What happens when a lesbian sleeps with a man?


My lesbian friends and I have discussed our experiences of sleeping with men, all too many times, while deep-down knowing we weren’t attracted to men. This incongruence with identity and behavior can be disorienting. Ashamed or afraid of judgment, we say that we slept with a man. Sometimes sober, sometimes not. Sometimes we’re attracted to a man’s girlfriend so we accept the proposition of a threesome in order to enjoy her company. And all too many times, the man in question knows we’re in a vulnerable state and takes advantage of the situation in order to “turn” a lesbian, like a badge of honor. I remember that study that came out recently that claimed that lesbianism was inherently tied to male attraction, that lesbianism developed specifically to appeal to men. That study has since been debunked, but it reflected and confirmed the societal perception that lesbians cannot live separately from men, that women cannot exist in a platonic space along with men without some sort of sexual potential. If this sexual potential turns into experimental sex, the lesbian in question can suffer an identity crisis and may not even understand the motivations behind the act.

It’s perfectly healthy to experiment, but I’d like to focus on the times where sleeping with a man was psychologically unhealthy, maybe even a form of self-harm. For instance, there were times when I slept with a man in order to numb my loneliness, but this reinforced my feelings of isolation in the morning. Sleeping with people we aren’t attracted to can sometimes feel good in the moment, due to the advantages of temporary companionship, of feeling validated or attractive, or even as a means of escape, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to settle for a man if your gut is telling you it’s wrong. The psychological consequences of sleeping with the wrong person don’t have to be severe, long-lasting or explicit in order to feel serious. Guilt, shame, and feelings of isolation may develop after the act.

Some lesbians will tell you that when going through a dry spell, they’ll have sex with a man because it’s “easy.” Theoretically, there is no harm in that if the experience is deemed enjoyable, but many times, it isn’t. In my experience and that of some lesbians I know, we’ve made the same mistake over and over again with similar results for similar reasons. Imagine the effects of this phenomenon on a societal level. We’re already told that our sexual boundaries are permeable, and that we just haven’t met the right man or had the right heterosexual experience yet. Utilizing heterosexual sex as a band-aid simply reinforces those misconceptions. We need to de-stigmatize this phenomenon so that we can deconstruct our motivations and process in a healthier way.

Let’s talk about the harms concretely.  Lesbians who have one night stands with men might be less likely to use protection since they’ve never had to consider the consequences of heterosexual sex before. According to a study from 1995 conducted by the Advocate, 2/3 of lesbians who had had sex with men did so without using protection. While that is older data and there has recently been greater societal awareness about STIs, it’s worth bringing these facts to light for this new generation of lesbians.

It’s useful to analyze this phenomenon within the context of feminist theory and more specifically, with compulsory heterosexuality in mind. Compulsory heterosexuality is the encouragement and enforcement of heterosexuality as the norm of behavior, meaning all alternatives are undermined, not considered, and even punished. Developing a lesbian identity on a personal level and finding your place within lesbian culture subverts that norm, leading to less stigmatization and more acceptance, both for yourself and for lesbians in society. When we’re influenced by compulsory heterosexuality, even in an implicit way, the shame that attaches itself to our lesbian identity and sense of self gains traction. Constant awareness of the motivations for behavior is crucial, especially in this society that’s so hostile to lesbians. Lesbianism is “dangerous” from a societal standpoint because it doesn’t center or even require men, leading to their fear that they’ll become obsolete and no longer in control. Feel powerful yet? The lack of men in a relationship or sexual experience is subversive because it tells that collective voice to shut up, that we’re experiencing pleasure without them.

How do you distinguish between healthy and unhealthy sex with men? It all comes down to the motivations and context. Every time I have a breakup, for instance, I feel unlovable and unattractive, and hookup with men despite finding the experience uncomfortable and even triggering every single time (the term for this is retraumatization). In contrast, my friend experimented with a man once in order to see what all the fuss was about (hint: there was no fuss), and pursued these possibilities in a healthy way while maintaining her ties to her lesbian identity. Sex with men isn’t inherently bad, but sex with men for the wrong reasons can alter your connection to your identity and sense of self.

My main concern, beyond the psychological well-being of the individuals in our community, is that lesbianism continues to be tied to male pleasure in our culture. “Lesbian” porn, for example, is devoid of authentic lesbian desire and exploits women’s bodies for the benefit of men. These cultural ties revoke our agency and our right to exist as sexual beings without male influence. Think about the term “daddy issues” and how many times it’s applied to lesbians. Societally, heterosexuals will always try to find a root cause for lesbianism, framing it as a disorder rather than as an authentic sexuality. The way to push back against these forces is to be aware of compulsory heterosexuality and the effects it can have on your personal life, even in implicit ways. I find myself toning down my gayness sometimes when I’m in heterosexual settings and adopting this new persona that’s straighter and laughs at every man’s bad joke and doesn’t resist advances due to a fear of confrontation or creating a problem. ‘No means no’ doesn’t just refer to straight women. We often don’t feel like these issues apply to our community but they do, and even so-called gold star lesbians will tell you they’ve had negative experiences with men delegitimizing their identities or relationships. It’s time to cut the cord.