Metaphors that Confuse the Same-sex Attraction Debate

Posted by

Jeffrey Thayne

Recap: In my previous post, I discussed how language can sometimes mask alternative ways of understanding and interpreting our experiences. This is particularly true in discussions about same-gender attraction. Robinson points out that we sometimes treat a descriptive label (homosexuality) as an explanation (homosexuality makes us attracted to people of the same gender), and this can lead us to make assumptions about same-gender attraction that we might otherwise avoid. Robinson claims that this is one of two mistakes that we commonly make when talking about same-gender attraction. In this post, I would like to detail the second mistake that Robinson claims we commonly make.

The Language of Metaphor

Sex is like a drive shaft … except when it’s not.

Earlier this year, Nathan Richardson wrote a post on this site about metaphors. Metaphors are a useful tool for portraying ideas in new in understandable ways. Many people are surprised at how frequently we use metaphors in everyday speech. Robinson describes some of the metaphors that are used in psychology (which many people do not even realize are metaphors!), and explains the second mistake we commonly make:

I think the second mistake we make is that we begin to take our metaphors too literally. We speak metaphorically in our language, and the social sciences are highly metaphorical. So we talk about people having unmet emotional needs. When I say “unmet emotional needs,” suddenly somebody realizes, “Yeah, needs—that’s something I really have to have unless I get enough of it, that I don’t need it anymore unless I use it up, then I’ll need more of it.”

It’s a metaphor from economics, needing things. There’s some truth in it: it opens up a way of understanding. But it blocks out other ways of understanding. Once we have adopted a metaphor way of understanding something, it limits how much we can understand it in a different way.

Few people think of the phrase “emotional needs” as an economic metaphor, but it is. It implies that there are certain emotional goods (such as love, comfort, intimacy, praise) of which we as individuals can either have an abundance of or a lack of. Interpersonal relationships can be an exchange of emotional goods. This is a good metaphor if we want to think of human relationships as a means of satisfying personal wants and desires. If we want to see human relationships as something other or deeper than that, however, this metaphor becomes problematic.

Sex Metaphors

Robinson describes some other metaphors that we use, particularly in reference to sexual attraction:

“Drives” is another metaphor; we have strong sexual drives. “Drives” is a mechanical metaphor—a drive is a piece of machinery that transfers energy from one place in the machine to another, usually the source of the energy to a place where it’s used, like the drive shaft on a car.

This metaphor is somewhat Freudian, in the sense that Freud believed that there is a certain amount of sexual energy (libido) that can be transferred throughout the psyche and the body in various ways. Like any kind of energy, it follows the laws of conservation; what isn’t released in sexual satisfaction must be channelled elsewhere. Talking about “sexual drives” employs a mechanical metaphor that describes how sexual energy can be transferred.

Massive amounts of unused energy can be precariously dangerous. Once we talk about sexual desire as an accumulating energy, the implicit solutions are determined by the metaphor. For example, Robinson says, “A few years ago, Anna Landers said that abstinence was not a realistic expectation because the human sexual drive was the strongest drive in nature next to hunger.” Thus, from this perspective, people must do things to gratify themselves sexually, because if you don’t “let off some steam,” the boiler will explode. As we can see, a simple metaphor can carry with it an entire paradigm of thought.Â

“Orientation” is one way of understanding sex, but it shouldn’t be the only way.

Another metaphor that we use when talking about sexual attraction is orientation. Robinson explains,

We have orientations now—orientation is a geographical metaphor; I’m oriented by the position I take relative to other things in my environment. I can take a map and compass and go orienteering. But now we all have sexual orientations, and it’s important to know what yours is. It’s right in there close to your self-esteem, and it’s pulled down by gravity.

Robinson’s quip illustrates his opinion that “sexual orientations” is an artifact of the human language, a metaphor that we ought not take too seriously. If we do take it seriously, it might lead us to implications we are not entirely comfortable with because they conflict with restored truth.

Another metaphor that we use all the time is “sexual attraction.” Attraction is a physics metaphor, and can imply that our sexual thoughts are in some ways inevitable. Attractions in the physical world are produced by external forces. For example, a piece of iron is attracted to a bar magnet because an external force acts on the piece of iron, compelling it to move in the direction of the magnet. Likewise, if I speak of being “sexually attracted” to someone, I imply that my thoughts are drawn to this person by an inexplicable force of some kind. I cannot help but want to be with that person or to think about them. It can imply that I cannot help but be aroused by this person when they are present.

A Real Life Example of the Effects of Language

Of course, says Robinson, “We can’t get away from metaphors. We can’t say, ‘Well, I’m not going to talk metaphorically; we’re just going to talk reality here,’ because that’s all we have to understand.” However, we can be aware of the limitations and weaknesses of some of our metaphors. As described in Nathan’s previous post, metaphors can obscure or mask alternative ways of interpreting and understanding our day-to-day experiences.

Robinson provided a real-life example of how the language we use to discuss these issue can mask alternative ways of understanding our experiences. He describes a client of his who accompanied a friend to a seminar about homosexuality. During the seminar, he heard testimonials from many different people as they described their experiences with same-gender attraction. According to Robinson, he thought to himself, “Boy, you know, that sounds a lot like me. I wonder if I might be gay.” Robinson continued:

Well, he had to know. I mean, it’s bad enough to be gay, but you don’t want to be gay and not know it. If you’re gay, that’s information you want to have.

So he went out and started to have sexual fantasies about other men and found out that they could be very arousing for him, and now he knew the truth: he knew he was gay, too. He never stopped and thought for a second, “I just taught myself to do something. I just acquired another response. I just trained myself to respond in a certain way.” That idea never crossed his mind because it was not available to him in the culture in which he lived. The only available explanation was, “I just found out who I am, what I am.”

At this point in the series, I do not want any readers to assume this is a universal explanation of same-gender attraction. I use this example only to illustrate how the language we use affects the way we understand our experiences. As Robinson pointed out, there were two ways this individual could interpret his experience. However, he defaulted to one interpretation without even considering the other interpretation because of the language he was accustomed to using to describe same-gender attraction.


I would like to propose that we ought to think carefully about the language we use to discuss same-gender attraction. When we give it a name and discuss it as though it is a “trait” that people “have,” we already make assumptions about the nature of same-gender attraction, assumptions we may not even realize we are making. For example, when we talk about “drives,” we can imply that a release of sexual energy is necessary to avert deleterious consequences. When we talk about “attractions,” we can imply that what we think about when we are with certain people is beyond our control. I do not claim that we should never use these terms; I only claim that we ought to be aware of the potential philosophical baggage that may come with certain metaphors. Metaphors can shape the way we understand each and every one of our experiences.

In my next post, I will finally address some of Robinson’s claims about the true nature of same-gender attraction. Again, I would like to invite our readers to be patient as I expound Robinson’s thoughts about this controversial subject.


  1. Jeffrey,

    Your comments and the conclusions you draw, are both interesting and informative. Not being gay myself, I cannot evaluate them as effectively as a gay person might. Your discussion evidences that you are well aware that cultural contexts and implications of thought and observation, including how we perceive (or believe) those thoughts, leads to potential errors of metaphor as well in our language. You have also identified one of the threads which can then affect (wrongly or deflected) the actual perception, were it viewed outside such contexts. Great job! Prescient, because it then implies unarguably that one feels “compelled” (good choice of metaphor) by those contexts, which might be loosely referred to as their “social,” even “belief,” system,” not to be confused with religious belief necessarily, although it certainly may manifest aspects of one for a given individual, and can become or act upon resulting behaviors as elements or reflections of it. This is about as succinctly as it could be put, and should clarify to a degree for your readers the importance of reflection upon conclusions of perception and language as an important “intermission,” if you will, before permitting them to be incorporated into perceptions or beliefs which might then impel one to unnecessary and incorrect metaphors of thought and speech, followed in course by unnecessary conclusions or actual behaviors. All very well put.

    Have you attempted to try this on yourself as a check on the entire concept of the thread you so eloquently discuss? I find it very helpful. I’ll create an example here, designed specifically for you, to which you will respond with the same process you describe. Note each element according to your model, and record the sequence of thought and resulting metaphors which comprise the “effluent” resulting from them. Here goes:

    A “gay” or “homosexual” behavior and self-perception can arise within or be triggered by, social, religious, psychological, and other contexts and influences, such as association. This “class” of same sex “attraction,” Thayne and Richardson have elucidated well.
    This class of attraction, as it might be called, may be unnecessary, as it may be “driven” by a mistaken metaphor related to the processes they describe.

    The question then arises, “Are all incidents of “gay” self-perception and behavior thus generated?” Obviously not, nor to they make such a fallacious and presumptive claim. A careful reading of how they have constructed their remarks and conclusions evidences strictures specifically incorporated into the arguments themselves.

    So let us assume, based upon their arguments, that there is another “class” of gay individuals (which they neither assert, nor attempt to imply, exists or does not exist) whose self-perception and behaviors stems from a different ethos. What might that be?
    I will create and state, as though it were generally known and accepted (or believed), an explanation of “why” this other “class” exists, beginning with a familiar, reported account which itself may be metaphorical, if only in the manner originally related. Like Thayne and Richardson, I am neither asserting nor implying that the event did or did not occur. However, its metaphorical “aspects” are obvious in light of their arguments. See how many you can identify as you read it. For brevity, I will merely paraphrase it. Here goes:

    “One Sunday, following the sermon, a rural pastor was standing at the entrance to the chapel, meeting and shaking the hands of those in attendance as they left, as is customary. He noticed a five-year-old lingering nearby, who seemed to be troubled, as though she wanted something more than the handshakes and greetings being offered. After the line had trailed off, making eye contact with her again, she followed his cue and approached.

    “How are you this morning, little girl?”

    She replied that she had a favor to ask.

    “Well, of course. What can I do for you?”

    “I’m worried about my husband and my sons. I haven’t seen them since I died in the car accident five years ago, and I want you to go by and check on them. They’re not far from here.”

    Given a child’s imagination, the pastor wasn’t necessarily surprised, but in an attempt to perhaps ascertain the source this child’s perceived memory, he asked where they lived. “Will you write this down?” she asked.

    Without manifesting the least doubt or surprise, he agreeably removed a pen and note pad from his coat pocket. She then told him the name of a nearby town, the street address, and the names of her “husband” and “sons,” which he dutifully recorded. “Why don’t you just ask your parents to take you by,” he asked.

    “I asked them, but they just ignore me and say I’m imagining it. They don’t believe me. But you are a preacher, so I knew you could ask God, and then you would.”

    “Well, I’ll see what I can find out.” he reassured her. Thanking him and for the first time, smiling happily, she left and joined her parents, who had been waiting by the car, unaware of the nature of their discussion. The pastor pondered what had just transpired. He resisted his initial urge just to relate the matter to her parents. During the week, as he sat preparing the next week’s sermon, he became curious as to the source of the town name, the street address, and the names she had given him so matter-of-factly. At length, as the town was so near, he decided to drive by and see who actually lived there. Perhaps the visit would provide some bit of information which might help lead to a better understanding of why this little girl, clearly troubled, had approached him with her “concerns.” He drove to the adjacent town, located the street without difficulty, and discovered there was such an actual address. He knocked on the door of the house, feeling awkward and thinking of how to approach conversation with whoever might open it. Momentarily, a woman answered the door.

    “Excuse me,” he said politely, “I’m probably at the wrong house, but I’m trying to find Robert _______.”

    “No, you’re at the right house, but he’s at work right now. Can I help you?”

    “I’m the pastor of ______ church in ______. I wanted to speak with him, and see how he and boys were doing.” he said, mentioning the boys names.

    “We already have a church here in town. But he’s fine and so are the boys; they’re at school.

    “Are you his new wife?”

    “Yes. My name’s ______.”

    “I wondered if he had remarried since the accident.” He felt he was really out on a limb now.

    “We were married last year. He and the boys were devastated when they lost _____. It was so sudden and unexpected. Especially the boys. But we’re all very happy now. Would you like me to call him?”

    “No, I happened to be here, and I thought I’d drop by.” They exchanged parting pleasantries, and the pastor drove back to the church, somewhat overwhelmed. The next Sunday, the little girl repeated the previous Sunday’s behavior, waiting patiently until most others had left. He was relieved, considering how she might have reacted if he had not followed up on his promise to her. He then related to her that her “husband” and “sons” were fine, that he had remarried, and they were all doing well. She manifested intense, genuine relief, then asked,

    “Who did he marry?”

    He told her the woman’s name and that they had been married less than a year, but were very happy.

    “I’m so glad it was her. She’s my friend, and such a sweet person.” She thanked him almost as an adult might, given the same “circumstances” and walked away. From that time forth, she never mentioned the affair, and seemed to have entirely forgotten it.

    This account or story is rich in metaphor at many levels. Like Thayne, I am neither suggesting, nor implying, that it actually occurred, or that it did not, or that it is true or not true. How it is received depends upon the “orientation” and “cultural” contexts, among others, of the reader. I have related it only to provide a context, which could also be considered metaphorical, for what now follows.

    The, let us use the metaphor, “veil,” drawn between the child’s last life and the one she was currently living was obviously too “thin,” another metaphor. Due to its “thinness,” significant “bleed-over,” another metaphor, occurred. Once the issue of greatest importance, the abrupt termination of that previous life which she expected to live, and the resulting trauma, grief, and concern for those most-loved, yet left alone, had been alleviated, all memory of it vanished, for the veil was then fully drawn. Within the context of “pretending” or “accepting” that the account is accurate in its essential elements (depending upon one’s “orientation”), the above conclusion is both plausible and rather obvious.

    Now, let us extend the implications posed beyond this single child to a broader context, specifically, the other “class” of gays whose self-perception and behavior did not arise in the manner defined by Thayne and Richardson. Let us use metaphorical “scissors” to separate those whose self-perception and behavior are “learned” from those whose self-perception and resulting behaviors stem from “memory.” Clearly, they represent a different “class.” Where are we going with this?

    To sharpen our focus, let us discuss those who are not members of either “class” of gays, but adhere to a belief in “past lives,” sometimes referred to, incorrectly some maintain, as “reincarnation,” as reincarnation can imply (or impose upon) the simple belief in past lives that we have all lived before criteria that may not influence subsequent lives. That limitation aside, it is commonly held by both groups that we may have been a woman in the life preceding this one, in which we are a man, and that we may have been a man in the preceding life, but emerge as a woman in this one.

    While we need not assert, nor adhere to, any element of the examples given, or the implications posed, if in either case, the “veil” is thin, for reasons we will not attempt to address (they are irrelevant to the present comment), what self-perceptions and “behaviors” might result?

    Your thoughts?

    Sincerly, Michael Hobby

  2. Michael,

    Let me see if I can understand what you are asking. We have claim that our cultural context and language sometimes precludes alternative ways of understanding same-sex attraction. This has a significant effect on the way people respond to their experiences (Dr. Robinson’s client, for example).

    Of course, this cultural/linguistic context is not the only one. Another culture, for example, might be well-versed in the language of reincarnation, and therefore might describe their experiences differently than we would. On the basis of this completely different set of cultural and linguistic metaphors (such as reincarnation), they might draw entirely different conclusions about the nature of same-sex attraction, and therefore respond to their experiences differently than we would.

    Are you asking what these conclusions, self-perceptions, and behaviors might be? If so, I must admit I’ve never really thought about it. Perhaps if I was engaged in conversation with someone from this cultural background, I might discover some of them. Without this background, however, I really don’t know… anything say about it might be unhealthy speculation.

    Thanks for your comment! We appreciate it. We hope to hear from you again!

  3. I’m willing to heed your request and be patient. I’ll hold off from saying everything on my mind.

    I will point out that, from my experience as someone who deals with SSA, Jeff Robinson does a good job in accurately defining a lot of the experiences and characteristics of men who develop SSA. However, I think his lack of experience with the trial keeps him from fully understanding what actually goes on in that development. I think it is inaccurate to insist that there must be some degree of agency at play in the development of same-sex attractions. While I personally reject the theory that SSA is a defining trait present from birth, I don’t agree that we choose to experience those attractions.
    Would you argue that an individual who contracts a disease like cancer or diabetes used their agency to experience that trial? What about mental illnesses like depression or bi-polar disorder? I firmly believe that God knowingly allows us to experience trials brought about by mortality through no fault of our own. Those trials serve to bring us closer to the Lord and make us more like Him.

  4. You talk about homosexuality as an outside observer, but I don’t see evidence that you are observing actual gay people. Instead you are observing another observer. As a result it seems you really don’t understand what homosexuality is. If one wanted to understand Mormonism, you wouldn’t direct that person to a Catholic scholar of Theology with an emphasis in Mormon Studies. You would direct him to talk to members of the Church. Until you actually talk with gay people and ask them questions and believe that what they describe about their experiences is honest and valid, you will never be able to say anything insightful on the subject. It may be that you have done that, but this post and the one preceding it certainly wouldn’t indicate that you have.

  5. Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment! I freely admit I am an outside observer. And I am certainly aware that I have nothing new or original to say on the subject. I am simply reporting on the observations of an experienced therapist, and exploring the philosophical assumptions and ramifications of his ideas. Also, this post and the previous post have dealt almost entirely with linguistic issues, and I haven’t made any claims about the origins of homosexuality. So far, I have only claimed that language can open up some ways of interpreting our experiences and obscure other ways of interpreting experiences. That is an experience even I have on a daily basis… the language and metaphors I use affect the way I think about food, education, my religion, and anything else.

    You are right that I haven’t interviewed gay people and performed my own personal research on the subject. However, I don’t see how that is a prerequisite for presenting the conclusions of those who have. If I have said anything that is insensitive or misinformed, please let me know!

  6. Hey Kevin, I checked out your blog and really liked it! I think you show a lot of courage and honesty, and that sharing your experiences is probably helping a lot of people. I also listened to that “Whatever it Takes” video and thought it was great.

    Kevin L: I think it is inaccurate to insist that there must be some degree of agency at play in the development of same-sex attractions. … What about mental illnesses like depression or bi-polar disorder?

    By agency, I don’t think Jeff means every person consciously decided one day to dabble with same-sex thoughts and then got stuck. I think what he’s saying (or will say as the series continues) is that, with all the experiences that make up our lives, we can choose our responses to some degree, even though we don’t often realize it at first.

    Your example of mental illness is a good one. People don’t outright choose to get depressed one day. But they can, one day at a time, get into negative thought patterns such as assuming people don’t like them because of X, etc. Of course, biological tendencies can contribute to depression, but if there were no agency involved, the only solutions would be things like drugs (and those are often helpful, I know). But the fact that people do behavioral or cognitive therapy implies that we can change the way we think about the problem, and that changing the way we think about it can help the problem. That involves agency. That is, we can choose to think of things differently; we can choose to reinterpret our emotions, sensations, and attractions.

    I noticed in your blog that you’ve had many “Aha!” moments over the past months and years as you’ve realized things and begun to see things differently—like, that true masculinity is different from the cultural stereotypes of it, or that male-to-male friendship and bonding is the true, good need that same-gender sexual relationships counterfeit. To me, that’s an example of you using your agency to see things differently. Do you see what I mean? What do you think of that?

  7. Oh, Absolutely. I totally agree that we have our agency in dealing with any of life’s circumstances even if those things are thrust upon us from birth. And I fully agree that cognitive/behavioral therapies can greatly help men with SSA reduce the intensity of those attractions. I am one of those men. That being said, I do strongly feel that those attractions can become more or less hardwired in our brains. Now, we can change the way we view and define those attraction, and that makes all the difference in the world.

    I really am trying to be patient and let you finish the series. This may be a touchy topic for me because I just did an evaluation assignment in my English class in which I evaluated Jeff Robinson’s article with David Matheson’s “Four Principle’s of Change,” available at I’ve also met with Dr. Robinson, and don’t really agree with his treatment model for SSA. He very much relies on his philosophy of “walking away from the dragon.” e.i. don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, don’t associate with any other SSA people, and it will go away. Statistically, this model is much less successful than others. I think he oversimplifies the real nature of those attractions by defining them as nothing more than a learned response and works on just “forgetting” or replacing that response. It is much more successful, in both my personal experience and others who I’ve talked to, to address the underlying issues and correct them.

    I’m very excited about your series. I think you ARE doing a very good job at presenting a view of same-sex attraction that very few members have ever considered. I love your blog! Keep it up!

  8. Jeff, I’ve criticized Robinson in the past, though I’ll cede the following point (which is about the most firm point I feel that I can make as a mere “observer of an observer”). The following story is not necessarily a case study in human psychology but more of a limited thought experiment:

    Imagine an ordinary individual isolated from the rest of humanity since birth, though (for the sake of the argument) with a general human ability for self-analysis. This individual does not understand human reproduction and has never felt a human “attraction”, as he/she has not had the opportunity to meet other people. This person may have sexual urges that can’t be understood, though without the context for understanding them it’s unlikely they will have an outlet. They certainly don’t mass up to some inevitable “explosion” (as would something that required an “outlet”) – they’re confusing if nothing else.

    Let’s say that this person eventually meets a person of the opposite sex. After overcoming any language or cultural gaps and getting up to speed with human knowledge, he/she begins to realize that they find this person attractive (we’ll assume for the purposes of this argument that our test individual is heterosexual for all intents and purposes wherever that comes from). These urges, this “attraction” (and, I like to think, a more general, profound need for the companionship of the opposite sex) now has a name, though the need to exercise it is no greater than before. It’s interesting to think how this person might act. I don’t know how the story ends.

    My personal beliefs are that the desire and the meaning we are taught (or teach ourselves) to derive from it are two separate things, though the existence of the latter does not deny the existence of the former. A starving person who had never eaten might experience the normal hunger pangs, the salivations at the smell of food but die in the midst of a banquet. However, if starvation was impossible this person might eventually train their hunger pangs to smooth and subside, eventually regulating them to the periphery. Likewise, ordinary sexual urges aren’t matters of life and death; we have a great degree of control over how we train and mold the more primal parts of our nature. One of the beneficial parts of being human is that we have the option to rule our passions rather than be ruled by them.

    NOTE: I’ve left the question of sexual orientation our of this post save for a test case which required it. I believe it’s very likely that a variety of factors drive one’s sexual identity, some most likely genetic, while some individuals have also “trained” themselves to self-identify as “gay” in the same self-deluding manner you described above (oh, and it’s impossible to say something so provocative and then claim not to be making a statement on homosexuality). Regardless, I agree that the concept of sexual urges as a driving force that must be expended (or. . . what exactly happens?) is a cultural construct and not a reality.

  9. Kevin, thanks for the link to Gender Wholeness. I plan on exploring that site and comparing it to other views, like Robinson. It’s always good to get multiple perspectives. Thanks.

  10. They are not explicit metaphors, but common trains of thought – they are ideas that can be applied to different situations. The idea of a sexual drive would exist with and without cars

  11. The idea of a sexual drive would exist with and without cars.

    Right, but it would be called something else, like “urge” or “impulse.” I think Jeff’s point is that once we use the word “drive,” it becomes more metaphorical than before, and unintended parallel ideas can accompany it.

    Like in English when we say “spend our time,” that implicitly compares time to money, and with that comparison can come other assumptions, such as the idea that time is a quantifiable, finite commodity that we exchange for other more desired items. These traits of time may seem intuitive and obvious to English speakers, but they are not the only way of viewing or conceiving of time. Yet the metaphor is so built into our language that we don’t often even realize that it’s there.

  12. Jeff,

    These metaphors if we over generalize them we may get the wrong idea, but there are reasons that we use these metaphors. You have not addressed those reasons at all in telling us why we should not use them. You have merely said that if we over generalize this metaphor it may not give us correct information. This does not tell us that these metaphors are not useful.

    Also, are you implying that we have no sexual orientation? So, as a heterosexual man is my attraction to women just what I have convinced myself.

    Sex drive as mechanical metaphor seems not to say what you are implying. Cars have a clutch and neutral. I do have to admit it does seem like a drive in my life similar to hunger. Maybe that is just because someone told me to use the word drive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *