Trans Awareness Week 2020 – Are you still unsure about trans rights?

Trans Awareness Week runs from 13th to 20th November.

The last day of Trans Awareness Week, November 20th, is the annual International Trans Day of Remembrance, when people gather to mourn the loss of all the trans and gender diverse people who were murdered, or died by suicide, during the previous 12 months. There is always a long list of names. Many are trans women of colour.

Content note

This post isn’t ‘How to be a better ally’. And it’s not a gender explainer either (links at the bottom), nor a point-by-point bad science debunker. So who and what is it for?

This post is for anyone who is still unsure where they stand on trans rights. It’s about how to look at your feelings and wonder about them, for greater awareness and the benefit of all. I’m going back to the individual and the personal because you can strategise all you like, and read activist blogs and talk for hours about what you might do, but until you look at yourself and your beliefs, you won’t get very far.

Please note: Shaming (of yourself or anyone else) is not the aim here – we are all, no matter who we are, in a process of unlearning something.

History is repeating itself

Anyone who does not believe that trans rights are human rights, I will very gently suggest, is on the wrong side of history. Sure, it may not look like it right now, if you only get your information from mainstream media. An entire community gaslighted and abused – it ought to be illegal to say this stuff. (Oh, wait…) But remember what people said about gay men and lesbians back in the 80s – about contagion, perversity, the danger to children? Here are all the tropes again with another minority. How long do we have to wait for the current wave of prejudice to burn out?

Are you still unsure about trans rights?

This post is for anyone who still thinks trans and non-binary lives might be a debate – (but biology surely!) – and that there might be dangers here, but is not sure about that either, having seen trans and non-binary people coming into discussion threads with lengthy clarity and boundless energy, explaining, arguing, asserting the rights of gender diverse humans, pointing out the bad science, over and over and over.

There is a price to be paid for this seemingly boundless energy. You may not see the overwhelm and exhaustion from having to repeatedly respond to query after query after devil’s advocate after ‘I happen to believe…‘ from yet another cis person on yet another thread. It takes a colossal amount of emotional labour. Sometimes people tag trans people into very toxic threads, (perhaps even with good intentions), and they end up seeing yet more ‘opinions’ on their right to exist in the world, and wading through comments posted by overnight biologists talking about ‘large gametes’. Do you really want to contribute to this?

Trans rights are not a debate. ‘Debate’ is often a debased activity. It’s really about who gets upset first, making the other the ‘winner’. Either that, or it’s a theatre for false opposition (see: a lot of mainstream media content, unfortunately).

Where to start? With yourself.

You may have trans friends, but they’re okay as individuals, right? Or perhaps you think you don’t know anyone trans or non-binary? Actually, you probably do. They may be keeping quiet because they are unsure of you.

Expecting someone to debate their own right to exist – and only live a life free to be who they are after you have allowed them to – is inhumane. You likely know this, deep down.

How to move forward in understanding – some suggestions and thought starters

You could look at them in order, or just one or two. It may be that something in this list rings bells for you more than the rest – go with that. Whatever takes you forward.

Be open about your unsureness, and the beliefs that support it: Let them out to air, write them down privately if you need to, share them with yourself or a trusted cis friend (don’t ask a trans person to do this work with you, as their labour will be double). Breathe. What else comes up?

What do you fear? Next time you have that ‘Yes but what about’ feeling, ask yourself where it may be coming from. What causes you to see one minority group as having fewer rights than another? Perhaps you heard negative views in your family as a child?

Think about when you saw something negative written about trans people. Were this writing by a trans person? If not, reflect on why you think a cis person would know better, however respected or high profile they may be. Perhaps you read even just one negative newspaper article when young, (particularly if you grew up before the internet) that somehow buried itself in your brain.

Reflect on where you saw the negative commentary. Think about how much you actually trust mainstream media. Remember the last time you saw an article in mainstream media about a subject you are an expert in? I can pretty much guarantee it made you angry very quickly, with all the inaccuracies and mispresentations.

Think about your own history. It may help to think back to a time that you were othered, excluded, had assumptions made about you, were threatened, or attacked. Think about the different intersections in your identity that others decided were unacceptable. If you find yourself saying ‘But but this is different!’ No, it’s not. Your feelings were your feelings. Imagine experiencing those feelings every day, because each day brings a batch of new attacks on your dignity, personhood, or right to exist. Again, it may help to talk or write about this.

Reflect on your own gender. How did/do you know who you are? What stories do you tell yourself about your gender? I’ve linked below to some helpful books.

Read or watch work by trans and non-binary authors, artists, and speakers. As more and more trans and non-binary people testify about their own experience (and many would dearly love not to have to do this, over and over again), they have created a body of work waiting for you to read or listen to. It’s all out there.

Not everyone is a big reader, or has time to be. There are many videos. Or you could start with Twitter or Instagram. Follow hashtags like #TransAwarenessWeek, #TransAwareness, or #Trans. Those hashtags will lead you to organisations and individuals who post a lot, about information and personal experience. You will see anger and frustration and you will start to understand why. Busy Twitter threads are a very quick way to understand how groups of people feel about their lives. Twitter can be absolutely terrible but, if you take care, you will find a lot. (The language around gender diversity evolves quite fast. Reading these fast moving media will show you how this happens.)

Listen, read, and do the work. Please don’t ask a trans or non-binary friend – or stranger online – to educate you. Not unless they have very specifically offered this.

And finally…

I have kept this post within a number of boundaries or it would have been thousands of words long.

You may have read my list of suggestions and thought they could apply to your relationship with many other groups that you do not share an identity with. And you would be right. I have been inspired to write this post by many things – my own evolving identities, the wellbeing of my communities, and the appalling misinformation being spread around.

It has also been inspired by a number of Black authors who are doing a lot of public engagement around anti-racism, particularly as Black Lives Matter gains more and more traction. I am particularly grateful to Leila Saad for the highly structured and tightly held anti-racism journey she offers in her book: Me and White Supremacy.

Resources

This is a very brief selection.

Online

A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth. By the Trevor Project. An introductory educational resource that covers a wide range of topics and best practices on how to support transgender and nonbinary people.

My Genderation. Trans-run organisation making films for and about trans people, for everyone. YouTube channel here.

Mermaids. Charity that supports trans and non-binary children and young people under 20, and their families.

Julia Serano Tireless writer, unpicker of complexities, and debunker of myths (and biologist).

Watch

Disclosure – Documentary on Netflix in which trans actors and writers discuss the history of trans portrayal in film and TV. It will shake up your view of many popular films.

Travis Alabanza Artist and performer.

Alok Vaid-Menon Writer and performer.

Books & authors

Non-Binary Lives Anthology of 30 non-binary life stories.

Trans Like Me by CN Lester.

Trans, A Memoir by Juliet Jacques.

Kate Bornstein Author of My New Gender Workbook and others.

Meg-John Barker Author of How to Understand your Gender (co-authored with Alex Iantaffi) and Gender-A Graphic Guide (illlustrated by Jules Scheele), and others.

Lists

Seven books about trans people of colour

Books by trans writers of colour

Children’s Books with Transgender, Non-Binary and Gender Expansive Children


Conference: Black Trauma in the Therapy Room

BME Voices Talk Mental Health Trauma Conference 2020

This Saturday I attended Trauma Conference 2020 – Black Trauma: When it presents in the therapy room. This excellent online event was put on by BME Voices Talk Mental Health.

The speakers were Dr Dwight Turner (psychotherapist, academic, and forthcoming author), Dr Keren Yeboah (psychologist and author of the study ‘Power and the ‘hidden self’: reimagining the therapeutic use of power in work with Black people diagnosed with psychosis’), Ebinehita Iyere (youth practitioner working with young people affected by the youth justice system), Sharon Frazer-Carroll (occupational therapist, organisational expert and founder of Time To Talk Black), and Dr Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga (psychotherapist, academic, and author).

A note on trauma

Trauma is a spectrum, not a binary. Despite the best efforts of many, society as a whole is only just beginning to comprehend the multifarious nature of trauma, what trauma means for people individually and collectively, and the different ways it can manifest. Many now accept that you don’t have to be a combat veteran, refugee, or incest survivor to be traumatised and to experience PTSD or CPTSD, and that trauma in your ancestry is likely to manifest in the present.

It’s also more understood that ‘minor’ daily incidents, known as microaggressions, can cumulatively cause a high level of distress in a person. And that ongoing fear of threat can cause as much harm as an actual incident. But some, especially those with power, may find it harder to accept that certain populations experience this more than others. The challenge comes when these same people realise that it is they themselves who are causing the harm. Without deep reflection, it is hard to own our acts and do the work.

The multiple impacts of systemic inequality

At the conference every speaker, in different ways, outlined the systemic construct of Whiteness and Blackness (the racial complex that binds us) and its impact, through racism, on Black lives. We heard about trauma responses to racism and the impact on mental and physical health, including internalised racism (or our ‘internalised supremacist’), and how quickly you lose touch with your humanity when you are forced to adapt to a culture that someone else has created.

Gaslighting and double standards

We heard about the harms done by the White-constructed mental health system to Black patients with psychosis, (for example being criminalised on entering the mental health system, and having anger mislabelled as a pathology) and the constant location of issues solely within the Black community, and the minimisation of the racism that creates this.

Ancestral trauma held in the unconscious

We had an interactive discussion about whether Black trauma exists, and whether therapists should undertake specific training about it. We were reminded that in 2020 the (White) world is waking up to a reality that many have already lived with for a long time, and that White therapists need to do more self-reflection and investigation. The silence of early lockdown ’emphasised the noise in peoples’ heads’ – the ancestral trauma, bursting to speak, that is so often buried in the unconscious.

Examining racism in supervision and training

We heard about the process of unmasking racism in clinical supervision, and the reminder that Black therapists are impacted by racial trauma while also hearing about it, and yet sometimes feel unable to name racism to a White supervisor. And when a Black student is expected to educate the rest of the students in the room, and do the labour of caretaking White fragility, (and keep their own feelings in check to protect others as well as themselves within a White system), they cannot give time to their own development.

The whiteness of the therapy world

Self-care

For the last hour of the conference, the primary theme in the panel discussion was self-care. When Black therapists speak about interaction with White colleagues, the word ‘exhaustion’ quickly comes up. There will be times when Black therapists cannot be with White friends and colleagues, because of this exhaustion, rage, and hurt. White people cannot expect to be rescued from this – ‘It’s not about you’. One speaker spoke of ‘trying not to be drawn into other peoples’ awakenings.’ Another quoted: ‘Just because we are in the same storm, does not mean that we are in the same boat.’ White therapists are advised to read, especially outside therapy subjects, and process shame and guilt by finding a place where it’s okay to talk.

Challenging course leaders

How do Black trainees stand up and challenge their course leaders? One speaker sent their comments to all their leaders and fellow students, and spoke out on social media, adding: ‘Get your message right and don’t endanger yourself.’ It is important to create Black spaces if there were none previously. But ‘realise you can’t do it all.’

Beyond eurocentric trainings

In the Q&A, someone asked: ‘Where are the Black and Asian modalities?’ The response came: ‘Here we are!’ The teachers, supervisors, and learnings are already here! They need to be listened to, and training organisations need their wisdom and experience in order to build equality-based and culturally competent trainings from the ground up. There are plenty of people and organisations out there who can help: Kaemotherapy, Race Reflections, Me & White Supremacy, Radical Therapist Network, Resmaa Menakem, and others can all contribute to new forms of training that prove the organisations truly value every student equally.

When I attended the inaugural BME Voices Talk Mental Health conference back in October 2018, I was surprised to see so few other White therapists there, perhaps 10% of the delegates. This was an indication of the work we have to do to make counselling and psychotherapy truly reflective of all populations, in respect of both therapists and clients. However, after the events of 2020, and the increasing profile of Black Lives Matter, I suspect this year the numbers were greater.

There is a long way to go

Every speaker had something positive to say about how we might go forward. But it was also clear that, in many ways, things have barely changed in 30 years. There are of course many individuals of all backgrounds desiring change in the mental health system and psychotherapy – but the process is slow. And, unfortunately, it is not clear that organisations are truly listening. One major piece of evidence of this is the ScopEd project, a proposed framework for a hierarchical classification of therapists, and promotion of particular member organisations. ScopEd was not mentioned at the conference (as I recall), but I feel it fits strongly with the theme.

A missed opportunity

This is not the post to go into detail about this, but I will describe it in brief. There was an opportunity for some real systemic thinking to address the huge missing pieces currently within mainstream therapy trainings, (race, racism and White supremacy being one of the most significant, but not the only one). Instead a top-down medical and analytic model is being proposed, and many counsellors may be put out of business by being deemed incapable of taking paid work. This hierarchical structure does nothing to address racism, misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, classism or ableism, and does not seem to address systemic factors at all, even though they affect all of us every single day, therapist or client. It also doesn’t address the access issues that prevent so many people (particularly Black, and working class) from training as therapists in the first place. While I would agree that training standards do need to be addressed, it is the counsellors who are bearing the brunt of this project, rather than the training organisations who trained them.

In his book How to be an antiracist, Ibram X Kendi states, over and over again, that it is racist policies that need to change, and that only working towards anti-racist policy will have meaningful impact. Sadly it feels as if this is being played out, however unintentionally, in the counselling world. Of course, good intentions mean nothing without deep reflection on the impacts of our actions.

I am very grateful to all the conference speakers for sharing so much, and to Helen George, founder of BME Voices Talk Mental Health, and co-host Leoni Cachia. I’m looking foward to the next one already.


Queer Menopause now has its own website!

Blogging silence

First off, I’m aware that I haven’t been posting on here much during lockdown. I keep starting things, and then experiencing a sense of extreme pointlessness. Each time I decide to write about opening up relationships, or peak experiences, or sexual and non-sexual BDSM from a therapists’s perspective – (or for that matter, the urgency of queer haircuts in a time of Covid) – I remember that we have an incurable virus at large at the beginning of winter, people dying, fascism everywhere, and the earth going up in flames.

Menopause takeover?

A Martian dropping by might think this site was really all about the subject of menopause, or that menopause had somehow taken over. Perhaps, along with the murder hornets, walking sharks, and some nervously awaited geese, a further horror come true of 2020 will be the entire population being forced into menopause until a vaccine is found. This would be most interesting.

Queermenopause.com unveiled

Menopause has not taken over, but, while my research goes through the peer review system, I’ve been working on a project that I hope will be helpful in the future. The project is a new website which I am delighted to reveal: queermenopause.com.

Menopause happens to people. Trans men, non-binary people, and intersex people are excluded when menopause information is restricted only to cisgender women. The site has an LGBTQIA+ focus, but I also want to offer resources that apply to anyone whose experience of menopause is excluded from, or not sufficiently acknowleged by, the mainstream. There is a lot of work to do. First blog post here: Welcome to queermenopause.com. You can also find this project on Instagram @queermenopause.

I am also seeking to inform practitioners of all kinds about the LGBTQIA+ experience of menopause, and about menopause itself.

Queer Menopause in the media

I have been seeing my clients online all the way through lockdown, and I’ve also contributed to a couple of books. One is an interview for Still Hot!, a collection of 42 interviews about menopause experience. I’m also happy to say that Diva’s queer menopause feature from December 2019, which I took part in, is now available online: This is the end… of your period.

Moving forward…

I’m very glad to have this project off the ground, and I will be adding to it as time goes on. Please get in touch if your work is relevant to this project. I welcome suggestions of practitioners, trainers and researchers who are working in this area.

I hope to return to non-menopause blogging soon.


Queer Menopause at the Pink Therapy Queer Desire conference

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 08.31.12

Pink Therapy Queer Desire Conference 2020

This year’s Pink Therapy Queer Desire conference was, as always, excellent and full of good things. This year, 2020, was a particular triumph as, due to Covid-19 and the necessity for social distancing, it was held entirely online. What we lost in terms of face-to-face networking we gained by the fact of the conference happening at all. I felt very proud to be involved in it.

My talk – ‘Queer Menopause – Where Gender, Sexuality and Age Collide – was the first outing of some of my research from last year (‘How can therapists best support their Queer Menopausal clients?’). While that piece of work was focused mainly on LGBTQ+ menopausal clients’ experiences in therapy and the healthcare system, as you can probably imagine, sex and relationships came into it fairly often.

Menopause isn’t going to go away

So much is happening in the world right now that, totally understandably,  it’s hard to look at anything else but our own survival, that of our communities, and the future of society. However, like all other health-related issues of the body and mind, menopause isn’t going to go away. The issues I have discussed in my talk, and the unacceptable lack of information and support I have underlined here, are going to remain – until we collectively do something about them.

Whoever you are, wherever you go

Whoever you are, whatever age you are, whether you have ovaries or not, menopause is going to affect either you or someone close to you. Remember, oestrogen can start to fluctuate (in other words Perimenopause) in your 30s, so it’s not just a ‘middle aged thing.’  And if you have your ovaries removed surgically, menopause can start almost immediately, however young you are.

To be informed about this is to care for yourself, and others too.

SURVEY ALERT!

The US sex educator and activist Heather Corinna is doing a LGBTQ+ Menopause survey for queer folks. Please fill it out and help bring all this much needed research into the spotlight.

MORE RESEARCH NEEDED!

If you’re a LGBTQ+ identified researcher, or are thinking about doing research, and something in my talk inspires you, go for it. The more folks work on this, the less it can be ignored and sidelined and the more visible it can be. (And of course the same goes for cisgender heterosexual menopause research too – that is still very needed.)

Further Queer Desire conference videos

Everyone is experiencing Covid-19 differently, but if you do have some spare time for watching videos, and are interested in sex and sex therapy, here are the four other conference talks. They are great and I learned something from all of them:

Contact me

If you’re struggling with any aspect of menopause, or someone close to you is, therapy can help. if you would like to work with me, please contact me on the link below. And if you work with menopause yourself and would like to make your offering more gender, sex and relationship diversity inclusive, I also offer consultancy.

You can contact me here.


Doing Therapy Online – Advantages and Challenges

Illustration of a flu virus

Taking my private practice online

The world is experiencing a pandemic of Coronavirus, or Covid-19 flu. Due to the way it’s transmitted, people are being advised to severely limit in-person contact with others, and to take great care around hygiene. As everywhere, the situation in London is very much ongoing – and changing rapidly.

This post is to announce that, due to the current situation with Coronavirus, I am now seeing my clients entirely online. This will remain in place until things change again. This means I will be working either by video/audio link using Zoom (or another similar service as backup), or by phone. My colleagues are doing the same, or working towards it. 

The benefits of online therapy

I would like to say more about this as not everyone feels comfortable with the idea of working with a counsellor or psychotherapist remotely. I have been working online and by phone for a number of years, and I would like to reassure anyone who is looking for therapy at the moment but has never done it online before. 

There are significant advantages to working online:

  • We do not need to be in the same location to work together. Online access has created a revolution in therapeutic communication and relationships.
  • We have greater choice of working times, as I am not tied to the in-person hours I have at my office.
  • It provides access if you are unable to leave your home for any reason, or if you find in-person work very difficult.
  • Very importantly, we can continue to work during unusual periods like this when meeting in person is not possible.

There are also challenges:

  • Finding a private space to have therapy. This is important to reflect on, if your home or workplace are not right for this.
  • Feeling comfortable using a medium that you may not have used before, or which you have previously mainly used for social or sexual contact.
  • The reliability and safety of the technology.

If you’ve never had counselling online before, I have tried to answer some of the queries you may have:

Doesn’t it feel weird doing therapy while looking at each other on a screen?
I think we all felt weird the first time we did any kind of video call, even with someone we know well in real life. The first time you have a session on video as a client, it’s okay to take some time to feel into it, make sure you are sitting in a comfortable position and, if you need to, feed back to your therapist about what’s going on for you. 

I’m worried it might feel distancing.
It may do at first, and it’s important to honour whatever you’re feeling at the time. However, humans are highly adaptive, and it’s likely that, it will gradually start to normalise.

Don’t you lose something by not being in the same room?
You lose some body language for sure. But your senses recalibrate.

Isn’t it strange to do therapy by phone?
My experience is that you can do very effective therapy by phone. With only hearing to guide us, our senses recalibrate further and our focus increases.

Do I have to install anything on my computer/phone?
You may well need to download an app and/or sign into a website. I am happy to guide you through this.

What if something goes wrong and the tech doesn’t work on the day?
This happens occasionally. Wi-fi can go down. Services may be busier as more people take their lives online. However, I have several apps on my laptop as backup, andwe can use our phones. Depending on the access issues, we can look at each other on video while speaking on the phone, or even typing on messenger. (For the latter, a discussion on confidentiality is necessary.) If everything goes down completely, we can reschedule.

What about confidentiality?
In terms of what we say to each other, my approach to confidentiality is the same as when we are working in a room together. As for protection when working online, as soon as electronic media are being used for communication, there is a slightly greater risk. This is unavoidable. It’s about balancing the possible risks with your needs at the time. Some VOIP apps are seen to be more secure than others, and it is my responsibility as the therapist to check up on this. 

When reflecting on whether I and a new client are a good fit, I take a number of things into account – and working online is not going to be the right thing for everyone. I’m also aware that for some people, the act of leaving your home, travelling to your therapist’s consulting room, and coming back again, is part of the process, and it feels odd not to have this.

While these tools – computers, phones, and the internet – are not perfect (because humans made them) they are enormously useful, especially at times like this when there are very few other options.

While we all try to adapt to this rapidly changing situation, therapy may not be uppermost on your mind. However, if you would like to start therapy and are interested in working with me online, on video or by phone, please get in touch.


World Menopause Day 2019 – There’s a long way to go

It’s World Menopause Day today – 18th October 2019

If you have any interest in human welfare, and the welfare of those you love, please read.

I would love to go into detail about the results of my Queer Menopause study, (which I am about to start writing up), but in the academic world you are supposed to keep fairly quiet about everything until it’s coming out in a peer reviewed journal. At best this means likely a year’s time! And that assumes it’s going to be accepted by the journal I will be pitching it to.

So I will simply take this moment to thank everyone who participated in my study. I am very grateful to you for sharing so much on such a crucial topic.

However, it’s safe to say, from my reading online, personal experience, and conversations everywhere that menopause can have a huge impact on life. [Tip for happiness: If menopause has been easy for you, that’s great. But I’m not going to debate with you about why the system needs to change.]

The general response to menopause is a reminder that we are still living in an ageist, ableist, sexist, misogynist society.

Folks desperate for help are going to their GPs, but the response is a lottery. You may get lucky first time, or your GP may realise the limits of their knowledge and refer you on to a menopause clinic. But equally you may be dismissed, gaslighted, and lied to. You may be told ‘It’s natural, just get over it’, or fobbed off with antidepressants.

Of course, hormone treatment is not simple, and it carries health implications, but the implications of oestrogen deficiency are equally concerning. The fact that so little is truly known makes me suspect that if people took the time to look hard enough at hormone function, we would be less hung up on the gender binary, which would make a lot of us very happy, but some other folks, clearly, very upset.

PSA: hormones don’t have genders. All bodies need oestrogen and testosterone to function.

The whole thing is doubly stressful for queer/trans folks, who may end up having to do a huge amount of education work around gender and sexuality while trying to get help from the healthcare system. And the general media narrative about menopause is suffocatingly heteronormative and often incredibly infantilising. We can do better – on a number of fronts.

And if you’re in your 20s and 30s, don’t think it starts at 50 and you can forget about it for a while

Perimenopause (the phase up to when your periods stop) can start in your late 30s or earlier. My periods started to fluctuate when I was 39. Fluctuating oestrogen levels can affect mental health for years before your periods stop.

The effects of menopause can be inherited, so it’s worth finding out, if you can, how your biological mother experienced it. It’s also biopsychosocial, which means, put simply, it’s constructed within the body, the mind, and the world outside. If older women/AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) folks were respected in society, I have no doubt the experience would not be as bad.

Things are starting to change

Workplace policies are being created, and campaigners are pushing for changes in the law. I would like being in menopause to be a protected identity. At worst it disables people to the point where they cannot work due to physical and mental ill health, and they lose relationships and careers. I think everyone should have the possibility of subsidised time off work. I would also like to see menopause pensions to cover this too.

If you run a workplace, please think about how it could be more welcoming to folks in menopause.

If you are struggling, don’t suffer in silence

Go to your GP armed with the NICE Guidelines 2015. If they won’t help you, find one who will, or ask to be referred to a menopause clinic.

I wrote this first thing this morning. As time passes I will add some links. Thank you for reading.


Queer Menopause – New research project

Queer Menopause flag

This year, when I’m not working with my clients, I’m doing a Masters in Counselling and Psychotherapy with the University of East London.

In brief: I’m doing my MA dissertation on queer menopause, and how therapists can best support and validate their LGBTQIA+ menopausal clients. 

After looking at several dissertation ideas, this one stood head and shoulders above the rest. The idea crystallised after a day in December 2018 when I had conversations with about five different friends about our experiences. I sense a lot of excitement about the topic, especially as there is very little existing research out there.

UPDATE on 5th November 2019

I’m adding this for clarity, and making a few changes below. My call for participants has now ended and I am in the process of writing up my findings. Thank you very much to everyone who took part, and everyone who took the time to write to me.

I’m going to keep this post as simple as possible because this subject has many aspects to it. This is a qualitative study using Thematic Analysis. My aim is to open some doors, shine a light, and give a voice to those who have not yet been heard. I want to create a building block that will inspire others to doing further research in this area.

Call for Participants (now ended)

‘How can therapists best support and validate their queer menopausal clients?’

As my subject is counselling and psychotherapy, my research focus is on what queer menopausal clients would like their therapists to know. (‘Therapists’ could also extend to other health practitioners.) This question may evolve over time.

I am seeking to interview LGBTQIA+ identified people who have experienced perimenopause/menopause, and for whom my question above has resonance. I have ethical clearance from UEL.

You can contact me here.

First of all, what is menopause?

Menopause happens to people with ovaries, not all of whom will be women. (I am using a very specific definition of menopause in this section, and this is the main menopause to which my study refers, but not to the exception of all other experiences. More on this further down.) Put very simply, the body slows down oestrogen production and menstruation eventually stops. When menstruation has stopped for a year, the person is said to be post-menopausal. This all sounds quite straightforward. Many people might welcome their periods stopping and, if they were having PIV sex, losing the risk of getting pregnant.

In fact, fluctuating and diminishing oestrogen levels can have many different effects on the body and mind. People (and experiences vary widely) can experience hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, anxiety, depression, weight gain, memory loss, reduced libido, and thinning of the tissues around the vagina and urethra, leading to stress incontinence and increasingly painful penetrative sex.

Some barely notice anything at all. Others are so badly affected that their relationships fall apart and they have to stop work. Most fall somewhere along a spectrum between these two points.

Perimenopause – it starts much earlier than you think

If you’re under 40 and reading this (or even under 45), this may feel like something you don’t need to think about. But, actually, menopause can start in your late 30s. (And earlier if your ovaries were removed.) The first phase of menopause is known as perimenopause. Previously regular as clockwork periods may start to become more random. You may bleed more heavily at times. You may experience mood swings, and as hormone levels start to fluctuate, this may exacerbate existing physical and mental health issues.

No, I hadn’t heard of it either, once upon a time. Well, I kind of had, but there was no ‘official’ info so I took no notice of the changes that, now I look back, were clearly going on in my body from the age of 39 and perhaps even earlier.

LGBTQIA+ Menopause – a subject in need of a spotlight?

Where menopause is concerned, the media narrative, overwhelmingly, concerns cisgender heterosexual women – who are generally married to men, and who are experiencing loss of capacity (and desire) for penis-in-vagina sex. It is frequently framed around increased self-hatred due to the visible signs of ageing, and the idea that someone should be locked in increasingly desperate combat with their own body as their perceived attractiveness to men is reduced.

There are a number of peer-reviewed studies of lesbian experiences over the last 30 years. However, there is (that I have found so far) next to nothing out there about everyone else on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Bisexual women may pop up in studies, but in numbers so small that they slip through the cracks. And what if you are non-binary or trans? Or intersex? Or asexual?

Unfortunately, despite cisgender heterosexual women representing a large percentage of the menopausal population, the variation in medical advice and appropriate treatment for them is nothing short of a disgrace. Too many experience gaslighting and dismissal from doctors, despite the NICE guidelines. So the situation for anyone not cis or not heterosexual, who is concerned about their symptoms, could be much worse.

For example, someone AFAB (assigned female at birth) and non-binary may have a struggle when trying to access medical help as perimenopause starts to kick in. There are multiple pressures: (a) explaining menopause symptoms in the first place and being taken seriously (and this assumes the person realises what is happening in their body), (b) having to explain non-normative gender, and (c) if a person has existing mental or physical health problems, they may be exacerbated by fluctuating hormones. There may be a lot of confusion that adds to the person’s distress.

The point is, we just don’t know. Mystifyingly, the academic journals devoted to menopause that I have seen so far (I stress so far) barely mention LGBTQIA+ experiences. And the journals devoted to older LGBT adults barely mention menopause. The therapy journals barely mention menopause either – whether in terms of clients or therapists.

If you are reading this and thinking, ‘Hold on, what about X study/project?’ I will be very glad to hear from you.

Ignorance about our own bodies

One of my concerns is that so few people know what the early stages of menopause look like – (and this is across the whole ovary-owning population) – that many may miss out on a chance to understand their bodies better, and perhaps avert a future health issue. It may be that a person isn’t having problems, but would benefit from knowing what their body is doing.

Not all bad

It’s really important to say that menopause is not necessarily terrible – for some it is a very welcome rite of passage. Culturally, it is seen more negatively among white people in the west than in many other cultures. (There are also differences in experience and responses between classes and races.) But we are not given the choice in knowing about it. Systemic (and internalised) ageism causes society to relegate this subject to ‘silly old women’ and at times to make fun of it. This is not helping anyone, other than those who profit from insecurity.

Hormones

I am wondering how the hormonal changes at menopause may interact with the hormones someone is already taking for gender affirmation/transition. At what point does the latter fully counteract the former? My sense is that this has not been studied much. I am also wondering about menopause, (or the idea of it), causing dysphoria for some transmasculine people – and not everyone wants to, or is able to, take hormones.

Queering gender – and sex?

If someone is living as a cis woman and then menopause comes along and removes her capacity to bear children and receive a penis in her vagina, is she still a woman? If the normative ‘rule’ is that the ‘only true sex’ involves a penis in a vagina, what does that mean for sex post-menopause, where this may cease to be viable? This embodied chronological ritual encourages a default queering of sex.

Other kinds of menopause

As above, my main focus is on the menopause that happens to people born with ovaries. However, it doesn’t feel right to talk about queer menopause and leave out people assigned male at birth (AMAB) who are taking hormones. Exogenous hormones can have a wide range of impacts on the body.

Who am I?

I’ve been in private practice in London for six years. I’m bisexual, and post-menopausal. You can find more about me and my work here.

Contact me

If you would like to find out more about this study, or if you have some information or knowledge you would like to share, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me here.


Trans Britain – Our journey from the shadows (Book Review)

Cover of book 'Trans Britain'

Trans Britain is an important and timely book

It stands out especially at the moment when the mainstream media is unfortunately promoting harmful and inaccurate information about trans and non-binary people.

Revision of the Gender Recognition Act

One of the reasons for the explosion in media coverage of trans lives and issues in the past year or so is the revision of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which was originally created in 2004. If you would like to see improvements to the GRA – especially in terms of allowing people to self-define their gender without having to go through overlong and at times humiliating processes, and including the rights and recognition of non-binary people – please fill in the consultation here. (Closing date 19th October 2018.)

This excellent podcast by Meg-John and Justin provides useful pointers about the Act and the current situation for trans and non-binary people overall.

The City of London is also doing a public consultation on their Gender Identity Policy. (Closing date 14th September 2018.)

The ‘debate’ around trans identity

If you don’t know much about it, there is nothing wrong with feeling confusion when reading about gender variance/non-conformity. What you may well be responding to is a media filter, and fear-mongering headlines which have the power to lodge themselves in the mind and remain there. (And if you think you don’t know, or have never known, any trans or non-binary people personally, you very likely do.) None of this is helped when someone’s right to exist is framed as a ‘debate’.

I am somewhat suspicious of the concept of ‘debate’. What it often means is ‘a contest between a privileged person and a less privileged person to see if the less privileged person gets upset first’. (It’s a sibling to the ‘false opposition’ trope that has taken over so much media output.) Pushing someone to explain themselves over and over has less to do with information-gathering than tiring the person to the point where they have no energy to carry on, so that they will make mistakes that can be used against them.

But the good news is that there is plenty of information out there, and an increasing number of accounts of contemporary trans lives. For example, see Trans, A Memoir by Juliet Jacques, and Trans Like Me, by CN Lester.

A much-needed history

Christine Burns, the editor of Trans Britain and a contributor to it, has been a stalwart campaigner for many years and it was exciting to see the crowdfunder on Unbound build up so quickly. [Disclosure: I contributed to it.] This book is much needed – partly as a history, partly as an illuminating account of activism before the internet and after, and partly as a counterbalance to some of the transphobic material that has been going around for too long.

We are living in a time of fascist resurgence, which is creating a heightened sense of permission to attack anyone who may be considered ‘other’. But, as Meg-John points out in the podcast, so many complaints and fears about trans people have a mirror in the cisgender population. If cis people don’t have to prove they are cis, why do trans people have to prove they are trans? Just as some trans people access medical services, such as surgeries and hormones, to feel more comfortable in their gender, so do some cis people.

A book in three parts

Trans Britain comprises early history, the birth of activism, and modern day trans and non-binary life. It offers very detailed accounts, through historical stories of pioneers from previous centuries and then to living memory and the rise of the newspaper exposé, starting with a reminder that binary gender is largely a western concept.

The 1960s were a time of increased media salaciousness, but they were also a time when people started to organise on a bigger scale. However, first of all they had to find each other, and for a long time the pressure to conform by ‘passing’, and living in stealth, was an obstacle to this. Ignorance and fear and lack of legal protections meant that if a person was known to be trans they could lose their job and their home. One contributor writes heartbreakingly about their isolation in the 60s and 70s as psychiatrist after psychiatrist offered terrible help and left them struggling alone. Some spent years playing along with the whims of autocratic and idiosyncratic clinicians. Some others got lucky with the medical profession. For example, in the 1940s, one doctor helped his trans patient by using the pretext of ‘a supposed intersex condition’ as a cover for their surgery.

Christine Burns: ‘Movements often start with campaigns for what can be legislated. […] Populations en masse somehow need to be persuaded that previous ideas for what was acceptable have to be revised. It is not legal sanctions that ultimately bring about lasting changes, but shifting cultural norms.’

With profound patience and tenacity, and endless meetings and reports, activists pushed for change. The Gender Recognition Act was created in 2004, around the same time as the explosion of social media, which enabled people to communicate with each other, and share and promote ideas to a previously unimaginable extent. In 2007 came the landmark study ‘Engendered Penalties’, the largest ever study into trans marginalisation, with nearly 900 participants.

Spectrums not binaries

But challenges alone don’t define people, and the ‘born in the wrong body’ narratives of the past have given way to a more powerful and wide-ranging set of voices and platforms. Gender non-conforming people have had a major influence on contemporary culture, (eg Transgender Tipping Point, Time 2014). With this increasing visibility have come a number of supportive and educational organisations such as Gendered Intelligence, All About Trans, and Trans Media Watch. And for the last three years, the UK has had an annual Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex conference.  

With this visibility has come a sense of permission for many more people to examine their gender identity and expression. It’s well worth reading this study by Joel et al from 2013: Queering gender: studying gender identity in ‘normative’ individuals. Over 35 percent of the 2000+ people studied felt their gender identity was other than that which they had been assigned at birth. As the researchers say: ‘We conclude that the current view of gender identity as binary and unitary does not reflect the experience of many individuals, and call for a new conceptualisation of gender, which relates to multiplicity and fluidity in the experience of gender.’ If you’d like to read further about this, How To Understand Your Gender by Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker is a good place to start. Also Resources for Non-Binary Identities.

I highly recommend Trans Britain for a number of reasons, not least for recognising the sheer graft of everyone involved as they fought to live their best lives, and to ensure that others coming after them do too.

From Stephanie Hirst, who wrote the final chapter: ‘…’Generation Z’ […] are growing up with the normality of people of all genders, sexuality and ethnic backgrounds. This new generation will see fluidity in all people, and look back in total horror at how trans people were discriminated against during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.’

So what makes some people so angry about the existence of gender non-conforming people, and their right to self-determination being enshrined in law?

As a therapist working with gender, sexuality and relationship diverse clients, I reflect on this frequently. There seem to be a number of factors at work here.

  1. ‘Think of the children’

Much of the recent wave of anti-trans prejudice relates to the support and treatment of trans children. ‘Won’t someone think of the children’ is an often-used argument against the existence of anything that questions current sex, sexuality and gender norms. What is being said about trans people today was said about queer people 30 years ago. Remember Section 28 in 1988, that prevented the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools, and that awful phrase ‘pretended family relationships’? The thinking seems to be that where there is freedom for a person to be congruent and authentic in their gender identity and expression, the world has ‘gone mad’ and the brainwashing and abuse of children must follow.

There is a lot of anger from some quarters about medical interventions for trans children, and yet often total silence from those same quarters about the non-consensual and traumatic surgeries done to Intersex children to give them the ‘correct’ gender.

Further reading on this: Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates, and the follow-up post Reframing “Transgender Desistance” Debates (both by Julia Serano), and Why ‘Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria’ is Bad Science (Florence Ashley). This post by Rosie Swayne is also good: Unqualified, middle-aged lesbian swerves abruptly out of her lane to talk about trans issues.

  1. A binary view of gender

People are hugely invested in a natal gender binary. Unfortunately, much trouble comes from looking at a baby’s genitals when it is born, (particularly if the child is Intersex), and deciding which of two genders it is going to be and therefore what sexuality the child is likely to have. From this at-birth assignment of labels comes everything from earning power to personal safety, to how much this person’s opinions will be taken seriously, to medical treatment, to everything else.

It takes a lot of reflective work and uprooting of ancient beliefs to realise that neither genitals not perceived biological sex have to define gender. And some people do not define as either of the binary genders at all, as neither feels congruent for them.

It’s worth reading the work of Cordelia Fine on gender: particularly Testosterone Rex and Delusions of Gender, and Julia Serano: particularly Whipping Girl and Excluded, and a whole range of clear and well argued essays under the heading Debunking anti-transgender myths and tropes.

  1. A sense of entitlement to define others

I cannot say this is just something specifically about British culture, but as that is the one I grew up in, I will use it as a baseline. When I was growing up, it was much more normalised for parents and teachers to tell a child what they are, particularly when it was something negative. ‘You are bad. You are fundamentally inadequate. You are a disgrace.’ It wasn’t about the child’s actions in that moment, but something much deeper – about their entire being. So the opposing idea, that someone might respond, ‘No, you don’t get to define me – I do,’ feels positively revolutionary.  

Unfortunately this drive to normalise through criticism is sometimes still mirrored in the psychotherapy world; the idea that anything that deviates from the [eg cisgender heterosexual monogamous vanilla] norm is a pathology that must be uprooted. These attitudes have not gone away, and may be echoed in the interaction when a client says ‘But it’s not like that’ and the therapist insists that they know better. At worst this becomes conversion therapy, a practice which the profession is increasingly distancing itself from.

  1. Envy of someone who is living as their authentic self

Some (many) people grow up letting themselves be what other people define them as – this path of least resistance may be the safest path at the time. But when they realise that the norms they have conformed to do not reflect their true selves, it may feel as if it is too late. This may bring out deep envy of those who appear to be demanding and getting more from life, and this envy may manifest as a desire to attack. (And of course children can be harmed by unhappy parents who are not living as their true selves.)

  1. A fixation with the purity of womanhood

There is a lot of frightened and at times Victorian-sounding rhetoric around who is allowed to self-declare as a woman. Some of it veers dangerously close to white nationalism, implying that somehow the classification ‘woman’ will be forever dirtied by allowing trans women to enter it.

  1. A deflection of something much bigger, all-encompassing, and harder to challenge: how boys and men are raised

A widely expressed anti-trans fear (specifically in relation to trans women and the revision of the Gender Recognition Act) is that cis men are suddenly going to self-define as trans and start invading toilets and assaulting women. In fact, men can and do already invade toilets and harass people – which is already illegal. And of course, a woman entering a toilet and harassing people would also be committing a crime.

From what I observe, many objections to trans women’s existence involve things that men actually do (or might do), and I see a lot of fear expressed around this. It would therefore seem beneficial to campaign about better education for boys, better sex education in schools, and dismantling patriarchal structures in general. If campaigners put their considerable resources towards this instead of attacking a small minority of human beings, they might get a lot more support.

 

Trans Britain is available from Unbound, Amazon, and Hive.


Pink Therapy’s Sex Work and Psychotherapy Conference – history in the making

I have just spent an extraordinary two days at the Pink Therapy ‘Sex Works!’ conference, about the intersection of mental health and sexuality professionals.

Every year the Pink Therapy conference covers a different GSRD (Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity) topic. Created by Pink Therapy founder Dominic Davies, in recent years they have featured gay men, trans, bisexuality, and kink, non-monogamies and other sexualities/orientations beyond LGBTQ. 

The purpose of the Sex Works! conference was multiple: to look at sex worker mental health and how the system could better support sex workers; to look at the experience of psychotherapists/counsellors (and trainees) who are also sex workers; and to look at the various forms of somatic sexology that may include genital touch, and how a dual trained counsellor/somatic sexologist may be protected within the psychotherapy system; and the ethical issues relating to all the above.  

For clarity: somatic sexology can include sex coaching, sexological bodywork, somatic sex education, some tantric practice, and sex surrogacy.

We heard about: busting some of the myths around sex work, sexual services for people with disabilities in Australia, somatic sexology, and a large scale research study of sex worker mental health. Sex surrogacy, conscious kink, Urban Tantra and Somatic Sex Education 101. We heard about ethical frameworks from a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) perspective and from a highly experienced long-term member of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), and about the Association of Somatic and Integrative Sexologists (ASIS). Also sex coaching for sex therapists. To round off the second day, there was a panel discussion about ethics (that included a representative from the Psychotherapy and Counselling Union (PCU) and the College of Sex and Relationship Therapists (COSRT)), which was supposed to be about how to protect dual-trained therapists, but turned out rather differently. 

The conference was a potent reminder of the enormous variety of what might be called sexuality work. As well as an opportunity to speak to dual-trained practitioners, there was a lot of vital, and courageous, testimony from speakers who are both psychotherapists and sex workers.

What became rapidly clear was just how badly people who do sex work can be treated as trainees of psychotherapy – and this mirrors the experience that many sex workers have as clients trying to access counselling.

Many sex workers are not out to their therapists, because it is just not worth it, due to the judgements and pathologisation they are likely to experience. Importantly, very often the reason someone might want to go for therapy has nothing to do with their life in sex work, but they need to know they won’t have to endure projections, rescue or confused hostility.

The bottom line is that therapy clients who do sex work are often being harmed – by therapy.

What was especially disappointing was the way the therapy registration bodies represented, BACP and COSRT – (sadly we lost the official UKCP representative at the last minute) – seemed to have provided those speaking with very little relevant research and opinions for the conference, even though they were invited to participate six months ago. Contrast this with how, after the presenter of the session that preceded the final panel discussion was absent at the last minute, two psychotherapist sex workers created an excellent workshop at two minutes’ notice.

It was particularly saddening to see how the psychotherapy establishment continues to conflate sex work with abuse.

It seemed impossible to discuss the ethics of being a dual trained practitioner, or a sex worker being a psychotherapist, without the discussion leaning further and further into complaints, abuse, and the nebulous and highly politicised concept of ‘disrepute’. It was pointed out that sex work is actually legal in the UK – and yet there is a persistent lack of clarity on this in the psychotherapy world.  This is part of a bigger picture, of a generalised lack of understanding of GSRD clients and identities that is consistently displayed in mainstream psychotherapy and, as a consequence, in training organisations. I find this issue especially disturbing.

From the many personal stories I have heard, a trainee therapist with a minority identity may well be expected to educate their peers about this identity, and may also endure endless questioning, assumptions, microaggressions and invalidating ‘debate’, even from tutors. The lack of understanding of minority stress, in organisations supposedly training people in how to support others, and how it can contribute to trauma, is mind boggling.

Of course, the excuse might be that by marginalising sex workers and sexuality practitioners, they are simply mirroring public life and the media.

Sexual pleasure in all but its most regimented, prescribed forms is othered and kept in darkness in a society where attention is not paid to sexual competence, and we are educated neither in negotiation nor consent, let alone in giving attention to our true desires. Apparently there is a perfect way to be a human, and that is to be monogamous, vanilla, cisgender and heterosexual, and the further away you go from that, the more deviant and in need of fixing you are. If you sell sex and do therapeutic or educational sexual touch, you are seen as almost beyond repair.

Counselling students who do sex work may be told that there are grey areas that may cause them to fail their course. This despite that, as was pointed out repeatedly, one of the skillsets necessary to survive as a sex worker – (intuition and trusting your gut, negotiation, establishing consent and boundaries, working with the client’s needs) – goes far beyond anything taught on counselling courses.

There was a lot of anger in the room towards the end, particularly when one panel member suggested the audience give them more information. It was pointed out that marginalised groups get very tired of doing the labour of explaining. 

I and a couple of my colleagues have a list of queries that have been left hanging:

  • Can you be a sex worker while training as a psychotherapist? (Still unclear)
  • How are the registration bodies going to look out for dual-trained practitioners? (Still unclear)
  • What is the legal reason for COSRT’s two ethical issues, that a COSRT member therapist cannot refer a client to a sex surrogate because it constitutes a form of ‘pimping’ (scare quotes mine), and that a member cannot signpost a client towards doing sex surrogacy work as this apparently constitutes coercion?
  • COSRT’s journal, Sex and Relationship Therapy, is currently planning a special issue about sex work, written entirely by sex workers. (Deadline for submissions March 31st.) We are wondering why this was not mentioned at the conference?

And here are some thoughts about how we can all move forward:

  1. There needs to be a basic CPD training for therapists around competency in working with sex workers.
  2. There needs to be a directory of sex work friendly therapists, a bit like the kink and poly ones that already exist, with a badge to go on the practitioner’s website.
  3. The main counselling and psychotherapy bodies would do well to reflect on why there is increasing frustration among therapists who work with GSRD clients, and who may well be GSRD identified themselves. There is a great opportunity here for these organisations to offer better support to all these client groups. Currently, too many minority clients are being harmed by a lack of understanding of their needs, judgement and pathologisation, and unhelpful use of therapeutic techniques and theories.
  4. Led by the registration bodies, training organisations need to focus on diversity as the baseline, not an extra – and actual identity-based diversity rather than just ‘theories of diversity’ or relying on the students to provide the topics. The same goes for sex – this also needs to be a baseline subject. I have encountered many clients who are not sure whether they are allowed to mention sex at all in sessions. 
  5. Training organisations need to find ways to make trainings accessible to less well off students. Important minority voices are being lost due to this. Actually, many people do sex work because it is the only way to make a reasonable living (often on top of parenting and working around health issues) – for many people it would be the only way to make the kind of money needed to pay for counselling training.
  6. Dual-trained practitioners are crying out for a membership organisation that can respect them and cater for all their needs. When one becomes visible, I suspect many will leave their existing registration bodies.

Several participants were reminded of the American Psychiatric Association conference in 1972, when being gay was still designated a mental illness. John Fryer, a gay psychiatrist, spoke on the stand while heavily disguised in a mask. This was an act of great courage, and we saw similar courage over the last two days. 

This was a groundbreaking event that I was incredibly privileged to attend. Huge thanks to everyone who organised, presented and participated.

The next Pink Therapy conference, where I may be speaking, is ‘Contemporary Issues in BDSM and Therapy’ on 6 October 2018.

 


Going No Contact – when you’ve estranged from family during the festive season

For many people, the idea of voluntarily cutting off contact from a family member is unimaginable – especially during the holidays.

In this way of thinking, blood ties are immutable and sacred, so making such a decision at this time of year feels doubly taboo. No matter how toxic the home environment, there is pressure to remain in it because ‘it’s family’.

I once wrote a proposal for a non-fiction book about people who estrange from their parents. It was going to have interviews, case histories, advice and self help. I pitched it to several agents – and received bemusement and confusion in response. One sent me a very strongly worded letter telling me that, as a parent herself, she was horrified and could not think why anyone would want to read such a book. (She actually rang me up the next morning to apologise – the subject had clearly affected her very deeply.)

I experienced similar elsewhere. Another agent said that it might help the book if I spent some time with ‘the perfect family’. Apparently, if only the misguided folks I wanted to write about could see that no family is perfect, everything would miraculously be okay again. I had a very strong sense of othering – that this topic really should not be aired publicly and was best quietly put away.

Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement was published in 2018. (I’ve linked to Amazon because of the Kindle edition – there seems to be no paperback available in UK.) It’s well worth a read.

Update on 1/12/20: I wrote this piece long before the Covid-19 pandemic happened. It has changed the rules of how we live. During the holiday season it is creating increased pressure, but it can also be a protective factor in how we choose whether to spend time with people. Due to the many social changes and confusing public messages, some may become estranged against their will, and others may find it harder to get away.

An increasing reality for many

In fact, as I have noted before on this blog, you only have to read the comments below a problem page about going no contact from family to know that there are a number of people who actively want to do this or – especially heartbreaking from older commenters – wish they had but felt it was too late.

While writing this, I felt an increasing sense of taboo, and a strong temptation not to continue. Generally when I feel this, I know something needs to be spoken aloud.

I also found this post getting longer and longer, so now’s the time to make a cup of tea.

Standalone charity survey of estranged adults

The charity Standalone, set up several years ago to offer support to adults who are estranged from their families, in 2015 published a report Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood. Carried out in collaboration with the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge, Hidden Voices is a survey of the estrangement experiences of just over 800 people. Three things stand out from the results:

  1. Emotional abuse, clashes of personality and mismatched expectations were particularly common reasons for going no contact.
  2. Most of those who were estranged from a parent felt strongly that they could never have a functional relationship again.
  3. 90 percent of respondents found the Christmas period ‘challenging’.

Standalone have published their own very thorough festive survival guide which is available here. For more on how to stand back and figure out Christmas the way you want it, try Rewriting the rules of the festive season.

You’ve gone no contact – what now?

What if it’s your first holiday period since the estrangement started? The particular pressures during this time (I’ve written more about this here) mean that you may need to do some extra self care.

Deciding to go no contact is never taken lightly, and may only happen after years of putting up with, but the decision itself can be made in an instant. And now it’s the holidays, and unless you live without an internet connection at all, you will be in some way exposed to advertising that encourages you to connect with people at all cost, especially ‘loved ones’ which generally, in media-speak, means blood family.

The social nature of holiday periods means that unless you spend time in communities who are sensitive to this, you may well have to give an account of yourself. There are a number of issues to reflect on:

Who to tell? Are you prepared for when someone offers you the usual invitation to join them for the festivities, or expects you to offer yours? Are you prepared for the response, and sides being taken?

How to tell them? Are you telling people in person, or by some other means which allows for more distance? (Bearing in mind your own safety when doing so.) Are you taking people aside individually, or contacting them as a group?

How will you deal with questions from others about where/how you are spending the holidays? If a friend has taken you in for the holidays, you may find their relatives (if they have a more traditional mindset) genuinely curious as to why you are there: ‘Why aren’t you with your own family?’ Do you have a story prepared which, while not factually true, may be enough to get you through the day? Do you feel safe enough testify and tell your truth, no matter what the response? I’ve written more here about strategies for getting through this time.

If you are alone, have you got a plan for the day itself? Solo Christmas day can be wonderful if that is what you want. If you’re not sure about that, see who you can round up to share the day with you. Or make plans for the day before and the day after. It’s amazing how many people you will find in a similar situation.

The period after going no contact can be heady, as if a cork has popped, but there can also be a hangover, an exhaustion that may lead to self-questioning and wondering if you did the right thing.

There are a number of stories you might be telling yourself:

‘Should I have waited a bit longer? This time of year is supposed to be about love and closeness, isn’t it?’

Such is the frog-in-a-pot nature of harmful family relationships, it’s far easier to put up with another year of difficult interactions than rock the boat. Perhaps you are wavering about things you have said, and wondering if it would be better if you just shut up and let everything go back to normal for a while. There are many ways to defer a decision like this, all of which can be made to sound entirely legitimate. Maybe you’ve been wondering whether it would be better to apologise to everyone and wait until:

  • After the summer / new year
  • After term starts / ends
  • After you’ve lost weight / given up smoking / had surgery
  • After you’ve moved house
  • After you’ve been in the new job for a while / left the old one
  • After you’ve paid off your debts
  • After the kids (if you have them) are older
  • You’re single / you’re in a stable relationship

A million time markers – like Christmas – can be enlisted in the cause of preventing us being true to ourselves.

‘But family’s family. Am I a terrible person?’

We are socially conditioned to put up with behaviours from blood relations that we would rarely tolerate in friends, colleagues, or partners.

You may be telling yourself that whatever happened wasn’t really that bad, and maybe you should just step back into line and apologise to everyone and let things go back to how they were. In all the cultural fog around this, it is easy to forget to give yourself permission not to live under conditions where you are not treated as an equal.

You may have spoken your intentions out loud, or written an email or letter. You might have ghosted (disappeared without warning), which some find to be an immature and selfish way to behave. ‘Can’t you just talk about it?’ they say. Which is, on the surface, a fair question. But if ‘just talking about it’ actually fixed these sorts of situations, they would not happen in the first place. There is a world of communication beyond talking. And all too often equal communication was never part of the relationship’s culture in the first place. With blood family, the problems are far older and run far deeper.

A large proportion of people who answered the Standalone survey were women who were estranged from mothers. These two posts offer validating thoughts on this: 13 Things No Estranged Child Needs To Hear on Mother’s Day Navigating “No-Contact”: When Estrangement from Your Mother is the Healthiest Choice

‘What about the children?’

This is a good question. If you have young children and are estranging from your own parent/s, it’s important to ask yourself about the impact this will have on them, particularly during the holidays. What are you going to tell them? Do they need to be kept away from their grandparents for their own safety? In the future your child may wish to exercise a choice over whether they see that person. Obvious abuse aside, do you want to deprive them of a grandparent? And you may find yourself doing a balancing act – the more you paint the person as a monster, the more curious your children may become. And obvious family secrets can put heat into a situation which can be carried down through generations.

‘Shouldn’t I have been able to sort this out when I was a teenager?’

It might be helpful to think about this in terms of the Attachment Escalator. I find this analogy incredibly useful. (See more on the Relationship Escalator, and the Sex Escalator on this blog.) It’s a really effective way to critique the supposed gold standard of sex and relationships that causes people to put such pressure on themselves – and each other – in the name of socially sanctioned relating.

So we are put on this attachment escalator when we are born and it becomes our default forward movement with those closest to us. For some, this works out fine. But for others this escalator is poorly constructed and frequently malfunctions. Instead of making changes, or even abandoning it, we instead find ourselves staying on it, blaming ourselves for what just keeps on not working, even if we find the situation intolerable, because it is easier to just let ourselves be carried forwards. The longer we stay on it, the more habituated we become to being undermined, bullied, manipulated or threatened (as, of course, can anyone who is the perpetrator of those things). Eventually this will impact your other relationships and ultimately your enjoyment of life.

But not everyone, for a million reasons, finds themselves able to separate from family when young. It can take years, and sometimes years of therapy, to make the necessary connections, and feel ready to do so. So please don’t blame yourself for not having fixed everything before.

If you’re a young person or student: Standalone has a student section. Albert Kennedy Trust works with homeless LGBT+ youth in the UK. Your Holiday Mom offers online support to LGBT+ youth during the holidays.

‘I’m getting away from a narcissist, so it’s okay isn’t it?’

There is an increasing number of sites devoted to narcissists, or ‘narcs’. Lots of people have apparently become experts at clinical diagnosis and are eager to provide checklists of things to watch out for. I am also wondering about all the personal experiences that get dumped into this category, and about the nature of all the people who are labelled narcissistic.

As a therapist I feel torn here. On one hand, ‘narcissist’ has become a buzzword, a catch-all for anyone who seems to be a bit selfish and self-obsessed. There is a lot of quite objectifying advice on how to spot them, and I wonder how many people suffering from depression or anxiety or another mental illness may have been labelled this way after a difficult interaction.

On the other hand, certain patterns start to emerge in accounts of others’ behaviour, especially lack of empathy and apparently conscience-free cruelty. The Reddit Raised by Narcissists has many powerful stories. There are a number of problem page articles at the Guardian (search for parental or family estrangement) – the articles here tend to have a lot of comments, mostly supportive.

So I would say that you could see the person you have estranged from as a narcissist if it helps you validate your experience. My concern comes when people feel a need to diagnose the person who was abusive to them. Turning detective can sometimes be a way to rationalise someone’s treatment of you. What if you discover they were abused? Does this make their abuse of you less significant? Sometimes it can help, but sometimes you may gaslight yourself to the point of retreating into self-blame and inaction.

Finding your family of choice

I have noticed an increase in people talking about their Chosen Family, whatever their identity and even if their relationship with blood family is okay. (I have written more about creating Chosen Family here.) Queer communities in particular have a strong tradition of creating safe groups when society and/or family have failed. Many people eventually find themselves creating a parallel existence away from family of origin, even if they eventually remain in touch. Now may be your chance to surround yourself with people who want the best for you.

Seeing a therapist may be helpful. Choose carefully – this subject can stir up even an experienced practitioner, (so it’s important you feel able to ask the right questions at the start.

If this is your first holiday season having gone no contact, I applaud your courage and wish you the best at what may be a challenging time.

If you would like to talk further about what’s going on for you, please contact me here.


Chosen Family – 10 pitfalls to be aware of when creating one of your own

Autumn leaves arranged on a windowsillAn increasing number of people refer to their  ‘Chosen Family’. These are the close people we’ve gathered around us who we are not related to by blood or by law.

While anyone might create such a group while having a perfectly OK relationship with their Family of Origin, Chosen Family is often about putting distance between yourself and your Family of Origin as the only way to stay sane or safe. For this reason, it is often used in a queer context. 

Whether you are escaping violence, prejudice, sexual abuse, bullying or neglect, you may put a lot of time and energy into gathering specific people around you.

Essentially, Chosen Family is a group of people who you believe will treat you as an equal, who you might rely on in a crisis, and who you hope will stay close to you, even when one of you has a major life change.

This applies on a societal level as well as a personal one – if you are queer, gender non-conforming, kinky or non-monogamous, for example, mainstream society likely sees your relationships as less valid than those enjoyed by the majority. So it makes sense to band together and create something that works for you.

Created over years

I’m aware that my talking about ‘creating a family’ might imply that this is something done quite rapidly, like picking sports teams at school. ‘I’ll take this one and that one… oh and they look nice, but not that one…’ To be clear, we make these choices over years, during which time the desire to bond and create connection with others may override the quieter messages we may be getting that something is not quite working.

Added to this is the fact that we may replicate behaviours that were modelled to us from a very young age. We may, in our eagerness to create the perfect safe zone, forget that it takes two people to form a friendship, and more than two to form a group. We may forget that consent and boundaries here need to be negotiated, as much as in any sexual scenario, and assume unspoken agreements.

Below is a range of issues you may come across when navigating chosen family:

(1) Letting shiny new people in much too quickly

As a young person you may have been told you had to ‘take what you’re given and be grateful’. So it can feel very exciting, even intoxicating, to realise that you have choices – particularly if this realisation has come to you later in life. 

At the same time, it can also feel quite isolating and frightening to reflect on your own situation when ‘everyone’ around you appears to have so much support from blood relatives, partners and an array of incredible people they seem to have known for years. (Social media really doesn’t help here.) 

So when you meet a new person and things seem to click, the temptation can be to grab them and not let go. ‘This person is fun and we have lots in common and we’ve talked so much already – this must mean we’re destined to be really close!’ And there may be a sense of relief that counteracts the feelings of isolation, and you may stop monitoring the situation because at last you’re home safe.

But having some things in common does not mean everything will match up. NRE  (New Relationship Energy) is a phrase usually used to describe the intense feelings at the start of a romantic relationship, but it also serves to describe feelings at the start of any new association. It’s okay to enjoy this feeling – but it’s also good to wait until it dies down and re-evaluate whether this exciting new friend is right for you as a long-term close person. And it’s worth reflecting before jumping in and sharing your deepest darkest self.

(2) Ignoring warning signs

I have long found it to be the case that when you look back after any kind of breakup, you realise you actually saw the seeds of it very early on. It was likely a tiny thing the person said or did, which you ignored because it seemed too minor to be worth saying anything about. And who wants to look mean-spirited or critical with the shiny new person?

It’s those little moments when the Lovely New (or not so new) Friend suddenly looks at you and says something that is – apparently – totally out of character. Or sends a message that makes you go ‘WTF?!’ Something a little bit tactless, jarring or controlling that is out of your comfort zone but you don’t have a rudder to navigate it – and you don’t want to scare them away by questioning them on it. It’s that that feeling where your stomach drops into your shoes and you can’t quite believe what you just heard – so you discount it. 

Don’t ignore these little messages. They are tiny tells and they are important. For an exploration of the more extreme aspects of this, read Gavin de Becker’s excellent The Gift Of Fear.

(3) Getting sucked into other people’s stuff

When other people are friendly to you and invite you into their group, you may quickly lose a sense of yourself, particularly if you were excluded or othered as a child. If you aren’t used to it, it can feel amazing to be included in a ready made group whose members appear to be welcoming you and inviting you to things. Be aware of your feelings around this. You may feel excess gratitude for this inclusion that may eclipse other more realistic – and accurate – feelings.

Reflect on who is really in control in this new group – the person/couple at the centre may not have your best interests at heart once the fun dies down. Are you there to prop up their glory? Are they really trying to recruit you to go to their workshops or parties? Are there lifestyle issues, like drugs or alcohol, where you are not on the same page? Are you being increasingly weighed down by a lot of gossip and expected to take sides?

You might want to ask yourself why you want to come in at the edges of someone else’s group rather than starting with yourself and people you yourself have chosen.

(4) Trying so hard to be acceptable that you hide the real you

If your Family of Origin message was that you are unacceptable in some way, you may attempt to hide aspects of yourself from new people, in case they find you similarly unacceptable. The trouble is, the Real You is going to leak out somewhere. If you sense that your outrageous true self is disapproved of in your chosen group, wonder about it. What exactly is it that you are needing to conceal from your chosen people? Are you actually avoiding the fact that, while they may be lovely, they may just not quite be the right people for you?  

(5) Doing the opposite of whatever people did at home

Remember – your Family of Origin is the first group you know. This may be hard to hear, but it will inevitably influence how you respond to your role in the groups you create or join as you go through life. 

This feels unfair, but until we have sufficiently understood our own dynamics and patterns, we may continue to replicate the harmful structures we are trying to get away from. Simply doing the opposite of whatever a parent did is reactive and may cause harm. If, for example, you vow never to shout at anyone the way you were shouted at, you may go too far the other way and become a quiet doormat who never gets their needs met.

(6) Sacrificing yourself for the sake of the friendship or group

Something’s not working but you’re not going to say anything in case the whole thing falls apart. It’s cold when the fire goes out and you know how that feels. It’s horrible and you’ll do anything not to feel that again. Similarly, when you feel that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done – such as organising meetups, for example. If you couldn’t rely on your childhood family for the reinforcement and validation you needed, you may understandably find yourself seeking this in others, and this is where problems can arise.

One good way to check the temperature of things is to stop initiating. If you are always the one who suggests meeting up, just stop doing it and see how long it takes for others to realise. It can provide a harsh but fruitful lesson. It doesn’t mean the friendship is over – but it means you likely need to state your needs and decide how much more to invest in this person or group. 

(7) Your priorities clashing with the priorities of others

This is where you need to decide how aligned you need to be with your chosen family. About having or not having kids. And about politics. Being of a different political persuasion can be exhausting, no matter how much you feel you can put these things to the side. Endlessly explaining things, or being hooked into debate, is not sustainable.

You may find that some people prioritise romantic partners over friendships, putting you further down a hierarchy than you realised you were. (You may not have realised you were in one.) You may also be sad when you have a child and so few of your Chosen Family are still around a year later. 

(8) Feeling as if you matter less than others

This is hard because there may be so many echoes from childhood here – some of them are your mind playing tricks on you, and some are real. 

Example: when your Friend X mentions their other Friend Y a lot, who perhaps lives abroad and you have never met, and keeps on going on about how amazing this person is. Months or years pass, and you are finally introduced to Friend Y.  You greet them with enthusiasm – ‘I’ve heard so much about you!’ – and they look a bit embarrassed and say ‘Oh, um, what did you say your name was? Oh, I don’t think they’ve ever mentioned you.’ This hurts, but is worth knowing.

And sometimes people really love you but cannot prioritise you for a huge and complex number of reasons.

(9)  Guilting yourself into not acting on your feelings

You may have found yourself staying in friendships that are not working any more out of fear. One sure way of telling this is if you find yourself wondering what on earth your life would be like if this person wasn’t in it. If it seems unimaginable, it’s worth wondering why you have come to rely on this person (or group) for so much, even when they are making you unhappy.

You may have been told as a child that you were not allowed to have feelings, or you were ‘mean’ or even ‘selfish’ when you said you didn’t like someone or didn’t want to do something. Perhaps you were told you were inherently defective or just ‘bad’. As a result, you may have found yourself letting others take advantage of you because you just don’t think you have the right to refuse, and you must continually atone for your ‘badness’ by letting people push you around. Needless to say, you are doing all the work here, and this is not healthy.

If it’s not working – it’s not working.

You cannot make something work if it isn’t. You can try, but at some point you will need to find a way to go your separate ways. The relief you feel when this association is broken will be tremendous and tangible.

(10) Not being able to discuss the difficulties in a friendship – or end it

So much public advice is about romantic relationships: getting together and breaking up. We are not encouraged to have much emotional literacy about that, and with friendships even less. Are you able to sit one of your Chosen Family down and explain how things are not working out between you? Do you fear their anger? (Perhaps like that of a parent?) Can you find a way to hold a course with them, or is it time to move on? 

Dealing with ending friendships is a whole post in itself. And while not everyone is into Relationship Anarchy, disrupting the presumed hierarchies among friends, romantic partners, (and bio family too), by treating them all with more equality is something many could benefit from.

 

If any of what you have read feels familiar and challenging and you would like to talk about it in therapy, please contact me here.

Further reading:


Gender and Sexuality CPD trainings

Need some CPD?  Would you like to to update your skills and knowledge?

In 2017, as part of London Sex and Relationships Therapy, I am offering trainings on Gender and Sexuality in the therapy room, and other related subjects.

In January I will be in Cambridge and Edinburgh, facilitating:

Gender and Sexual Diversity in the Therapy Room

Drawing on the book Sexuality and gender for mental health professionals: A practical guide (Richards & Barker, 2013), this training provides a basic outline of good practice when working with issues of gender and sexuality. Attendees will be encouraged to reflect upon their own ideas and assumptions about gender and sexuality, and those implicit in their therapeutic approaches. We will consider various ways of understanding sexuality and gender, and their implications for therapy across client groups. Specifically we will focus on the issues which can be faced by those who fit into normative genders, sexualities and relationship structures, as well as for those who are positioned outside the norm.

If you would like to attend, please follow the links below for bookings:

Relate Cambridge – Saturday 14th January 2017 (10-4pm)

Information about this training and about Relate

Relationships Scotland – Saturday 28th January 2017 (10-4pm)

Information about this training and about Relationships Scotland

If you would like further training

If you are looking for training on this subject or something related, please contact me and either I or one of my colleagues will come back to you.


Am I kinky? And is this a problem?

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-10-07-38Due to media stereotyping, unhelpful labelling with words like ‘paraphilia’ and ‘perversion’, and the assumption of mental illness or pathology – if you identify as kinky (or feel you may be) you sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with you.

You may have felt unable to share your feelings with anyone else. And you may also have avoided going to therapy, even for something entirely unrelated to your identity or lifestyle, because you fear either being treated as ‘sick’, or having to spend many hours justifying yourself.

For a start, kinky does not equal bad or weird

For some people, being drawn to BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) dates from their oldest waking thought or memory. Others discover it later in life. We live in a time when what you might call identity essentialism (‘If you weren’t born this way it’s fake’) is being questioned. Identities and orientations can evolve over time:

  • For example, from a young age you might have found yourself wishing to be restrained, or were aroused by certain scenes on television or in books, or took a specific dominant or submissive role during play with others. You may have put these thoughts and feelings away for years.
  • Or perhaps, as you grew up, you never felt right doing what everyone else seemed to be doing sexually, but weren’t sure how to articulate it, and just carried on doing things that didn’t really do much for you. Or stepped away from intimacy altogether. 
  • Or later in life you felt exciting changes coming on and, like Alice down the rabbit hole, you tumbled into a whole new world that you never wanted to come back from.

Secondly, it’s far more common than you think

And, even more importantly, studies (see the links at the end of the article) suggest that the kink identity correlates with a number of positive attributes.

A spectrum rather than a binary

I find it preferable to open up the definition rather than narrow it. Do you find greater release in giving or receiving extreme sensation? Do you experience something deeper when you give yourself over to another person, or take power over them? Do these experiences make you feel more fully you?

There are an almost infinite number of ways to express your kink

You do not have to join a particular community, or love leather or rubber, or spend your evenings in underground play spaces. For some it may be about handcuffs and a blindfold, for others total enclosure, for others extreme sensation. For others it could have nothing to do with physical sensations and everything to do with psychology. It could be about taking control, or giving up control, with no pain or restraint at all. 

For one person, it may be spending thousands on rubber clothing and dungeon furniture. For another, a simple phrase sent in a text message and a 24/7 household setup that others would have to guess at. It might involve going out to events, like clubs or munches, with others who share the same interests. For some people, no act, however apparently extreme, counts as kinky unless there is an exchange of power. 

It could be mild and playful, or it could be extreme and unusual, or combinations of all the above.

Does it have to be ‘all about sex’?

For some kink is inextricably linked with genital sex. Other people very clearly separate the two, and others are fluid in their approach. So however you feel, however you see yourself, there is no ‘one true way’.

Our society has a very poor record on acceptance of sexual diversity and many remain closeted just to feel safe

Perhaps you feel shame when reflecting on your fantasies or activities, and have never told anyone about them. You may also be struggling because:

  • What you like may have a more extreme taboo edge or safety element to it.
  • You may fear that you might hurt someone non-consensually.
  • You are happy for it to remain in fantasy, but want to be sure you are okay.
  • You have been paying for kink services and are wondering if this is okay.
  • You fear you are doing it too much, or thinking about it too much, and need reassurance that you are sane and not an ‘addict’.

If any of this troubles you, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist

Psychotherapy can help you look at the emotions underlying your current situation, and help you with any difficult feelings you may be experiencing.

It’s worth choosing carefully, however. There has been a tendency in traditional therapeutic schools of thought that any activity that is not 100% heterosexual, monogamous or vanilla (ie non-kinky) must stem from a pathology, or possible early-years damage. I have gone further into the problems with this viewpoint in a piece for Lancet Psychiatry: BDSM, Psychotherapy’s Grey Area.

I never discount the idea that this could for some people be the case, that a response to a past difficulty has evolved into a kink or fetish. And people do sometimes eroticise past experiences. But past experience may have meaning here or it may not. Be very wary if someone wishes to turn detective and start ‘uprooting’ your kink or trying to convert you.

You are not sick – you may just need to be heard. Rest assured you are not alone.

Where to find a kink friendly therapist

Further reading and research

On the subject of orientation and identity, there is an interesting discussion around this post by Clarisse Thorn: BDSM As A Sexual Orientation, and Complications of the Orientation Model

These two studies may also be of interest:


Sex work and the transactional nature of human relationships

Sonnenschirm_rot_redNew essay in Lancet Psychiatry

My latest piece is called Sex work – society’s transactional blind spot.

In the article I explore the transactional nature of human relationships and how we are encouraged to bargain with others, from a very young age, for social and emotional survival. I have focused on sex work because it is a significant cultural issue that polarises opinion and inspires much clichéd and harmful representation in art and media.

Sex workers also report poor experiences in therapy and within the mental health system as a whole.

The opinions and experience of those who actually do it are often ignored or marginalised

Even if you cannot imagine doing sex work yourself, or think you don’t know anyone who does it, it’s worth reflecting on it as an issue of labour rights, self-determination and consent.

Political support for change

Just after the piece was published, the UK Home Affairs Select Committee declared in a report that there was a very strong case for decriminalisation. Amnesty International reached a similar conclusion in 2015 which has now become policy. This move has also been supported by the Lancet.

If you are affected by any of the issues here and would like to explore them further in therapy, please get in touch.

[The image above is by Usien and can be found at commons.wikimedia.org]


When the world has changed forever – self care in a collective crisis

 

Stages_of_Grief

Never the same again

So you’ve woken up and everything’s different. What you thought was true is not true any more. There are many others who feel the same as you – and no one has a clue what to do about it.

Since the results of the UK referendum nearly two weeks ago, a lot of people have reported experiencing distress and confusion on a scale bigger and grander than they have felt before. Some mention 9/11 as having a similar effect, but for many nothing has been even remotely similar.

‘Hold on, this wasn’t a terrorist attack. It was a vote. A VOTE!’

The referendum occurred in the shadow of the murder of MP Jo Cox and the mass murder of young queer people of colour in Orlando, Florida. And the repercussions of the vote started immediately. Within hours of the result, people perceived as ‘foreign’ were being told to ‘go home’, and sometimes physically attacked. People are fearing a return of fascism.

(It’s fair to say that social conservatism, or out and out bigotry, rarely confines itself to one group. So where you see racism or xenophobia, you will eventually find sexism, homophobia, transphobia and many other forms of discrimination.)

Markets are wavering. Employers and investors are changing their behaviour. Funds are being withdrawn or frozen. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to continue living where they may have lived for years or even decades. And people are wondering what on earth this country has got itself into.

This post is inspired by the current situation, but it could apply equally to any overwhelming piece of news or large scale change of circumstances that is shared by many. This post does not address one particular group of people, as the situation is complex (for example: many Remain voters are upset, but so are many Leave voters who wished they had made another choice), but looks at what you might be feeling and how to manage it.

Hanging on to hope

I’ve noticed a lot of hope being expressed in the form of detailed and well-argued constitutional arguments against what has happened and how the decision can be reversed. Some call this denial, a form of post-bereavement bargaining. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes these are interpreted as a simple linear process, but of course it is far more complex than that. The cartoon above has done the rounds a number of times online. (When I find who did it, I will attribute it.) Grief lurches from rage to fear to blankness and back again, sometimes in the space of a day – or an hour.

I am simultaneously reminded of Camus’s La Peste, (and I hope I have remembered this correctly), where the stressed population of the plague-ridden town of Oran actually feel relief when they see symptoms appear on the victim’s bodies, because it at least means they are fighting the disease.

Many people feel drained, exhausted and panicky

Many versions of democracy have been invoked as reasons to re-vote, or not re-vote. There is a sense of enormous unease. There is also no sign of the uncertainty being put right anytime soon. It is suspected that some, in a drive for power, will eventually capitalise on this waiting game.

The ongoing decline of the collective mental health 

This is a very frightening time for many people, many of whom were already affected by austerity. Current government policy has affected collective wellbeing to the extent that the UN has commented on it. Many people live in a state of barely changing anxiety over housing, health, benefits, and job security, let alone mental health services themselves which are in a state of crisis.

(If you are in London, here is a list of low or no-cost therapy services.)

When you are chronically stressed, you don’t recover well from shocks. If you are already running on empty and ‘just coping’, one more insult to your wellbeing and it could all go over. Small setbacks become large ones, and large ones become disasters. Because your resources are so depleted, you are unlikely to have recovered from one difficulty before the next one hits, so most of the time you are effectively recovering from two things at once, then three, then more.

So how can you feel more in control?

Human beings are incredibly resourceful. This means that you are too.

(1) Turn off the news

You have the right not to look at the news. It is unlikely to help your wellbeing in this moment. News can be addictive. Switching it off is often suggested as an immediate mood lifter if you are depressed.

(2) Reshape your social media

This is harder than turning off the TV or radio because your friends are very likely on there and you may want to reach out to them. But do you have a friend who is posting a lot of angry stuff, even if you agree with it? Do you need to see this? It’s okay to unfollow them for a while.

You may have a friend who is delighted by whatever has happened or is minimising it. If they are gloating and it causes you distress, it may be time to reconsider the friendship, or at least remove them for a while. Feel free to lighten the load. One thing about crisis times is that they can force your hand in terms of what, or who, you can tolerate. Never feel guilty about this.

(3) Don’t feel obliged to debate with anyone

Do you actually want to have debates with the people closest to you? So much of what is called ‘debate’ is really no such thing and advances nothing but the person with the loudest voice.

I am hearing about families being split over what’s happened. Your gentle blackout doesn’t have to be a violent rejection, but you are not under any obligation to argue with anyone. But while you can remove people from social media, you cannot escape a family dinner table so easily. A polite refusal to discuss things  may be enough. If things reach a point where you are actively unsafe, you are within your rights to leave or take evasive action. Parts of my seasonal survival guide may be helpful here.

(4) Look for the helpers

The American children’s TV presenter Mister Rogers was known for quoting his mother on how to deal with something frightening in the news: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ Someone will be looking out for others, trying to clear up the mess, and finding ways to make life better again.

(5) Action now

In times of distress – I am talking about personal issues, drama, a frightening communication, crisis – one way of feeling more in control is to do something, anything that gets you better informed and helps you feel in control and that you can make choices.

This is all very well, but this is a time of total uncertainty. There is no information because the situation is in a state of flux. Many are offering answers, but few understand and fewer believe them. So what action can you take? You could attend meetings, marches, or join a political party. If public engagement does not suit you, you could read as much as you can to feel more in control, or talk to as many people as possible about what has happened to find out what they are doing.

(6) Be mindful of your own safety

You may be inspired to go out and intervene in racist or xenophobic incidents, or rescue others from aggressors. Always be mindful of your own safety. Don’t let yourself be goaded to heroics by those with greater resources than you – particularly if they are doing it from the safety of a Facebook page.

If someone has suggested that you or your friend ‘go home’ – if you are up to physical intervention, or even just socratic dialogue (where you pretend to be ignorant in order to bring out someone else’s ignorance), you still need to know your own limitations. You may be outnumbered without realising.

The current political situation has empowered a sense of entitlement to question another’s right to exist, and that is experienced as a deep and powerful weapon. Record and report what you see if you can do so safely. Gather supporters – but remember the instructions about oxygen masks on a plane. Put yours on first.

(7) Reach out

One of the greatest things about social media is that when we are in trouble, the oddest range of people reach out to us, from close friends to people who live thousands of miles away and who we may never meet in person. Tell friends how you feel. ‘Can we go for a picnic, for tea, the pub, or my house, or your house?’ Ask a group at once so you can all feel held, and so that one person won’t feel pressured or obliged when they themselves may be out of energy.

If you live with several people, or meet up with a group regularly, think about how you could bring the group closer together. Can you meet once a week to share your feelings, perhaps before breakfast or in the evening? This is a way of bringing people together. Some people cannot bear the idea of small group sharing, but it can be highly beneficial. Can you find a venue once a week, or at someone’s home? Many people have vulnerabilities that they find hard to share in a casual way.

However, reflect on whether your concern is more about you than the the other person. You may have a friend who you perceive to be in more danger of public abuse than you. Be mindful that not everyone wants to focus on this. Not everyone wants to receive your fear and sometimes these approaches can be more about you than the person you are approaching, however much you care about them.

(8) Reach out to those who are less able to

Someone who is feeling distressed and whose mental health may have got worse at the current time, or someone whose disability or health situation prevents them from going out, may need your support. Can you give them some time just to listen to them? And without him offering to fix them, unless you have resources that would  genuinely help.

If someone has become incapacitated through distress, can you help them out by bringing food around, or doing some some cleaning?

(9) Try to make sense of fear – your own and other people’s

Fear underpins many toxic decisions and behaviours. Fear can be hard to spot because it is so quickly replaced by something else. Fear is a bit like syphilis: it mimics, very convincingly, other states of mind and behaviours – rage, bullying, scorn, contempt, condescension, and physical aggression –and hides behind them.

You might want to talk to people with different view to yours. It may help you understand their choices better and they yours.

If you have kids, now may be the time to try and explain why people turn against each other for no apparent logical reason.

(10) Be mindful of self-harm

You might be drinking more, doing more drugs, smoking more, overeating, spending money. These all have short term benefits, and are a perfectly rational response to stress – but they may cause damage in the long term. In a time of trouble, remember that it’s best to be at your most alert, and to conserve resources where possible.

(11) Accept your own anger

You may be surprised by the helpless, murderous rage you experience about the behaviour of politicians and media/business leaders, and the impact it is having on your life. It is okay to feel this. You may well find that many others feel the same.

(12) Remember what you have

Is there a unit of time in which you can consider yourself to be okay? In which you have a roof over your head, food tonight, work, or someone to talk to at least? Is it a month, a week, a day, an hour? Can you at least exist minute by minute if nothing greater feels possible?

Now is the time to look at what you do have, (even if you have no spare money, you may have social capital), and what you have through your communities. If there are situations (or people) in your life who make you unhappy and you have any power over removing yourself from them, now may be the time to start looking at this. If you don’t feel sufficiently connected to other people, and you would feel safer and more held if you were, now is the time to take steps to change that.

I hope this piece is helpful in some way. If I’ve missed anything important, please tell me. If you are struggling with any of the issues I’ve discussed here and would like to talk further, you can contact me here.

[Re the image above: when I find out who originally created this cartoon, I will attribute them.]


Infidelity – deception is even more exciting than sex

beach 3Cheating – why do people do it?

Actually, perhaps the word ‘cheating’ sounds a little bit old fashioned, so let me put it another way: Why do people go behind the back of a negotiated relationship? Even if the relationship involves multiple partners and freedom to explore sexually?

And why do people do this even when the secret sex isn’t that good – and even when there may be no sex going on at all?

As a relationship therapist, I reflect often about what makes people seek something beyond the current boundary of their romantic partnership(s).

A popular subject for study

There are many theories about nonconsensual non-monogamy. This 2010 paper, Infidelity – When, Where Why? is a thorough roundup of a number of studies on the subject, covering everything from improving the gene pool; poaching a ‘better’ partner; unhappiness in the current pairing, whether due to insufficient sex, care or support; attachment style; boredom; dissatisfaction; and entitlement. There are also a large number of self-help books that attempt to address the issue.

This piece covers one aspect that has been on my mind for a while.

I suspect that, for many people, the urge to secrecy is even stronger than the sexual drive

This may not sound very logical on the surface. We are all supposed to be obsessed with sex, worrying about it all the time, chewing over about who is ‘getting’ more than we are. We spend loads of money on our appearances and fall easily into what I call ‘sex toy capitalism’, the endlessly evolving supply of slightly variant and increasingly expensive tools, of somewhat varying efficacy, which are sold as ways to enhance sexual pleasure. (This mirrors the encyclopaedic numbers of barely distinguishable (or pointlessly athletic) positions used to fluff out magazine articles, eg ‘The Wheelbarrow.’)

Sex is supposed to be the most important thing ever. Only money has more significance in terms of taking our attention and symbolising our social success to others.

So who would care about secrecy?

Ok, think about all the times you have been lied to. Well, there will have been so many of them that you won’t be able to. And then think about all the times you have lied to someone else. Much of the time people claim to hate the idea of lying, (and children are frequently warned against it) but when someone comes along and states the truth to you very brutally, you may well wish the untruths had continued.

So most of us have a shifting wall of defence available to us at the drop of a hat, when social needs arise. How many times have you told a person you were fine when you were not? Secrecy, of which this relatively innocuous exchange is an aspect, protects us from others and protects others from our real selves.

The excitement of a double life

It is very easy to fall into ways of living that do not feel fulfilling or exciting. We can easily forget the importance of excitement and fulfilment when we only have one life to live and we have been told over and over that we must live it in a certain way – through getting a job and a mortgage, and being married to one person, and having children. We may have had very good reasons for doing these things, and they can be very fulfilling in themselves. But perhaps we gradually stop testing ourselves, stretching our capabilities, until we have no idea what we are capable of. In that light, secret sex is a very quick way to reassert a lost, and intoxicating, sense of risk. And our suddenly dull-seeming partner, still stuck in their pyjamas, is unaware of our adventures, and momentarily we become more alive.

Secrecy is power

Secrecy is also control. Doing a thing that another person doesn’t know you’re doing gives you space. It gives you a chance at another identity, even for a few brief hours. It gives you space where you are less known and fewer assumptions can be made about you.

Secrecy is a form of individuation

If we are in any way unsure about who we are, no amount of sex will give us a solid sense of ourselves as individuals. If we find the presence of others encroaching despite our urge to bond with another; if being very close to another person risks us being truly known by them, we may seek to find outlets where we feel we can breathe, away from the main figure in our lives. Lies are like oxygen when the space you occupy with another person is overwhelming.

Response to a parent?

I could take this further and say it is an intrusive parent that we escape from when we do something secretively behind a partner’s back. An intimate partner can become an all-seeing eye – our instinctive response is to rebel.

Secrecy – not all bad

A person may have good reasons to have secret sex – perhaps they are caring for a partner who is incapacitated. They are not going to abandon them, but would like a sexual outlet.

I float this idea as a way of interpreting something I see very often. It is, of course, open to discussion. If anything in this post is relevant to what’s going on in your life and you would like to explore it, please contact me.


Trying to fix your relationship ? Change does not have to equal loss

Flames

As a therapist working with couples, one of the most persistent issues I see is fear of change.

However challenging things have become for both partners, and however untenable the relationship in its current form, people have an incredibly strong urge to cling to what they know, because the alternative terrifies them.

The will to hold on sometimes feels even stronger than the will to actually fix the relationship and make both partners happy.

I’m repeatedly astounded by people’s drive to remain connected in the way they always have, as if any form of adaptation will destroy everything that came before and erase all the happy memories.

People will stay together even when there is ongoing anxiety, constant sparking off each other, endless transferences and overreactions, and frequently calling the other out over tones of voice, events from the past and other points of conflict, and when sex has been adversely affected or become non-existent.

In other words, constant stress. And yet when I suggest a gentle reframe, and paint a picture of what the relationship might look like if they pushed the structure around a bit, there is panic. Because for so many of us, change automatically equals loss. Even just the thought of adapting to new conditions can put someone into a grief process.

Pre-mourning

You could call this sadness ‘pre-mourning.’ And I well know myself that it’s very hard to accept that change might actually make things better – enabling both parties to preserve the connection and eventually re-create happiness.

Fear of failure

It’s the same mindset that calls the ending of a relationship a ‘failure’. By this standard, all relationships that end have by definition automatically failed. (I wonder what kind of ending would not count as a failure – both partners actually dying?)

I have written before about the cultural primacy of a very particular kind of coupling, and the idea that to be a fully actualised person you must have been publicly chosen by another, and this must be seen to be the case in your family and community. To tell others that your coupling is in fact not working the way the world expects it to is a source of shame. You feel that you will be pitied or laughed at, and are left wondering if people said ‘How long do you give this one then?’ when you first got together.

There are more options than you think

The normative view of relationships that they are both binary and linear. If they are not one thing they must be another, and that they must follow a certain direction and ascent or they are not valid, or just weird. If you are in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, for example, you will find little public support for alternative ways of being together, except what creates lurid headlines: ‘We tried swinging and have never looked back!’

In fact, there are many ways that a relationship can be reframed or rebuilt, but these options are rarely spoken about as viable options. Like so much in society, if you aren’t doing it in a very specific way, there is something wrong, something lesser, about your choices. Needless to say, this is rubbish, but can be very hard to get past without support, whether therapeutic or from your community.

Some ways to reframe a relationship that is struggling

In the early days of relationship conflict, you may well have worked on behaviour and communication skills. Here I am talking about further down the line.

(1) Decide to live apart, if you cohabit. (Needless to say, the more financially you are tied together, the more this will affect your decision-making. But the decision to live together in the first place should not be undertaken lightly, and ideally never for purely financial reasons. If you have children, the issues are multiplied.)

(2) See each other less often but perhaps for longer each time, or varying contact.

(3) See each other less often full stop.

(4) Figure out the sex, if it was part of your relationship previously. (If it’s gone, can it be rekindled? Do you want/need it to be? You need to be realistic about the consequences when you both assert your needs around it.)

(5) Have some time apart with a timescale on it. (This one scares people a lot as there is a lot of conventional wisdom that says ‘break=ending’. Sometimes it does – but you can only find out by trying.)

(6) Open up the relationship up to other people. (This one scares people even more, often with good reason, and it should not be undertaken without a lot of negotiation and research. There has to be mutual consent.)

Love – or helpless attachment?

The tie that binds here is a thread of what is called love, but may be more akin to helpless attachment. I cannot say for sure what is love or what is not, but if the pain and fear are outweighing the good times, you may be closer to the other.

What if it’s really broken?

It hurts when it’s broken. So the feeling of acceptance is often welcome. I am divided over whether true acceptance can really be worked on, or whether you can only invite it in, to appear when you are ready.

If you’re experiencing difficulties in a relationship and would like to explore things with a therapist, you can contact me here.


Are you stuck on the Sex Escalator?

tg-1-27Today I’m talking about the repetitive sexual conveyer belt that we can find ourselves on if we pay too much attention to cultural influences and not enough to our own needs.

I’m calling it the Sex Escalator because you can sit on it and it will take you somewhere that feels vaguely elevated over and over again – and you need not think about it, ever.

Remember the ‘Relationship Escalator’?

You may well have heard of the ‘relationship escalator’, an idea that originated in non-monogamy research circles and promoted in excellent article about polyamory that I have linked to before. It’s about how relationships are culturally encouraged to follow a tried and tested formula – essentially meeting, dating, becoming a (preferably heterosexual) couple, becoming exclusive and monogamous, moving in together, getting married, buying property and having children.

This model suits many people for many reasons – but it also has a purpose, namely to uphold social cohesion and provide a foundation for a very specific way of having a family. It does not deserve to be rejected outright, but it does deserve examination because many people fall into it before realising it is not what they want or need at all. And this is when relationships can become damaging.

As with relationships, so with sex

Discussing this with friends and colleagues (and working in communities where we talk about these issues a lot), even highly creative sexual adventurers will admit to having sat on the escalator at some point in life. The process goes something like this:

  1. Kissing
  2. Manual stimulation
  3. Oral sex 
  4. Penetration (preferably PIV)
  5. Peak genital orgasm
  6. The End (someone falls asleep)

People base entire marriages around this paradigm. Any deviations from this become treats, exceptions or outliers, or simply never thought of.

And of course, parts of this sequence may be missing altogether because they were never there in the first place.

This is not to judge anyone or criticise this as a way of having a good time together. Over time you may have discovered the most efficient way to orgasm with one person – and after all it’s pleasure and connection you’re after. You may be frequently tired and you may be busy and you may have family to take care of.

The problems start when you’re increasingly unhappy – but you’re not doing anything about it.

Communication as taboo

The problems start when communication ends. For many people, unaccustomed to stating even the simplest needs, useful communication will stop as soon as mutual liking is discovered. For many people this may even come as a relief. In the UK we have a popular trope of two people getting drunk together on a date, waking up in a relationship, and then being delighted that it need never be mentioned again, perhaps for several years.

As with emotions, so with sex.

A package deal of conditioned behaviours and expectations

On the Sex Escalator:

  • Anything else doesn’t really count as sex, or is weird.
  • It’s vital to have a goal, and that goal is ‘full sex’ because the rest is just ‘foreplay’.
  • If you miss out the genital penetration, the sex is incomplete and has failed.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse you that much, you should keep quiet about it so as not to create disruption.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse you that much, you may need to seek outside help, because the problem is your fault.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse your partner that much, you should tell them to seek help, because the problem is their fault.
  • Obviously the penis owner will have an orgasm, because they definitely enjoy penetration. (Go here for a longer discussion on why a number of people actually aren’t into penis-in-vagina sex. Go here for a rather more brutal takedown of this sexual trope from a feminist perspective.)
  • The vagina owner really ought to have an orgasm because otherwise they must be dysfunctional and the penis owner won’t like them any more due to their imperfect functioning. 
  • You dare not discuss any of this with your partner in case they are offended or think you are about to criticise them.
  • Deviating from this pattern in any way is terribly adventurous and needs masses of preparation and expense.

I would like to think that the generations that have grown up with the internet will have found a better way, but looking at what young people seem to be learning, I am not so sure. And although this feels like a strictly heterosexual/cis model, any pairing of genders and sexualities could technically enact this. 

I also have a suspicion that this conveniently boxed scenario keeps people more heterosexually confined than they would ideally wish to be.

If the Sex Escalator isn’t working for you

If you keep on ending up having sex like this, and you’re not enjoying it, or you feel that there’s something missing – ask yourself some questions. If you have a partner, ask each other some questions.

  • Am I or my partner truly consenting to any of this?
  • Have we actually ever discussed it?
  • Do either of us really want it?

And if you’ve said to yourself and/or each other: ‘Well, this is okay enough, and if we don’t do these things it doesn’t feel like we’ve actually had sex – ‘

STOP!

If you want something different, here are some things to remind yourself about:

  • Sex does not need either a goal or a destination.

  • Genital sensation does not need to have primacy.

  • Specific activities do not have to have primacy over others.

  • There are no rules about which parts of the body should be included or left out.

  • Orgasms are nice but they are not obligatory.

  • Communicating your needs is vital. 

  • Focusing on breathing can add a whole layer of experience.
  • There is a whole world of sensation waiting for you in many areas of your body that you may not have considered.

  • Have you talked about your fantasies? Have you even thought about them?

What if you went right back to the start and asked yourself – or asked each other – what do I/we really want?

Am I overstating this? Judging by the responses I encounter when someone (or two people in a relationship) realises there is another world of sexual connection out there I am, if anything, understating it.

In a future post I’ll go into more detail about ways to expand your sexual experience.

If you’re concerned about anything I’ve raised in this post and would like to explore this aspect of your life in more detail, you can contact me here.


Bisexual life – hiding in plain sight?

2000px-Bi_flag.svg

Pink Therapy conference 2016

Last Saturday I spent the day with colleagues at Pink Therapy‘s annual conference for therapists. This year’s theme was Beyond Gay and Straight

‘There are gay bars and straight bars, but where are the bi bars?’

Someone made this point during the plenary session. Erasure is something bi people experience on a regular basis. I’ve been told more than once that the word ‘bisexual’ is a bit of an audience killer and best left off publicity materials. This is sadly unsurprising.

Bisexuality and mental health

Dr Meg John Barker reminded us that not enough studies have been done specifically around bisexuality, but what there is – sometimes the B element has to be squeezed out of the side of a larger piece of research – is unequivocal. A bisexual person is likely have worse mental health than someone who is either gay or straight. An aside from another discussion, a good proportion of people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (who are, incidentally, mostly likely to be women) also identify as bisexual. (For more research and information, see BiUK.)

Prejudice from all sides

Bisexual people experience discrimination from both straight and gay communities. Bi people are seen as fence sitters, greedy, manipulative, unstable, sex-obsessed, and indecisive, perpetually on the way from one place to another but never getting there. Women only ‘do it’ to tease or please men. It is seen as marginally more acceptable to be a bi woman than a bi man, however – bi men are either ‘gay, straight or lying.’ A bi person must experience an exactly balanced 50/50 attraction to men and women (never mind other genders), or they are fakes and must be straight. Sometimes therapists (and partners) offer to convert them, or tell them that their issues will be resolved when they ‘pick a side’.

Charles Neal, author of The Marrying Kind, talked about the lives of gay and bi men married to women, the ‘mixed-orientation marriage,’ and the misery experienced by people stifling their identities in order to remain in a socially acceptable unit. ‘Experience before identity’ was his message – but even nowadays, if you don’t identify sufficiently with one tribe over another, you may feel left out in the cold. (See also How To Support Your Bisexual Husband, Wife, Partner)

Born this way?

Current activism tends to promote sexual and gender identities as self-defined, but it wasn’t so long ago that you had to be ‘born this way’ in certain queer scenes, (and adopt one of a specific set of appearances) or you were seen as a ‘tourist’. You were ‘bi-try’ (for bi or bi-curious women entering lesbian environments) or a ‘stray’ (for bi or bi-curious men entering gay ones). And, on arriving at an event, there was that look from the door person that said ‘Your hair goes past your shoulders – are you here to write an article about us?’

Binary versus fluidity

These attitudes remind us how the desire for a binary universe is so pervasive. If you are not one thing you must be another, because of course there are only two things to be. The idea that a person’s desires may shift and evolve over time seems entirely absent. To be fair, if you have fought for years for your singular identity, you may well feel threatened by any kind of flexibility around this, but this feels increasingly out of step with younger people, for whom fluidity of identity feels as if it’s becoming the norm.

It all sounds very like the dismissive way some old-school kinksters speak of switches, ie people who are comfortable occupying both sub/bottom and dom/top roles, or have a different role depending on the gender of their play partner. And, for that matter, people who cannot accept non-binary gender identities. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a high proportion of bisexuality in trans communities. DK Green spoke in detail about both topics. Validation from partners is essential: ‘Does your partner see you as you see yourself?’ (Trans Media Watch has a good resources page.)

Caution around labels

A therapist simply being affirmative may in fact be damaging when a client holds multiple identities, and this can apply particularly if they are intersex. And in a flurry of anti-religionism (for sure understandable given the damage that religion has done to people with minority identities), you may trample over the fact that a queer person is religious and gains comfort from it.

Multiple intersections – multiplied difficulties

Ronete Cohen spoke about the intersection of bisexuality and race, where a bisexual person of colour can be marginalised and objectified in a number of communities simultaneously. Microaggressions are multiplied, and there is far less social support and consequently worse mental health outcomes. She gave the example of a bi person of colour asking for help dealing with stress, and being told to go to yoga. There are a number of reasons why this was inappropriate – western yoga is generally white, middle class, often expensive, promotes a particular body type, and contains potential inherent cultural appropriation.

Elsewhere during the day, someone gave another example of a therapist trying, unsuccessfully, to take mindfulness into communities of colour, having not thought through the missionary implications of this. A therapist may have training around gender, sexual and relationship diversities, but they may not have any cultural competence training around race. (See Bis of Colour for more information and support.)

Queering relationships

From the other sessions I attended:

Niki D talked about biphobia in relationships, and the difficulties of being a bisexual person in a relationship with someone who is monosexual.

Meg John Barker, using their excellent zine ‘What Does A Queer Relationship Look Like?‘ talked about queer relationships, and the fact that a high proportion of bisexuals are also non-monogamous. (The ‘Normativity Castle’ is especially pertinent here.)

Amanda Middleton presented on queer identities and offered a breakdown of Queer Theory. She outlined the slippery and paradoxical implications of queer – (for example, if a queer person experiences microaggressions, it can mean they are doing queerness well) – and the fact that identity will inevitably change over space and time.

It’s an exciting time for Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversities therapy

Thanks to Dominic Davies and the Pink Therapy team once more for a great day and an excellent learning and networking opportunity. There’s a lot of work to do – especially around training – but this community is growing.

For videos of the main talks, go here.

Contact

If any of the issues in this post are affecting you and you would like to talk further to someone, you can contact me here.


Chemsex – film review

Chemsex - A Peccadillo Pictures release Review in the Lancet
There’s a new documentary out, Chemsex, about the cultural phenomenon of sex and drug parties on London’s gay scene. It was previewed at the London Film Festival this autumn, and my review of it appears in this week’s Lancet.

You can find the film’s trailer here. I also saw the play Five Guys Chillin at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, which is a verbatim drama about a chemsex party constructed from many hours of interviews.

In my review I looked closely at the film itself and highlighted the public health aspects of the story – the potential for the spread of STIs through having unprotected sex while intoxicated, sharing needles when injecting, or sharing toys and lube. Also the fact that it is particularly easy to overdose on GBL.

I’ve also been reflecting on the film more globally and what else it brought up for me.

Double standards
First of all, it’s very easy to sensationalise what some might see as niche or small community behaviours, but which are in fact only more specific or extreme examples of activities that many people do on a regular basis. Plenty of heterosexual people, for example, stay up for two or more days taking drugs recreationally and having sex.

I’m also aware that a film like this could potentially encourage homophobia in those already disposed that way – just as the many documentaries about excessive public alcohol use in town centres (and the consequent taking up of A&E time) has the potential to encourage a form of classism. This despite the universality of drinking culture in the UK.

Fear of sexual agency
Secondly, our culture is obsessed with sex, but simultaneously fights to create rules about who is allowed to be having it, and how. People who actively pursue their sexual desires are very often seen as a threat, or ‘addicted’. (See my recent post on sex addiction and the concerning number of activities/behaviours which are erroneously named as symptoms of it.)

The challenge of sober sex
Finally, it’s very clear that sober sex is very difficult to accept when you’ve been used to the chemically enhanced version. A film can’t cover everything, but this is something that needs to be addressed societally, and not just in the gay community. I intend to cover this topic soon.

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