Saturday, June 27, 2009

Are you a counselor or a minister? -My 100th post

A student of mine recently referred to homosexuality as abomination quoting the traditional scriptural references. Given the context, I sternly but respectfully challenged the student to address the cultural bias in his statement. The fact that it occurs in a graduate level course on multiculturalism is a “small problem” (tongue in cheek!). The fact that the program is a Mental Health Counseling program is also a “small problem” (tongue in cheek, again!).

What I would love to say to my students is that they have a choice. You can choose to be a counselor or you can choose to be a minister. If your choice is to be a counselor, you must base your practice on the science of psychology. Being a counselor means that your theology may inform your psychology, but it does not dictate your psychology.

If, in any way, your theology dictates your psychology, you are a minister. Stop the illusion of being a counselor. While I may disagree with your theology, I respect your right to choose a life as a minister. But don’t use the guise of psychology to push your theology. That is malpractice and unethical in my opinion.

The area of human sexuality is where the most damage occurs when theology is confused as psychology. The science of psychology is relatively settled when the issue of abstinence based safer-sex approaches are evaluated. They programs don’t work. In some cases, they create MORE harm.

The question of homosexuality is another area. Despite the research, too many counselors continue to subscribe to the abomination theory of homosexuality; a theory that is simply not supported. You can extend the conversation into areas of masturbation and fantasy.

Are you a counselor or a minister? Choose.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Staying Sober: Tips to stay on the wagon

Dear Dr. Weston I noticed on your bio that you work at Pride Institute so I thought you might have some ideas to help me. I've been in and out of recovery for the last 6 years and just haven't been able to stay clean. I've been sober for about 9 months now, I go to my meetings, but I'm getting way too close to relapsing again. Got any help?

Although your dilemma is bigger than what I can tackle in a simple online article I believe there are two immediate things you can do that may begin to help you.

  • First, you need to identify the "payoffs" of using drugs.
  • Second, identify ways to get these "payoffs" in healthy ways.

Pay attention to the payoffs of your continued using. Counselors do a good job identifying the "consequences" of use. I'm sure you can identify your laundry list of horror stories about what has happened as a result of your use. All behavior is goal focused, including drug use, so I think it is important to focus on the payoffs of using as well. Someone who is using has a belief that a real or perceived payoff will result from the drug use. As you can probably recognize, the payoff is usually temporary.

I think about payoffs on three levels.
The primary level of payoff is the result of the actual drug use. For example, I'm bored and have nothing to do. Getting "high" is something fun to do, at least for a while.

A secondary payoff refers to an outcome that also happens. It might be a helpful consequence of the use. Many meth users experience significant weight loss as an outcome. For individuals struggling with body image, when they start to get sober they struggle with the weight gain.

The third type of payoff is difficult to recognize. It's also important to think strategically. The following example might be helpful. This level of payoff doesn't make sense to those watching on the outside, but on the inside, the payoff is that ongoing use gives the person the illusion that they are in charge of how messed up their life is. "I know drugs are bad, and that's why my life is so messed up." The outcome is that "I'm to blame." What makes this type of thinking so dangerous is the use of the fact that when a person's life is out of control, it is justification for additional drug use.

Finding healthy ways to get the payoffs

Primary Healthy Payoff
Looking first at the primary level payoff, we need to talk about filling your time with healthy friends, sober fun and other personally meaningful activities. You have to develop plans and social networks where you can have healthy fun without using. Additional Healthy Payoffs

If, for example, body weight becomes a problem, developing a healthy body image is also part of the treatment plan. If you are self-sabotaging your recovery because of low self-esteem, it's important to address the belief that you have no control in your life. A person needs to get a sense of an internal source of power. In my opinion, these three payoffs require a lot of work and effort. This is why therapy may be helpful.

If you find that you continually relapse, professional help might be necessary.

The question I'd like to hear about is "What healthy ways have you developed to get your needs met?"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Do I have to be out

How does coming out fit into our identity? The question of coming out raises the issue of private and public personas. How much of our life is private and how much is public. This public side of our identity is the stuff we show with most people. Obviously, the private side is the part of our self that we keep "close to our chest."

There are many reasons for not disclosing sexual identity. For some people it's about safety. I've worked with people in the corrections field who suggest that coming out in prison is not a safe place. Then there is the current military policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" which highlights the consequences of coming out. And still today, in some countries, coming out risks a death sentence.

Some people choose not to be out for other reasons such as privacy, financial or familial. Others believe we have arrived at point in history were the need to be out simply doesn't matter anymore. We've made so much progress as a group that we simply don't need to push the issue any further.

On the other hand, there are people who encourage everyone to be out. There is often an implicit assumption that being out is a healthy expression of a LGBT identity. The assumption is you need to "embrace" your sexuality. Being out is a statement that being gay is OK. A major step toward personal growth is the affirmation of all aspects of a person's life.

Then there is the idea that being visibly out is a public statement and as a result helps to encourage public acceptance thus creating a safer environment for those who come out later. The modeling behavior attempts to provide support and encouragement of this aspect. In my opinion, the stories shared over the last few similar articles highlight the benefits of coming out. In those stories others found support and encouragement for their process.

Being out is also a political statement. Since at least the 1950s, individuals have stressed the political aspect of being out as a confrontation to the straight world. Stonewall and the subsequent 30+ years of Pride Celebrations reflect coming out as a political claim. Harvey Milk and the 2008 movie is a recent expression of the political impact of coming out; his witness transformed the political reality of both San Francisco, and eventually the world. Obviously we're not done with the political nature of equality; coming out is a contribution in small and large ways to ongoing political discourse. As a group, the more visible we are, the less they can ignore us.

This post is a start of the conversation. What are your thoughts? Should a person be out and why?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Starting the coming out process

It is sometimes easy to forget that our community is diverse. We are comprised of individuals at different places in the coming out process. The coming out process is a remarkably individual thing and each of us will move through the experience in our own way. It is important to remember that each of us chooses the method of our coming out. For some people, this will be a relatively "easy" process while others will have a significant struggle.

An important tool is breaking through the isolation and shame of sexual orientation by sharing our personal story and listening to the stories of others. The public stories shared on the website as well as some of the emails I received highlight how important this is for many people. I'm moved by the amount of pain, fear, shame and guilt many people still struggle with in their process of coming out. I'm also moved by the courage expressed in the stories that can serve as inspiration to others.

While our stories are unique, it may be helpful for our individual growth by understanding the experiences of others. Hearing what worked or didn't work can be part of our growth and development. I think the responses highlight some of the things that helped. I encourage those who are earlier in the process to learn from you brothers and sisters.

Our coming out process is a repetitive process. Sadly, this means coming out is not a "finished product." When we meet someone new, or start a new job, or talk about what we did last weekend, we come out yet again. In each of the situations, we may go through quicker versions of the process. When I speak publicly, I often come out to the group. Almost every time, I have to go through process of identity comparison/tolerance. For me it occurs by wondering if the will they compare me to the stereotypes. I wonder if they are accepting enough, or will have to justify myself.

Coming out is only one piece of the puzzle. Implicit in the comments are references to many other topics. For any number of reasons, the coming out process is directly related to concerns such as guilt, shame, spirituality, risky-sex, and chemical use. Coming out will necessitate addressing these issues; and addressing these issues will also facilitate coming out.

What is the one thing you wish you knew in your coming out process?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nice plug for my book from Planetout.

Click on the link to see the article on about my book.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Coping with Grief in a Relationship

The responses on my recent articles "Do all gay men cheat?" and "Are you really over your ex?" brought to light a level of hurt and grief many people experience but may not understand. As you looking toward the future and new relationships, it may be helpful to address feelings of grief and loss.

I like using analogies in my work because they can help make things easier to understand. Consider the analogy of the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the Star War movies Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as a way to highlight how people cope with grief. (I realize I may be starting to date myself by picking the analogy!)

For a brief reminder, in the series the enemy, Darth Vader, says to Luke those famous words "Luke, I am your father." Luke's response is "NOOOOOOOOO" and rather than surrendering to Darth Vader he falls to what he thinks is his death only to be rescued at the last moment. The pain in Luke's yell and the desperation that leads to the fall highlights the power of denial in grief and loss. When a relationship ends, the loss leads to the emotional fall. Rather than deal with the truth, we may run away and avoid the reality of the loss.

A few scenes later, Luke is talking to Obi Wan Kenobi saying, "Why didn't you tell me?" The tone of his voice is clearly anger. In this case, the anger is not "explosive yelling" but "cold simmering." The "how dare you look" that can send shivers down a person's spine. In my opinion, the cold simmering is a scarier expression of anger than explosive reactions.

In that same scene, Obi Wan responds to some of the questions by saying "from a certain point of view" the good person of your father died when he became the bad guy. He is introducing the concept of bargaining in coping with the grief of relationships.

As you look at your last relationship, from a certain point of view, it may be better to be out of the unhealthy relationship. Sometimes we may want to avoid the unhealthy aspects of the old relationship simply because we don't want to feel the grief. Moving toward health is to recognize that sometimes the end of a relationship might be healthy.

Near the end of the 3rd movie, Return of the Jedi, Leah asks, "What's wrong?" Luke's response is "Ask me later." Sometimes in the grief process, we simply don't want to talk about it. It may be too painful or take too much energy.

Luke also exhibits the final stage of grief, acceptance in the Return of the Jedi. Luke has come to acknowledge Darth Vader as his father. The acceptance doesn't lead to paralysis but instead turns into action to save the good guys from the evil Emperor. Luke's grief has even been transformed into action to save his father. In the same way, once we have addressed the grief, we get to the point where we can live a full life. We are also able to relate to others in a healthy way. And the past relationship isn't necessarily in the way of our next relationship. We may even be ready to reach out to our ex from a place of love and concern.

If you are coping with grief regarding a previous relationship, where do you see yourself? What can you do to move forward? Oh, and may the Force be with you!

The workbook is Live!

I'm pleased to announce that my first book is now available.

Living a Life I Love:™ Healing sexual compulsivity, sexual addiction, sexual avoidance and other sexual concerns is designed to help you create a life you love in the area of sexuality. The workbook will help you understand your "acting out cycle" by identifying your high-risk situations, feeling triggers and thinking errors. The workbook has three stages:
1. Problem identification: During this stage, you examine your sexual behaviors, sexual history and acting out cycle.
2. Primary treatment addresses factors linked with unhealthy sexual behaviors.
3. Creating your future: The third stage will help you reach out for support and encouragement. You'll complete a personal definition of sexual health to help you live a life you love.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sexual Health For All/Pursuit of Sexual Happiness

Why start a second workbook.

Shortly after completing the first workbook, I started this edition. The workbook evolves from the request of “I don’t have a problem, but I want to learn more.” I struggle with some of the topics, but I’m not compulsive/addictive/avoidant, simply unhappy in the realm of sexuality. While people used the compulsivity workbook, it wasn’t really the best fit. Thus started this workbook.

More than 100 years ago, Williams James highlighted the concepts of once-born and twice-born people. The once-born rarely considers evil, or even imperfections within the self. Once-born are not na├»ve. They simply have a perception of their identity that is straightforward and direct. The application of these concepts to the field of sexuality is very helpful. Once-borns never think about sexuality, it’s not any issue. They simply exist as sexual beings and usually have a level of contentment that the second-born never experience. If you have the advantaged of being once-born, congratulations.

Twice-born individuals, however, have the opposite experience. For any number of reasons, twice-borns struggle in life. Life is something to understand and challenge. The inner conflict is an integral part of the difference. As you could guess, the conflict extends to the realm of sexuality.

This workbook is committed to both once-born and twice-born. For the once-born, I hope to provide resources to help you understand the diversity of sexuality, and the richness that can develop in response to discovery.

For the twice-born, I empathize with your journey. I too have journeyed the depths of confusion, despair, frustration and paralysis. I would add, however, that integration and happiness is possible. “Living a life I Love” is possible, just like the once-born. This workbook is designed to provide a breadth of information in your journey. When you find a topic particularly relevant, seek out more information.

Often, when a once-born and twice-born are partnered, the probability of conflict is extremely high. The once-born simply doesn’t understand the difficulties. This understanding isn’t out of ignorance or avoidance, or minimizing. They simply don’t understand. Hopefully reading and working through these topics you will understand your partner. My hope is to help you both develop the wherewithal to provide and facilitate mutual understanding, respect and love.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Coming Out Gay

One of the more disappointing reactions I saw in the comments left on the "Can Someone Choose To Be Gay?" article is the judgmental attitudes towards those who aren't completely "out". I think we can help our community and ourselves by better understanding that the coming out experience is different for each of us. The ability to label one's self as "gay" varies person to person. Some people "know" from an early age; others "know" at a later time in their life. For some people this process is easy. For others, the coming out process can be very difficult.

One of the first researchers in this area, Vivian Cass writes the model I like best.

Stage 1 - Identity Confusion
The classic phrase at this point is simply "Something's not right, I'm different." Sometimes we simply lack the language to describe how we know something is different. Many people talk about knowing at a young age that they knew. How we respond to this statement separates people who come out quickly or those who take a while. For any number of reasons, some people get stuck and shut down. Others get a sense of what "I'm different means" and they start to put the pieces together.

Stage 2 - Identity Comparison
The question becomes "Is there anyone else like me?" This process is where we might start to understand the label "gay" or "homosexual" by hearing things on TV, seeing others, hearing snippets of conversations, or even getting teased. Others say something that helps us "click" into a new level of understanding. A lot of this stage is about coping with feeling alone or coping because we lack the information. This stage is about getting enough information.

Stage 3 - Identity Tolerance
In this stage, there is a sense of initial self-recognition where we can say "I probably am gay." The internal denial decreases, but I don't interact much with those around because I'm so "different." This is the classic "in the closet stage" where I act straight to create a "mask" and hide part of myself. It is also a stage where a person will react negatively to certain stereotypes saying, "I'm not like them." "Them" are the stereotypes which might be the leather community, the drag community or the "fems." In this stage, the internalized stereotypes have the most negative impact on the individual's coming out process. Getting through this stage is about confronting and challenging the internal messages.

Stage 4 - Identity Acceptance
Finding other gay men and women as friends and role models is important. This was difficult for older generations; in my opinion in-school groups and TV images makes this easier now. Those individuals fortunate enough to have access to support groups and/or social events often experience a sense of self-acceptance. Guys start to ask, "How do I want to live my life as a gay man."

Stages 5 - Identity Pride
In this stage, there is a sense of "this is who I am." The pride of being gay starts to show, and the disclosure to others is a commonplace occurrence. In some people, the pride even becomes militant: 'I'm here, I'm queer, deal with it." There is sometimes a rejection of the "straight" world: "I only want to be with people like me."

Stages 6 - Identity Synthesis
Being gay in this stage is simply part of my life. Individuals move from a "them and us" mentality into an acceptance of the similarities between the heterosexual and homosexual worlds. We are all dealing with life issues that are more similar than different: Is my job secure? How am I happy in the world? What's important to me? How do I find someone I love? And believe it or not, the relationship issues are more similar than different. We are all striving for intimacy.

I want to restate this; it's important to keep in mind that we don't all move through this process at the same speed. The men and women at earlier stages in this process aren't helped by "pushing" them through it faster no matter how well intended you are. They have to take it at their own pace.

What does help is to honestly answer their questions and to not judge them for not fully embracing it. What can help is to share your coming out process. Whether it was a good experience or not others reading them may find themselves in a similar situation and use your example as a means to make it easier for themselves. Hopefully they will share their story with others, which in turn will help to make their journey easier.

What's your story?

BDSM, Abuse and Sexual Identity

I have a question pertaining to BDSM and sexual orientation. I am a straight male who has on some occasions fantasizes about being submissive to a dominate, older man. I don't look at men in a sexual way. I am never attracted sexually to a man be it on the street, gym, in school, or wherever. I am very attracted to women and I currently am in a healthy heterosexual relationship. However, these fantasies are very confusing to me. If I am not gay, or attracted to men, why do I have these fantasies? My father was a strict disciplinarian, where being tied up and spanked naked as a child was the norm if I miss behaved. Could this stem from this? I need help and I thank you for your time.

My response:

This is a very complex question raising a number of issues. I don’t think I can answer your question with any sense of finality. As a starting point, I would have you think about the following three issues.

1) BDSM is separate from sexual orientation. Why do you like BDSM? Part of that answer appears to be the concept of submission, and what can be more submissive than a straight man submitting to another man. I would guess that the act of submission is the turn-on, regardless of the gender of the partner. In the fantasy you highlight the ultimate submission a guy can experience.
2) Not every sex act between two guys means the person is gay. There are many circumstances where a “straight” guy will have sex with another guy. A colleague highlights 20 reasons here: Included in his list are examples that parallel in your fantasy.
3) The question about your abuse history does warrant further review. I don’t think the abuse is why you like BDSM. Rather because of the enjoyment of humiliation, you start to remember past experiences where you were humiliated including the abuse you describe. Given my limited understanding of your history, I highlight that this is speculation at this point. I would encourage you to work with a therapist on this issue.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why do people cheat?

Why do people cheat?

The recent post on “Do all gay men cheat?” resulted in a cross section of great responses. In summarizing the conversation, I highlight three themes from the conversation.

Cheating is not limited to gay men.
The phenomenon of cheating is not limited to gay men as I was reminded in the conversation.

What is cheating depends on the rules of the relationship.
The responses highlight how many individuals successfully negotiated relationship guidelines and expectations.

Monogamy remains a strong expression and desire.
The key for monogamy is an open and honest conversation between partners regarding their interests, desires and hopes in the relationship.

A follow up to the question of “Do gay men cheat” is the question “why do people cheat.” As you might expect, there is no easy answer. The answer parallels why do people have sex. A recent journal article identified 237 reasons why a person may have sex. After analyzing the data, their research identified four groups of reasons of why people have sex.

Physical reasons
The guy is looking for some type of physical payoff. This can include getting off, but it can be about seeking different experiences. Another theme is that the other sexual partner is physically desirable. Finally, there are physical payoffs such as stress reduction or boredom that leads to sexual behavior.

Goal attainment
In some cases, people have sex to obtain a goal. Sexual behavior is a means to an end. This might be around survival sex (I need a place to live.) It can include the “badge of honor” when a person can brag “I had sex with him.” In some cases, it is about getting revenge. Finally, it is about getting resources such as money or drugs.

Emotional reasons
For many people, sexual behavior is about love and commitment. It is the expression of intimacy shared between two individuals. In our society, monogamy emphasizes this reason for having sex. The lack of a satisfying emotional relationship may lead to sexual contact outside the primary relationship. To be fair, in some cases, the emotional connection isn’t limited to monogamous sexual relationships.

Insecurity reasons
The final cluster of reasons people have sex is around insecurity/self-esteem. “I feel so insecure, I will have sex with anyone.” “Or, this hot guy wants me.” “I couldn’t so no.” I may also think that I have to have sex because it is expected. The recent blog on dating myths highlights how expectations play into dating and sexual behavior.

Why do you think people cheat? If you cheated, why do you think you did?

How do I know I'm straight or Sexual Identity Development for all.

Identity is a statement “this is who I am.” In the process of clarifying identity, individuals go through a process of reviewing aspects of their lives sorting through events responding “like-me/not like me.” While this is an oversimplification, identify development is the attempt to both define and understand who we are. Obviously this also occurs in the area of sexuality. Previous blog entries highlight the sexual identity development for LGBT individuals, but there an interactive process that everyone goes through in forming their understanding of their sexual self. The purpose of this entry is to summarize this process and the tasks that everyone addresses in forming sexual identity.

The process consists of five dimensions.
1) Unexplored commitment reflects the fact that many people simply don’t think about the topic of sexuality.
2) Active exploration refers to the process of seeking information regarding sexuality. This dimension addresses the six tasks below. The person actively seeks information via the Internet, therapy, friends, family, society, etc.
3) Diffusion reflects a time of struggle and confusion. “What I thought I know is no longer the case.” This is a time of rejecting social norms about what I should be, and a time of exploration sometimes through trial and error.
4) Deepening and commitment of the identification of the individual’s likes and dislikes and an increased level of comfort with the self. For many people who identify of “straight” this may be occur without the exploration and diffusion dimensions.
5) Synthesis is a process of integration of all aspects of the self. There is an internal congruence between the self, values, behaviors, likes and dislikes. There is also an integration of the sexual identity with all other aspects of the person’s life including gender, racial, religious, and familial.

During the process, all individuals need to address the following 6 tasks.

1) What are my sexual needs?
Sexual needs are defined as a desire, appetite, biological necessity, impulses, interest, and/or libido with respect to sex. How much sex do I want, what are my levels of interest, etc.
2) What are my sexual values?
Sexual values are defined as moral evaluations, judgments, and/or standards about what is appropriate, acceptable, desirable, and innate sexual behavior.
3) What do I like?
I need to know what behaviors I like to engage in relating to or based on sexual attraction, sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or reproduction (e.g., fantasy, holding hands, kissing, masturbation, sexual intercourse).
4) Who do I like?
I need to figure out what are the physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, economic, spiritual, or other attributes of a sexual partner.
5) How do I let others know?
This involves my skills in letting others know I’m interested. This can include verbal or nonverbal communication, and direct and indirect signals (e.g., flirting, eye contact, touching, vocal quality, compliments, suggestive body movements or postures).
6) How do I label myself.?
This is related, but different from “who do I like.” “Who do I like” refers to the attractions, but sexual orientation identity is how I define myself. This is self-defined, whether or not it is shared with others. Examples include heterosexual, straight, bicurious, bi/straight, heteroflexible, pansexual, kink, questioning, bisexual, gay, lesbian, and queer, among others.

For more information see:
Worthington R., Bielstein Savoy, H., Dillon F., & Vernaglia, E. (2002) Heterosexual Identity Development: A Multidimensional Model of Individual and Social Identity The Counseling Psychologist 30; 496 DOI: 10.1177/00100002030004002