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.

 

Advertisements

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:


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]


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.


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.