plugs, anal beads, dildos and the like — must have a handle on them and/or an oversized base that will prevent the toy from accidentally slipping up into your ass.

9. Finally, do you have any wise words for our prostate loving readers?

Once you’ve discovered the joys of prostate stimulation on your own, why not invite your partner(s) to join in the fun. And always use quality toys. Choose nonporous, phthalates-free, hypoallergenic and latex-free materials. Waterproof toys are also highly recommended. Because keeping your toys clean and sanitized is a real big part of enjoying your or someone else’s prostate.

The Dark Heart of Homophobia

No podcast today, but there is this…

I’m riding the bus when we come to a stop near a local high school. Five teenage boys get on. They’re all jocks—football, probably. Their jackets are emblazoned with varsity letters and they appear to be fresh from practice. Each carries an oversized duffel.

They are boisterous and full of menacing bravado. The bus is immediately overwhelmed with a rush of testosterone. As they move toward the back of the bus, they purposely jostle everyone in their path. They’re rude and crude and every other word is fuck.

The bus lurches forward, and my fellow passengers instinctively know not to make eye contact. The older women clutch their belongings tight to their bosom. Everyone is tense.

The pack mentality emboldens the young men, who are flush with their newly discovered sense of male privilege. Hormones rage in their adolescent bodies, yet there is an awkward childishness about them too. They are alpha, but only in as much as they are part of a pack.

They have off-color comments for everyone around them. Girls are singled out for the most abuse. They make insinuations about their sexual prowess, while pawing at their groins. The women blush with embarrassment.

Despite being loud, obnoxious and brutish, they lack conviction. They giggle too much, indicating self-consciousness. It’s apparent that, at their core, they are still very uneasy about themselves, and have yet to grow into and own the alpha maleness they mimic.

The bus approaches the next stop, and several of us get up to exit. A nerdy boy with glasses and a violin case accidentally trips over one of the teen’s duffel bags. This is the spark. The jocks erupt, lunging at the offending kid. He is easy prey. He’s petrified, but his survival instincts kick in, and he quickly maneuvers further up the aisle. I grab his shoulder and push him toward the door ahead of me. He makes his escape.

Now I’m in the line of fire. The rear door is only a couple steps away, but I stand my ground. The jocks size me up. I’m not an easy mark; I’m older and more dominant than any of them as individuals, but they trump me as a group. I may even be dangerous. In a split-second, the teens reevaluate the situation and instead of coming at me, they try to take me down with their best verbal shot: “You motherfucking fag!”

I move to the door. This could end very badly for me, but I will not show any weakness. Adrenaline courses through my bloodstream. I alight from the bus, holding the door open so I can briefly yell back. “Hey, thanks for the recognition. Oh, and for your information, its father-fucking, brother-fucking and/or son-fucking fag, never mother-fucking. Get it?”

By the time the jocks realize what’s happened, the bus is in motion, and I am safe.

The teens thought better of physically attacking me, so they did the next best thing. It’s what most threatened males do: they tried to diminish the threat by calling into question my masculinity.  And they do it in that time-honored way—by inferring I was a defective male, a queer, and a sissy. Trouble is, I am queer, and I owned it—right in their faces. On top of that, I stood up to them and even had the temerity to publicly shame them. So that had to be unsettling to them on several levels.

How did the derogatory epithet fag become the quintessential means of destroying the male ego? Why has the only somewhat less offensive slur, “that’s so gay,” become emblematic for everything stupid, negative or girly? These questions get to the root of our culture’s deeply ingrained homophobia.

I contend that homophobia is rooted in a fear and hatred of women. It’s no accident that when we want to denigrate a man we call him a pussy—the same word we use to refer to female genitals. In our culture, men are superior to women—it’s the oily by-product of male privilege. A man who falls short of this lofty ideal, or, god forbid, assumes a passive role in sex, cheapens the “privilege” for all other males. This is a particularly sensitive issue for ostensibly heterosexual men.

This prohibition is so deep-seated in our culture, one can trace its roots back to the Bible. Leviticus 20:13: “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death.” In biblical days, women were nothing more than chattel. For a man to behave like a woman—particularly in a passive, receptive sexual way—back then was an even greater insult to the male privilege than it is nowadays (which explains the whole capital punishment thing.)

Women are also objectified as sexual objects before men dominate them. A woman is not so much a person as she is a collection of parts—tits, pussy, ass, etc. A heterosexual man, familiar with and practiced in this dynamic, will not tolerate another male objectifying him as a sexual object, either real or imagined.

These cultural triggers are exceptionally easy to trip. With very little effort at all, we can debase a man simply by suggesting that there’s a whiff of the feminine about him. In turn, the slandered male is burdened with proving the contrary, which often leads to overcompensation. To deflect suspicion, some men affect a macho bravado so as to appear even more masculine than their peers. And how better to do that than to suggest someone else is a pansy?

I can say for certain that all those boys on the bus had been, at one time or another, accused of being a fag. It’s exceedingly common in sports for even teammates to insinuate a fellow athlete is not performing up to expectations. Each of them must have known the sting of that reproach. Some may even have had self-doubt about their own sexual tendencies. That’s why they hurled at me what they knew would hurt any other self-respecting male the most.

What they didn’t count on was that I had, long ago, inoculated myself against this poison. I own, even revel, in my queer sexuality. An insult doesn’t work if the one insulted self-identifies as the slur.

Institutionalized homophobia, on the other hand, is more insidious. The dominant culture enshrines male privilege and, like the boys on the bus, punishes anyone who attempts to undercut the paradigm. Discrimination is so widespread, ingrained—and sometimes so subtle—that many non-gay people don’t even notice most of it. But those of us on the receiving end of the bigotry are keenly aware.

It’s a particularly acute problem for young people who know they are different, and different in a way that isn’t tolerated of by the dominant culture. They are much more vulnerable because they have yet to developed the emotional resources to counteract the oppression. They don’t yet realize that it’s society’s problem, not theirs. Their peers mercilessly persecute them. And for the most part, authority figures don’t even try to stop the torment. That’s why young gay people commit suicide at a rate of about seven times that of straight kids.

You may have noticed that I’ve framed this presentation in terms of the natural world. Dominant and submissive behaviors in other species often have sexual overtones, especially in other primate species. A dominant male will harass a male subordinate until he submits and presents his rump. This establishes a pecking order in the troupe: a subordinate male is submissive and the dominant male is in control.

Some straight men see gay men as a threat, instinctively fearing a supposed challenge to the established order of things; who is in control. It’s basically a struggle for dominance and troupe status. A gay person who is a productive member of society, who is indistinguishable from his heterosexual counterparts, ups the ante. He’s a threat to anyone who believes what he may have been told all his life—that gays are perverted, miserable, lonely people who live short, desperate lives.

Institutionalized homophobia impacts so many aspects of our culture. It may be obvious how it skews our notions of sex and sexuality, of who can do what to whom and when. But did you know that it is often an underlying cause of much male sexual dysfunction? It also contaminates national policy in terms of public health issues, military readiness and the rights and freedoms we afford our citizenry. The business sector also suffers. Harassment and intimidation of gay workers result in loss of productivity costing businesses millions every year. But the most tragic is the toll it takes on individual relationships. Families are torn apart, friendships end, and people sometimes are killed or kill themselves over a futile and misguided attempt to uphold the status quo.

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