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Unwanted Opposite Sex Attraction

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My friend Lisa struggles with what she calls “unwanted opposite-sex attraction,” and man, has it ever caused her problems in her life. Big problems. Serious problems.

Lisa got pregnant when she was 16, and then again when she was 18, with different fathers, neither of whom is around to help her with raising these kids. She’s had a whole rainbow of sexually-transmitted diseases, although fortunately she’s managed to remain HIV negative. Her opposite-sex attraction has dragged her into more than one abusive relationship, even physically abusive relationships. There was a time when she was moving from boyfriend to boyfriend, and beating to beating, the way someone eats a whole package of cookies, one cookie at a time, unable to stop themselves.

How could someone be so driven by their attractions, you might ask? What would make someone risk their health, their physical safety, their happiness, their very lives, all because they feel an irresistible attraction to someone? Even Lisa asks herself this question.

She talks about it during meetings of her unwanted opposite-sex attraction support group. They refer to it among themselves as “unwanted  OSA.” The groups, often led by therapists, help people who want to stop “acting out” on their opposite sex attractions, a lifestyle that, in Lisa’s case, inevitably leads to disastrous consequences. Lisa feels tremendous shame because of her attractions. The small town where she lives is not terribly accepting of unwed mothers, even less so of sexually transmitted diseases. And while her friends and neighbors pretend not to notice her promiscuity and try to tolerate her “alternate lifestyle,” they just don’t understand why she can’t stop, why she doesn’t just walk away.

Even Lisa can’t understand it. If she could just stop the acting out, particularly the sexual acting out, her life would be so much more under control and certainly a lot more acceptable to her neighbors. The thing is, when unwanted OSA hits, it can become so intense that people who suffer from it become driven to connect sexually with the people they feel attraction to. It becomes an almost irresistible urge, as though it’s hardwired into them on some biological level. What causes this?

Lisa’s therapists have pointed to an attachment disorder that centers around her father. And that’s no surprise to the people that know her well. Like Lisa’s kids will experience in the years ahead, Lisa’s father was never around for her. The comfort of a strong, warm, masculine presence wasn’t something she got to experience. That lack of a father’s presence, a presence she should have been able to attach to and take strength from, produced, instead, a deficit, a chasm of unmet need which she would carry through life with her. And in relationship after relationship, Lisa, driven by her unwanted OSA, went looking, in essence, for “Dad.” The need became sexualized during adolescence, and she finds herself driven into one sexual relationship after another looking for this unmet need to finally be quenched.

The work in OSA groups centers on realizing that this need was originally a non-sexual need, just a need for closeness and love, not sex, so the work centers around desexualizing these very primal feelings, this need for opposite-sex closeness. The therapy is called “reparative” in the sense that it attempts to repair this disconnection between father and daughter, or mother and son. It attempts to isolate the original injury from the OSA lifestyle which the victim of the injury has fallen into.

Lisa has tried just about everything she can think of to work herself out of unwanted OSA, but she’s running out of ideas. She’s tried being celibate. After all, the feelings of OSA might be with her forever, but that doesn’t mean she needs to act on those feelings. Celibacy earns her the respect of her friends, neighbors, her church, and helps her feel more like a “normal” person, a person who belongs, a person who fits, a person who no longer needs to feel ashamed of who she is. It’s not the feelings that actually cause the problem; it’s the behavior, the lifestyle. As long as she can keep the feelings from coming out into action, she’s mostly OK.

I say mostly, because she’s deeply lonely. She wants to be loved, and held, and cared for tenderly, but the fear that this tender love will turn into yet one more sexual encounter, with all of its consequences, is the equivalent of an electrified fence around Lisa. She would never allow herself to consider dating, or intentionally pursuing an open, aware relationship with a man, because she firmly believes that OSA always ends poorly. However, she’s not perfect at suppressing her feelings, either, so every once in a while, when the urge strikes, she finds herself in a moment of weakness falling into the arms of a person of the opposite sex. And then the shame hits, and she starts all over in her recovery from square one. As Lisa likes to quote, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Temptation is everywhere.

Someone once jokingly suggested to Lisa, “perhaps you could try being a lesbian.” If only it were that easy. Everyone knows that being a lesbian isn’t just something you put on, like saying, “oh, I think I’ll start wearing green instead of blue from now on.”

Lisa knows, too, because she actually tried it. She gave it a long, sincere effort. But honestly? She described to me her efforts at changing her focus on men by pursuing relationships with women, and in her words: “I almost threw up. I mean, not only was I not sexually attracted, I couldn’t even go through with it. I was having trouble keeping my lunch down. No matter how hard I try, I’m only attracted to men.”  It would be great for her if she could flip the switch, but unfortunately this OSA lifestyle seems to really have a hold of her hard.

For Lisa, for now, it’s celibacy (as well as she can muster, knowing that she’s probably not going to be perfect at that) and resisting the temptation to act out. She’s plans to ramp up meetings of her OSA support group, prayer, and hope that somehow, somewhere, there’s a way out for her from these unwanted feelings, this lifestyle of shame, exclusion, discrimination, and judgment from others, a life of constantly yearning for that which she can’t have.

I don’t see an easy road ahead for Lisa. I’ve gently pointed out to her the many people I know who are in happy, healthy, successful relationships with opposite-sex partners–non-abusive, non-promiscuous, non-destructive relationships–but her beliefs about what’s possible, or acceptable, for her own life are set. Our beliefs create our reality, and her beliefs are fixed and solid.  It might work out that way for others, but it’s not going to work out that way for her. She is firm about this; she’s already made up her mind.

I know sexuality is really, really complicated, I know she’s doing the very best she can, and I sure do hope she’ll find her way through it all some day. In her heart, Lisa is a really great person, and she deserves to be loved for who she is, and that’s the biggest struggle of her life.

Have thoughts you’d like to share?

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  1. Jeremy
    Jeremy07-09-2012

    Perfectly written, is all I can say. It presents, as I presume was intended, the central questions of sexual orientation as viewed from all angles at once, in all of their terrible beauty–questions of just how innate various aspects of our sexuality are and how they relate, and whether certain things are absolute and true impossibilities or whether the keys to them have simply been obscured by a network of cultural double-binds, and if so how worthwhile it is to uncover those keys, and how should they be used.

    • Kevin Smith
      Kevin Smith07-09-2012

      Thanks, Jeremy. I wanted to write experimentally by taking the premise, “suppose you BEGIN with an assumption that the orientation itself is the problem–what if we start by pathologizing orientation. How, then, would you fill in the rest of the crossword puzzle and force all of the other words to fit, how do you create the picture, when you begin from that point?”

      Many of the “issues” that people point out in homosexual relationships often stem from an incorrect assumption that the orientation itself is the problem, when, in fact, we see all of the same issues in heterosexual relationships. Instead of taking evidence and using it to form an opinion, we have a tendency to form an opinion first, and then look for evidence to support the opinion we want to have. This, in science, is a phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” It was an interesting exercise for me to write this particular piece, difficult on many levels. I had to think long and hard to put myself into the mindset of “ok, there’s something wrong with Lisa’s orientation. Now what?” Take care, and thanks for writing–Kevin

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