This post was originally published at CBTSchool.com on April 5, 2021.
by Elle Warren
In 7th grade, close to a decade before knowing OCD was anything besides a preference for cleanliness and organization, I was sitting on the sidelines of the gymnasium for cheerleading practice. I watched my teammates jump and stunt and tumble, awaiting my turn to get thrown in the air. Without warning, the projector in my brain began to play a childhood memory I’d forgotten about. From ages 4-6, my neighborhood best friend and I, a girl, used to kiss. We would reenact scenes we’d seen in the movies our older siblings watched or make up our own scenes. She typically made me be “the boy.”
With this memory came the extreme distress that did not leave me for years: I became a scientist of my sexuality, dissecting attraction. Forming hypotheses and then testing them in my head. I imagined sexual scenarios with both genders to test whether or not I wanted them to happen. I agonized over what it meant that as a young child, I kissed a girl regularly. But I’m a cheerleader, I’d think, or it’s not like I’m checking anyone out in the locker room…
I noticed both men and women, hoping one was true and the other wasn’t. I had a few casual, PG flings with boys throughout high school, but it was impossible to settle into them due to the fact that I was constantly wondering, “am I actually attracted to this person?” “Is this what it’s supposed to feel like?” “Could I really be into both?” “Oh god, I hope I’m not into both.” Note: I do not believe gender to be a binary, but I didn’t know that then.
If you have never heard of sexual orientation OCD, it is a common subtype of OCD in which one feels highly distraught and fearful of never knowing their true sexual orientation. Like all OCD, it latches onto our closest values and truths, causing us to doubt ourselves. It can attack individuals of any sexual orientation. Compulsions often sound like what I described above: rumination on imagined scenarios, mental reviewing of past interactions, “checking” for attraction. Others include watching porn to see how it makes you feel and checking for a groinal response.
Our societal narrative of bisexuality also necessitates self-doubt. There is the pressure to “pick a side.” There is the dismissal of it as “just a phase” for straight people or “denial” for gay people. There is that word “bi-curious”—I first heard this on Jersey Shore, wondering if this was me, if maybe it was just innocent curiosity like Deena—as if one must meet a certain quota of same-sex interactions before being legitimized. (Hint: bisexuality does not have to mean a 50/50 split! Preferences are normal.)
One may feel they are either not “gay enough” or not “straight enough.” Amongst gays and lesbians, bisexuals have the highest rate of considering and/or attempting suicide. There is this double-life feeling: date someone of the opposite sex, and it will be assumed by the majority that you are straight. Not knowing how to break out of these boxes and feel fully seen can feel suffocating and isolating.
To feel invalid or incorrect in your identity paired with a life-or-death need to be absolutely certain of that identity is, naturally, highly distressing. I started experiencing derealization/depersonalization around my junior year of high school, which is quite common company of OCD. Of all OCD symptoms, this one has probably been my most impactful and difficult to cope with.
Derealization refers to feeling separate from your surroundings, as if you are not really there, while depersonalization refers to feeling separate from yourself, as if you’re floating outside your body. Both make you feel unreal and less than sane. I didn’t talk about this for years because I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
The same went for my sexuality: no one told me that bisexuality (or pansexuality) was a real thing. There were a couple of openly gay boys at my mid-western, relatively small-town school, but I didn’t know of anyone that loved everyone, and I didn’t know any girls that liked girls. I also grew up Catholic, and no one who grows up Catholic grows up thinking it’s okay to be anything other than straight. To my adolescent brain, the possibility that I could like girls—of course, it’s normal for children to experiment regardless of who they grow up to love, but I didn’t know any of that—was like suddenly remembering I had murdered someone.
So, I looked for advice everywhere, and this is part of the agony of OCD—taking in everything from the world, from other people’s stories, and wondering if it is also yours. “Will I also wake up one day in middle age and realize I’ve been lying to myself about my sexuality?” One time, the priest of my church poked his head into our youth group session. I can’t remember what we were talking about or what prompted this, but he said, “How can you know you like a flavor you’ve never tried before?” and whether he was referring to sexuality or not, that’s how I interpreted it. That’s how it was with everything then: every adage or quote or cliche I tried to take as a clue or “sign” to point me in the direction of my truth.
To be both bisexual or pansexual (these days I typically use bisexual, but there have times where pan felt more fitting; if you feel like your label is fluid or still being discovered, that’s okay! It’s allowed to change as you learn more about yourself) and to have sexual orientation OCD is to feel invalidated from two different angles. Depending on the circumstance—I am not denouncing religion altogether—religion can add even another layer of confusion, shame, and/or internalized homophobia.
If no one has told you this, I am honored to: whatever attraction you naturally feel is valid, and if you feel confused by that, allow the confusion. Your sexuality is not an equation you must solve, as much as OCD hates that answer. And you don’t have to “pick a side.” If recovery seems impossible, know that I now date people of all genders, openly, proudly, without shame, and I don’t feel the compulsive need to narrow myself down or be 100% certain of my sexuality.
If reading this felt like an exposure, congratulations! Sticking it out to the end is something to be proud of. Now, don’t forget the response-prevention part. If you’re wondering if my story is also your story, allow me to suggest that you don’t need to know the answer to that. All you need is an open heart and the steadfast commitment to greet yourself with open arms. If any of the LBGTQIA+ labels feel right to you, remember there is a whole community that will greet you with open arms, too.
Another great resource by Alegra Kastens (@obsessivelyeverafter) on the impact OCD can have on your sex life: https://www.verywellmind.com/impact-of-ocd-on-sex-life-5086811
If my story sounds familiar, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to comment below or follow me on Instagram @griefgurlwithocd
I found your story triggering as my obsession has narrowed and switched back and forth over the years and between phases from “am I gay” to “am I bisexual” to “ am I straight with bisexual kinks or tendencies”. Somehow the last one sounds most threatening to my identity as “straight”. Though I’ve had SO-OCD since I am a child and I am 31 now, so I do t really have an identity sadly. Though being straight is the most obvious on the surface identity. I feel like this has had such a severely negative impact on my life. I’ve never been in a relationship and had few (straight) sexual experiences and it has caused me a lot of dissapointment. I’m a man and have always been attracted to women but I feel like these thoughts and doubts have caused me so much confusion and feeling unattractive to the opposite sex that I never could get myself to pursue a love life as a straight man. And I’m a pretty good looking and likeable person overall. The thought of being bisexual feels like a threat and a complication to my otherwise desire for a straight life. I on the other hand, was raised by a family that accepted homosexuality and had a gay uncle growing up. So I questioned things at an early age and at one point thought being bisexual was “cool”. That was before I found out it wasn’t so cool at school and e Rhine wasn’t as accepting of different sexual orientations as I was. Part of me feels that my open mind and curiosity and tendency to reject the status quo has fueled my ocd. Thinking that a straight guy is supposed to think being with a man in any way is “gross” like the rest of my peers at least pretend to or tell themselves. I’ve also had transgender thoughts and fears and obsessions I guess since I was as young as I can remember. That I felt like a “ mommy” because I felt feminine or nurturing etc. Yet I have always felt a strong sense of masculinity as well. I often obsess not over my sexual orientation, but whether I am more masculine or feminine. I am aware all people are both like the yin and yang symbol. But trying to decide my ratio. With a general fear that I am “too feminine “. This has even led me down a deep spiritual path of exploration of these concepts. But ultimately I find myself back at square one, not knowing who I am, and fearing the truth of ego I am and the implications of that truth. Will I be rejected or accepted according to whoever the “real me” is. If I am bisexual will that mean less women will want to be with me? Will some find that a turn off? Will men think that is emasculating? While I am certainly an outside the box thinker and rebellious at heart, I am also a people pleaser and yearn for mass acceptance, while simultaneously criticizing and rejecting everything and everyone mainstream lol. So I think my fear lies in the thought that if I am not 100% straight, that life will be harder for me and I won’t appeal to as many people as a partner or friend. This all started before high school, but I was bullied a lot in high school and felt a traumatizing amount of rejection. Though I think the reason I couldn’t stand up for myself is I lost all my self esteem due to these thoughts, fears, and obsessions/confusion. So I guess part of me fears that if I were anything but straight that would make me vulnerable to being bullied and criticized and called names. Which is all internal I know. But I remember when I was in high school thinking I couldn’t “come out” because that would make everything way worse than if already was and add to the feeling of emasculation I was already feeling due to the bullying as well as the HOCD thoughts. Still, to this day, the only thing I am certain of is I am attracted to women and feel sexual desire for them. I feel like the answer is to allow myself to possibly enjoy or be anything, without labeling it, judging it, analyzing it, trying to figure it out, make sure of, and just live in the present and get on with being straight since I’ve never really experienced that hat or anything to much extent. I’m really lonely. Which leads me to perhaps my biggest fear; dating, vulnerability, intimacy, and being rejected by the opposite sex.
This story was highly triggering for me as well. I have always read that with SO-OCD, you fear being a sexual orientation you are not, so rest assured, there is no need for me to worry I’m actually bisexual since people with SO-OCD are only afraid of being an orientation they really aren’t. This has kept me from having another OCD episode for 4 years. Then I came across this article, and it’s the first time I’ve heard someone actually feeling they really are bisexual and identifying as such despite having an OCD fear of being that very orientation. I have been in a debilitating spiral for half the summer after FOUR years of being okay. And today, I finally forced myself to reread this article that created all this grief for me, and now I’m thinking, how could she be both bisexual yet have an Obsessive fear of being it too? Why would she have an OCD fear that she is what she actually is? This goes against the whole point of this type of OCD, which is fear of being a sexual orientation you are not (which is what causes the stress and anxiety). Something doesn’t make sense, and if I’m right, then this article really makes me angry because it could be throwing a lot of other suffers off.
I think the point is to, whatever your thoughts are, accept them, engage with them, but don’t take them as 100% true or an indication that you must live, act, or be a certain way. Your stories are much like my own, except I have only had SO OCD very recently after 26 years of feeling totally and completely straight. This has been horrifying for me, but I am finally realizing that, even if I don’t have the answers yet, I can’t run from my thoughts, but I also don’t have to be terrorized by them. I just have to live and let the discomfort wash over me. If some of my questioning is true, if all of it is, or if none of it is and it’s all ocd and anxiety based, I am still myself at the end of the day. My life and experiences up to this point are fully and completely valid and that has been my biggest reassurance. Dealing with severe ocd and anxiety is a battle. Be kind to yourselves as I’m trying to be to myself.
This really spoke to the experience I am having right now (at 27 in a straight relationship terrified that I might be bi and one day decide I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore for that reason). Still navigating the anxiety here but thank you for sharing.
I agree, this was triggering for me as well, as I am straight but have struggled with OCD about being bisexual. I think that maybe this was not worded very clearly, as when I have read this again I am thinking that the sufferer had the normal coming out anxiety, but then suffered with OCD about NOT being bisexual, since society tends to invalidate those who are, and on top of that her OCD was making her doubt if she was bisexual as well. It seems as if she was having trouble separating the OCD from the normal coming out process. I personally think that with OCD, your worries are ego dystonic which means if you fear it then it goes against your values and who you are as a person.
As another bisexual with OCD, I what I gathered from the article was that the author knows they are bisexual, but struggled with having OCD about whether they preferred one gender over the other. “Biphobia” causes most people to assume bisexuals are really just straight or gay, and that they are “going through a phase”. As a result, bisexual mental health rates are poorer than that for gays and lesbians, and they receive double discrimination from both straight and gay people alike. Because you have an attraction to both genders (and perhaps non-binary ones), it can be difficult to sort out your attractions. When you’re gay, it’s a little easier because you notice that you simply do not have an attraction to the opposite sex. When you’re bi, and those attractions aren’t 50/50, it becomes very uncertain, and uncertainty is OCD gasoline.
That is also what I gathered from reading this amazing article. I feel seen and that there is a community out there which understands me. I am bisexual living with a man I love, but still I am constantly checking if I might be lesbian in denial. It is very exhausting and the end of the article felt like ERP. I dont want to seek reassurance, but it is very calming to find other bisexual people with SOOCD, because I feel thats rare.
Again, great article and so relatable. I am male and bi but I mainly just have physical same sex attraction – I only really get romantic attraction with the opposite sex. My SOCD has me questioning whether I really could be romantically attracted to guys and ether my same sex physical attraction is stronger and drives a fear of being gay. As with the other people here, it can be so debilitating and causes a lot of stress on my marriage – my wife is so so strong and supportive but it’s also causes her a lot of pain. This article so so well written. We are all valid, even bisexual men who society for years have just positioned as gay men in denial.
For the first poster, as you can see from this post, your fear of being bisexual and it’s detrimental impact is nothing compared to the impact of the OCD, and for those of us who are bisexual, we are happily with partners that we love – most bisexuals in society are only out to a handful of people and most are in straight facing relationships – we are practically invisible but we are there! Try not to fear and accept whoever you are. Maybe that’s straight, maybe that’s mostly straight, but honestly, there’s nothing to fear. And you’re clearly not gay since you clearly have opposite sex attraction, so don’t even worry about that one!
I could have written this verbatim. Thanks for sharing man.
Your story is a lot like mine
Your story is so relatable to me. I remember when I was in 5th grade, my 4best friends and I were all laying in a twin bed and one of them said, “did you know 1in 5 girls are lesbian so that means one of us is. That was my first thought of it and it didn’t bother me much until my freshman year of highschool. I was a depressed wreck that year trying to make sense of what was happening. OCD is debilitating and it’s a complex thing to try and explain to people. I go years without thinking about it at all and then one day the thoughts will start to come back and it will debilitate me all over again. I am attracted to both sexes but my SOCD try’s to force me to pick a side. It’s very exhausting and I am trying to remind myself i don’t need to have a definite answer. I would love to talk to you more about this because I truly can relate to almost every part of your story and it’s beautiful to know other people are struggling as well. Email me back if you have the chance to.
I’m confused. How did you actually know if you were attracted to women of you were having obsessive thoughts? I understand part of healing OCD is accepting uncertainty, but how did you even get to a point of being certain enough that you are genuinely attracted to women and it’s not just false attraction? For me, my OCD isn’t making me feel the need to pick a side, I’ve always identified as straight and am now scared I might be a lesbian. I’m wondering if it’s possible that maybe I am attracted to women at all, not that I know I’m bisexual and OCD makes me feel like I need to be either way.
I feel even more confused after reading this than I did before. I can’t tell if I’ bi or if this is OCD. Most of my compulsions center around checking to see if I’m a lesbian or not, and it’s confusing because I seem to fit every single stereotype of a late blooming lesbian. However, in the past I’ve only every been attracted to men. I don’t understand how it’s possible that I could be discovering I’m bisexual but also have OCD that makes me constantly question if I’m attracted to both sexes. If I am actually bisexual, then why would the idea of being a lesbian and attracted to women scare me so much? I don’t understand how it’s possible to discover your bi and have OCD at the same time. If the basis of SO-OCD is that you’re constantly trying to check your sexuality, that sounds pretty much exactly like being bi-curious to me. How can you feel confident enough to use the label of bisexual and know that it’s not OCD making you think you’re attracted to both? How can you tell it’s genuine attraction?