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Reflections on the 1st Annual Alt Sex NYC Conference

Why it is so important to support altsex communities with research.

We have just wrapped up the 1st Annual AltSex NYC Conference, which was held last Fri April 22, and after a week of reflection, I think it is appropriate to start off this new blog with a bang, by going over the highlights and implications of this historic event.

AltSex NYC Conference, used with permission
Source: AltSex NYC Conference, used with permission

For those who may be unfamiliar, the AltSex NYC Conference is a one-day event (which I created and co-produced with my colleague Dulcinea Pitagora) that provides a platform for leading academics, clinicians, and community activists to present their ground-breaking work in the realm of alternative sexualities. The words 'alternative sexualities' is an umbrella term, under which any non-normative sexual expression may be filed, including BDSM and kink, polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy (CNM), as well as non-binary expressions of gender and orientation.

In my view this is not a niche subject area, since our sexuality is so embedded in our personal identity, and because as research shows, (such as this study on the fetishistic interests of Quebeckers) many (perhaps most?) people practice at least one form of "alternative" sexual behavior or another. Indeed, because of both its prevalence and its stigma, the study of alternative sexuality is at the frontier of the intersection of psychology, sociology, sexology, and social justice work.

One of the most common questions I had been asked leading up to the conference was why create an event that included both academic, clinicians, and community members all in the same space. For many, this idea seemed absurd. For them, scientific research should be in its solo, with clinical practice in its own separate space, and members of the community, well I guess they should just stay in the dungeon where they belong.

But as I shared with several members of the media covering the event, in my mind, research, clinical practice, and community identity go hand in hand. In fact, they absolutely must go hand in hand and inform each other. In other words, these three categories are in fact interdependent on each other. However, these worlds rarely collide. Scientific research is rarely read by anyone and is hidden behind exorbitantly expensive paywalls. And even if the research could be obtained, it is often written in such a language as to be either incomprehensible or snooze-worthy for the average reader. When research does trickle down, it is often found through sensationalistic social media posts and tweets that often may not accurately represent the methodology or conclusions of the research.

As a result, most clinicians who work on the front lines with clients are not even aware of the most recent literature, often working in a vacuum of ignorance with sexual minorities-- a vacuum that is often filled with personal biases and social mores rather than informed evidence and empirical data. This unfortunate paradigm trickles down to community members themselves, who often face social stigma not only from their more "vanilla" peers, but also by medical and mental health professionals who may rush to pathologize due to blind spots and gaps in their own knowledge. Community members themselves may carry a tinge of some internalized shame due to lack of access to informed research that provides evidence in support of depathologizing their sexual interests and behaviors, even in spite of community participation and support.

Just as solid research helped the psychiatric community remove homosexuality as a disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 1973, so too does solid research today carry an important role in changing public policy, informing medical and mental health practice, and providing additional support to stigmatized communities. And this is where the 1st Annual AltSex NYC Conference comes in. By combining these previously disconnected silos, it is my hope to create an even broader coalition of professionals and lay persons, centered in the biggest city in the US, New York City, from which we can discuss and coalesce around new information, disseminate it as far and wide as possible, and build a conduit for collaboration and sharing of information between science, the medical and mental health professionals that work with the public, and the public itself.

In future articles, I will discuss some of my own research in these areas, as well as my analysis of other new research coming to the forefront. As someone who is both a researcher and a frequent commentator in the media (such as these comments on the Joyal/Quebec research for Reuters), I hope to combine a grounding in science with the ability to easily convey it to lay audiences. Kind of like what I have tried to do with the AltSex NYC Conference. With over 150 attendees and tremendous feedback, I think it was a rousing success.

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