This is the third in a year-long blog series by Lindsey Snyder about what pastors and parents need to know to better minister to gay Christian women according to a historic sexual ethic. This post explores the lack of clarity many gay women experience around their attractions. Please note: while this post provides suggestions for parents and pastors based on common experiences of gay women, every woman’s journey is different. Above all, listen to each individual story.
Whether you hear it from a Jamaican crab or feel it in the butterflies in your stomach, attraction can be a powerful force beckoning towards romantic expression. Where that attraction is directed can be a surprising revelation as well as a confusing one, depending on your sex. In this post, we will explore this confusion and how parents and pastors can care for teenage women well while they journey through this time of questioning sexuality.
Many factors contributed to my confusion regarding my attractions. First of all, I knew nothing about sex. When I was 11 or 12, I thought maybe I had accidentally had sex with my friend by sitting on his lap (both of us fully clothed, no less). After hearing my concern, my mom tried not to laugh while she explained some of how it “actually worked.” My face shriveled up in disgust. Whatever sex was, I was happy just to know I hadn’t had it.
Looking back, I see that having no example of the goodness of sex was just as harmful as if I had heard it explained in theologically inaccurate ways. I was also trying to convince myself I didn’t want physical intimacy with anyone because that was easier than admitting I might want that with a girl. If sex and even romance in itself was bad, what kind of monster was I if I not only wanted it, but desired that with a girl? Or so my thinking went.
Persistent doubts tried to bring my suppressed sexuality out of quarantine, but I wasn’t ready to face it again until I was twenty-four. That’s when everything became crystal clear (for a while). It was at this time that I met a woman I was immediately physically attracted to; and after ten years of suppression, I just couldn’t take it anymore. What many refer to as “second adolescence” began. All the years of fighting against hormonal impulses rose to the surface, and I literally found myself attracted to nearly every woman who was around my age. As a result, for the first time ever, I accepted that I wasn’t actually “confused” and that I was exclusively attracted to women.
So what’s the difference?
Hopefully, my story shows you a bit of the complexity women face in processing their sexuality. Though echoing with similarities, every girl’s story is different in some way. One gay friend said, “I literally had to ask my therapist and several friends what attraction felt like. I didn’t really feel any attraction as a teen.” Another explained, “I was in my mid-twenties when I finally admitted to myself [that I might be gay] and was trying to understand my sexuality.”
According to the behavioral sciences (and my ex-boyfriends) it is usually not difficult for men to self-determine sexual orientation. Male sexuality is typically driven primarily by physical attraction, so much so that one comprehensive study remarks: “Men think about sex more often, experience more frequent sexual arousal, have more frequent and varied fantasies, desire sex more often . . . there were no measures that showed women having stronger drives than men” (Baumeister, Catanese & Vohs, 2001, p. 264). For women, determining sexual orientation is very different. Because of the differences between female and male sexuality, women are much less likely to feel clarity about their sexual orientation.
In contrast, female attractions are generally more holistic, fluid, and nuanced than men’s are. For example, while male sexuality is driven primarily by physical attraction, female sexuality is driven by a more equal combination of physical and emotional attraction. Sexual fluidity is also much more prominent in women than in men (Lippa, 2012). Men have what is called a “category specific sexual arousal pattern,” which generally causes them to be clearly aroused to one sex much more than the other (Bailey and Hope, 2009). For example, studies show that nearly all gay men are significantly more sexually aroused by men than by women (Bailey and Hope, 2009). Alternatively, most straight women are equally sexually aroused by both men and women (Bailey and Hope, 2009). The lack of this “strong directional motivation” causes more fluid attraction and malleable behavior among women (Bailey and Hope, 2009).
Suppression, Experimentation, or Both
As you can see from my story, this common lack of clarity made it relatively easy for me to suppress my sexuality for a long period of time—more than ten years. When I finally did face the truth of my attractions, the years of pent-up emotions overwhelmed me.
Sometimes though, confusion leads to experimentation instead of suppression.
For me, experimentation was only attempted in ways my conscience allowed. Eventually, I decided to try the only godly option of romantic pursuit that was presented to me: dating a man. I did not expect much, but through online dating, I met my first boyfriend. At first, I was not attracted to him except on a social level. I tentatively continued dating him, curious to see what would happen.
I remember driving home after the first time he kissed me, laughing and crying at the same time. The kiss had just felt so weird. Why did people make such a big deal about kissing? It felt so unnatural. There were no sparks or butterflies. This, to me, was further confirmation that I was gay.
Still, I continued to date him. To my great shock, physical attraction did develop unforced over time. This was an immensely confusing turn of events. I found myself physically attracted to at least one man . . . and now that I thought about it . . . some other men were attractive to me too. Was I just a fraud the past two years of torturously processing through my attraction to women? But wait – I was also clearly still very much attracted to women, and at an intensity generally so much stronger than with men. The questions made my head spin. Eventually, I settled on bisexuality as the descriptor of my experience with attraction.
If I was growing up in a public school today, I believe I would have a totally different story. Researching was a bit of a shock, because on one level my experience doesn’t match up with gay teens in today’s culture. One researcher, Diamond, notes that:
Contemporary culture provides an altogether different set of gender-specific contexts that provide potential triggers for same-sex sexuality. In particular, the past decade has witnessed a notable increase in television and film portrayals of heterosexually-identified women engaging in experimental same-sex behavior, usually with few negative social consequences (for reviews, see Diamond, 2005a; Thompson, 2007). The phenomenon has become common enough to give rise to its own descriptor: heteroflexibility (Essig, 2000; Savage, 2002). Along the same lines, Morgan and Thompson (2007) and Thompson and Morgan (2008)have noted that many contemporary young women use the identity term ‘‘mostly straight’ ’or ‘‘bi-curious’’ to denote the fact that they are open to the possibility of same-sex contact, even if they consider their basic orientation to be heterosexual. (Diamond, 2012)
In a few words, confusion can lead some women to experiment with same-sex romantic and sexual activity, even if they later identify as exclusively opposite-sex attracted. The particular attitudes and frameworks that have formed the tendency towards sexual identity freedom of expression instead of sexual identity suppression amongst teens will be explored in my next blog post. It is simply too much to explore here how much has changed within just a few years.
Confusion is Real, Doubt Hurts
With such a diverse possibility of experiences, how can parents and pastors address girls as they navigate their attractions and desires? How can they help carry the burden of this journey in a grace and truth-filled way? How can they determine whether or not a girl who has self-disclosed as gay or bisexual is “just confused” or truly self-aware?
For parents hoping their child doesn’t have to deal with the complexity and pain of being a Christian sexual minority, they may want to believe their daughter isn’t really a sexual minority. And they may feel tempted to help their daughter quickly resolve her conclusion toward being straight. This is an understandable desire—you want your daughter to avoid as much pain as possible. But what are you communicating to your daughter by framing the possible same-sex direction of her attractions a miserable fate? Is the hope of heterosexual marriage the only way a woman can live fulfilled in Christ in this life? What if your daughter actually is gay or bisexual? Doubting and pushing away valid sexual identity questions may end up destroying trust in the relationship with your daughter. Even if a girl does end up with clarity that she is straight, doubting or pushing her can still harm the relationship.
For pastors whose awakening to sexual attractions was fairly simple, the temptation may be to doubt the confusion teenage girls encounter. In Equip’s experience, male pastors can easily assume sexual attraction is just as obvious for everyone else, including the women they minister to. If pastors don’t understand the differences between male and female experiences of sexual attraction, these pastors can dismiss the lack of clarity women experience. However, most women are genuinely trying to make sense of their sexuality, so when we accuse women of pretending or belittle their lack of clarity, we do real damage.
Let’s more specifically look at how to address this complicated journey with girls. For purposes of this discussion, let’s imagine that you are wanting to journey well with a thirteen-year-old girl who has told you she thinks that she might be bisexual.
Respond to Confusion with Compassion
The truth is, a 13-year-old girl who says that she is bisexual may or may not actually be. Cultural and relational influences, developmental stages, and general curiosity all play a huge role in the desire for girls to experiment romantically with the same sex. However, we must never assume that just because culture is becoming more accepting of the LGBT+ population, that means your daughter is just jumping on the bandwagon by claiming bisexuality. Above all, listen. By the time your daughter or congregant has told you she thinks she is experiencing same-sex attraction, she has probably thought about this a lot longer than you have.
Whether clarity comes or not, it is okay (though it may not feel like it!). Journeying well with girls as they determine their sexual orientation (establishing safety, trust, and unconditional love) will lead to a deeper relationship with Jesus than trying to convince a girl into believing she is (or is not) gay, bisexual, asexual, demisexual, aromantic, or any other sexual minority. Additionally, trying to pinpoint a cause of same-sex attraction can be more harmful than helpful. There is no singular cause for why some girls experience same-sex attraction. Instead of trying to find the cause, accept that it is there and, ask, “What is the best way to love my daughter knowing the information I have now?”
There are definitely approaches that parents and pastors would do better to avoid. Often in sexuality conversations, it is not helpful to lead with hard theological statements, jump to conclusions, or stay silent. A few helpful things to remember when responding to anyone who comes out are:
Girls share about their sexual attractions (“come out”) because they want to be fully known by you.
No one chooses who they are attracted to; framing it as a choice causes a lot of shame.
Disclosure of sexual identity (e.g. I’m gay) does not mean that your son or daughter has decided whether or not to follow God’s teachings about sexuality, so don’t make presumptions.
Here are some examples of things NOT to say (all but one of which have been said to me at some point in my journey), and what you could say instead (please keep in mind that if you have already said unhelpful things to your child, someone in your congregation, or even a friend, it is never too late to apologize for those things):
The absolute best way to love your daughter or congregant who is questioning their sexuality is to be proactive instead of reactive. Introducing early the goodness of God’s design for sex while still acknowledging the possibility of experiencing same-sex attractions and the normalcy of sexual identity confusion among girls is a good place to start. Addressing fear and shame by establishing the foundation of the unconditional love of God and parents and pastors is key. Fighting for the Church to knock down the idol of marriage and to elevate vocational singleness and Christian marriage as equally good callings is paramount—and Equip can help your Church do this.
Meanwhile, even though the Church lags behind and we currently must react instead of be proactive, you can still make a difference. You can be a safe person for your daughter, sister, friend, aunt, etc. You can be radically hospitable, nurturing, and supportive to girls that don’t know how to cope with their longings, don’t understand their sexual identities, and who WILL make mistakes along the way. Lead with grace and clarifying questions. After establishing that safe place (and if she is a Christian,) ask what she believes God has to say about it all, and be willing to delve into those questions together with a sensitivity to how the answers will impact her life.
Remember that it is good to guide with truth, but it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict. If she doesn’t want to feel convicted, she may not, for many years. But God will never stop knocking on her door, waiting for her to let Him in and be embraced by His unrelenting kindness and love. And it is there she will find the conviction to be inescapable. Your job is both far simpler and far harder than you think; it is to walk with your daughter or congregant in unconditional love no matter the journey and trust that the Holy Spirit will do everything He can to draw her to Himself and the good plans He has for her.
To learn more about how your church can become a place where gay Christian women thrive according to God’s wisdom, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bailey, J. M. (2009). What is sexual orientation and do women have one?. In Contemporary perspectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities (pp. 43-63). Springer, New York, NY.
Diamond, L. M. (2012). The desire disorder in research on sexual orientation in women: Contributions of dynamical systems theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(1), 73-83.
Ybarra, M. L., Parrilla, J. S., Wolowic, J., Rosario, M., Goodenow, C., & Saewyc, E. (2020). A National, Qualitative Study of Sexual Decision Making by Teenage Girls who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or who have Another Nonheterosexual Identity. The Journal of Pediatrics, 217, 177-183.