Tag Archives: bias

Your Best Friend Tells You They Are Kinky

leather pride flag
Credit: Leather Pride Flag image by Marcus Schmöger and António Martins, 31 March 2005

by Carrie Jameson, LCPC

So, your best friend tells you they are kinky and/or they practice BDSM (Bondage and Discipline [BD], Dominance and Submission [Ds], Sadism and Masochism [SM]). Whether it is your best friend, a sibling, parent, or child,  you may want to be an ally, but simply don’t know what to do or say.

Before you go further, it might be helpful for you to try the following thought exercise.

THOUGHT EXERCISE
Think back in your life to something that was special or precious. Remember how you felt. You may have wanted to tell someone close or trusted about this precious thing, experience or person, but maybe you were nervous too. Ask yourself the following questions and make a note of your answers:

  • What did you feel in anticipation of telling them?
  • What kinds of thoughts did you have before you told that person?
  • How did you prepare for the conversation?
  • What were your concerns? What was at risk for you?
  • How did you hope that person would react?
  • How did they react and respond?
  • What did you feel afterward? 

In the exercise above, you might have felt concerned, anxious, afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed about what you had to say. In the same way, it is often difficult for people to disclose their interest in kink or BDSM to friends, family, and loved ones. They may have many concerns and fears about how you will react and worries about how this new information will impact your relationship. In your role as a confidant, your response to your friend or loved one may add to feelings of fear and shame or may help to alleviate them. In part, it’s up to you.

Remember, it very likely took a lot of thought and courage for your friend or loved one to come out to you. It is still uncommon for our society to talk about sexual topics openly. BDSM is often judged and labeled as “not normal” or “wrong” by mainstream culture. Your friend or loved one is sharing a part of their life that is likely very important to them—how will you respond?

ABOUT BDSM
For some people, BDSM or being “kinky” is an identity. For some, it is an orientation. And, for others, it is both orientation and identity. Still others may consider it more of a leisure activity or serious interest (in academic research, also referred to as serious leisure) but not necessarily an orientation.  People may practice BDSM for fun, as a spiritual practice, to explore relationship dynamics, as an aspect of their sexuality, and for many other reasons. For many, it is a deep and profound experience. The person disclosing to you likely has their own way of thinking about kink or BDSM and how it fits for them, their interests, lifestyle, and identity.

HOW TO BE AN ALLY
Here are some suggestions for providing support and responding to a loved one, if they share their kink or BDSM interests with you:

  • Be curious. Ask questions if you want to understand something. You may even want to ask your friend or family member what it was like to disclose this information to you and how you can support them.
  • Trust that your friend or family member knows what they are doing, from a psychological and physical safety perspective. If you have concerns about their safety or well-being, you can share your concerns—but ask first to determine whether they are open to discussing them with you.
  • Don’t assume you know what BDSM or kink is for your friend or loved one. BDSM and kink are broad umbrellas terms that encompass many different practices and activities.  Many people have interests in some but not all of these.  It is especially risky to base your opinions, reactions, or impressions on popular media or pornography (books or movies like 50 Shades of Grey or Secretary, for example).  Instead, ask your friend or loved one how you can learn more.
  • It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Honor your feelings (and recognize that your friend or loved one may have different feelings). Go slowly in conversation if that helps; or talk a bit and then agree to return to the conversation at a later date, if that feels right. Set limits on the type or extent of detail you want to hear about someone’s kink or BDSM activities. Be direct and state your preferences—for example: “I would like to know about the club you attend but please don’t share graphic details of scenes with me just yet.”
  • Don’t assume an interest in BDSM or kink is related to past trauma or any psychological dysfunction. In fact, studies have shown that people who participate in BDSM show lower levels of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other psychological concerns.
  • Resist blaming kink or BDSM for other issues. Don’t assume your friend’s relationship challenges or psychological difficulties are automatically related to their kink practices.
  • Honor the trust shown to you. Remember this person trusted you with a confidence. Don’t out them (i.e., disclose this information) to others without their consent. They may have told you, but may not want their participation in BDSM more broadly known.
  • If you want more information, you can also do some research on kink and BDSM. Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s When Someone you Love is Kinky may be a good place to start. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) website also provides a variety of articles and resources. You may want to ask your friend or loved one about other resources they would recommend.

Read more of Carrie’s posts here.

Sex Work & Sex Workers 101

Photo Credit: John Major QMI Agency

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

It has been a pleasure and very enriching to be working with the folks at SWOP Chicago, the local Sex Worker Outreach Project, to develop a support group for sex workers. Cassandra Damm is a social worker who volunteers with SWOP Chicago and co-authored this blog post which is the first of a series exploring the issues confronting sex workers.

Why Talk about Sex Work?

Often referred to as “the world’s oldest profession,” sex work has been a controversial and misunderstood trade throughout human history. Today, sex workers face various forms of discrimination and life-threatening danger, compounded by the fact that many types of sex work remain criminalized in most countries. Without laws protecting their well-being, sex workers can become the victims of violence, abuse, hate crimes, and trafficking. For these reasons, a number of sex workers and their allies around the world have recently undertaken efforts to reform, decriminalize, and even legalize the profession. Criminalization compounds the risks sex workers face, and there are few outlets offering support to sex workers.

Supporting sex workers starts with embracing the reality in which these individuals live. To understand that reality, we must be willing to question our assumptions, let go of our judgments, and learn the facts about sex work.

What Is Sex Work?

While many people who identify as sex workers trade sexual services for money or goods, the term “sex work” is an umbrella term used by individuals working in various forms of erotic and sexual labor. Dancers may exchange erotic or emotional labor and maintain specific boundaries around sexual touching or groping. Nude models or porn actresses may exchange erotic modeling or sexual performance for compensation without having direct contact with clients. Phone sex operators and adult cam models exchange sexual and emotional labor virtually, with or without the use of their image or body.  Professional BDSM (bondage, dominance/submission and sado/masochism) providers offer fetish and fantasy fulfillment for their clientele.

In addition to understanding the range of titles and behaviors that comprise sex work, it’s also important to understand that “sex work” is a political term. Industry advocates recently coined this term as a means to group activities that involve all forms of sexual labor. This grouping created a political identity that makes building support networks easier and unites people for political action. That being said, it is also important to note that not everyone who engages in sex work identifies personally as a sex worker—and some may not even be familiar with the term.

Who Is a Sex Worker?

A sex worker is anyone who exchanges explicit or implied sexual services for money, shelter, food, drugs, or other material goods. As noted above, not everyone involved in the sex industry identifies as a sex worker, some choose instead to use titles or the language their clients use. Sex workers include strippers, escorts, sugar babies, cam models, porn performers, and phone sex operators, pro dominatrixes—to name only a few. Many different types of sex work exist, and the people who work in the industry are as diverse as the rest of humanity. Some ways sex workers might refer to their work include “dancing,” “going on dates,” “sugaring,” “hooking,” and so on.

Because of the profession’s legal status and general societal attitudes regarding sex work, members of the industry seldom choose to disclose information about their jobs, clients, and experiences. If they reveal anything at all, sex workers tend to keep the details secret. In all likelihood, you will not be able to tell whether someone is a sex worker or not, unless they volunteer the information first.

How Can You Support Sex Workers?

  1. Educate yourself about the issues and risks facing sex workers.
  2. Recognize the forms of sex work go on in almost all communities.
  3. Challenge your assumptions about who is a sex worker.
  4. Visit SWOPUSA.org or SWOP-Chicago.org to find out more.

In an upcoming article, we will explore why sex workers need support, and share several ways you can be an ally and make a positive difference for members of the sex trade in your state, city, and community.

Every month, Lifeworks Psychotherapy Center hosts a Sex Worker Support Group for individuals who identify as sex workers. Co-sponsored by SWOP Chicago (Sex Worker Outreach Project), the Sex Worker Support Group (SWSG) group is open to anyone who has previously or is currently working in the sex trade. (For the safety and protection of participants, this group is not open to consumers of sex industry services.)

For more information on the Sex Worker Support Group, visit our Events page here.

Managing Fear After the Election

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Photo Credit: HOPE by Gedalya AKA David Gott via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

Managing fear has been difficult for many people in the days following the 2016 US Presidential Election.  No matter which candidate you supported, you may find yourself overwhelmed by distressing news reports, tense conversations with loved ones, and your own complicated feelings.

LifeWorks is an explicitly inclusive therapy practice that welcomes all people. We know how painful the past few weeks have been for many individuals in the populations we serve. Whether you are feeling frozen and frightened, angry, apprehensive, saddened, emboldened, or an intense and unpredictable combination of various emotions, here are a few things you can do to help yourself stay grounded, resilient, and open—now and in the future.

1. Know that You are not Alone with Your Feelings.

Fear and helplessness can be extremely isolating, especially if it seems as though those around you don’t understand your experience or share your perspective. Remember that you are not alone. Your emotions, however enormous or volatile, are valid and yours. There are many in the US and around the world who share your feelings.

2. Seek Company with Friends and Family with whom You Feel Safe.

Surround yourself with supportive, compassionate loved ones. Cultivate a community that allows for safe dialogues. During periods of uncertainty, time spent with those you care about can provide you with a renewed sense of energy and remind you that you have others to lean on.

3. Engage in Building Your Community.

Look for ways you can get involved in your neighborhood, your city, or even your state. Your community is larger than your circle of friends, co-workers and family members. No matter where you are, there is likely an organization nearby that needs your support and can provide volunteer opportunities in line with your values. If you can’t find the organization or volunteer role you’re looking for, consider ways you can fill that void in your community. Many people find positive, community-building work to be deeply validating and empowering. Every little bit counts.

4. Get Involved in Productive, Life-affirming Activities. 

Focus on activities that allow you to feel purposeful, engaged, and fulfilled. Regardless of the news or your perspective on politics, you always have the ability to stay connected to your inner sources of strength.  Involve yourself in activities that give you a sense of vibrancy and hope. For example:

Move Your Body.

Dancing, hiking, physical exercise, yoga, meditation, and other activities that directly involve your body can help you harness and release anxious thoughts and feelings. Give yourself time to engage in the physical activities that help you feel grounded, dynamic, and calm.

Do Something Outside.

Nature is deeply soothing for some people. If you feel pent-up and on edge in an urban or suburban space right now, try spending some time in nature. Allow yourself to fully engage your senses, enjoy the present moment, and find wisdom and peace in the outdoors.

5. Speak about Your Fears with a Professional.

You may be feeling stuck and unsure about how you can look to the future with optimism. Therapy is a safe space for you to express what’s troubling you and to learn effective strategies to cope with feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety as they arise.

THE WORLD NEEDS YOU!

No matter who you are, you are important. Your self-care matters. Fear can cloud our capacity to see a way forward. The steps listed here may help you return to yourself and gain a new sense of clarity about who you are and what comes next for you. The world needs your voice however you choose to express it.

Take time to process your experience alone or with some one who cares.  Resist the urgency to action, if action does not feel right for you. Even in silence or meditation, your awareness is important for the wholeness of the world.

You may be experiencing many different emotions right now. Remember that believing that you have the capacity to navigate whatever comes your way or to find help and community to support you in doing so may be the most important thing you can do right now.

Cultural Competence and Bias

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by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D.

As therapists, we recognize our ethical obligations to know and acknowledge the limits of our training and skills. We know that our expertise grows over time with experience and supervision, training, reading, dialogue and further training. These activities contribute to our mastery of specialized areas, methods or skills. But what about cultural competence? How do we become culturally competent? Does it just happen naturally or is there something we need to do?

I think of cultural competence as an evolving set of attitudes, knowledge, skills and awareness that supports my ability to relate to “other-ness” or the unknown in myself and those around me. Other-ness can also be thought of as experiences, ideas, practices, beliefs, and so on that I do not identify with, believe, do practice, or endorse.   In thinking about cultural competence, I focus on my connection to other-ness.  For me, it is less about achieving a level of proficiency as measured or defined by someone else and more about an ongoing process of refining the skills, attitudes and awareness practices that support my capacity to relate to and work with other-ness in myself and others.

In developing expertise in an area of practice, I might study, write and do research to deepen my knowledge base.  In mastering a particular treatment model, I study concepts, clinical vignettes and research. I also practice basic skills (or interventions), learn to identify particular patterns or signals and seek out supervision to help me perceive and respond to what I can not yet completely behold, understand and articulate.

In cultivating cultural competence, I rely heavily on my ever-changing ability to develop new attitudes and relationships as well as the capacity to use my awareness in new ways  to relate to ideas, practices, identities and other information I may not yet fully understand. I challenge myself to identify places where I am blocked from understanding or relating, instead of glossing over them and using my privilege to ignore or forget the experiences of others I do not in that moment connect to. Developing attitudes and growing awareness sometimes means exposing myself to and relating to people, practices and ideas that may feel foreign to me.  It may mean looking at deeply held beliefs and subtle biases that are not easy to identify or that are embarrassing or troubling. This can be a very difficult process!

Everyone Has Bias
One of the reasons the process of cultivating cultural competence is so difficult is bias. None of us want to have prejudices or biases but they are inevitable. In our work at LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center supervising and training therapists, we begin with the premise that every therapist, and in fact everyone, has bias. Bias starts with our experiences and the information we gather in life and gets filtered thru our identity and culture. Some of our biases are known to us, while others may be unknown or hidden.

Every therapist, no matter their identity or background, has bias. We define bias as anything (for example, any idea, belief, opinion, reaction or emotion) that limits one’s capacity to relate to another as whole and equal, or that which creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of another’s experience.

Therapeutic bias, if unexamined, can hinder or even endanger the therapeutic relationship but it can also be a looking glass into experience that can enlighten, deepen and transform our connections to our clients.

Observations from Our Practice
In our practice, at LifeWorks, we work with diverse clients, who identify across a variety of religions, genders, sexualities and relationship constellations, including: lesbian, gay & bisexual (39% of clients); trans, queer and genderqueer (13%); non-monogamous and polyamorous (40%), and clients who are kink and/or BDSM-identified (23%). And many clients endorse more than one of these identities.

A recent informal sampling of therapists in our practice revealed that approximately 25% of their clients had explicitly indicated that they had had previous therapy experiences where their therapist’s bias regarding kink or non-monogamy was an obstacle to their care, or hindered their experience in therapy.  In our recently reported research (See: “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Henrich & Trawinski, 2016), 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased.  Participants in that study reported that therapists were uninformed about polyamory, or biased toward monogamy.

Even therapists who themselves identify as marginalized in some way – for example, those who are LGBTQ, kinky, non-monogamous or polyamorous – may have subtle or not so subtle biases about the groups with which they identify.  These biases may show up in therapists as reservations, judgments, concerns, worries about their clients or as strident beliefs, one-sidedness and even extreme positive regard.  Neither being inside or outside a given community offers immunity from bias towards that community (or towards any other).  Our experience and research confimrs that bias affects us all.

Emphasizing Wholeness
Our work on bias is shaped by the concepts and methods known as process-oriented psychology or processwork. Developed by Arnold Mindell and others, processwork is both a depth psychotherapy paradigm and a phenomenological approach to working with human problems that emphasizes wholeness, the flow of experience and awareness and the importance of all points of view Mindell coined the term “deep democracy” to describe the idea that all voices are important to the well-being of the whole.

Using process-oriented methods and awareness, we have been teaching psychotherapists — and learning ourselves — to detect and identify bias, unfold its meaning, and learn to relate to aspects, attitudes and behaviors of clients that they may find difficult, disturbing or troubling.  In our experience, therapist bias is often a reflection or expression of some quality or trait that the therapist has a tendency to marginalize or overemphasize in themselves.  Something important, and often subtle or outside of awareness, may need to be known or understood better, and can be uncovered by looking closely at spontaneous or troubling reactions and perceptions.

From our perspective, it is probably impossible to get rid of bias entirely but we have found that it is possible to embrace and transform therapist bias into something that enhances the capacity to experience and support clients’ wholeness. It takes time and practice to develop the skills, awareness and attitudes that support the capacity to learn and grow from our bias — and in so doing, to increase our ability to understand, relate to our clients and to support their process of change.

There is no quick fix that we are aware of.  In our experience, the awareness and transformation of therapist bias is more like a lifelong endeavor.

8 Ways to Take Action Against Islamophobia

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by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D.

Prejudice, stereotyping, bias—however we understand these tendencies and attitudes, we can learn to identify, confront, wrestle with, accept, and change them within ourselves. Sometimes, however, doing so is possible only with great difficulty.

Discrimination takes many forms, including harassment, bullying, hate speech, and scapegoating. Such behaviors put others at risk, cause harm and—at times—may even threaten lives. Given our current national and global tensions, what can an ordinary person do to reduce Islamophobia and the threat it poses to us all?

Shortly before the holidays, Gary Reiss, Ph.D., a process worker and LifeWorks colleague in Portland, OR, sent an email to our community about curbing Islamophobia wherever we encounter it. Gary’s email referenced Huffington Post article written by Manal Omar, Associate Vice-President of Middle East and Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace. In that article, Omar shares eight actions anyone can take to help concretely reduce the threat Islamic Americans may feel in the our nation’s current political climate.

I am reposting the actions that Omar enumerated.  You may want to think about and consider using some or all of these in your daily life.

Tangible actions anyone can take to reduce Islamophobia in their community:

  • If you see a Muslim or someone who might be identified as Muslim being harassed, stop, say something, intervene, and call for help. If you see people abusing authority, stand firm against profiling.
  • If you ride public transportation, sit next to the hijabi (head scarf) woman and greet her. The fear of being in public for women in particular is increasing every day. A small act of kindness can have a transformative impact.
  • Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers. If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them. The concern and support I have received my colleagues is heartwarming and reminds me of my place here in the US.
  • If you have neighbors who are Muslim, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.
  • Talk to your kids. They’re picking up on the anti-Muslim message. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.
  • Help fill the public space with positive messaging over the hate. Write letters to the editors and be aware of your social media posts.
  • Call your state and local representatives, let them know that you are concerned about hate speech against your Muslim friends and neighbors in politics and the media. Ask your representatives to be aware of new laws on visas and other issues that would create second class citizens.
  • Out yourself as someone who rejects Islamophobia and discrimination of any kind.

Click here to read Manal Omar’s article, “As a Muslim, My Heart Freezes with Fear,” in its entirety.

Omar ends his article with the following words (emphasis mine):

“Terror is fear-inspiring. Fear is paralyzing. Let’s stand up, stand tall, stand strong.”

If you or someone you care about has experienced Islamophobia or any kind of bias based on a negative attitude toward a certain religious, cultural, or spiritual belief or expression of identity, know that you are not alone. Religious and spiritual minorities often face harassment, prejudice, and stereotyping, sometimes on a daily basis. Whether this treatment arises from ignorance or malicious intent, it frequently leads to feelings of frustration, isolation, depression, ostracism, anger, self-hatred, and hopelessness—feelings your aggressor may, in fact, be tangling with themselves.

As each of us travels on our own journey of self exploration, only you can determine which spiritual path you choose to follow or disregard. However, as Manal Omar makes clear, there are some simple steps all of us can take to challenge discrimination, comfort those who are hurt, and seek help when we need it. Making the corner of the world where we live a safer place is something each of us can do.

How To Be a LGBT Ally

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by Hayley Miller

This post originally appeared on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) blog on October 5, 2015,  in advance of National Coming Out Day.  It was written by Hayley Miller, Senior Digital Media Associate.  We think it contains valuable information for anyone wanting to become more affirming and supportive to LGBT friends and family members.

For a lot of people, learning that someone they know and care about is LGBT can open a range of emotions, from confused to concerned, awkward to honored. It may be hard to know how to react, leaving you with questions about what to say, how to talk about being LGBT and wanting to know what you can do to be supportive.

An “ally” is a term used to describe someone who is supportive of LGBT people. It encompasses non-LGBT allies as well as those within the LGBT community who support each other, e.g. a lesbian who is an ally to the bisexual community.

Here are five ways you can be an LGBT ally:

  1. Be honest:  It’s important to be honest with yourself — acknowledging your feelings and coming to terms with them. And it means being honest with the person who came out in your life — acknowledging you aren’t an expert, asking them what’s important to them, seeking resources to better understand the realities of being an LGBT individual so that you can be truly informed and supportive.
  2. Send gentle signals: Showing and sharing your acceptance and support can be very easy. Many people often don’t realize that LGBT people keep watch for signs from their friends, family and acquaintances about whether it is safe to be open with them. It can be as subtle as having an LGBT-themed book on your coffee table.
  3. Have courage: Just as it takes courage for LGBT people to be open and honest about who they are, it also takes courage to support your LGBT friends or loved ones. We live in a society where prejudice still exists and where discrimination is still far too common. Recognizing these facts and giving your support to that person will take your relationship to a higher level and is a small step toward a better and more accepting world.
  4. Be reassuring: Explain to a someone who came out to you that their sexual orientation or gender identity has not changed how you feel about them, but it might take a little while for you to digest what they have told you. You still care for and respect them as much as you ever have or more. And that you want to do right by them and that you welcome them telling you if anything you say or do is upsetting.
  5. Let your support inform your decisions: It’s about working to develop a true understanding of what it means to be LGBT in America and trying to do your part to help break down the walls of prejudice and discrimination that still exist — for example, by supporting businesses with appropriate anti-discrimination policies, saying you don’t appreciate “humor” that demeans LGBT people when it happens or learning about where political candidates stand on issues that have an impact on the LGBT community.

HRC’s Coming Out as a Supporter resource, made in partnership with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) National, is intended to be a welcoming guide for supporters to build bridges of understanding when someone they know comes out to them as LGBT. The guide answers initial questions and shares facts, strategies, and ways to show your support as an ally in the fight for LGBT equality.

Read the guide in full here.

Everyone Has Bias

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by Rami Henrich, LCSW

No one is immune from bias, not even us therapists! Everyone has bias.

Therapist bias takes many forms, especially with regards to clients’ sexuality, gender, erotic orientation, etc… 

Bias ranges from misinformed opinions about BDSM to confusing polyamory with infidelity to other subtle perceptions, beliefs and attitudes.  Bias is a part of us all and we need ways to work with it, learn from it and transform ourselves. 

Where Does Therapist Bias Begin?

How does bias impact clients? What can be done to mitigate its effects? Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D. and I attended the 2015 Alternative Sexualities Conference* (or ASC), where I presented “Uncovering Therapist Bias – A Lifelong Approach,” a talk about these questions and more.

*Produced by the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS) and Projects Advancing Sexual Diversity (PASD), the ASC brings together leading researchers, clinicians, and educators for a one-day series of seminars and discussions about cultural concerns, clinical issues, and the latest research in the field of sex-positive therapy.

I wanted to share a few of the highlights from the ASC conference.

Why Talk About Therapist Bias?

The topic of therapist bias is especially interesting to us in our work as psychotherapists, educators and clinical supervisors. Our goal is to help the therapists we train and educate learn to recognize bias in themselves. By acknowledging that each of us holds onto certain biases, we can begin to discover and work with unknown or unexamined perceptions, beliefs and attitudes to enhance our ability to understand the diverse experiences that clients bring.  We believe this is best accomplished by deepening experience and awareness toward ourselves as well as others.

Keep reading for a summary of our ASC presentation:

Therapist Bias as a Clinical Issue

At LifeWorks, our clients identify across a variety of religious and spiritual practices, genders, sexualities, erotic orientations and relationship constellations, including: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, non-monogamous and polyamorous, and kink and/or BDSM-identified. Many hold more than one of these identities. Being able to identify, transform and understand therapist bias when it occurs is critical to our work.

In a recent informal sampling, a significant number of clients explicitly indicated that they had had experiences where a previous therapist’s bias regarding kink or non-monogamy was an obstacle to their care or hindered their experience in therapy. In an unpublished study (Henrich, 2011), 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous reported that they had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased. Participants in the study reported that therapists who were uninformed about polyamory, or biased toward monogamy lead to them avoiding certain topics or leaving therapy.

Further, a 2006 study by Drs. Keely Kolmes, Wendy Stock, and Charles Moser found 67% of therapeutic relationships with kink/BDSM-identified clients reported instances of biased care, including:

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

Therapist bias can be devastating for clients. It can undermine the therapeutic relationship and prevent clients from getting the help they seek.

New Perspectives on Therapist Bias

Therapist bias, as we define it, is a perception, attitude, emotion, belief or idea that limits the therapist’s capacity to relate to their client as whole, or that creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of that person’s experience. If left unexamined, therapeutic bias can wound the client by replicating (in the therapy) the stigma and bias they face in the outside world or triggering internalized oppression and further damaging the sense of self.  At the same time, we have seen bias be an important looking glass into the therapist’s and the client’s experience that can enlighten, deepen, and transform the connection and relationship between the client and the therapist.

In our work, we begin with the premise that every therapist—and in fact everyone—has bias. Bias comes from our experiences and the information we gather in life, which are filtered through our identity and culture. Some of our biases are known to us and some are unknown or hidden.

Even therapists who themselves identify as marginalized in some way—for example, those who are LGBTQ, kinky, non-monogamous, or polyamorous—may have biases about the groups with which they identify. Neither being inside or outside a given community offers immunity from bias towards that community (or any other). In our experience and anecdotal research, we find that bias is in all of us and affects us all.

Our work on bias is shaped by the concepts and methods, developed by Arnold Mindell and others, known as process-oriented psychology or process work. Process work is an approach to working with human problems that emphasizes awareness, the flow of experience, and embracing disturbance.

Using process-oriented methods and awareness, we have been teaching psychotherapists to detect and identify bias, to unfold its meaning and to learn to relate to aspects, attitudes and behaviors of themselves or their clients that they may find difficult, disturbing or troubling. In our experience, therapist bias is often a reflection or expression of some quality or trait that the therapist has a tendency to marginalize in themselves or has a tendency to have too much of. Something important, and often subtle, may need to be known or understood better, and can be uncovered by looking closely at our reactions and perceptions.

From our perspective, getting rid of bias is probably impossible, but we have found that it is possible to embrace and transform therapist bias into something that enhances the capacity to experience and support clients’ wholeness. In our experience, however, the awareness and transformation of therapist bias is a lifelong endeavor.

During the ASC presentation, we demonstrated an inner work technique that we developed for discovering the meaning and value of bias. We guided participants through an experiential exercise, which offered participants an opportunity to learn to detect and work with their experience of bias first hand. After the exercise, participants shared their experience and learning in small groups and we then facilitated a guided debrief where participants shared what they noticed, where they got stuck in the inner work and what might be useful about what they discovered.

If you are interested in the topic of therapist bias or have had personal experiences of it, we would love to hear from you. If you have any questions about our presentation, would like to see the list of references we used, or simply want to say hello, contact us.

LifeWorks also facilitates monthly Poly & Kink Support Groups in Chicago at the Center on Halsted. For more information about these and other upcoming events, visit www.lifeworkspsychotherapy.com/events.