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I Signed Up To Study Sexual Health. What I got Was Gender Ideology, Fetishism, and Porn


I am not a conspiracy theorist. And as recently as a year and a half ago, if someone had told me the things I am reporting here, I would have accused them of paranoia. That was before I enrolled in a professional training program that I’d hoped would expand my skills as a therapist, but instead delivered an extreme form of ideological indoctrination.

The Sexual Health Certificate Program (SHCP) is a prestigious University of Michigan program conducted in affiliation with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). As someone who recently studied in the program, I can attest that, notwithstanding whatever mission AASECT once had, it now operates largely as a de facto activist group that seeks to reshape our standards for mental healthcare and education, and limit the rights of parents to make decisions about their children.

And no, I am not an extreme social conservative complaining about the failure of these organizations to support “abstinence only” sex education. Nor do I object to teaching kids that it’s okay to be gay or bisexual. The agenda of AASECT now extends far beyond those old debates, and into an overlapping set of doctrines that encompass gender, violent BDSM subcultures, polyamory, pornography, and intersectionality. It is focused not on teaching scientifically verified knowledge or responsible clinical practices, but on imposing an orthodox set of beliefs about sexuality.

To be specific, AASECT’s program teaches:

  • that self-defined gender identity should dictate a person’s status in law, while biological sex is all but meaningless;
  • that any supposed differences between boys and girls are culturally imposed artifacts or labels applied to humans at birth;
  • that incorporating violence into sexual play is normal, healthy, and fun;
  • that children questioning their gender identity should be given easy access to pubertal suppressants and cross-sex hormones—both of which, they claim, carry little to no risk—whether their parents support such steps or not;
  • that polyamorous sexual relationships are just as rewarding, sustainable, and healthy as monogamy;
  • that “sex work” is just another kind of legitimate career aspiration;
  • that not only is the use of pornography normal and healthy, but that the refusal to use pornography is unrealistic, and even pathological;
  • that discussion of the conceiving and raising of children is, at best, peripheral to the study of sexuality; and, at worst, a relic of patriarchal and heteronormative systems of oppression;
  • that personal religious or moral beliefs that would limit consenting sexual activity are harmful, and tantamount to “sex negativity”;
  • that the most important lens through which to view any situation, including those involving sex, is the lens of power and oppression—a worldview rooted, academically, in Critical Theory and, politically, in faddish doctrines connected to social justice;
  • and, perhaps most importantly, that all of the foregoing is to be encoded in the system of pedagogy transmitted to children, at the earliest possible age.

Many (though not all) of these ideas can be sourced to what some call “gender ideology,” a loosely defined set of beliefs that rest on the premise that all of us have an inherent, soul-like gender identity that transcends biological reality. Gender ideology also presents the idea of man and woman as a “false binary,” and replaces the reality of human sexual dimorphism with a “spectrum”-based construct. Until enrolling in this program, I had never even heard the term gender ideology, nor known that this sort of fringe belief system was taught at reputable schools. My experience shows how a process of radicalization has permitted this view to spread within rarified professional subcultures without much in the way of public notice.

When I signed up for the University of Michigan’s unique, year-long “Sexual Health Certificate Program” (SHCP), however, I truly did believe the experience would be both professionally and intellectually rewarding. I care about sexuality. I know that it is a fundamental component of the human search for joy and meaning. As a Michigan-based psychotherapist and Licensed Professional Counselor, I wanted to deepen my understanding of sexuality, and become better equipped to provide care for the many clients who come to me with issues related to sexual health. The American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists sounded like the perfect fit for me, and the idea of becoming an AASECT-certified Sex Therapist appealed to me. I applied and was accepted for the 2019-2020 cohort. When I showed up, my class included participants from around the world—including Iceland, Egypt, Lebanon, and China—just as you’d expect at the kind of high-value, authoritative program that we all believed we’d signed up for.

The doubts started to creep in early, though—on day one, to be exact. Our first classroom module was titled “Sexual Attitude Reassessment.” I amused myself with the thought that this sounded like an unsettling euphemism for a brainwashing session. Sadly, that’s what it was.

It quickly became clear that the issue of sexuality—the ostensible subject—often would serve merely as a pretext for more general harangues about society, and the urgent need to remake it according to AASECT’s ideological blueprint. In a keynote lecture entitled “Why Fetishism Matters,” the speaker argued that the world we inhabit is socially constructed, and told us (with what now seems like admirable candor), “I’m not neutral. I’m here to recruit you to a particular point of view about how kink should be valued.” The same speaker said that he’d been accused of teaching students that any form of sexual behavior is acceptable as long as there is consent from all parties. “Yes, that’s exactly right,” he said. Clearly, our attitude “reassessment” was well underway.

From the get-go, the scientific content was mostly superficial, and was often undercut by claims that the very idea of truth is a harmful (and even oppressive) construct. The teaching was not so much impartial and informative as it was evangelistic. Yet it was also self-contradictory: Declarations that there are no real “correct” moral values were uttered (without irony) alongside absolutist proclamations about the correct way to understand sex—and morality.

As I learned, “Sexual Attitude Reassessment” (SAR) is an established term in the field, one that is often used to describe curriculum content that serves to educate sexual-health professionals about the wide range of sexual experiences that they may encounter among clients. The object is to ensure they won’t be shocked when such encounters occur, and to invite them to reassess their judgments and assumptions about various expressions of sexuality. These are valid and important goals. Unfortunately, the SAR in the SHCP descended into an exercise in overstimulation and desensitization—specifically, two full days of pornographic videos and interviews. At times, it felt like the famous brainwashing scene from A Clockwork Orange. There was a series of videos of people masturbating (one of which involved a strange interaction with a cat), a woman with “objectiphilia” who had a sexual attraction to her church pipe organ, various sadomasochistic acts, and a presentation on polyamory designed to make it clear that the polyamorous lifestyle is healthy, wholesome, and problem-free.

BDSM was a particular fixation throughout the program. In the SAR, we were shown videos of a woman meticulously applying genital clamps to the scrotum of a willing man, and a dominatrix teaching a class how to properly beat people while demonstrating on an eager participant. We also watched an interview with a sex-dungeon “dom” (the male equivalent of a dominatrix) who described one of his experiences: His client had instructed him, as the dom recounted it, “I want you to bind me and then beat me until I scream. And no matter how much I scream or beg you to stop, I want you to keep beating me.” The dom did as he was told, continuing the beatings through the customer’s begging and pleading, until the client went totally limp and silent, seeming to dissociate. At this point, the dom unbound the man, who then began to weep uncontrollably in the dom’s arms.

BDSM is a real and active sexual subculture, and I don’t object to its inclusion in the course materials. But I was shocked to see how much further the professors in the program took things, insisting that BDSM behaviors—up to and including the sexual “Fight Club” style of behavior described above—must be uncritically viewed as wholesome and beautiful. Students learned to sing from the same psalm book, with one memorably exclaiming “I’m so inspired by the wisdom and beauty in the BDSM community!” and insisting that the behavioral codes observed among BDSM participants can help us create a similar climate of safety and respect “in all our relationships.”

The program was focused on an agenda of “centering” the experience of minorities—in this case, sexual minorities. This meant that huge portions of time in class after class were spent focusing on BDSM, LGBTQIA+ issues, and polyamory, not to mention the obligatory discussions of oppression and privilege that were shoehorned into every discussion. Meanwhile, mainstream sexual health issues that affect wide swaths of the population, such as marriage, reproduction, and family life, were treated as niche topics. Further, while many Americans view sexuality through the prism of faith, religion hardly came up at all. And when it did, it was typically so that religious values could be denigrated. Even the few religious people in the program got the message: Whenever any made passing reference to their own observant religiosity, it was usually in a spirit of shame or penance.

Such self-flagellation was fitting, as the program seeks to convert therapy offices and classrooms from places of learning and self-discovery into venues for moral re-education. For example, when one professor was asked by a therapist in the program about a couple that had come to therapy because the husband’s pornography use was hurting the marriage, the professor suggested that the wife’s prudish anti-porn attitude was the real problem that needed treatment. This was too much for me, and I asked whether he might have an alternative suggestion, since I have some clients whose moral beliefs preclude them from using pornography. I was surprised to see that he had no coherent answer, presumably because this is not the kind of question he usually gets asked. (Following such classroom exchanges, I would sometimes get private messages from classmates to the effect of “I’m so glad you said that. I was feeling the same thing” or “I don’t feel like I’m allowed to have a different opinion.”)

According to the precepts taught at the SHCP, it is immoral to apply a moral lens to sexuality. While it was acknowledged that some people do experience their sexual behavior as “out of control,” it was generally assumed that those who claim to have a problem with pornography addiction are probably just dealing with some kind of “sex-negative” indoctrination. (We got the same message when it came to sex addiction—an issue that, as I will discuss below, is at the root of much of the academic radicalization I observed.)

Of course, there is a very real debate about how to understand the problem of compulsive use of pornography in our society. And it is absolutely true that sexual shame is a problem, and one that often is linked with religious beliefs and upbringings. But the suggestion that therapists should take it upon themselves to “correct” the moral beliefs of clients with whom they disagree blatantly violates the codes of ethics that guide the counseling profession. This is dogma masquerading as therapy.

When it came to pedophilia, here’s where professors and students landed: Pedophilia is an inborn and, for clinical pedophiles, unchangeable sexual orientation. They did reject pedophilia as a legitimate sexual choice—but not, as one might hope, through thoughtful application of moral principles to sexual behavior. Rather, they simply declared that minors are by definition unable to give consent.

Where the program really lost touch with common sense and logical consistency was on the topic of gender. Of course, gender dysphoria is a real phenomenon, and some people really do go through their entire lives with a longing to bring their identity and appearance in line with their non-birth sex. But it’s also true that some people come to their trans identity later in life, or desist from a previously declared trans identity. In the case of prepubescent children especially, most trans-identified individuals who present for clinical treatment end up reverting to a self-identified gender that aligns with their birth sex—boring old cis people, in other words. Yet one professor confidently declared that at birth, we are all handed a “gender envelope” containing our gender identity, and that this identity can’t be affected by outside forces like trauma or culture (ignoring mounting evidence that this sort of thing happens often, especially in the case of teenage girls, thanks in large part to the spread of gender-ideology dogma itself).

This quasi-religious conception of gender was connected to the message that trans-identifying children should be given easy access to puberty blocking drugs and cross-sex hormones. Both treatments were breezily declared to be safe options with little risk of adverse consequences—something that, again, we now know to be untrue. And yes, we were fed the morbid claim that any delay in affirming a child’s self-diagnosed trans identity could relegate them to the grave: “Do you want a live trans-child or a dead cisgender-child?” is the question we were trained to use to pressure parents into immediate affirmation. To summarize: If a child agrees to have an adult pedophile stimulate his genitals, that desire should be disregarded (because children are by definition unable to give real consent). But if a child wants to have an adult surgically remove those genitals, his desire should be honored: Suddenly, the child’s expression of consent is not only valid, but ironclad; and acquiescence is not only permissible but mandatory.

Interestingly, though, the mystical “gender envelope” logic sometimes broke down when it came to discussions of sexual orientation. Usually, it was asserted that LGBTQIA+ individuals are born that way. But straight-identifying persons are another story, apparently. Many, we were told, have had their sexual desires artificially limited by social conditioning. Obviously, the phenomenon of closeted men and women is hardly unheard of. Yet I found it notable that the same commitment to unfettered self-identification that’s applied to trans-identifying children young enough to believe in Santa Claus apparently isn’t deemed reliable when it comes to the sexual preferences of their adult parents.

A meta-theme that emerged from the course was the idea that we wouldn’t just be graduating into roles as therapists or clinicians. Our professors were also counting on us to be reliable combatants in the culture wars. They often used us-versus-them language, referring to the work of social justice that “we” are trying to accomplish, as if my enrollment in the program had implicitly bound me to an activist team. And SHCP instructors didn’t mince words on the identity of the “enemy” in these wars: conservatives who engage in “moralizing” about sex, promote abstinence-only education, oppose pornography and the legitimization of “sex work,” and who question the existence of the gender envelopes their children were supposedly handed in baby heaven. One of my professors had the honesty to explicitly admit that progressives have deliberately distorted scientific data in some areas, exaggerating the extent to which sexual orientation is known to be inborn, to advance their political purposes, albeit in (as he saw it) a good cause. The professor did not condemn the practice, and I was left wondering which of the “scientific” claims I had been fed in the program could be trusted. Apparently scientific veracity is optional when the most pressing need is to rally society against homophobes and transphobes.

While terms such as Critical Theory weren’t explicitly included in the materials, every lecture was saturated with the idea that society exists in a state of oppression, and that our duty was to apply our expertise in the service of the oppressed. The assumption was that the reason sexuality is such a difficult area of life for so many people is not, as one might think, because sex is complicated and humans are morally fallible, but solely because of systems of oppression that marginalize minorities and instill people with shame. In a reversal of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous claim, the SHCP approach to sexuality suggests the line separating good and evil passes not through every human heart, but instead cleaves those identity groups who have power from those who do not.

In fact, many of the materials we studied had been written in a way that simply assumed that avant-garde approaches to gender and sex are linked, in some vague way, to other social-justice struggles. For instance, the Transgender Training Institute—whose founder, Dr. Eli Green, was one of my professors in the program—teaches “that in order to enact true social change through education…an Intersectional approach is necessary to disrupt and dismantle the multiple oppressions (racism, classism, ableism, sexism, heteronormativity, colonialism, and more) that impact transgender and non-binary individuals and communities (and beyond).” In class, Dr. Green boldly proclaimed that “anti-oppression frameworks are the future of sex education.”

Within such frameworks, sex education shall not be deemed truly inclusive unless it incorporates explanations of every possible kind of sexual activity one might consider pleasurable, up to and including kink, polyamory, and BDSM. When I directly asked one professor in the program whether very young children were really psychologically ready for exposure to some kinds of content, he argued that “age appropriateness” was a conservative myth. For the AASECT faithful, no age is too young to encourage a child to wonder whether they identify as a non-binary, polyamorous, kinky, pansexual. We were even given pointers about how to sidestep local regulations by creatively shoehorning banned sexual content into lessons. (Pro tip: See if you can look into your local school district’s “anti-bullying” policies and lessons. Unlike sex-education curricula, parents typically aren’t given easy access to the content of these lessons; nor do they usually have the right to opt-out their children from them. So some activists are using these lessons as a pretext for teaching gender ideology without parents finding out.) Apparently not only scientific facts and codes of ethics, but even obedience to the law must take a back seat to the interests of social justice.

In one class activity, Dr. Green had the class vote (anonymously) about which age they think a variety of topics in sexuality education should be taught. For each topic, the bulk of the class voted “elementary school.” Whenever votes for a later stage of education were revealed, exclamations of shock and horror rippled throughout the room, often accompanied by derisive laughter. Dr. Green called out students who made especially derisive comments, saying, “We need to be careful not to commit microaggressions against people who might have different opinions.” I appreciated this nod to impartiality.

But the professor’s expression of tolerance was short-lived. It became clear that what he meant by “different opinions” was ignorant opinions. “In this work that we care so much about, we have a long way to go,” Dr. Green told us. “And we have to be aware that we are going to be opposed by people who are going to attack us and bring accusations against us. So, it’s important that we be aware of the arguments and strategies that are going to be used by those who oppose us.” Then, to inform the class about the kinds of attacks “we” would face, Dr. Green showed us an episode of Last Week Tonight with comedian John Oliver. Everyone cracked up as Oliver set up and then knocked down a series of caricatures of conservative views on sex education. The ensuing class “discussion” was, unsurprisingly, focused on venting anger and contempt for conservative views, as opposed to understanding them. How is this kind of training helpful for therapists and educators who will work with people whose political and moral beliefs span the cultural spectrum? Are we supposed to treat some with compassion, but laugh others out the door when they express wrongthink?

Notwithstanding the lack of viewpoint diversity I observed during my course, there is public disagreement among sexuality specialists on certain issues, especially sex addiction. In the not-so-distant past, AASECT did not take a clear stance for or against the sex addiction model. But some within AASECT—such as Dr. Michael Aaron, a sex therapist and clinical psychologist —believed the group should come out firmly against the sex addiction model, which he claims is “extremely destructive to clients as it often addresse[s] sexuality concerns from a moralistic and judgmental perspective.” In one of those lengthy digital melodramas that plays out within certain professions, Dr. Aaron used the AASECT listserv to implement what he calls “renegade, guerilla tactics” against his critics, eventually blustering his way to victory after two years of vicious online character assassination. That’s why the AASECT position now reads, in part: “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.”

Aaron recounted the whole story in a 2016 Psychology Today story, and ticked off more than a dozen ideological allies who’d assisted him in overturning AASECT’s traditional position on pornography and sex addiction. That essay helped me understand why the content of my academic program seemed so torqued and partisan: Some of my professors at UM were the very same people who’d “won” this civil war within AASECT, and who still retain the same militant rhetorical tactics and us-versus-them approach when they discuss these issues in the classroom.

It’s not the purpose of this essay to argue for or against the so-called sex addiction model. But it was unsettling to see AASECT representatives use their classroom pulpit to extol one side of the debate and mock the other. The arguments they gave were not rooted in science, nor in rationality, but rather in their moral objection to the very idea that anyone would cast scorn on porn and promiscuity (this from the same people who, in every other context, view morality as a four-letter word). And after everything I experienced in the SHCP, that should not surprise me: For all their scientific pretentions, many of my professors never really elevated their discourse above a children’s Gender Unicorn handout or I Am Jazz.

When I entered the SHCP, I took it for granted that education should do two things: Introduce students to a well of wisdom and knowledge about a given topic, and push them to think critically about that topic. These are not the goals of AASECT. To be fair, some actual education and quality therapeutic training did occur in the program. But the bulk of what I encountered was indoctrination. The main goal of SHCP is to turn participants into evangelists for AASECT orthodoxy who will root out heretical beliefs in schools and therapy offices.

However, the story of the SHCP isn’t just about a single specialized program at a single American university being co-opted by extremists. It’s a case study in how a radicalized viewpoint can emerge from a small group of ideologically motivated actors, become the official belief system of a trade body, then form the basis of an academic course, which in turn trains legions of professionals, who then proceed to spread this same gospel to children, parents, and vulnerable patients. And while we aren’t quite past the point of no return, doctors, therapists, and teachers who haven’t already bought into this ideology have become afraid to speak out lest they be branded bigots, transphobes, or proponents of conversion therapy. After all, the ideologues have the imprimatur of AASECT and the University of Michigan, right? What hope do dissenters have of protecting their reputations and livelihoods?

I admit that I, too, feel a temptation to go with the pack—to use virtue signaling to show others that I have absorbed the orthodoxy I was taught. That’s the path of least resistance. But I know that such concessions only encourage the process of radicalization. I might be able to mouth this nonsense while secretly rejecting it. But others—especially children—might be seduced by it. That’s why I’ve chosen to speak out. And I encourage others to do the same. 

This article was originally published at Quillette

Tim Courtois is a Michigan-based Licensed Professional Counselor. His website is www.timcourtois.com

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