Analysis: How the AASECT Sex Addiction Statement Was Created

An insider's perspective of AASECT's sex addiction statement

Posted Nov 30, 2016

Group meeting, labeled for reuse, Pixabay
Source: Group meeting, labeled for reuse, Pixabay

On November 29,  2016, the Association of Sex Educators, Counselor and Therapists (AASECT) released  a historic position statement on sex addiction.  Briefly, AASECT does not find enough evidence to endorse the sex addiction model and does not find sex addiction training to be informed by adequate knowledge of human sexuality. Please note, sex addiction is a very controversial topic, and is a subject of heated debate in both the sexological and sex addiction communities. (The complete statement is found below.)

I am proud to have been associated with both the creation of this statement and a previous statement that AASECT released, which depathologized all consensual sexual behaviors. The creation of this statement was the byproduct of many years of careful deliberation and scientific inquiry on the part of the organization. For more on AASECT's history on this subject, I refer you to Russell Stambaugh's detailed synopsis here. In many ways, from my own subjective lens, what I found most integral to the process was the level of seriousness of purpose with which AASECT approached its task. 

I would like to think I had something to do with the momentum created to tackle the issue of sex addiction through my own advocacy efforts, which resulted in the first statement on non-normative sexual behaviors (mentioned above). However, I think it is important to remember that a significant number of organizational developments came together to bring AASECT to a decision to release a statement on sex addiction, many of which I may not even be aware of, so the crux of this article will focus on the creation of the first statement. I thought a number of individuals might find it interesting to learn about the behind the scenes nuts and bolts process of how that statement was formed. In the process, I hope to inform and educate on how organizational change can occur in short time from the inside out, in the hope that this process (or at least mode of thinking) may be replicated in future advocacy efforts.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that this narrative is my own subjective experience, and so places me as the central character in the story arc. A number of individuals were instrumental in this process, and I will give credit to as many of them as I can in this article, but again, I can only speak from my own subjective lens. Also, I want to make clear that I am writing this article for my loyal readers, who have often asked me to give them some more personal information on my thought process in terms of how I approach my work, both as a therapist and author, but specifically in this case as an activist. I am honored to be able to wear all three hats, but in some ways, being an activist is a unique and cherished role that hopefully this article will provide some further insight into.

As backstory, I've been an AASECT certified sex therapist (CST) for over 3 years. I am now beginning the process of becoming a certified sex therapy supervisor. I was a silent member of the AASECT list-serv for a number of years, even before obtaining my own certification. As a CST I went through a rigorous training process that cost a small fortune and I pay numerous dues to AASECT on a yearly basis to keep my certification. This is all important to understand the context of the subsequent series of events.

In the fall of 2014, after observing the ambivalent, even somewhat positive sentiment towards the sex addiction model within AASECT, I decided that I no longer wanted to be part of an organization that claimed to be the preeminent sexuality organization in the world, but either supported or had nothing much to officially say about the question of the sex addiction model. As a therapist, I, along with many of colleagues and peers had seen through experience that, while the sex addiction model may be helpful for some people, it was on the whole extremely destructive to clients as it often addressed sexuality concerns from a moralistic and judgmental perspective. I saw the sex addiction model as directly at odds with the sex-positive messaging that AASECT otherwise was trying to project. To me, this appeared to be the height of hypocrisy. And I had no interest in being a member of (what I perceived to be) a hypocritical organization. For more on my issues with sex addiction, you can read here and here and here.

Anyway, in the fall of 2014, I found myself at a crossroads. Either I leave an organization that I found to be deeply hypocritical or I take matters in my own hands and stir things up to create the changes I was seeking. Specifically, I wanted AASECT to finally articulate a clear and decisive position on the issue of sex addiction. As one individual with no clout within the political infrastructure of the organization, I knew that I had no other outlet for my advocacy except through the pre-existing list serv. To that point, the list serv had been a fertile ground of sex addiction debate within the organization, but it was often unproductive, devolving into a mud slinging contest.

At that point, I realized that an opportunity existed on the list serv to construct a more cohesive message that would align anti-sex addiction advocates and possibly sway the balance by bringing undecided others on board. But to do so would require some renegade, guerilla tactics that would pose some substantial risk, since they would inevitably be polarizing and expose myself to harsh criticism, with some potential damage to my reputation. Anytime you make a strong statement, you will attract allies as well as detractors.

At any rate, I decided that I was either going to go all in or go out, so I started my online advocacy efforts in the fall of 2014, with the determined purpose of changing the culture of AASECT. This involved a lot of challenging dialogue and confrontation around the issues of sex addiction. Some saw me as an intelligent champion, while others viewed me as a loose cannon. But to me, every opportunity for controversy was an opportunity to bring the sex addiction issue to the forefront. 

Advocacy language is quite different from therapeutic language.  In a therapeutic setting, I will use empathic language to work with someone who is seeking help in getting out of a stuck routine. But that kind of language doesn't work when you are dealing with individuals whose incentives are directly opposed or misaligned with yours. The sex addiction field is a lucrative industry, complete with ultra-expensive inpatient centers and so on-- does anyone honestly think that a sex addiction proponent is incentivized to undermine that model? Collaborative language is unproductive with a group that is existentially threatened by your objectives. 

So, I took a lot of heat in some quarters for my aggressive and challenging discourse, with a lot of mentions about empathic listening and so on. However, I was looking to make quick change, not wait 20 years for something to occur. To that end, I set up alerts on my phone every time there was a post on the list serv about sex addiction and deliberately sought to create provocative language that would generate as many replies as possible. The more of a circus atmosphere, the more the issue was on the forefront of the organization's mind. 

It was during one of these pile-ups, involving over 100 replies, that Alex Katehakis, a sex addiction proponent from Los Angeles stated that the sex addiction model does not pathologize non-normative sexualities such as BDSM. Seeing an opportunity to move the line, I asked her whether she would be on board to work together to craft a statement putting those exact words on paper. She agreed and we hashed out some parameters for our work process. We would each pick individuals to join our respective pro or anti sex addiction teams and we would go through several well-defined stages and drafts.

Boardroom, labeled for reuse, Flickr
Source: Boardroom, labeled for reuse, Flickr

Things started falling apart right away when the sex addiction team made it clear they would not proceed unless the term "sex addiction" was removed from the statement. At any rate, once we were done, the statement turned out to be very much watered down and removed from the initial focus on sex addiction. It's still a great statement that can be read here and it depathologized all non-normative sexual practices, which was a great start in the right direction. However, the process was difficult and messy, as it took over 6 months, involved nuanced politics and interpersonal finessing, and that's just the start of it. In the end, I felt emotionally drained. Then president Konnie McCaffree proudly announced AASECT's accomplishment on the list-serv, crediting no one in particular, and not addressing the organization's ambivalence about finally addressing the sex addiction question.

This was a deeply exhausting and complicated process for me. On one hand, the entire statement was initiated by me, on the other hand, it did not accomplish its goal and the organization continued to kick the can down the road about sex addiction. However, from my perspective, the statement did accomplish in setting the tone for future statements.

As mentioned prior, AASECT had been studying the issue of sex addiction and seeking to address it for a long time, but during this time, enough evidence starting coming in and many more voices started being heard. The discourse around sex addiction became amplified, as earnest and excited discussion arose within the organization, analyzing the pros and cons, the strength and weakness of the sex addiction model from every angle. At this time, Doug Braun-Harvey organized a summer institute to inquire further about the sex addiction narrative and included such influential speakers as David Ley, Joe Kort, and researcher Nikky Prause. Also at this time, AASECT decided internally to not allow any sex addiction training to count towards AASECT continuing education credits. 

Things were changing and quickly. Perhaps the initial position statement on non-normative sexualities had indeed pushed the organization forward. Over the summer, Debby Herbenick took over as AASECT President and installed Ian Kerner as chair of the Public Relations, Media and Advocacy Committee, the very committee that would oversee any future position statements. With so much creative energy and discussion centered around the issue of sex addiction, and seeing my previous work, Ian contacted me over the summer and asked for me to lead a work group finally addressing the sex addiction question. I had told Ian that I was wiped out by the initial statement and he reassured me that we had the support of the organization's leadership, particularly president Debby Herbenick, to finally address the sex addiction model in a serious and deliberate manner. So, it was a go and we had the green light to finally put our collective heads together and put out a statement worthy of the collective ideas and wisdom of AASECT membership . Please note: the statement had to go in front of the Board of Directors, so the final decision was not up to Dr. Herbenick.

Over the summer, Ian brought Doug Braun-Harvey on board and then we filled out by adding Russell Stambaugh and Michael Vigorito. Doug and Michael are both pioneers and champions of the Out of Control Sexual Behavior (OCSB) model. We created a draft over about a month's time in September. It was smooth sailing as we all worked very well as a team and we had the dynamic viewpoints of numerous individuals generated by the fervent discussions of the Summer Institute as our core starting point. Doug is a good organizer. Russell is a grizzled vet, with a wide perspective and a wide array of ideas to boot. Michael is very precise and excellent for refining ideas. And I bring an added boost of energy.

Once we had our statement we needed to branch out from our insular group and get feedback from a larger AASECT cohort in order to obtain more buy-in and to refine our ideas. This was a tricky part, since this was the exact place where the first statement fell into chaos due to an influx of a multitude of disparate opinions seeking to shape the statement, and without any organizing process in place to keep the team on track. I advised our group to send the statement to only a small group of handpicked individuals, three per person, and to carefully define the parameters of involvement. To make a long story short, some people decided not to participate, but overall the response was enthusiastic and helped to shape and streamline our statement. We made it tighter, more concise, and more powerful. The rest is history, it went through a bunch of committees, with some slight hiccups, until it finally arrived in front of the Board of Directors on Fri Nov 18, at which point it was approved in a unanimous vote.

I would like to thank everyone involved in this process including, but not limited to: Debby Herbenick, Ian Kerner, Doug Braun-Harvey, Michael Vigorito, Russell Stambaugh, David Ley, Melissa Novak, Heather McPherson, Neil Cannon, Natasha Parker, Susan Wright, Reece Malone, Ricky Siegel, Anna Randall and Richelle Frabotta (who was instrumental in the first position statement).

Also props to my fellow list serv agitators including David Hersh, Roger Libby, Buster, Ross, Charles Moser and Larry Siegel. 

I'm sorry if I missed anyone.

The statement, once again, below:

AASECT Position Statement - Sex Addiction

Founded in 1967, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) is devoted to the promotion of sexual health by the development and advancement of the fields of sexual education, counseling and therapy. With this mission, AASECT accepts the responsibility of training, certifying and advancing high standards in the practice of sexuality education services, counseling and therapy. When contentious topics and cultural conflicts impede sexual education and health care, AASECT may publish position statements to clarify standards to protect consumer sexual health and sexual rights.

AASECT recognizes that people may experience significant physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual health consequences related to their sexual urges, thoughts or behaviors. AASECT recommends that its members utilize models that do not unduly pathologize consensual sexual problems. AASECT 1) does not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder, and 2) does not find the sexual addiction training and treatment methods and educational pedagogies to be adequately informed by accurate human sexuality knowledge. Therefore, it is the position of AASECT that linking problems related to sexual urges, thoughts or behaviors to a porn/sexual addiction process cannot be advanced by AASECT as a standard of practice for sexuality education delivery, counseling or therapy.

AASECT advocates for a collaborative movement to establish standards of care supported by science, public health consensus and the rigorous protection of sexual rights for consumers seeking treatment for problems related to consensual sexual urges, thoughts or behaviors.

About the Author

Michael Aaron, Ph.D., LCSW, CST, is a nationally certified sex therapist and clinical sexologist.

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