Tag Archives: feminism

The post-flight key

 

The temporal structure is off, which means that it doesn’t matter which thought, which symbol, came first. Still, I shall start, arbitrarily it seems, somewhere in the middle of the act. The first scene was an apt replica of a Star Wars moment—apt because the SW series isn’t exactly known for conventional adherence to chronologies. However, what I’m alluding to is the flinty wall of grey that began my vision, and the like barrage of grim imagery that confronts Rey and company in the recent and supposedly last SW installment. In particular, my scene resembles that in which Rey hijacks some kind of windsurfing boat and heads out amid a raging storm into a sea that envelops a derelict Death Star, there to meet Emperor Palpatine and her transcendent fate. Well, what I’m aboard is not a windsurfing boat, but what I’m faced with may be my fate, transcendent or not. Before me is a surface of concrete, I think, like an abandoned or half-destroyed freeway section that’s being assailed by waves that are lapping at its barriers. I’m positioned feet away from a precipice, dithering as to what direction to take, but apparently inclined to attempt stillness. It’s not working. At some point, I notice the structure beneath my feet moving, as if I were atop a great beast that is awakening from hibernation. The waves, it seems to me, will imminently consumer the structure I’m on and therefore me with it. It’s time for a decision, so I make my move. Next, I’m climbing onto a horizontal stanchion that is the summit of the freeway’s height as it is falling away, and as I steady myself for a leap I feel an exultant rush. A death wish? Not sure. The fear of the previous moment seems gone or at least subdued, replaced by a prideful spike upon making up my mind. The only thing that’s surprising is the sudden recession of the waves. Momentarily at a low ebb, I am convinced they will surge upwards again and wash me aside if I don’t jump soon.

I don’t recall looking down. I barely remember the leap. But I did experience the fall—the continued thought that I was joining an adventure rather than dying—and then especially the scything dive into the water. It’s cold but not too cold; certainly not biting, cruel, freezing cold. It’s cold like the previous several days had been cold: it’s a clammy, hard but tolerable cold beneath a warming layer of clothing. It’s a piece from reality intruding upon my scene, hitching a ride on the trip and making things seem better than they really are. But how things are is scary, actually. The momentum of the dive is taking me too deep, I am next thinking. As my descent reaches a natural end, I turn upwards, instinctively looking to the surface, hoping suddenly that I’m not too far down. There is no light, shaft-like or otherwise, and this signifies not only a blanketing darkness, but the absence of a divine beckoning. An indeterminate passage of time follows, after which I am somehow back upon that previous concrete surface, or some semblance of it, and glancing about again at the stormy scene around me. It is a composite world, made up of images familiar and not; a geography that I’ve discovered, that I’ve longed to discover having barely known that it existed. Nonetheless, it is recognizable. Amongst the images that draw me is the shape of a three-to-four story hotel or apartment complex. It is slightly sunken, as if pulled into the ground by an earthquake, but its integrity has held, making it seem whole and surviving. It is a bit like psychoanalysis, I speculate: an aged edifice being slowly pulled underground but hanging on; an institution seated at the end of a mythical river, or at the far reaches of the globe, and I have arrived at its door. It’s a different kind of home. This structure is similarly blackened by the surroundings, rather like the violent waves that are causing all the damage, and contrary to what my listener will soon suggest, I think this dark greyness is not an indictment of absent color, but instead a sharp, almost film noir-like affirmation.

“I think this is your first analytic dream,” says my listener. My analyst. Welcome to my world. Really? I thought, both pleased and disconcerted simultaneously. I’m glad to have reached this apparent landmark, but I’d rather thought that I’d gotten past this bit already, having been in analysis for over a year. My first analytic dream, as in the first recounted dream that seemed to say something about the analysis itself? Was I slow learner? Am I on course in my learning? Anyway, I bit down on the plaintive observation and traded associations. I followed my analyst’s thought trail quickly enough and noted the crucial parallel. The dive was the thing: the deep dive into the unconscious. Of course, couldn’t miss that one. Then, due to the nature of the scene—the violent storm and so on—I mooted that the surface of the water might also represent death, which would make sense of my fear upon descending too far below the surface, plus the whole dream would link back to the recent reveries I’d been having with respect to that near fall from a ledge memory when I was two or three, and about which I journaled in the last entry. My analyst persisted, understandably enough, with the notion that I was poised upon another precipice, not one of imminent death but rather one of growth and understanding given the prospect of deepening work in psychoanalysis. We agreed upon one point only: it seemed important that my fears upon my watery descent were of being crushed or lost in darkness, not of drowning per se. We disagreed on the meaning of color versus black and white, as I’m not yet ready to cast my life so far as dull, or colorless. Or, we sort of agreed that the dark building that appears on the surface, plus the broken freeway that gets assaulted by the waves are…meaning, they seem to be recalling something like…

Nope. Lost it. That’s the nature of dreams, I’m afraid. My dreams, anyway. They exist in disorganized form and then die on the vine; a strangulated, inchoate death. Just as well, perhaps, because thoughts move on in daytime, on the couch, leaving some thoughts behind, abandoned, while traces of previously unfinished business are instead picked up. So I turned back the clock. I nearly died that day, I said, reiterating the link between the dream and death. I was about to revisit the scene or that script that I’d written about the aftermath of my rescue from the ledge: that imagined decompression of my mother’s terror juxtaposed against my cries of oblivious complaint. What did my toddler self imagine I was about to do, I wonder? What did I think she was stopping me from doing? Then something strange happened, in my process of recall, I mean. It was another temporal shift, this time one that picked up the story of my preverbal fall where I’d left off.

“Where were they that I was alone in the house like that?” I asked. As the question had trailed some version of the memory’s recap, my analyst followed along, mostly unconfused by my shift. Oh, I see, I heard the woman thinking: a prequel. I continued: “I mean, if she was outside in the back garden, and—as she insists to this day—my dad was nowhere to be seen…Karen, my sister, aged six at the time, doesn’t remember this…why was I left alone to wander about the house and be upstairs in a bedroom whose window is wide open?” I paused and listened to the blank space, as in the silence of a shared unknowing until that pre-thought also withered and died on the vine. I don’t know if I shrugged to punctuate the moment of deadening thought. It’s pointless to shrug when lying on the couch because the gesture is obscured. Mother blaming. My thoughts had stalled upon the point of mother blaming, I’m interested to note. Well, we don’t do that, do we? Yes, I know. I’ve been here before on a couple of recent entries. I went there in mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. There I was following echoes, in a way. Not echoes of Esther Perel, as I’ve previously written, but rather psychoanalysts like Jean LaPlanche, or Robert Bly, the somewhat eclipsed men’s movement icon, whose book Iron John was a refuge for men like myself in the nineties.

Well, Bly had something to say about sympathetic mother blaming. His was more of a critical poke at the split-off self, like much my writing is, I believe. See, in his chapter, “The Pillow And The Key”, Bly revives a pre-Christian myth, later transformed into a Grimm fairy tale, about a boy who plays with a golden ball that unbeknownst to him represents his wholeness, but he loses it when the ball roles into a cage inhabited by the “Wild Man”, who has been imprisoned by the boy’s father, the King. This man says to the boy that he can have the ball back if the boy releases him from the cage. When the boy complains that he doesn’t have the key, the Wild Man replies, “the key is under your mother’s pillow”, and that pillow, with all of its Freudian sexual connotations, is where the mother stores all of her expectations for her son. From there, a tale unfolds in which the boy steals the key, frees the Wild Man but runs away from his family, to be mentored in the forest by the now indebted Wild Man. The remainder of the story entails the boy’s return from exile, which is less consequential as it pertains to Bly’s interest, which is to point out the mother’s implied role in civilizing the boy. What Bly and others of his ilk protest is the loss of healthy wildness in modern man, which is not to be confused with machismo, submission to corporate or industrialist slavery, or misogyny, but rather a mysterious realm wherein fathers are strong, decisive, and wise. It is he that is needed, for young men in particular, not a submission to a substitute and idealized feminine. But the taboo encoded in the “pillow” metaphor is in the way, suggested Bly, echoing Freud in his modern times. Women don’t want to hear this, Bly wrote in his preface to the last edition of Iron John: “We know that fathers have an erotic power over their daughters that they often don’t want to have named or exposed, and perhaps mothers are not eager to have their power named either.”

 

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Life weans the giraffe

 

Not so randomly placed in mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, are the ontological issues surrounding the term sex addiction. It’s in the title, even, this suggestion that what we’ll be doing is examining the term sex addiction more than any other mental health abstraction and therefore addressing the problem of problem sexual behaviors: is this a thing, a variously skeptical public asks? The members of Sex Addiction Anonymous (SAA) have of course made their decision on this question. Committees of The American Psychiatric Association and The World Health Organization have not quite made theirs, rejecting the proposed diagnosis Hypersexual Disorder in the case of the former body, and recently (and provisionally) accepting the diagnosis Excessive Sexual Drive in the case of the latter organization. To be clear (or not), neither of these terms are synonymous with the construct of sex addiction, but we’re in the same ball park here. The issue is complex. It is medical, psychological and meta-psychological, as in ontological: is a human being’s sexuality a function of biological drive and are problem behaviors therefore a matter of excess desire? And even if that natural conclusion is drawn, where is the role of nurture in the matter of etiology? Are we talking about an interpersonal versus an intrapsychic event, as in a phenomenon derived from early childhood development—a weaning that went awry versus a web of innate fantasy (or phantasy as Object Relations terms it) within an infantile mind? Or is the broader social and cultural environment the more prominent accomplice in a dysfunctional sexual development?

We’d prefer to think so, at least. And so we hear weary chestnuts that even the most progressive-minded observers must be tired of hearing by now: theories of pubescent or post-pubescent development wherein boys are subject to mores that encourage their essentialist aggression, their concomitant sexual freedom, with consequent pressure to conform and therefore perform when being so deterministically sexualized. Meanwhile, girls are discouraged by societies across cultures from expressing freely their sexuality; they are raised to be demur, ashamed of their sexuality, and therefore passive or possibly manipulative in their sexual expression. And even if this is changing somewhat in a millennial age (really, have you noticed?), then it is surely a reaction to those previous oppressive norms, yielding a confusing transition phase wherein girls, boys, or those along the gender fluid continuum (suggesting a flight from binaries) switch roles at times, thus conforming to a newly burgeoning if less-defined ethos. And so we observe a faction of diffident men and boys who speak of respecting the feminine as if they are resisting in their stance a combined biological and social force upon their being. And we observe women and girls who seem increasingly aggressive and entitled in their sexual freedom while proclaiming the lack of freedom that is afforded them by an arbitrary social reality. In analytic terms, this is the realm of the unconscious but not the repressed, these habits and mores that we download from the culture. By unrepressed I mean something that is not kept away. Isms and other mores may be unconscious, but as we routinely observe, they are hardly kept away. They leak and make a mess, pervading our experience.

The premises of these positions must be difficult for the average mental health professional to sustain given the contradictions of theory and life itself. Firstly, within our profession’s demographic map, that average person is likely female, white and therefore privileged in terms of race, at least. She has been raised and subsequently educated within an atmosphere that encourages or affords (not privileged—we only use that word in this context if we’re feeling critical) a social justice lens, which means supporting narratives that advocate for the underprivileged. In Getting Real, I argue that within the niche field of sex addiction treatment (and perhaps psychotherapy as a whole), this demographic phenomenon of recent generations results in a skew that targets a privileged (non-ironic diction) client population–heterosexual men—for devaluation. The aggregate of thought suggesting how males and females are socialized towards sexual behaviors and identities emphasizes the post-pubescent experience, which for some might imply agreement with an embattled psychoanalytic idea: that pre-pubescent and certainly pre-verbal sexuality is repressed, as in kept away, and for the most part is not leaked and is therefore a lesser factor in pre-teen childhood development. There is no scientific evidence of an Oedipus Complex, say critics of psychoanalysis. There is evidence of pre-verbal attachment styles, the capacity to communicate and comprehend on a pre-verbal level, thus children’s psychological development is profoundly impacted from birth onwards by events, both benign and traumatic, that occur perpetually.

The onset of sexuality is a function of hormonal development, says a medical argument—not some manner of release from childhood repression. Puberty is the psyche’s sexual alarm clock, indicating that it’s time for play of another kind; an incipiently adult kind. Feelings like joy, excitement, wonder, fear, shame, and guilt may all be observed in small children, some pre-verbal, some not. Emotional expression, proximity-seeking, may be developed or not, contingent upon the presence and consistency of a capable adult. The nature of a child’s attachment to a parent (or primary caregiver) will be internalized as a working model of attachment that will further shape development and relationships, possibly over a lifetime. That was John Bowlby speaking and writing over fifty years ago, saying something similar to what D.W. Winnicott was teaching, only with more attention to physical need than the fostering of a distinctive, creative mind. If you the reader are silently nodding in agreement, then you’re joining at least two generations of mental health providers who generally agree with these principles while implicitly thinking that sex is not part of the early attachment equation. You’ve likely been taught to believe that proximity or object seeking, plus patterns within those relational drives, are shaped interpersonally and by broader environmental norms; that we have implicit (neurobiologyspeak for the unconscious) memory of early attachment patterns, whether they were traumatic or not; that we have implicit bias (appropriating social justicespeak for the unconscious but not repressed) in relationships, yielding prejudice directed at distinct social groups. Yes, joy, creativity, and some of that bad feeling stuff is indeed fostered in a child’s development, but not sex. Not arousal, or longing. That potential is activated later…when it’s appropriate, of course.

So, why are there excesses? Why this untidy disorder, this chaos of spillage, as if life were some kind of cosmic dumping. There, says…something: here are your tools in a pile and a flood. Do with them what you will. Is addiction, for example, a blend of natural hormonal excess negatively complemented by an insecure attachment style, of weak or failing repression barriers? And if this shaping does occur both intrapsychically and interpersonally, shall we break with our profession’s current theoretical orthodoxy and resolve that sexual nurturing largely coincides with biological schedules and is dominantly imparted with the help of the cultural village? A village that also fails, perhaps. Because if this isn’t the roughly hewn plan then we must revisit what our developmental theories otherwise imply: go back to society with ideas it doesn’t want to hear and consider taboos, as in pre-teen or even pre-verbal sexual exposure, as the original source of sexual development. We’d have to imagine that arousal and longing are part of the same dyads or village-child-passing-around norms that bring food, enable good sleep, play and a spark of imagination. We’d have to imagine that breast-feeding, or the bathing of infants’ genitalia, or the physical control of their evacuations are truly antecedents of sexual desire, or that excesses in this private realm nurture later distortions of sex as much as any unconscious yet unrepressed social message conveyed via so-called modeling to a conscious mind.

Though it would likely elicit thought-blocking accusations of misogyny or homophobia, we’d need to re-think child-rearing in a way that might stir panic; contemplate sexual orientation in a way that would challenge etiological assumptions. If the excesses of sex addiction are rooted in early childhood development, trauma specialists sometimes suggest (but don’t prove) that childhood sexual abuse is an accomplice to later sexual acting out. In this way, modern psychology comes full circle, revisiting Freud’s original Seduction theory, only with a significant permutation. Instead of conversion symptoms like the paralysis of limbs, patients present with compulsive behaviors, what Freud described as repeating versus remembering, or the shorthand, repetition compulsion. Sandor Ferenczi later gave us the term and concept “Identify with the aggressor”, attempting to rescue Seduction theory from its then-exile, to denote a relational identification between victim and abuser—to indicate a kind of psychic hostage-taking. If the vast majority of sexual abuse perpetrators are male, as a mother-idolizing culture would have us presume, then why doesn’t a corresponding majority of male molestation victims report or manifest ego-dystonic feelings of same-sex attraction? Or perhaps they do and are therefore, in keeping with analytic thought, manifesting the defense of reaction formation via a false heterosexual identification. Does it seem complicated, this human development? Maybe that’s why it seems to be taking longer and longer for children and young adults to grow, with the meta-tasks of an internal, interpersonal, and collectivist set of systems to navigate. I understand that some animals in the wild are able to walk within a day or an hour of their births. They grow up quickly in less complicated systems, with simple brains that are mindlessly free of sexual neurosis. Are the plainer brutalities of nature—the ubiquity of predation, or the threat of being left behind if not ambulatory—the forces that force giraffes to their feet? Do their hormones help? Or do they “grow up” quickly in other ways, if you know what I mean? What if our life expectancies were less than a decade? Would we evolve a quicker, more expedient onset of the pubescent watershed, becoming unrepressed yet thoughtless, and actively or relentlessly sexual, all because it was necessary to survive?

 

 

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Mary and her followers

Because I lost a friend to cancer recently, I’m in a eulogizing mood. Sticking with the theme of social/cultural commentary, I return to my favorite arena—the arts—to pay tribute to a television icon, Mary Tyler Moore. We lost so many icons in 2016 (Bowie, Prince, Muhammed Ali, the heartbreaking back-to-back blow of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds) that it seems unusual to me that I’d choose Moore’s passing to remark on. She was neither the most or the least influential figure on the aforementioned list, but her life is relevant to the themes of privilege and prejudice that are on many of my clients’ minds these days.

As I wrote in my last entry, American television exported many symbols in my seventies youth, but few of them were comic. Britain of the 70s seemed to have enough of its own comedy, so its public had little use for contemporary American stars like Carol O’Connor, who played Archie Bunker (who was actually based on a British character), or Carol Burnett, or Mary Tyler Moore. Following immigration, I watched her on sick days from school, or on indolent summer vacations, when reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show were part of a daily TV diet. Watching Laura Petry, I was vaguely aware that she was modeled upon an early sixties ideal: beautiful, graceful, lightly comic (ala Lucille Ball); aspiring a pre-tragic Jackie Kennedy. Her later transformation into Mary Richards, a character fronting Moore’s eponymous 70s sitcom, reminded me more of my mother: she was still beautiful, still gracious, but now she was unmarried (that part’s not like my mom), dating (though carefully falling short of promiscuity, it seemed), and solidly career-focused. She put the men in their place (“put a sock in it, Ted”), but she was never mean about it. Like all of our favorite social revolutionaries, she smiled a lot.

At one time, I may have thought her a poor woman’s Jane Fonda or Sally Field, two of my favorite female movie stars of that era. Ordinary People changed that. Playing a middle-aged woman grieving the loss of a favored son, she dropped the winning persona, lost her smile, and delivered a performance of such complexity that Ordinary People (for a while, anyway) became a staple of graduate school counseling programs, as a teaching tool illustrating dysfunctional families coping with loss. Tyler Moore’s character, in particular, seemed to absorb so many viewers’ projections. She was cold and unsympathetic, yet compelling. Easy to dislike, her manner of coping was too familiar, too relatable, to be dismissed. After OP, her career seemed to wane, as she drifted into mediocre TV movies. Her focus turned to charity, being active in animal rights issues; was sadly beset with alcoholism and diabetes.

I sort of waited for a worthy heir apparent, and thought Julie Roberts and Sandra Bullock fit the bill—Jennifer Aniston, too. These stars were wonderful, but something had changed. I had changed. By the nineties I was noticing Hollywood’s lazy feminism. Murphy Brown, a late eighties sitcom, seemed to keep alive the semi-tradition of lauding independent women, with the implication that social equality in all areas was being promoted. But at this point something else was being suggested of male figures who were career-focused, unmarried, and sexually liberated. Represented by the likes of Jerry Seinfeid, the male cast of Friends, the various roles Charlie Sheen has inhabited, the “independent” men of TV were usually roguish, or at best inoffensively feckless (as in the case of Seinfeld). Their independence was spun as emotional detachment, became a source of parody. They were relationship-phobic. The phrase, “afraid to commit” became a chestnut feminine critique.

The feminists of my mother’s generation seemed to yield to a generation of tiresome male-bashers, largely oblivious to their reversed double standards. This seems to have influenced a number of backlashes: right-wing social movements, reactionary politics; uber-sexist male celebrities. Remember Andrew Dice Clay? He was so obnoxious I once thought him a leftist plant: a kind of pop media Manchurian Candidate, sent by principals of a progressive movement to illustrate the wrongness of an arch-conservative demographic. There have been plenty other provocateurs since, each increasingly provocative, representing new waves of established thought, with fresh, distinctive voices, perhaps, but with ever more ugliness, on both sides of the social/political divide, if I’m honest. If light comedy with a social comment still exists, I’m struggling to find it.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Longing to matter

 

End of the year. These are the shortest days as time tumbles towards the new year, and in that compressed space it seems time to add a parting note or two about my last novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Written mostly in 2015, published in the shortest days of last year, I now feel it slipping from my mind, no longer living a constant, parallel life in my head. I imagine many writers, the successful and the (like me) unsuccessful, are like this. We are fickle. We skipped well upon rocks over water when kids, and are prone to moving on in certain areas of our lives, losing interest before others do, assuming that interest is there in the first place.

For myself, of the various intermingling themes in Venus, freedom and loneliness linger with the most purpose. From the outset of the novel, the freedom of therapist Daniel Pierce is not a happy one. Estranged from his son, and grieving over the death of his wife, he plods through a daily task which reflects a more mundane aspect of his isolation: he struggles to communicate with a representative of an insurance company, seeking to get paid for his services. Intended to satirize the managed care industry, this exchange is bookended at story’s end, and lives in light juxtaposition with the novel’s more serious plot. Yet it highlights an unpleasant side of Pierce’s outsider role, one in which complaints go unheard; acknowledgement, and sometimes reward, is delayed, or withheld indefinitely. The result is helplessness: a sense that he is alone, vulnerable, and—treated as dispensable by a governing machine—fated to lose.

The idea was to set him up (and the reader) for a winning comeback. Daniel Pierce, a stand-in for mental health professionals who are underpaid, who are poorly represented by their associations; for whom laws (like AB1775) are written without their proper consultation, gets to be difficult. He gets to show an arrogant if well-meaning interventionist that he won’t enact hers or mainstream society’s notions of heroism. He gets to show lawyers, even a judge, that he won’t be at their beckon call, and further, that he won’t betray the principles of his profession just because they think there is a greater cause. For anyone who might listen, he (like myself), will expose hypocrisy, tautologies, and—despite the will of a legal and professional system—fashion his own ending.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Side note: I enjoyed a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock recently in which Martin Scorsese enthused about Vertigo, one of my favorite films. He loved the way the film indulged fantasy, dodging that which is plausible for the sake of compelling drama. Amen, I say. And so, Venus is a statement of my fantasy: a longing to matter when isolated and (at least sometimes) unheard. The story is ironic for me in so far as I am largely happy in my relatively isolated, private practice. Yes, I have the occasional problem with managed care, but in Venus I put a little on it for the sake of compelling drama. And yes, I have been subpoenaed and otherwise called upon to break the confidentiality of clients by an importuning authority, but I have not grandstanded as Daniel Pierce does.

The story is ironic for Daniel Pierce in so far as he isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his wrongdoing client. His default advocacy for a man accused of molesting his child is a serendipitous event, and Pierce defends the privacy of their session (the professional one, plus those which symbolically take place away from the confines of an acceptable setting) not because he thinks the man innocent, but rather because he’s concerned with principle: preserving the confidentiality of the therapeutic space, for everyone. If you think that a precious or overreaching cause, especially in the context of child abuse, then consider what I’ve previously written in entries like “Why child abuse isn’t as important as you think”. Why are psychotherapists mandated reporters of child abuse while lawyers and clergy (in effect) are not? Is it because our service isn’t dovetailing with legal rights? Is it because we are secular in our mission?

To address a secondary theme, Pierce isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his misbehaving client base. Though not nearly as hateful as Lira, his women and children’s advocate antagonist, Pierce is often jaded by the sex offending or sexually addictive men that he sits with. Many of them are indeed entitled, or misogynistic, or plainly self-centered, while others are less offensively lost—underdogs of another kind. In some respects, Daniel is like most therapists: trying to be neutral, but nonetheless stumbling into an advocate’s role at times, holding different sides of individuals, including that which is objectionable. As weary with them as he is any oppressive system, Daniel weighs his dedication to those wayward men against a sometimes-I-wonder-why-I-bother-with-you attitude.

I have bothered considerably with the ideas contained with Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I have, I think, one more aspect, or pair of ideas, to explain. Then it will be time to move on to another story, and perhaps another cause. On to lengthier days.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Saturday morning sex talk

 

Not the appropriate time, you might think, for a discussion about sex. Or maybe it is. Who knows. Funny, that was the prevailing theme of the talk I’d arranged at Walnut Creek Library, within its Las Trampas room, overlooking Broadway street. It was a bright, sunny early fall morning today. Few showed up—only four—to discuss an article in the latest issue of The Therapist, which rather decried the sex addiction treatment industry, which I was looking to promote.

Sort of.

One of my gigs is with a small agency in WC called Impulse Treatment Center, which for thirty years has provided group therapy for men primarily, who struggle with sexual behaviors that disrupt their lives: porn use, prostitution, visiting strip clubs, sexual massage establishments, and so on–behaviors that fit a distinctly masculine stereotype. In theory, there are female sex addicts also, but how they are manifesting is one of the unanswered questions blocking the admission of a sex addiction-like diagnosis into the APA’s Diagnostic Standards Manual (DSM-V)

I passed out some assessment tools that are used in intake processes, referring to the Sexual Addiction Screening Test (SAST) as designed and (somewhat) evolved by Patrick Carnes over the last twenty years, but focusing on a new tool called the HBI-19. This Hypersexual Disorder Inventory tool, designed by researchers at UCLA, aims less at a list of behaviors as it does an individual’s internal experience of sexual activity. The specific behaviors that are commonly associated with sex addiction are not even indicated on the HBI-19, inclining the observer to consider a more subjective understanding of a problem.

Unlike some, I’ve no problem with this, for it seems to me that assessing addiction based upon criteria of specified behaviors, or the frequency of said behaviors, misses the point of assessment. Currently, and all too often, addiction is determined via an externalized focus. What do I mean? I mean that addiction (and therefore treatment) tends to be considered when individuals cross certain thresholds: when they’ve broken the law, or been discovered by a spouse or partner—when they’ve been exposed, which presumably constitutes the loss of control watershed that so many cite as their hitting bottom experience.

Others might assert that problems exist because sexual behaviors cause conflict with values, thus leading to depression, low esteem, and social isolation. A recognition of these factors is promising as far as treatment is concerned. The more an individual’s motivation is internal—that is, not defined or mandated by others—the more available an individual is for an authentic therapy experience, whether that episode is with an individual practitioner or a group of peers.

Yet the internal motivation of those seeking care is precisely what is being attacked in some quarters. Jay Blevins, the author (or editor—it’s not clear) of the article “How concepts of sex and porn addiction are failing our clients”, asserts that “sex negative forces” (what a term!) in the sex addiction treatment field, headed by the likes of Carnes, incorporate scare tactics about ‘unsafe’ practices, and moral judgements derived from religious values, which further a homophobic (but not anti-male?) social agenda.

Blevins makes a good point that the purported medical consequences of extensive porn use (such as erectile disorder) are not supported by scientific data, but the term addiction was never intended to be used as a medical term—for that we have the term dependence. Addiction is a cultural term, drawing attention to a psychological or–as the 12-step community asserts–a spiritual problem. Whether personal distress is generated from an internal examination versus an oppressive assimilation of institutional mores, as people like Blevins assert: that’s for each person to decide.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Poking ideology, ladies first

 

 

Whenever I consider a critique of a social group, an organization, or an ideology, I try to pause and think about where I am vulnerable; about who or what my sacred cows are, and whether I can take needling comments from the lesser knowing on the sidelines. I’m not a religious or especially political person (I think), so I don’t get my feathers ruffled when viewing debates. I am only thinly amused by scoffing comic journalists, and I sigh at the familiar rhetoric, bemoan all I don’t know or can’t know. As for miscellaneous activism, well, the AB1775 thing was about the only cause I researched well enough and thus felt qualified to comment on.

In most matters I prefer the observer’s role, plus the ethos of the neutral, hence my affinity for psychoanalytic thought, my periodic disdain for reductionist thinking in psychotherapy, as expressed elsewhere in this blog. Activism is an adjunct of psychotherapy for some. With a particular cause in mind, many enter grad schools wanting to “work with ___” because their lives have been touched by whatever their bone of contention is. That wasn’t me and it still isn’t. Mine is an ideology influenced more and more by the unknown, so the stance of the neutral radiates through Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole, my mischief novel about a jaded psychologist/neutral (or neutered) male, Daniel Pierce, who is stalked by a former prostitute and thereafter challenged to assume the activist role. Lira is a law student who likely saved money from her night job to earn an education and a better life for herself. She is an empowered woman looking back, looking to help the less fortunate, the not-yet-survived sisters on the streets, plus the odd John or two who needs redemption, whether they want it or not. Her ideology, which is a broader, not goal-specific construct, is likely feminist, though she doesn’t indicate this in such specific terms.

It’s difficult tackling an ideology because ideologies are multi-faceted and evolving. They defy simplification, require and deserve considerable thought and reading, so I’m skeptical of labels from those who identify with an ideology without putting in study time; from those who oppose an ideology based upon a similarly stereotyping process. If you haven’t combed through The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, or “Beyond The Pleasure Principle” by Freud, or read anything by either Cordelia Fine or Melanie Klein, then stop with the broad-brush dismissals. So when Kirkus remarks in their review that Daniel Pierce is anti-feminist, I have to take issue because I don’t satirize feminism in my novel, but rather some of its derivative rhetoric that is co-opted by common opportunists, and which informs a modern narrative. Besides, I have to wonder what ruffled the feathers of my reviewer because he or she didn’t get specific. It’s certainly true that my narrator issues a few sideways jibes aimed at popular trends: at women’s seeming double standards in the dating arena; at the goading of men that happens in advertising: the suggestion that men should take drugs to enhance sexual performance, whether to serve ego, the pleasure of a wanting partner, or both; the way media increasingly presents women as sexual aggressors, men as on the run, clutching fearfully at their pants, acting like fools; the way musical/lyrical clichés are deemed misogynist if depicting women in supplicant roles—romantic or millennially winning if men are.

Daniel Pierce is traditionalist in some ways, but is neither an anti-feminist nor a misogynist. He’s monogamist, partly because of love, otherwise by constitution. Sexually, he’s played it safe in life while keeping at arm’s length the influence of promiscuous men, so he’s wary of Rick, the would-be porn star who buddies up to Daniel, liking his quiet non-conformism. Rick is aware that Daniel is not a player, but scarcely registers the psychologist’s critique of reckless sex. Daniel could give or take guys like Rick, knowing them to be endangered, but he’s more concerned for his own psychological kind: the sexually diffident or undersexed; the workaholic, drab men who sacrifice decades to the man and then die of heart attacks. If pushed he’d point out that if women want the same pay or workplace opportunities as these men, they may need to do more of the work his masculine forebears did: the blue collar or dangerous jobs that still comprise well over ninety percent of workplace injuries. Let us not forget that the harbinger of feminism, the suffragette movement, more or less suspended itself to support men in their most dangerous traditional role, that of soldier. Subsequently, World War I slaughtered nearly half of the European male population of that era, which is not women’s fault, but what did they do? Time moved on: women organized and confronted the alcohol industry with temperance movements, industrialists about child labor; they rightly won voting rights, the right to own property, etcetera, while never having to register for the draft, and few women over the years complained about that.

When pushed by Lira to co-sign her assessment of Derek Metcalf as a child molester, Daniel pushes back, supposing that the child in question (Derek’s five year old son) may be a pawn in a protracted custody dispute, latterly mired in manufactured charges, coached and inconsistent reports from the son about alleged behaviors, the adjudication of which is meant to leverage a favorable custody outcome for the mother. While Daniel’s familial background is thinly sketched in Venus, I suggest towards the end that his father was not a Prairie Vole (a monogamist), and that Daniel’s mother, a figure on whom he once doted, left his father at some point in Daniel’s childhood. On the one hand, I accept Clarion’s critique that my title, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie, may be too obscure, or confused, for the average reader. I’d intended to give clues in the text, but otherwise leave room for you to wonder. Well, I guess I’ll supply an answer, whether you wonder or not. Daniel is looked down upon by women (or would be so), not because he’s a philanderer and therefore commonly misogynist (he’s not), and certainly not because he was a devoted husband, but rather because he isn’t a hero. He simply refuses to split in that traditional way. His refrain, I don’t do anything, is partly a complaint, partly a muted boast, and he defies a traditionalist male role that lingers in our society, whether feminists want this or not.

 

 

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