This year we witness and endure an extended reign of the “Lord of Misrule,” a gleeful destruction and dismantling of much that is (was) progressive, just, sane, and humane in U.S. society. Unfortunately, this destruction is likely to continue for another 3.5 years and any “civility” left to us in an already threadbare “civil society” may vanish completely, unless we make a consistent effort to retain and renew it. (And by “civility” I don’t mean adherance to admonitions of “tone police,” I mean a practical awareness that we’re all in this together, by golly, as citizens, and we’d better address our difficulties through communication.) It seems that once #45 was elected (so-called), people we once knew as friends, neighbors, co-workers, and colleagues, have become positively eager to dust off and expose as much of their ugly prejudice as possible. So we see a horrid sort of creeping bigot chic and a tolerance of bigotry that’s emerging, even in sexological circles. And it is so not cute, or adorably clueless, or ironically retro.
I spent most of today reading, writing, and obsessing about a sh*tstorm on Facebook that I can only describe as a sad failure on the part of a colleague I previously respected (from afar) as he circled his wagons around another person (a self-proclaimed “sexpert” that I never respected anyway), someone who has always seemed rather smug about her capacity to garner and monetize attention. She has done this most recently through hooking up with a white supremacist. Now, sex ed for neo-Nazis is definitely an unusual niche market and it’s not my business, ultimately, if someone wants to take their “brand” (or their body) in that direction. However, many people in the field of human sexuality who are various combinations of bright, experienced, credentialed, and principled, were horrified at the Previously Respected Colleague’s (PRC) implied endorsement of the Self-Proclaimed Sexpert (SPS) in her newest “red pill” incarnation. Like it was a good thing… a “bold” or “rogue” thing… a triumph of free speech over PC-ness.
Yesterday’s conflict specifically concerned the SPS’s present link to a public racist, and former comments she had made which were transphobic and Islamophobic.
I’m not naming these folks, though some readers might very well guess their identities from the above details. What was most disturbing to me about this social media sh*tstorm was that the PRC (a man who has experience, training, and credentials enough to know better) absolutely could not bring himself to meet, acknowledge, or discuss the very valid concerns and critiques that many of us expressed regarding his “white knight to the rescue” defense of the SPS. There was no “active listening” or “unconditional positive regard” extended to his colleagues, who took pains to describe the reasons for their concern. Any appeals to the PRC to understand issues of intersectionality, the operations of privilege (e.g. white, male, and “young and cute blonde”), or the history of violence against black, trans, and other marginalized people, were simply not acknowledged.
This was crazy making, as PRC had actually started the ball rolling by chiding “the [sexology/sex ed] community” for “shaming” the sexpert for her history of bigoted statements and her current association with a vocal proponent of white supremacy who has incited at least one incident of mass online bullying directed toward a trans woman of color. And, it was more than crazy-making as a majority of people expressing their concerns were female (both trans and cis) and/or people of color. And he refused to acknowledge or respond to their concerns. It was a textbook example of what NOT to do when called out! By the end of the day, he took the two threads down or made them private. (He unfriended me too, but I’m okay with that. I have nothing to regret. I since found out he unfriended quite a lot of people engaged in the conversations.)
It was also crazy-making, and worse, as we live in an era of accelerated and almost gleeful violence against black people, other people of color, trans and gender variant people, immigrants, and so on. People who normalize this or excuse this are not responsible or ethical. It doesn’t matter how many people follow them on social media. But PRC just didn’t seem to get it.
I could just drop this matter, and chalk it up as an aberration of judgment on the part of the PRC, and perhaps in this case, it was. I cannot know. I do know that a lot of people who looked up to him are now terribly disappointed. But people do weird things and make mistakes, and… well, perhaps tomorrow or the day after he’ll be ready to reach out to some of the people who expressed their opinions. Or not.
But, enough of that – I want to address bigotry, or the excuse of it, in a larger context of professional standards and ethics. And I want to propose that people who are bound by the ethics of a profession reference and apply those ethics to their relationships with colleagues, as well as clients, patients, and students. Usually ethical guidelines and practice guidelines are clearly written, but not all ethical quandries have an easy answer, or even one answer. Often the heart needs to be involved, as well as the intellect. Even so, the guidelines are there for us when we are in danger of stumbling in difficult terrain, including the rocky soil of our own shadows.
Prejudices and biases lurk most often in shadows of our psyches. They live in that upper right hand corner of the Johari window (below) – things unknown to self, but which everyone else can see. This is the source of that “cognitive dissonance” that Dr. Joy DeGruy speaks of (in the context of American chattel slavery), the kind that allows a comfortable view of self while performing harmful actions – from microaggressions to atrocities. As we know, pathological behavior may result from what’s hidden in the shadows.
Self-examination and self-awareness of sexual and gender biases is central to the ethical practice of clinical sexology/sex therapy/sex counseling. Most professional organizations for those in health related fields have created detailed policies regarding biases and the need to reject their influence in our work, as they may damage client, patient, or student interactions and outcomes.
So let’s examine the ethical policies of the professional organizations that could be relevant to the above PRC, and perhaps the SPS (though self-proclaimed types are usually not credentialed and therefore not always professionally affiliated). These are policies that are meant to apply to clients, patients, and students. Again, I suggest we bring them into conversations with colleagues.
The best known organization for people involved in sexuality counseling and education is AASECT (American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists). With regard to racism, I have not yet found a specific statement but this segment from the Code of Ethics & Conduct for AASECT-Certified Members does address “condoning:”
The Certified member shall not engage in or condone practices by any source that are inhumane or that result in illegal or unjustifiable action relevant to race, handicap, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion or national origin.
While it may be argued that championing a fellow professional with public ties to white supremacists is not the equivalent of “condoning” illegal or unjustifiable race-based actions, it could also be argued that it comes dangerously close to it. Certainly, many people were trying to raise those concerns.
Other organizations such as the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association have dedicated considerable resources to developing ethical guidelines having to do with racism and other prejudices, fostering diversity, and so on. These guidelines are deemed important in client work and in teaching. For example, the APA Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice and Organizational Change for Psychologists says:
“Psychologists are uniquely able to promote racial equity and social justice. This is aided by their awareness of their impact on others and the influence of their personal and professional roles in society (Comas–D’az, 2000).”
This is true whether you are a small town clinician, a teacher of basic psychology courses, or a best-selling, highly visible expert in your field. There is an implication here that training in psychology confers greater self-awareness, thus a greater responsibility to the community.
I would say that extra responsibility must be taken by white professionals, as they are still in the majority in most (if not all) of these fields. They must be aware enough to not perpetuate personal or systemic racism (or other forms of discrimination) and mature enough to issue an apology and learn from mistakes, if necessary. Here is a quote from Racism in Psychology by Janan Shouhayib (Dec. 2015):
“… The American Psychological Association (2015) released information recently stating that in 2013, members of racial and ethnic minority groups accounted for less than a fifth of the psychology workforce. This lack of representation in the realm of psychology research is problematic because if most psychologists come from a place of privilege, the research they develop may be misrepresented and skewed, and that perpetuates the ignorance of one’s privilege.
This is true for clinical practice as well. Norcross and Karpiak (2012) report that the percentage of clinical psychologists who identify as part of a racial or ethnic minority group is under 10 percent. Similar to research, this lack of representation in clinical practice is problematic because if psychologists come from a place of privilege, their treatment may not be culturally competent. Therefore, lack of minority representation in professional psychology has negative implications for both research and practice.”
[I added the bold typeface to both paragraphs, above.]
In the past ten years, the American Counseling Association has issued “counseling competencies” such as those for transgender clients, LGBQQIA clients, and “multi-cultural” clients. This quote from the ALGBTIC Competencies for Counseling Transgender Clients (2009) describes the process of creating these guidelines. The authors examined their own assumptions and biases in weekly (or bi-weekly) committee meetings for over a year:
“The authors built a theoretical framework from which they constructed these competencies. This framework in part stemmed from the authors’ acknowledgment of their biases – both their own and those of the society in which they live. The authors chose to be transparent about their theoretical framework in order to not only share their assumptions about transgender people, but also to acknowledge that all individuals hold biases of which they are not yet aware.” [I added the bold typeface.]
I could weep. The sheer beauty of dedicated professionals actually sitting down together for over a year, examining their assumptions and biases, seems like a fairy tale from another land. It is the kind of grueling but painstaking effort that is now so gleefully shredded and discarded in the carnage that currently masquerades as federal policy.
For those of us who still care about improving our capacity for ethical practice (and I do think that’s the majority of helping professionals), I would like to see such painstaking effort put forth not “just” on behalf of our clients and students, but also on behalf of our professional interactions and relationships with each other. I would like us all to understand that we have a duty to respond when called out, and that we can – by virtue of our integrity and commitment to justice – meet even the uncomfortable conversations with a good will. Most people have made mistakes of some kind, and many will be kind and generous if you will only communicate your intention to join them in working it out.
Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, said this in a lecture (view it in 19 parts) – it is the best thing you could ever watch:
“You have people entering the discussion at different levels… [some people are at] Race Relations and Understanding 101… I know that you as people of color, as African American people, have entered this discussion at the 600 level… you have lived in this skin which has afforded you a 600 level knowledge and understanding.”
In other words, we need to honor the innate visceral and intellectual expertise that comes to a person who has been marginalized (and perhaps brutalized) due to skin color, gender variance, and/or other circumstances. If we have not lived it ourselves, we’re most likely entering the discussion as beginners, at the “101 level.” And while it is utterly necessary to pay attention to those at the “600 Level,” their function in life is not to school the rest of us – they’ve got enough to deal with. We alone are responsible for examining the shadow selves in that troublesome upper-right-hand pane of the Johari window, and for getting our own selves up to speed, so we can actually make substantial contributions to the conversations about intersectionality and what kind of world we all need and want, and thus co-create personal and systems change at a more advanced level. Because, you see “the conversation” has been going on for centuries now, and it continues whether bigots circle the wagons around their shadows, or not. And we also have a responsibility to deal with the mess.
To do otherwise, or to refuse to engage, ultimately diminishes the stature, reputation, and effectiveness of any clinician, researcher, or educator. And in some cases, may possibly lead some toward a breach of ethics. This is true for people, and true for organizations. Not long ago, the APA was endorsing torture. What kind of individual and cognitive dissonance allowed for that? I suspect it’s the rocky terrain of the shadow, and the external insistance of “I am good, I am, I am,” which leads to fleeing and freezing out the voices that challenge the mask… or which simply beg for mercy.
I am hoping for a better outcome with regard to the sh*tstorm – but I won’t hold my breath waiting.