Category Archives: Sex Positive Articles

Expanding the Boundaries: Polyamory & Non-traditional Family Forms

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by Rami Henrich, LCSW

I attended the 35th Annual Meeting of AFTA (American Family Therapy Academy), in Chicago in June 2013.  The conference, entitled “Coupling Today: Love, Parenting, Community,” included many excellent presentations and opportunities to learn from colleagues. I was pleased and surprised to find the topic of non-monogamy well-represented in the Saturday plenary, Monogamy & Nonmonogamy: Commitments, Variations & Violations, given by Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, Janis Abrams and Michael LaSala as well as several presenters’ panels.

This was the first time that I had attended an AFTA meeting and I also had the opportunity to be a part of a panel, Expanding the Boundaries: Polyamory & Non-traditional Family Forms, and to present based on the phenomenological research study on polyamory that I completed in 2011.  Diana Adams, an attorney from New York, and Shannon Sennott of Amherst, also on the panel, spoke to legal issues of non-traditional families and family therapy in alternative family structures, respectively. For me, the goal of Saturday’s presentation was to educate the clinicians present about these unique issues and to spark thoughtful reflection and interchange about therapists’ attitudes, questions and concerns when working with polyamorous clients.  A lively, engaging, and I believe, informative conversation took place.

Below is a summary of my 2011 research entitled Finding a Path of Heart: Exploring the Psychological, Relational and Social Issues of Polyamorists.  (You can also download a PDF of the booklet entitled Polyamory: Basic Information for Therapists.)

The AFTA presentation and my last 7 years of clinical work are, in part, based on the findings of my study and an open support group for people exploring polyamory that I have lead for 4 years.  I hope it will be helpful to clinicians who would like more detail or were not able to be at the AFTA presentation. The purpose of the study, which included interviews with 12 adults who identified as polyamorous, was to ascertain the unique issues and themes that polyamorous families or individuals bring to therapy.

The primary findings of my study clustered around the following topics and issues:

Marginalization and Social Obstacles:

  • 9 of 12 polyamorists experienced marginalization
  • Subjects reported rights and privileges were minimized or disavowed
  • Living in a mainstream culture that values monogamy
  • Unconscious internalizations of social discrimination and marginalization
  • Experiences of marginalization within the relationship, extended family and the world

Challenges of Disclosure, Identity and Community:

  • 11 of 12 subjects indicated challenges related to disclosure of their poly identity/lifestyle
  • When, to whom, what to say?
  • Fears of rejection, judgments, discrimination, isolation, attack
  • Coming out seen as an ongoing process
  • Needing to educate others about polyamory and the diversity within it
  • Hard-wired vs. ideal vs. situational
  • Need for support and community

Challenges around Agreements, Negotiations and Contracts:

  • Roles, relationship models and conventions are in the process of being defined
  • What is the transition or working-thru process like when new relationships are added to existing relationships?
  • Defining, maintaining and protecting boundaries in poly relationships
  • Sharing money, time, attention, sex, etc…
  • Distinctions between primary and secondary relationships? (effects of labeling)

Jealousy:

  • 10 of 12 subjects raised issues related to jealousy
  • Rank (i.e. primary & secondary partners), power, equity, marginalization, hurt and betrayal
  • Potential for increased self-awareness of individual needs

Therapy Challenges:

  • 6 participants reported negative therapy experiences
  • 6 reported positive therapy experiences (with poly friendly therapists)
  • 3 subjects had no therapy experiences
  • 3 primary reasons cited for negative therapy experiences:
    • Biases of therapist toward monogamy
    • Pathologizing polyamory
    • Therapists’ assumptions and lack of knowledge about polyamory

Clinical Considerations:

  • Suggested need for therapist openness, an attitude of heart-ful acceptance, curiosity, exploration and compassion
  • Recognize that polyamorous clients experience judgment, stigmatization, and pathologizing by society, family, therapists
  • Therapists need to examine their own beliefs and biases about polyamory.
  •  Willingness to refer to other poly friendly therapists if appropriate.
  • Therapists need to educate themselves and be aware of resources for polyamorists in the community
  • Awareness of external influences impacting poly clients and their relationship dynamics

What clients may seek from therapy:

  • Help deciding if polyamory is right for them
  • Help deciding what form of polyamory is best for them
  • Help negotiating agreements and boundaries with partners
  • Help distinguishing personal issues from relationship issues
  • Help locating resources and communities in their area
  • Help with the coming out process
  • Help dealing with discrimination and prejudices
  • Help managing difficult relationship issues which may include children

If you’d like to read the paper in its entirety, please go here where you can find Finding a Path of Heart: Exploring the Psychological, Relational and Social Issues of Polyamorists.

You can also download a PDF of the booklet entitled Polyamory: Basic Information for Therapists.

I am happy to continue the conversation if there are questions, comments, ideas, thoughts…

Meditation on Weathering: The Inevitability of Aging

weatheringWeathering
by Fleur Adcock

My face catches the wind
from the snow line
and flushes with a flush

that will never wholly settle.
Well, that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young forever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
and only pretty enough to be seen
with a man who wanted to be seen
with a passable woman.

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
it’s little enough lost
for a year among the lakes and vales
where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors
and to what my soul may wear
over its new complexion.

I have a favorite bench that overlooks Lake Michigan here in Evanston, IL. I call it my “eternity bench” due to an experience, I frequently have when looking at the beach, lake and horizon from there. I often sense something that exists throughout and beyond space and time. However esoteric that may sound, that has been and is my experience there.

Reading the poem, Weathering, I am in touch by something similar  — the inevitability of aging, and the something that connects me to everything over all time and to all of us who have the privilege of aging. Like the author, Fleur Adcock, I look less in my bathroom mirror to find beauty or lack thereof, and look more within to find it.

As I live with my own aging process and that of aging clients, I appreciate our weathering, our regrets and joys, as we sometimes fight against and sometimes drop deeply into the eldership of weathering.

About 30 years ago, I knew a woman who had her face lifted and tucked, implanted, slimmed down, puffed up and pulled so tightly that she had a slightly permanent smile. But she couldn’t laugh because her face couldn’t move. At 75, her face showed no signs of having lived.  It was actually quite sad.

I grow to appreciate my wrinkles, and sun spots, and even a little sagging here and there. Those spots tell me how much pleasure I have had walking the lakefront and the seashore, face up to the elements — wind, rain, snow, sunshine. Ahhh, weathering!

 

Therapist Bias

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by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D. & Rami Henrich, LCSW

Bias influences all of us — even therapists.

In fact, one 2011 study indicates that as many as 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased.

Meanwhile, a 2006 study by Drs. Keely Kolmes, Wendy Stock, and Charles Moser found that 67% of therapeutic relationships with kink/BDSM-identified clients studied included instances of biased care, such as…

  • considering BDSM to be unhealthy,
  • requiring a client to give up BDSM activity in order to continue treatment,
  • confusing BDSM with abuse,
  • the client having to educate the therapist about BDSM,
  • assuming that BDSM interests are evidence of past family/spousal abuse, and
  • therapists misrepresenting their expertise by stating that they are BDSM-positive when they are not actually knowledgeable about BDSM practices.

What can clinicians do to detect and reduce bias within themselves? How can therapists avoid issues like the above in order to better serve BDSM-, LGBTQ-, poly-, and kink-identified clients, as well as other marginalized individuals?

2015 Alternative Sexualities Conference in Chicago

Join us later this month as we explore these topics and more at the 7th Alternative Sexualities Conference (ASC), where we will present “Working with Therapist Bias: A Lifelong Approach.” Hosted by our friends and colleagues at the Center on Halsted, the ASC is produced by the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS) and the Projects Advancing Sexual Diversity (PASD).  Read on for details about the conference and our presentation.

Alternative Sexualities Conference

When: Friday, May 22nd, 9am–6pm
Where: The Center on Halsted, 3656 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60613

Description from the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities website (CARAS):

Leather, kink, BDSM, polyamory, alt sex… Non-traditional sexual practices, lifestyles, and identities have become increasingly visible in recent years. With more portrayals on television and in movies, as well as in literature and music, clients are feeling increasingly comfortable about bringing “forbidden” sexual issues to psychotherapy.

The ASC has been designed to provide clinical perspectives, empirical data and opportunities to discuss the challenges encountered in clinical work and research in the alternative sexuality communities. Our seventh conference includes individual, panel and poster presentations featuring professionals from across the United States, London, and Australia.

ASC is produced by the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS) based in San Francisco and Projects Advancing Sexual Diversity (PASD) centered in Chicago. This year we are happy to partner with Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Institute (SOGI) at the Center on Halsted for our largest conference ever.

Therapist Bias: A Lifelong Approach

We define bias as anything that limits one’s capacity to relate to the other as a whole, or that which creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of another’s experiences. The facts are evident: every therapist, no matter their identity or background, has bias. Some bias is easy to recognize, but some remains unknown or hidden from us.

In this presentation, we will explore ways clinicians can detect, identify, and work on their own assumptions and prejudices towards clients. We’ll approach bias from within, viewing it as a reflection or expression of a tendency to marginalize or overemphasize something or some quality within ourselves. Through lecture, group exercise, and guided debriefing, participants will gain perspectives and tools to serve clients, and integrate insights into their own experience of  bias, regardless of the individual’s orientation, gender, cultural heritage, practices, or relationship status.

Interested in this topic but can’t attend the ASC? You can catch us June 6th, at theHazelden Betty Ford Clinic in Chicago where we will be offering a three-hour, CEU bearing course on therapist bias. Find more information here.

We would love to hear from you. How does bias impact you?

You can also leave a comment here, or reach out to us on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, orLinkedIn with your thoughts.

Visit our therapist events page for a listing of upcoming seminars, workshops, groups, and classes, including details about our next KPACT (Kink Poly Aware Chicago Therapists) event.

Am I a Marginalizer?

Herbie

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

What do you think of when you hear the word marginalization? People living in poverty, persons of color, those who do not share fully in the privileges some of us are enjoying these days?

I would say yes to all of the above, and would include a list that would be broader and more inclusive of groups or communities of people we ordinarily don’t think of as marginalized such as: those who suffer from mental illness, particularly those who experience extreme states of consciousness; people who live alternative lifestyles, outside the norm of heterosexual monogamy (i.e. polyamorists or kinksters); and anyone who identifies as LGBTQIA, or does not identify with any particular gender or sexual orientation. The list is actually endless — think of religious and spiritual minorities, immigrants, the elderly, people with disabilities…

In general, when we think of marginalization we think in terms of self and other — you and me, us and them. But we rarely consider that we might be marginalizing ourselves.

How is this possible? Well, I know there are parts of me — aspects, qualities, biases and dislikes, etc… — that I don’t know about, that I don’t want to admit to myself, that I disown, disavow, or deny. Consider the idea that marginalization refers to a point of view that relates self to other, as well as self to self.

Do you know marginalize, disavow or deny? For example, would you say that you are an angry or rageful person? Probably, not many. If you are like me, my preferred way of identifying myself is as a “nice” person, relatively calm, thoughtful and non-reactive. Let’s see if that holds true…

Am I a marginalizer? Last week, as I was coming out of Starbucks, a man yelling at a woman, in the park nearby, caught my attention. In hearing him, I thought, “Geez, glad I’m not a yeller like that!”  I was instantly reminded of my dad who would often yell when he was mad and sometimes for no apparent reason. I believe I made an unconscious decision when I was a child to not be a yeller, to not be like dad!

Then two days later, I was sitting in my room manicuring my nails.  My dog, Herbie, was laying contentedly at my feet.  Very nonchalantly, he stood up and heartily vomited on my bedroom rug. Inside of me a yell arose, and out of me came a hearty “oh shit!”  There was more coming but I was able to stop myself before traumatizing the poor pup who was just doing what came naturally.

I thought about the man in the street and my dad — yellers. I could imagine that the man or my dad had moments like me.  They weren’t only yellers.  They were also human beings who got upset, lost awareness and blurted out things that might sound unkind.  In recognizing a mostly unknown or marginalized part of myself, I had an experience of feeling more whole and, in addition, I found myself more connected to and understanding of that characteristic or quality in others.

All this to say that while I do not readily identify as an angry yeller, but rather as a calm, thoughtful responder, the yeller does live in me and from time to time uses it’s voice.

To marginalize is human.  Being angry or being a yeller belongs to all of us. So does the impulse is to ignore qualities in ourselves and point the finger out at some other person, group, community, country etc… We all marginalize parts of ourselves and others. It is our capacity to use our awareness in the heat of the moment that helps to soothe our inner and outer responses.

Consider how you might marginalize aspects of yourself and how that might keep you separated both from yourself and others.

My New Companions — Curiosity & Fear

imagesby Rami Henrich, LCSW

Why should you befriend experiences and things that you are afraid of? Things that unnerve you, disgust you or freak you out?  A week ago, I had a moment when my curiosity overcame my fear and I started to reflect on how curiosity can help us overcome inner as well as outer fears. 

Curiosity is what researcher, therapist and facilitator, Amy Mindell calls a “metaskill.” Amy coined the term in her 2006 book, Metaskills: The Spiritual Art of Therapy.  Metaksills are “deep feeling qualities, or attitudes that bring learned skills to life and make them useful”.  As a therapist, I know metaskills are important to my clients and my work, but as a human being, I find they are essential to acceptance, growth and change.

I’ve just returned home from my early morning walk with Herbie, my shitzu-poodle, who gives me both reason and energy to walk every morning at 6.

Looking down at the road, as we walked, I noticed an unusual looking insect — large, about 4 inches long — where I was about to step next.

I rarely examine insects of any sort. In fact, I avoid them at all cost, as they repulse me, actually freak me out. Maybe it’s their creepy crawliness, or their being-there- when-you-least-expect-them nature that I find so troubling. I hate when I find them in the sink, or coming down my bedroom wall or, heaven forbid, in my bed! Yuk!

But, on my walk this morning, for some reason, I found myself a bit interested in this insect laying in the road. As I started to bend over to look at it a bit more, it flew up almost into my face, startling me the way insects always do. And as it flew away, I noticed that it had wings like a dragonfly, and stripes like a bee.  Really unusual, something I’d never seen before. I love when something new enters my life and at this intersection, I found myself simultaneously frightened and curious.

As I walked on, I kept thinking about my experience.

    • Hmmm, what if when I experience fear, I could also be curious about the person, situation, belief  or thing causing that fear?
    • What if, in the face of unpleasant, self-condemning thoughts, where I judge myself as miserable human being, instead I could be curious about my feelings, thoughts, unkindness toward myself?
    • And what if when faced with people who I expeirnece as “other,” who I might fear — what if I got curious about them instead of turning away or judging those not like me? 

Bringing curiosity and awareness to what we fear or despise, or judge as intolerable, is an opportunity to ask questions, to be curious, to inquire into the nature of the “other” — be it an insect, a part of myself, a closely held belief, another human being, or group of people. With curiosity, we can earnestly open ourselves to an inquiry into just why it is that we need to consciously or unconsciously keep ourselves separate?

Thank you dear, unusual and a bit frightening dragonfly on my path this morning. You have awakened me to curiosity and fear — to the possibility of living a more curious life!

How has curiosity been an ally to you?  Where have you been able to use a curious attidue to over come fear or separation?  I would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment.

What is Marginalization?

PIC-0245By Rami Henrich, LCSW

What is marginalization? Have I ever been marginalized?  And, how would I know if I had been?

Do you often feel different from others?  Like you don’t quite fit in?  While some feelings of not fitting in may be related to your personal psychology, some of these feelings can come from the world around you. Marginalization often occurs when an individual or group minimizes or disavows the legitimacy, rights or privileges of others who are believed to be somehow different from the mainstream. Individuals and groups can be explicitly or implicitly marginalized.

Marginalization often occurs outside of ordinary awareness which means we do not notice when we are marginalizing ourselves or others, or when we are being marginalized.  Internalized marginalization is the experience of oppressing one’s self with inner criticisms or judgments. For example, I used to blame myself for putting my children in a position where they might feel like outsiders because I had chosen or created an unconventional relationship within which they also had to live.

For polyamorists, like other non-mainstream groups, marginalization occurs daily in small and large ways inside their relationship, from extended family members, and from the world. We live in a culture that places high value on monogomy and often fails to recognize or anticipate relationship structures that fall outside of the traditionally accepted survey categories: single, married, or divorced.

Our culture rewards and reinforces these familiar relationship structures in big and small ways. For instance, most athletic clubs offer family memberships and substantial savings to nuclear families but not to alternative ones. The majority of teachers and school administrators tend to react awkwardly when three adults show up for parent’s night. And the law has yet to fully legitimize homosexual and polyamorous relationships by sanctioning their unions with the same rights and privileges of married heterosexual couples.

Marginalization…sometimes so subtle and implicit, other times so gross and explicit. Have you noticed marginalization in your world?  What are your experiences with marginalization?

 I would love to hear your experiences and I am sure others would benefit as well.

How Much Sex is Enough?

sex alt 1by Rami Henrich, LCSW

So often in my practice I hear complaints about differing levels of libido in partners.  One partner has more interest and desire than the other.

What to do? I have to say that frequently I don’t have the answer. That is, I think to myself, “Ok, you want to have a lot of sex and you don’t. I guess you’re at an impasse.”

However, as we know, there is more to sex than just the biological urge. Attitudes and beliefs that are formed through experiences with family, peer groups, society, religion, culture etc. have an enormous impact on our sexuality as do our lifestyle, health and the pressures and stresses that we experience day in and out.

A few months ago a couple came to see me. The wife said, “I am hypersexual. I just want to have sex all the time. What’s wrong with me?” Her husband, a gentle, warm man said, “I really never think about sex at all. I just don’t seem to have the urge to have sex. Ever. What’s wrong with me?”

How much sex is enough? Is there something “wrong” with either of them? Our culture would probably agree with this couple that something is wrong with each of them.

She is too sexual! It is still a taboo for women to want too much sex or to want sex too much! Recently, at a party, a woman confessed to loving sex, and lots of it! The mixed group (of men and women) whose conversation had meandered into this important territory, giggled and some blushed.  I thought, “Hmmm, we are still somewhat puritanical in some part of our being when we think of a woman who both wants and needs a lot of sex.”

And what about a man who isn’t interested in sex? Is there something wrong with him? Society seems to frown on men who aren’t robust, so to speak.  The alpha male type is still a widely accepted ideal of masculinity.  Men have been taught to “go for it”, that they are or should be hunters and warriors both on the battle field and in the bed. I know that these are generalizations, but I do sometimes wonder if there is a place in our society for a soft spoken man who is not so interested in sex?

From my point of view, this woman and man fall somewhere on a continuum in terms of sexual drive, interest and activity. Could it be that there isn’t anything “wrong” with either of them and that it is our expectations that they be some other way that defines them as outside the norm?

For some, identifying as living outside the norm and the process of adjusting to what that means is already a part of living a polyamorous life. There seems to be a perception both inside and out of the poly community that polyamorists have strong libidos and are constantly on the looking for the next catch. While this may be true for some, it is certainly not so for all! The poly umbrella includes a lot of diversity. It encompasses a broad array of relationship constellations and sexual identities as well as appetites that can’t be easily reduced to single dimensions.

Can we find a way to accept people for who and where they are sexually? Can we find a way to accept ourselves where we are sexually?  Expectations are like ghosts hanging around in the closet.  Can we clean out the closet and feel freer to be who we are sexually and in other ways as well?

Let me know what you think.  Your comments are welcome.