Question: I recently caught my boyfriend of three years masturbating while wearing a pair of my panties. He did not see me and I haven’t mentioned anything to him. I’m shocked and turned off by this and wonder if he’s gay. I’m also debating whether I should confront him about this. What do you think I should do?
It is understandable that you were shocked by your boyfriend’s behavior, as it would be startling to get an intimate glimpse into most people’s secret masturbatory escapades. The secret porn we watch, the hidden sex toys we use, and the odd positioning of our feet on the wall make for an eye-opening scene for a partner to walk in on. But before you create a masturbatory tribunal to confront him and his panty-loving ways, let’s first explore possible motives behind his behavior and how this may have affected your response.
As far as wondering whether your boyfriend is gay, was he looking at the latest issue of Leather Daddy? Was he moaning the names of the Backstreet Boys during climax? Was he thrusting his penis into a cardboard cutout of Ryan Gosling? But as I addressed in "Fantasy Suite," even if he was teabagging a northern Minnesota lumberjack, it would be inappropriate to label his sexual orientation based on observable behavior alone.
In fact, it would be inappropriate to label any aspect of his sexual identity, including gender identity, based on one observable behavior. We do not know if the underwear allowed him to feel more congruent with his gender expression, role, and/or identity (gender non-conformity, trans identity). We do not know if he was aroused from the act of cross dressing (transvestic fetishism). We do not know if he was aroused by the underwear as a sexual object (fetishism). And we do not know if he ran out of pairs of his own underwear and just needed something to absorb his semen (laziness).
It’s also important to know that even if one of the aforementioned scenarios is true, it doesn’t mean a problem exists. Even though many of those arousal patterns would be considered a “paraphilia,” there is nothing inherently unhealthy about them. Uber-clinical terms like "transvestic fetishism" are, in my opinion, overly pathologizing in and of themselves, and have no place in the DSM (a manual for diagnosing mental disorders) because they only serve to perpetuate stigma against unconventional sexuality. DSM or not, the behavior would only be deemed unhealthy if it causes him significant distress, interferes with his functioning, or violates the sexual boundaries of others (masturbating in panties by the fireplace at Panera Bread).
With this in mind, explore your thoughts and feelings since witnessing the behavior. Are you distressed solely because you assume this means he’s gay and the implications that would have for your relationship? Did it turn you off because it challenged traditional masculine gender norms, and you're only attracted to a particular gender expression? Were you concerned he was stretching out a really good pair of your underwear?
Reflect on your response before bringing this up to him. And since directly confronting him will likely be embarrassing (and possibly shaming), I’d address this topic slowly and more implicitly. Maybe start with a conversation exploring and discussing sexual fantasies, including your own. This will start the process of increasing comfort with sexual vulnerability and sharing.
Also, while this is likely a very sensitive topic for him, do not lose sight of your own sexual interests and preferences throughout this process of reflection and sharing. We don’t control what turns us on or off, so if this is still a significant turn off for you even after better insight, what do you want to do? Is it a deal breaker for the relationship? Would it be okay if he did this in private since it is no longer a secret? Would you prefer he not use your underwear and purchase a pair of his own? Would you be okay with it as long as he doesn’t endlessly discuss it at holiday gatherings with your family?
For the health of both of you, as well as the health of relationship, it is crucial that you two are authentic with your feelings and communicate them in a compassionate way. Both of you need to be honest how this behavior, if it can, be incorporated into your relationship. And who knows, maybe after some exploration and sharing of sexual feelings and fantasies, you may desire to go panty shopping together and wear them in front of a cardboard cutout of Ryan Gosling when you get home.