The Inherent Feminism of Psychotherapy

One of my very favorite descriptions of therapy is that it’s about being with a person in such a way that they can be exactly who they are. This is also a fundamental part of the feminist movement, and all equal rights movements- differences are to be honored through equal rights and equal treatment. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s difficult to put into practice when you’re dealing with unconscious beliefs and motivations. These things guide as like a trance. And it is the realm of the unconscious where change must be exacted if we are to see it on a global scale. The practice of knowing yourself well enough to understand when you’re being guided by these unconscious forces is tremendously helping for staying mindful and present. Through the observation of present behavior, we are able to understand what the past meant to us.

When it comes to feminism, understanding the past occurs on a very grand scale. We must look at the thousands of years of cultural perspectives on gender to understand history and what led us to this point. This is why good education is paramount. It’s why it drives us feminists crazy that history lessons have such a heavily heteronormative, cisnormative and masculine bent. Worse, we too often fail to educate our children about how beliefs systems shape behavior and social constructions. Because it’s not just having information that exacts change.

This shows up in the therapeutic process all the time, and it’s why one can fairly quickly exhaust the benefits of the talk therapy modality. Insight does not always exact change. It gives us the why, but not the how. It is in the mastering of mindfulness and presence through much practice that we are able to really get our needs met. Only with this skill can we effect larger scale changes.

Institutional sexism (or any -ism) is a macro scale version of this unconscious process. The continue inequality of pay, for instance. is less of a malicious phenomenon than an unconscious one. For many historical cultural reasons, women are still often seen as inferior. So when it comes time to decide where a woman ought to fall on a pay scale range compared to a male counterpart. it’s the underlying beliefs that play the role that ends in bias. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock capture this beautifully with their comedic genius in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt when Carol Kane’s character Lillian says, “Ah change the channel; I can’t get the news from a woman.” This strikes us as absurd, because it is! As a viewer, you can feel that this isn’t something she’s though through. It’s unintentional. It’s unconscious. It’s a spot on example of internalized sexism.

Internalized oppression is when a person has negative beliefs about oneself which result from the experience of oppression. This can pop up all over the place, because it’s inadvertent. And this is where we must explore ourselves and encourage others to do the same. Because activism, as with therapy, is impossible if we focus on patching up all the symptoms of the problem. If Lillian is to change this belief about a woman’s ability to provide the news, it will be necessary for her to explore her beliefs about the female gender. If we over-focus on the news issue, her beliefs will pop up somewhere else, perhaps even somewhere very similar. But through a therapeutic process she would be able to look at her own personal history to understand the influences leading to this belief, to process when she’s been a victim of it herself, and to be mindful of when and how she’s unnecessarily limited herself and others through the behavior resulting from this belief.

Institutional -isms are macrocosms of internalized -isms.

The skills one learns through psychotherapy can then be extended to others. Fostering the process of therapy as a society would cause a whole lotta healing on both the personal and, eventually, the societal level. I’m lucky enough to live in a city where most people welcome a reference to therapy. I can say, “I’ve been exploring that with my therapist,” and get an, “Oh, that’s great,” instead of a, “What do you need therapy for?” I love when people say to me, “I don’t need therapy, but…” because no matter how they finish their sentence, I get to say, “Actually, it sounds like you’d really like therapy!” Those sorts of negative reactions are indicative of underlying negative beliefs about therapy. And lemme tell ya, negative beliefs about therapy are misunderstandings of what it actually is. Negative experiences as a client certainly happen, but that doesn’t mean that all of therapy is painful or unhelpful. We can change these misconceptions by inspiring others through self-disclosure, normalizing, and through demonstrating what we’ve learned. The more people who are skillful at understanding, accepting, and expressing themselves will mean way less baloney interactions, personal and macro scale.

Mental health is a social contagion. Just look at powerhouse of openness and insight Amy Poehler. Her message “good for her, not for me,” encourages people to disengage from comparing and making assumptions, and it is a fabulous example of this. This one simple sentence demonstrates self-knowledge as well as openness to and acceptance of others’ differences. This is what comes from the therapy process. You learn how to reach understanding, so you can practice with yourself as well as with others. Engaging in the work of psychotherapy is a revolutionary act.

Big ol’ shout outs to the likes of HeForShe, Jade Rivera, Jenipher Lyn, and SmartGirls for engaging in this kind of micro-level activism. I triple dog dare you to watch one of Poehler’s Ask Amy videos and not feel better about yourself, others, and the future of our world.

“Neuroqueer: An Introduction”

Originally posted on www.neurocosmopolitanism.com on 2 May 2015 by my amazing friend and colleague, Nick Walker. Nick is an Autistic educator, author, speaker, transdisciplinary scholar, and martial arts master, and has been at the forefront of the neurodiversity awareness movement for many years. It’s my pleasure to present his latest work.

“The term neuroqueer was coined independently and more or less simultaneously by Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace, Michael Scott Monje Jr., and myself. Having coined it, all three of us managed to spend a few years not getting around to using it in any published work, even though the set of concepts and practices represented by the term came to heavily inform our thinking. I almost used Neuroqueer as the title for my blog, but decided to go with the title Neurocosmopolitanism instead. Michael almost used Neuroqueer as the title for a novel, but decided to go with the title Defiant instead.

It wasn’t until Michael mentioned this last fact, in an online conversation in which he and Ibby and I were all involved, that we discovered that all three of us had been playing around with the same term. Happily, though we were all approaching it from different angles, our various interpretations of neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering) were in no way incompatible. In the same conversation, we learned that another friend and colleague of ours, Melanie Yergeau, while she hadn’t yet stumbled upon the word neuroqueer, had been thinking along quite similar and compatible lines in playing with the concept of neurological queerness; Melanie’s contributions have been extensive enough that even if she didn’t come up with the actual word, I consider her – along with Ibby, Michael, and myself – to be one of originators of the concept of neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering).

All four of us – Ibby, Michael, Melanie, and I – emerged from that conversation freshly inspired to begin introducing the term, and the set of concepts and practices it describes, into our public work and into our communities and the broader culture. Since then, we’ve been following through on that intention in various exciting ways. Ibby, Michael, and I, along with Bridget Allen and Corbett O’Toole, founded the independent publishing house Autonomous Press, to publish books in which neuroqueerness of one sort or another tends to play a prominent role (starting in 2016, Autonomous Press will also have an imprint called NeuroQueer Books). Ibby founded the NeuroQueer blog, with Michael and Dani Alexis Ryskamp and I later joining as co-editors. Melanie is working on a book that I can’t tell you about yet, but it’s going to be extraordinary and most definitely relevant. We’ve all started talking about neuroqueerness and neuroqueering in our academic conference presentations and public speaking engagements. Ibby and I are now co-editing the NeuroQueer Handbook, which will be published by Autonomous Press in 2016.

Meanwhile, the term is catching on in various circles and communities, taking on a life of its own, as terms and concepts tend to do when the time is right for them. It’s showing up in academic papers and conference presentations, creative projects, Facebook communities, blogs and Tumblr accounts and all manner of social media platforms. It’s been adopted by a whole lot of people I don’t know – and when a new term/concept spreads beyond the social circles of its originators, that’s generally a sign that it’s “got legs,” as they say. In other words, it’s a term that you’re likely to be hearing a lot more of in the years to come.

(The day before I wrote this piece, I was at California Institute of Integral Studies for the first meeting of a course I teach called Critical Perspectives on Autism and Neurodiversity. I was introducing my students to basic neurodiversity-related terminology like neurotypical and neurodivergent, when a young undergraduate excitedly asked me, “Have you heard of the term neuroqueer?”)

I’ve already seen a lot of interpretations of neuroqueer and attempts at definition from folks who’ve adopted the term. Some of those interpretations miss the point, sometimes in ways that are truly facepalm-worthy. Other interpretations are more on-point but overly narrow, such that Ibby, Michael, Melanie, and I look at them and say, “Yeah, that’s part of what we were getting at… but only part of it…”

So what were we getting at? What is neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering)?

I should first of all acknowledge that any effort to establish an “authoritative” definition of neuroqueer is in some sense inherently doomed and ridiculous, simply because the sort of people who identify as neuroqueer and engage in neuroqueering tend to be the sort of people who delight in subverting definitions, concepts, and anything “authoritative.”

That said, the definition that follows is as close to an “authoritative” definition of neuroqueer (and neuroqueerness, and neuroqueering) as is ever likely to exist. I wrote it with the input and approval of the other three originators of the concept. So it’s the one definition out there that all four of the originators of neuroqueer have agreed is not only accurate, but also inclusive of all of the various practices and ways-of-being that any of the four of us ever intended neuroqueer to encompass.

Neuroqueer is both a verb and an adjective. As a verb, it refers to a broad range of interrelated practices. As an adjective it describes things that are associated with those practices or that result from those practices: neuroqueer theory, neuroqueer perspectives, neuroqueer narratives, neuroqueer literature, neuroqueer art, neuroqueer culture, neuroqueer community. And as an adjective, neuroqueer can also serve as a label of social identity, just like such labels as queer, gay, lesbian, straight, black, white, hapa, Deaf, or Autistic (to name just a small sampling).

A neuroqueer individual is an individual whose identity has in some way been shaped by their engagement in practices of neuroqueering. Or, to put it more concisely (but perhaps more confusingly): you’re neuroqueer if you neuroqueer.

So what does it mean to neuroqueer, as a verb? What are the various practices that fall within the definition of neuroqueering?

  1. Being neurodivergent and approaching one’s neurodivergence as a form of queerness (e.g., by understanding and approaching neurodivergence in ways that are inspired by, or similar to, the ways in which queerness is understood and approached in Queer Theory, Gender Studies, and/or queer activism).
  2. Being both neurodivergent and queer, with some degree of conscious awareness and/or active exploration around how these two aspects of one’s identity intersect and interact.
  3. Being neurodivergent and actively choosing to embody and express one’s neurodivergence (or refusing to suppress one’s embodiment and expression of neurodivergence) in ways that “queer” one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, and/or other aspects of one’s identity.
  4. Engaging in the “queering” of one’s own neurocognitive processes (and one’s outward embodiment and expression of those processes) by intentionally altering them in ways that create significant and lasting increase in one’s divergence from dominant neurological, cognitive, and behavioral norms.
  5. Engaging in practices intended to “undo” one’s cultural conditioning toward conformity and compliance with dominant norms, with the aim of reclaiming one’s capacity to give more full expression to one’s neurodivergence and/or one’s uniquely weird personal potentials and inclinations.
  6. Identifying as neuroqueer due to one’s engagement in any of the above practices.
  7. Being neurodivergent and producing literature and/or other cultural artifacts that foreground neurodivergent experiences and perspectives.
  8. Being neurodivergent and producing critical responses to literature and/or other cultural artifacts, focusing on intentional or unintentional characterizations of neurodivergence and how those characterizations illuminate and/or are illuminated by the lived experiences of actual neurodivergent people.
  9. Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities – and ultimately a society – in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged.

So there you have it, from the people who brought you the term. This definition is, again, not an authoritative “last word” on the subject, because that would be a silly thing to attempt. Rather, I hope this will be taken as a “first word” – a broad “working definition” from which further theory, practice, and play will proceed.

Happy neuroqueering!”

Reposted with permission from Nick Walker. Source: http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neuroqueer-an-introduction/

 

On Sex Therapy

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by one of my favorite sexual wellness companies, Peekay Inc., whose line of female-centric boutique shops are all about sex-positivity, education, and fun. Together we’d like to share with you about the beautiful world of sex therapy.

Originally published as “The Life of a Sex Therapist: Heather Brewer” by LoversPackage.com on 3 April 2015.

 

“We met Heather Brewer at the Sexual Health Expo in L.A. this January. She stopped by our A Touch of Romance booth, where we talked briefly about her work. With a focus on listening to our bodies, she is a great resource for sex and gender exploration.

Heather Brewer is a registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern; Therapist internships can be likened to a doctor’s residency status. After seven years of face-to-face client work, Heather is close to completing her required 3,000 internship hours. She works under the supervision of Mindy Fox, a Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, California. As for her education and training, she attended the somatic psychotherapy program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

Without further ado, here’s our in-depth interview with Heather Brewer.

 

What do sex therapists do, exactly?

“Sex therapist” is a bit of an umbrella term for slightly different types of healers who make sexuality a central focus of their psychotherapy practice. While sex is the topic of exploration, the modalities differ amongst us. I work somatically, which means that I have extensive knowledge of the body, and that I use it as a diagnostic tool as well as a vehicle for healing. Because the body speaks very clearly, what goes on for a person in their sexual life is both an excellent source of information about how they move through the world, as well as a wonderful place for growth and healing to occur. What I do in session depends on the wants and needs of my clients, but it always includes tracking of sensations and gestures.

“Heart rate, muscle tension, and the nature of one’s breath are major indicators of what’s happening in a person’s emotional landscape… Somatic work takes you beyond the ‘why’ into the ‘how.’” – Heather Brewer

 

What makes you, and your practice different from other therapists and sex therapists?

My specialization in sex and gender definitely sets me apart from many other therapists. Sometimes this is simply due to my knowledge base, but clients often seek me out for my willingness to explore these realms without judgment. Sex can be so evocative that people sometimes won’t engage in a process with it, or fail to see it as symbolic of a larger dynamic.

Most sex therapists are very familiar with the inner workings of the body, especially the nervous system, but not all of us work somatically. For instance, let’s say a couple comes to me because neither one of the partners is adept at initiating sex. This dynamic will inevitably play out in our sessions (they might both experience discomfort with starting to talk when the session begins, etc.), and they will be gently and safely guided through becoming conscious of it, and practicing better ways of relating. Somatic work is really effective and long-lasting, because it’s systemic. You can’t hide from sensation.

Also, I often quote Seinfeld or refer to Star Wars for analogies. And actually, that brings an important point to mind. I’m very big on being myself in the room. It’s the relationship between therapist and client that is the most important in therapy, so it matters that my clients and I like each other. Therefore, I have to show some of myself and my emotions. So our particular ways of being will inherently differ from each other.

 

Can you pick three words that describe the world of sex therapy? Can you share how these words are important?

Beautiful, intense, and complex. These are the things that come up for me the most often both in my own explorations, and in my work with my clients. I think they kind of speak for themselves, and they’re necessarily subjective anyway. It’s such a vast landscape.

 

Who can benefit from seeing a sex therapist? Who might it not help?

I truly cannot imagine anyone not being able to benefit from exploring their sexuality, because everyone has one. It is simply part of our being. And it is my belief that all therapists ought to be comfortable making this a part of their practice, and I hope that “sex therapist” will eventually be a redundant term. But perhaps this is a good time to clarify that sex therapists don’t always or only focus on sexuality. There are many realms I explore with my clients. Letting people know that I’m a sex therapist is more of way of saying, “We can talk about that, too,” because it’s not yet a given. That said, sometimes a person isn’t yet ready to talk about sex directly, or they desire to focus on it too narrowly. But as long as a person is willing to invest themselves, there is always a way to do therapy that’s right for them.

 

Can you describe your journey towards this type of work?

I find that I have slightly different answers for this each time I’m asked, so there are probably a great many reasons. But what often comes to mind is this conversation I had in high school with some of my friends. I can never remember how it started, but the topic of masturbation was being skirted around, and I decided to just disclose that I did indeed masturbate. Each of our reactions was this fascinating mix of astonishment, relief, and excitement. I also had a really potent desire to discuss it more. And to get other people to discuss it. The desire to do so had obviously been getting squelched for all of us, and it was so easy to just name it and get things rolling. I guess that sums up a lot: it’s really important to most people, yet most people don’t talk about it. I really wanted that to change, and it’s been an honor be on that crusade since.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I guess I’d just like to add that the point of this work is to uncover who you already are, and to maintain an environment that nourishes you. That can look so many different ways, and I really want people to understand that. Find the people, places, art, books, music, and explorations that feed you. In some ways it’s a very simple path.”

 

Interview conducted by Aleesha Alston. Aleesha and I share a passion for sexual education and healing, and Peekay is lucky to have her! Check out the company’s own killer mission and browse their website for all kinds of sexy time resources.

Read This Book: Healing Sex by Staci Haines

I should have written this review ages ago, because I’ve been recommending this book for ages! Haines’ work is not only an excellent resource for moving through difficult experiences into having fun and fulfilling sex, it’s also one of the most well articulated descriptions of somatic work that I have come across. If you’re interested in having a firmer grasp on somatics, you can stand right there in your library or bookstore and read just the introduction.

One of my favorite things about Healing Sex is the author’s optimistic and sex-positive tone, and this has been echoed by many of my clients. And what makes Haines’ optimism so enjoyable is that it stems from clarity about the need for therapy, and the simplicity of the somatic process. Sexuality is complex enough without trauma, so the necessary focus is on allowing your body to be your guide. Sensations bring clarity, and offer direction. The body is a very useful guide in any process, but it’s essential for overcoming body-based difficulties. Haines further inspires engagement in this healing process by reminders that the end result is, not just better, but awesome sex.

The heavy somatic component also invites a lot of empathy from readers who have not experienced any sexual trauma, making it an excellent resource for partners. We all have bodies, so being educated about the body’s sexual response processes is pretty darn relatable! And the book is filled with anecdotes, which serve to ground the author’s points in visceral awareness. These are also great for partners who sometimes can’t quite “get it.” That said, while I would not say that they’re at the level of re-traumatizing, some of the anecdotes are especially difficult to hear, and I have recommended to some clients (particularly empaths or the highly sensitive) that they skip over these parts. All the stories and quotes are italized, so this is fairly easy to accomplish. I myself feel things very easily, and I’ve gone back and forth with reading them when reviewing a particular chapter.

I also love this book for its political savvy. Healthy sexuality is hugely important to a society, and yet we don’t get to engage much in intelligent and useful discourse about it. Haines emphasizes the importance of finding community, and/or supporting people and organizations that foster healthy relationships to sex, whether it be support groups, anti-rape coalitions, or sexual educators. More education and more conversations will mean healthier and healthier sexuality for current and future generations.

To boot, Haines finishes with a wonderful list of resources, which I myself have gone back to over and over.

Staci Haines’ own wonderful organization, Generative Somatics, offers therapy, workshops, and social justice opportunities.

The Importance of Talking About Sexuality with Your Clients

Making sexuality a part of your clinical work is absolutely essential. Let’s start by looking at why this is so.

Sexuality is where the body and psychology come together without trying. Our sexual dynamics in partner sex, as well as in masturbation, are a stripped-down version of our m.o. The body speaks in clear and simple terms. What happens when someone is using her body so directly for experience and communication is the clearest possible message about what it’s like for her to relate to herself and to others. It is for this very reason that the sexual self is a primary interest in a client’s self-exploration in therapy. But do not expect your clients to be the one to broach the subject. More importantly, do not confuse a client’s reticence with a lack of desire, or even a lack of willingness, to explore their sexual life.

When I was 17, I was at a pool party with my friends and I brought up the topic of masturbation. I was aware that it was taboo, but when it came up organically in a discussion, it suddenly seemed silly to me to hold back from commenting. So I didn’t. And the response was pretty intense! Everyone there exclaimed some version of surprise, relief and excitement about the unfolding conversation. “You do that, too? Oh my god! I thought I was the only one!” I was happy and relieved that bringing it up went well, and amused at how little it took to get the discussing going. I was also a little angry. Why had we been so secretive? Something needed to change. For me this moment solidified my understanding of the need for an invitation.

Sexuality is sacred, but that does not mean it has to be secretive. We tend to like to keep it private, but secretive can breed misunderstanding and shame. Sexuality is a thing to be explored and understood and wondered at. And we could all use a little help with exploration of such a powerful force. Many clients simply don’t realize that it’s ok to talk about sex. Follow their pace, but let them know that it’s a welcome and important topic.

If you’d like to make this part of your practice, here’s how to successfully navigate this territory, especially if you feel hesitant:

1. Know your own sexual self. This is no different than the ongoing work of being a therapist: You must know yourself well, and know how to continue to do so, before you can assist others.

  • Bring up your sexuality with your own therapist (a move which will itself propel forward the ability of our field to be awesome at this).
  • Revisit your psychodynamics. What did you learn about sex and the body? From who? What were the gender rules or expectations in your family? What wasn’t ok? What’s hot to you? Why? What isn’t? Why? When one of your clients tells you that they want to urinate on their partner’s face, because it’s always been a fantasy of theirs, you’ll need to have already practiced telling your internalized parental voice that judges such things to stfu, and let you explore this with your client.
  • Find books you’re pulled to and read them (see my resources for some curated options).

2. Know your facts and/or where to find them. Learn all of the basic facts you can, and develop go-to resources for yourself as well as your clients. As with any topic that arises in the room, be mindful of your blindspots, and be sure that your self-education includes the following:

  • Basic anatomy and physiology. A few things that come up regularly with my clients are the facts about the orgastic cycle and related hormones, the complicated nature of expecting vaginal orgasms, and the fact that men still ejaculate after a vasectomy.
  • Cultural awareness and sensitivity. For some cultures, the mere existence of this blog is blasphemous. I know that. For that reason, I don’t recommend it to everyone, and sometimes I give warnings about the content. Know your client’s cultural and religious background as you begin to guide them into exploration. This includes generational considerations. Find out what the general teachings are about sexuality within their culture(s), so that you can remain sensitive and empathetic. And enjoy the gift of an expanded body of knowledge. There are so many ways to get sex “right.”
  • Trauma considerations. If you do not already work somatically, get very familiar with the nervous system. It will be crucial for you to be able to track any traumas responses during your discussions with your client. This can be especially important when it comes to BDSM play, which toys with the line between healing and catharsis.

While being informed is important, do not be held back by the feeling of not knowing enough facts. Your training and experience as a therapist will guide you here, as it would with any other topic that arises in the room. As always, it is ideal for you to be a little ahead of the game, but your willingness to engage in the exploration is often enough for you to be of service to the client. This does not apply to trauma awareness.

3. Cultivate a matter-of-fact tone. One of the main qualities shared by my favorite sexologists is that they all speak matter-of-factly. Sex is a big deal, but it also just isn’t that big of a deal. You will help to normalize the discussion by speaking about it with confidence and directness. I strongly encourage you to practice speaking aloud about sex. You will encounter any stuck places very quickly! Penis! Cunt! Fucking! Dildos! This leads me to my next point.

4. Have a sense of humor. Be willing to laugh. This also helps with normalization, and it can bring a little relief into the room. As is often the case with laughter in therapy, there may be a need for you to clarify what you’re laughing at and why. It is very important not to perpetuate any shame for your client, which is rampant when it comes to sex. But laughter can be healing when it comes to shame. And sex is just funny sometimes! Sometimes your cat watches you, sometimes you run out of lube at an inopportune time, sometimes the body makes funny noises, and sometimes things just get a little awkward. Your client will benefit enormously from being able to laugh about sex. Show them how.

When you feel ready, make sure that clients and prospective clients know that sexual exploration is part of your skill set. Check that box for “sexual issues” on those therapist search engines. And make use of me! I offer one on one coaching for psychotherapists, as well as case consultation.

You can find my curated list of resources here. I also highly recommend that you check out The Unlaced Librarian’s book reviews, and Sexologist Vixenne’s own resource page. Enjoy your sex ed!