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Guest post: Legitimizing Alternative Sexualities in Psychology by Emily Matthews

Posted in Guest Bloggers, Polyamory, and Sex & Relationships

I recently helped a member of my heart-family get help for severe depression. One of her fears was that her lifestyle choices would be rejected by her counselors. Though they have all been supportive, this is an important issue to polyamorous people, kinksters, and anyone else who doesn’t fit into the mainstream. 

Emily Matthews contacted me around the same time to propose this guest post — great timing and such a worthy topic.

Emily Matthews, writer for and guest blogger on Approximately 8,000 Words. Photo by Mo Riza.

Etymologically speaking, psychology means “the study of the soul.” But some souls just don’t get the same study, it seems. The lack of knowledge of alternative lifestyles within the psychological community frequently discourages those outside the mainstream from pursuing mental health care. Many have reported that their therapists have diagnosed polyamory as the source of all problems, instead of divorcing the relationship model from unrelated issues.

As Charlie Glickman noted, all too often, professionals advise a distressed patient to adopt a more traditional relationship pattern, though in a conventional relationship they would never think to blame monogamy for tension or a breakup. The Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS) is looking to change that.

CARAS was created in 2005 to increase research into alternative sexualities in masters degree programs and other academics. CARAS seeks to change the information available to psychology professionals, so that their education will include positive viewpoints on kink and polyamory, among other non-mainstream sexualities. CARAS’ goal is to document these alternative communities more fully, so that groups that had previously been marginalized will become legitimized in the mainstream, increasing acceptance in all aspects of life.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing, author of Psychothia Sexualis (1886), one of many psychologists who pathologized any sexuality that didn't match his own. Can groups like CARAS change this?

Their research model is based on of Evelyn Hooker’s studies into homosexual men. Her findings in the seventies helped convince the American Psychological Association (APA) to permanently remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders in 1986. The group hopes that their research, like Hooker’s, will provide objective information to the psychological community that will help polyamorous people receive equal treatment from therapists and the world at large.

Thus far, they’ve been pretty successful – the APA granted CARAS authority to train professional counselors to have a more open mind in regards to sexuality. This acceptance by the APA indicates a narrowing divide between viewpoints on traditional and alternative lifestyles. CARAS recently held its fourth annual Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities in Washington DC, focusing on cultural knowledge, clinical problems and an overview of new research into polyamory and kink sexuality. Events like this one are instrumental in providing inroads between researchers and those who practice polyamory.

Opening communication between the academic world and the private world is difficult but, in the long-term, is the only reliable means by which those outside the lifestyle will gain enough access to understand it. Hopefully, the work of CARAS and similar groups will help increase knowledge in the professional world in order to promote better mental health care for those who are frightened of being, as Kit put it, “pathologized” for their lifestyle without attention paid to whether these sexual practices cause harm.

Of course, the fight for equal rights in the polyamory community is far from over. But increased education and support for groups interested in legitimizing sexual identities outside of heterosexual monogamy will help pave the road for future generations of consensual non-monogamy.

Emily Matthews is currently applying to masters degree programs across the U.S., and loves to read about new research into health care, gender issues, and literature. She lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.

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