Why are therapists down on alternative sex?

Therapist's biases prevent alternative relationships from getting help.

Posted Jun 10, 2010

Why are therapists down on open and alternative marriages? Multiple studies conducted over the past few decades show that therapists and the mental health field in general have negative and judgmental views of any marriages that are not centered around an assumption of monogamy. When asked, such therapists predict failure for said relationships, and automatically attribute the desire and motivation for nonmonogamy to a history of pathology, typically sexual abuse. People who approach therapists and are involved in swinging, polyamory or open marriages are most often met with incredulity and scorn. Why?

(Here's a dirty little secret. Back in the seventies, at the same time that research was being done that showed that therapists have very negative views of open marriage, other research showed that the rates of therapists who were living open marriages was far higher than the general population. We therapists can be such hypocrites.)

I believe strongly that the bias against such relationships comes from a core ignorance about the level of variance in normal human sexuality, compounded by a cultural bias. The great majority of therapists receive an astonishingly minimal training in human sexuality. Fewer than a third of medical schools provide training in human sexuality. What consistent training there is in sexuality is typically only focused on the negative aspects, and pathology. So, what does that mean for the therapists? It means they are reacting based upon their own subjective experiences and values. "Would I do that? Could I do that?" If the answer is yes, then the patient's behavior is normal and healthy. If the answer is no, then patient is abnormal and unhealthy. Kinsey said it best - the definition of a nymphomaniac is somebody who has more sex than the therapist. He also said that the average size of the human penis, as calculated by research, will ALWAYS be half an inch shorter than the length of the lead researcher's penis (assuming that researcher is male. Maybe female researchers are the way to overcome that bias and generate reliable results).

The other bias is cultural. I always laugh when people talk about "traditional marriage." Traditional marriage is polygamy, the most common form of relationship through history, accepted in 83% of all historical cultures. Kings David and Solomon had how many wives in the Bible? Also, there is a tragically blind and ethnocentric assumption that the Western traditions are best, in complete absence of any data to support that assumption. The divorce rate in the US is continuing to climb, where only heterosexual monogamous marriage is legal. What's the divorce rate in the mountains of Tibet, where polyandry is still practiced? How about the jungles of South America, where various forms of group marriages and open marriages are still practiced? Polygamy in African and the Middle East? Are there healthy, stable relationships possible in these cultures? Even if half of all nonmonogamous marriages end up dissolving, that only puts them on par with heterosexual, monogamous mariage. Where do therapists get off imposing their own uninformed values on their clients?

I've seen multiple women and men who have shared that they have not told their doctors or therapists about their alternative sexual relationships, due to fear of condemnation, or due to the rejection they've already experienced when they were open about their marriages. What this then results in is a sample bias. The clinicians see only those couples who cannot kept their lifestyles secret, or who come in for some other unrelated pathology. The clinicians do not see the many folks who do not need or want treatment, and who are leading normal healthy lives. Until we have greater levels of understanding about the wide ranges of human sexual expression, and better training and education of therapists about this range of sexual expression, the mental health field will continue to apply values and assumptions, rather than evidence-based treatment.

There are listings online, at Polychromatic, and Kink Aware Professionals, for people to find clinicians who are willing to suspend their bias and judgment, and let their clients tell them what they need help with.

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