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Why An "Intimacy Group" for Gay Men?

by Paul Sussman, Ph.D.

The old classic joke asking, "What do gay men bring to their second date?...What second date?" captures the belief many gay men (and much of the general public) have about gay male relationships, intimacy, sex and love.

Some of those beliefs stereotype gay men as sexual predators and long-term relationship failures. Consequently, many gay men feel a sense of hopelessness and frustration about finding, securing and developing a meaningful, functional and loving intimate relationship.

Some of the stereotypes of gay men leading a life filled with meaningless sexually-based relationships are based on a kernel of truth. Yes, there are gay men (and straight men, and women) who do avoid meaningful, deeper, intimate relationships and pursue sexual connections with little to no authentic connection.

Gay, straight, male or female, many individuals have difficulty with authentic contact and use the safety of brief, superficial contact to meet their needs. Just watch any talk show...gay men do not corner the market with relationship/intimacy struggles. It is a human phenomenon. There are, however, some particular factors in being a man and being gay, which contribute to the unique struggle for intimacy in gay men.

Historically, before Stonewall, gay liberation and the seventies, there was not an organized and welcoming gay community. Society viewed being gay as a sickness or sin, and the only contact one gay man could have with another man was brief, anonymous, sordid, secret and sexual. These historical roots of oppression (which still pervasively exist) contribute to the stereotype of gay-man-as-sexual-predator.

The pre-AIDS era of celebrating our liberation and gathering as a "free" and "out"community contributed to the gay-man-as-party-animal perception. The media and gay-oriented businesses selling SEX, SEX, SEX, adds to this equation. The straight media also sensationalizes the "hyper-sexual" gay male stereotype.

The unique equation and ease of men being sexual with other men, without worry of pregnancy or need for courting and attachment, also contributes to sexual focus and spontaneity of gay men. In general, whether gay or straight, men tend to express their emotions and affection through sexual expression.

Many gay men spent much of their childhood and adolescence worrying and wondering, "what is wrong with me?," feeling different, feeling inadequate as a man, sick, sinful and screwed-up. Most developing gay males do not reveal these concerns to anyone and keep their same-sex longing, feelings and fantasies buried deep inside as a shameful secret.

Often, after growing up and coming out, gay men often "forget" how painful and confusing those times were. Although some gay men have multiple child and adolescent same-sex experiences, for most sexuality is kept on ice, frozen, avoided and forbidden. As much as same-sex love and sexuality is inhibited and suppressed during our adolescent years, the eventual expression often compensates for it. For many, one's self- identification as a gay-men coupled with discovering a community of other gay men is like finding an oasis after wandering the desert for years.

Many gay men who are "coming out" discover the ease and availability of sexual experiences with other men and drink with a thirst they have hidden for years. Once the lid of "shame, inhibition and fear" is taken of the pot, the sexual expression often comes to a full boil. This is often a natural and understandable developmental phase for many gay men. The need to drink until the thirst is quenched.

Although sexual freedom and expression often feels wonderful and satisfying, there is also a limit to the pleasure if there is no deeper, more meaningful relationship experience. Although the sexual excitement, connection and release inherently feels good, it alone does not meet other essential human needs including feeling interpersonally connected, being deeply "known and understood" by another and experiencing the profound sense of trust in another.

Without "intimacy", the superficial connections with others eventually become empty and meaningless. Yet, even the historical roots of the word "intimacy"reveal its awesome challenge to our psychological and emotional development. The word "intimacy" comes from Latin and is translated as "moving into fear."

For many gay men in our sex and gay-negative culture, the integration or balancing of sex and intimacy is a challenge. Connecting our hearts and genitals often means "moving into fear." Often our hearts and genitals are disconnected because they've each been wounded by the scorn and rejection of them over the years of growing up gay in a culture, community or family that rejects a fundamental aspect of who we are and how we love.

To feel a sense of deep connection with another man that fills both our hearts and our genitals simultaneously, is to feel deeply. If we are disconnected from, or shameful about, our emotional, relationship and sexual wounds, to feel them deeply can be overwhelming and lead to a sense of fear and vulnerability.

An "intimacy group" for gay men provides a "safe place" to begin exploring different ways of relating to other gay men. It offers an opportunity to develop more genuine connections, to give and receive honest feedback with other gay men and to explore the unique defenses and survival mechanisms which may interfere with the development of more meaningful and fulfilling relationships.

Intimacy groups can offer an environment to discuss the emotional, social, sexual and interpersonal experiences of growing up as a gay boy, adolescent and man that may have been hurtful, difficult or humiliating. Groups with other gay men provide an opportunity to learn and practice relationship and social skills and to overcome the anxiety of authentically expressing oneself with other gay men.

Intimacy groups often challenge our fears of rejection that may inhibit our genuine expression with other men, whether gay or straight. To avoid facing our fears empowers that which we are afraid of. To "move into fear" is to conquer and master it.

About the Author:

Paul Sussman, Ph.D. (License # PSY 13876) is a psychologist in private practice in San Diego, CA. He is also an owner of The Alliance of Psychological HealthCare Professionals, A Psychological Corporation, which is dedicated to serving the diverse needs of the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual community. He has expertise facilitating gay men's intimacy groups.

Originally published 5/28/98
Revised 11/17/08 by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.
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