Sexual Values: One Therapist’s Provisional Set
In the United States when the word “values” is used in the media, it is often being used by people with conservative religious or political values as a code word for “the way people who look like me and think like me do things and the way I want you to do things”. But in my experience values are community and individual standards that we aspire to maintain and which we use to guide our behavior. I think that liberal thinkers are less comfortable using the word “values” because they are justifiably cautious about how my “values” can be imposed on others as a source of discrimination, exclusion, and oppression.
However, as a therapist, I find a discussion about values to be very important. Because I am cautious about the power dynamics inherent in the therapeutic relationship, it is very important for me to have an open conversation with you about your values. For example, if you are calling for “sex addiction” (a term that is not very useful clinically) it is important to me to find out whether and how your sexual behavior is in line with or out of line with your values. Once I understand your values, I can provide treatment that is respectful of those values.
Of course, I have my own biases that I bring with me to every therapy session. Though I can aim toward objectivity (itself a value) I can never truly be free of my biases. As I enter into a treatment relationship with you, our values enter a dialogue. I try to remain cautious of the risks of unconsciously imposing my values on you while we enter that dialogue.
One of the best ways that I know of to prevent that potential harm is to be conscious of my values and how they inform the care that I give you. So, over the years I have identified my 4 core sexual values that guide both my own behavior and that inform my clinical practice. They are Consent, Sustainability, Adaptability, Generativity, and Attachment. In the next 5 blog entries, I will discuss each of these values in turn and the values I have discarded. I will explain them, how to use them with clients, and how I hope that they are sensitive to a vast array of sexually diverse identities, practices, and feelings. Before those entries, I want to explain why I would choose to use a set of values at all given the risks. There are 4 main reasons that I hold and share these values:
- For clients: Values can guide you toward health instead of simply guiding you away from pathology. In my experience, I have found a positive goal to be a much more beneficial way to help clients reach their sexual expression goals in treatment than to focus more on what the clients don’t want to do. If you already know your sexual values you wouldn’t need to hear mine as part of your treatment. But if you find that something in your sexual behavior isn’t working for you, maybe hearing my values can help you articulate your values.Another important benefit for clients of a values conversation is that sometimes the values are the problem. If your values cause you shame, but your behavior isn’t a problem, it can help the treatment for us to begin a values dialogue instead of having an unproductive conversation where I tell you to just stop feeling shame.
- For colleagues: If it is helpful for me to be aware of these values and to consider them in treatment for clients, they may also benefit my colleagues. And, if my colleagues see flaws in these values as they might be applied to clients, I hope they will offer me that guidance.
- For myself: I welcome and invite feedback so that my values can be challenged by readers. If I am missing some way that these values might either inhibit my own health or might incline me towards oppressing others, I can receive feedback and challenge or change these values.
- The value of values: Though it is important to be cautious about the potential harm that values can cause if we impose them on others, values seem important to me. Especially in the cultural landscape of the 21st century where we have an ever-increasing exposure to sexual materials, an expanding range of sexual behaviors available to us, and a morphing set of expectations for our sexual relationships, values can help us make choices from among these options that can help us feel authentic, integrated, and that can help us maintain our relationships (sexual and otherwise). Furthermore, the sexual ethics that we espouse allow our communities to recognize what to expect from our behavior. Our values form a ground upon which we make commitments (sexual, romantic, or otherwise) to our community members. Our values allow our communities to hold us accountable and to help us when we do not succeed in practicing our values.
I imagine that some readers may be wary of this discussion. The history of marginalization, judgment, oppression, shaming around sexual issues is so vast, that a discussion about values will almost necessarily raise fears among marginalized populations of many kinds. I hope that you will find that I hold them as ideas for consideration and interpretation, not proscriptive decisions about how I think other people should behave. The values are concepts that I have my own interpretations of and when I share them with you I invite you to discern whether this is a value we share or not. When it is not shared, then I invite you to articulate an alternate value (to clarify your values in contrast to mine). When it is a shared value, I encourage you to interpret it on your own and to decide what that means to you about your behavior. I hope this description about how I use the values decreases fears about harm, and I would understand if it did not.
Some readers, especially my professional colleagues, may be wondering what the evidence base for this value set is. There is no research evidence for this value set. I do not believe that it needs to be evidence-based. Science is a very powerful tool for discerning and understanding what exists in the world. It can help us develop a wide variety of technologies but it does not answer for us whether or not we ought to use those technologies. Our values and our ethics guide those decisions. While our ethics can be informed by science, but our ethics help us make choices from the range of scientifically possible options. So, you will find that these values are biased and based on personal choices. They are informed by a deeper set of values that I hold like compassion, nonviolence, honoring diversity, and respect for nature. I hope that they are of service.
Other posts in this series:
Editor’s Note 05/24/2017: Since writing this series, I have updated the principles that I use to guide therapy for sexual issues. For an updated view, see this post on Sexual Health Principles.