President’s Letter – August 2018

Summer Institute

As I write this first column as AASECT President, I am emerging from four intense, rewarding days at AASECT’s 2018 Summer Institute, Decentering the Norm: Social Justice Transformations in Sex Therapy, Counseling and Education. Participants, presenters and organizers left the Institute with this consensus: We need to expand our work beyond trying to help heal only individuals, couples, and families.  We need to embrace work as change agents in our communities. Would it be too much to claim that until we all can expect social justice, none of us will experience the freedom and affirmation needed to optimize sexual health?

Chris Donaghue, PhD, CST, LMFT, author, international speaker, sex positive activist, this Institute’s co-director, first of seven presenters, opened the program pacing up and down Brown Lounge, our large meeting hall at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work. He shared his alarm, inviting: “Therapists, counselors, educators, put activism into your practices. Don’t stop treating at the micro level. Times are extreme. The fields of psychology and sexology have always been preoccupied with control and normalizing. But today the mind, body, and sexuality for many are rightly recognized as sites of political and human rights struggle for survival. We must give up trying to heal by leading clients to adapt to the status quo. Mental illness needs to be treated culturally. We must align ourselves with people struggling with stigma, violence, annihilation and recognize their panic, anger, and sexual problems not as simply personal problems but as symptoms of social injustice. Encouraging clients to “adjust” psychologically may be a form of oppression that teaches somatic dissociation. ‘Normal’ is not the goal. The goal is to end the trauma of forcing diverse clients into mental health models not made for them, that erase their unique ways of being and reacting to the world they live in.”

“Can we create a revised vision for sexual-relational health?” Dr. Donaghue asked?

Echoing, answering and amplifying, other presenters riffed on defining “queer sexual health,” the rejection of normativity, revising sex norms created by patriarchy, and more. Attendees participated actively with questions, comments, and expansion.

Dalychia Saah presented on liberation, asking, “What does liberation feel like to you? When do you experience it?” For some, answers stuck in throats as the reality of never having had the privilege of experiencing liberation struck home.

 “Queer sex” was conceptualized as including erotic expressions of people with disabilities. Shanna Katz Kattari, Assistant Professor at University of Michigan’s School of Social Work asked, “How can disability result in expanding sexual knowledge and skill?” Clips of Sins Invalid, the work of San Francisco performance artists with disabilities, stretched ablest notions of “beauty” and “attraction.”  Dr Kattari discussed how improvising around bodies and minds that work differently can expose limitations of what Abby Wilkerson calls in her eponymous article “Normate Sex”—penetration-, orgasm-, performance-focused routines.

Somatic experience was a fascinating focus Keiko Lane added. With case studies and stories, she showed the harmony that can result when people share similar levels of compatible interaction—and what can happen when they conflict: How do bodies align in terms of levels of activation and discharge? If we are not similarly organized somatically, connection may be elusive.

Kendra Holliday described her work as a sex surrogate partner aiming to help inexperienced, inhibited, and clients with disabilities feel sexy and brave. 

Brad Lewis, M.D., movingly discussed “sanism,” the problem of considering mental illness a pathology rather than a healthy reaction to a culture’s trauma, stress, and heartache. 

Jamilia Dawson spoke passionately on relational practices of power, pleasure, and imagination in sex therapy.

Finally, each day ended with a process group, integrating what we learned and sharing what we wondered.  Prem Pahwa, LCSW, CST, PESC Chair and Institute Co-director, led these with sensitivity, kindness, and compassion.

Themes for AASECT’s Future

I hope I have given you at least a glimpse of the liberation therapy, counseling, and education the Institute explored and AASECT as an organization will be pursuing as the new Board continues priorities introduced by members and leadership over the past six or so years.

AASECT’s current initiatives include the work of a Task Force to better define and expand training opportunities for AASECT Providers, the work of a new Strategic Planning Committee to pursue social and cultural changes needed to keep us relevant and focused on social justice into the next decade, and outreach efforts to expand diversity and increase the number of counselors and educators in our membership, and to improve member benefits.

Please share your ideas and questions with new board members.  The more communication, the more we all learn, the richer our work together.  I am looking forward to these next two years meeting more and more fellow AASECT supporters.

Thanks for all the help so many of you have already given me!


Susan Stiritz, PhD, MSW, MBA, CSE, CSES


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