I signed up to learn more about sexual health. Gender Ideology, Fetishism, and Pornography were among the results

I confess that I, too, am tempted to follow the crowd—to utilize virtue signaling to demonstrate to others that I have internalized the orthodoxy I was taught. That is the road with the least amount of resistance.

I'm not a believer in conspiracies. And if someone had told me the things I'm describing here a year and a half ago, I would have accused them of culture-war hysteria. That was before I participated in a professional training program that was supposed to help me improve my abilities as a therapist but instead turned out to be a type of intense ideological brainwashing.

The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists has partnered with the University of Michigan to provide the Sexual Health Certificate Program (AASECT). As someone who just completed the program, I can verify that, whatever goal AASECT originally had, it now primarily functions as a de facto activist group that aims to modify mental health and education standards, as well as limit parents' rights to make decisions regarding their children.

And no, I'm not some right-wing social conservative whining about these groups' inability to support "abstinence only" sex education. I also have no objections to educating children that it is acceptable to be homosexual or bisexual. AASECT's agenda today encompasses an overlapping collection of doctrines that includes gender, violent BDSM subcultures, polyamory, pornography, and intersectionality, in addition to the previous conflicts. In my perspective, it is no longer focused on teaching scientifically confirmed knowledge or appropriate professional procedures, but rather on imposing a set of orthodox sexuality ideas.

The AASECT curriculum, in particular, 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 concepts may be traced back to what is known as "gender ideology," a loosely defined set of beliefs based on the idea that everyone has an innate, soul-like gender identity that transcends biological reality. Gender ideology also depicts man and woman as a "false binary," substituting a "spectrum"-based concept for the reality of human sexual dimorphism. I had never heard of gender ideology before enrolling in this program, and I had no idea that such a fringe thought system was taught at respected 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'm interested in sexuality. I'm aware that it's an important part of the human quest for happiness and significance. I wanted to enhance my understanding of sexuality and become more ready to care for the numerous clients who come to me with sexual health concerns as a psychotherapist and certified professional counselor in Michigan. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists seemed ideal for me, and the prospect of becoming an AASECT-certified sex therapist piqued my interest. I applied for the 2019-2020 cohort and got approved. 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.

However, questions began to sneak in early on—on the first day, to be exact. "Sexual Attitude Reassessment" was the title of our first classroom program. I thought to myself, "This seems like an alarming term for a brainwashing session." That was, unfortunately, the case.

It was evident early on that the ostensible subject of sexuality was frequently used as a pretext for more broad rants about society and the pressing need to reform it according to AASECT's ideological vision. 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.The scientific substance was essentially shallow from the start, and it was frequently undermined by statements that the concept of truth is a negative (and even tyrannical) construct. The discourse was evangelical rather than neutral and informational. It was also self-contradictory: absolute proclamations about the perfect way to comprehend sex—and morality—were made alongside declarations that there are no true "correct" moral principles.

As I discovered, "Sexual Attitude Reassessment" (SAR) is a well-known word in the area, and it's frequently used to define curriculum content that educates sexual-health practitioners about the vast diversity of sexual experiences that they may face among clients. The goal is to ensure that they are not surprised by such meetings and to encourage them to reconsider their judgements and prejudices about various forms of sexuality. These are both legitimate and significant objectives. Unfortunately, the SHCP's SAR devolved into a two-day exercise in overstimulation and desensitization, including sexual movies and interviews. It reminded me of the classic brainwashing scene from A Clockwork Orange at moments. There were videos of people masturbating (one of which included an odd 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 show that the polyamorous lifestyle is healthy, wholesome, and problem-free.

The emphasis on BDSM was a recurring theme throughout the presentation. Videos showing a lady methodically attaching genital clamps to the scrotum of a consenting guy were shown in the SAR, as well as a dominatrix giving a class how to properly beat people while demonstrating on an interested participant. We also saw an interview with a "dom" (the male version of a dominatrix) from a sex-dungeon who detailed one of his experiences: "I want you to bind me and then beat me till I scream," his client had said, according to the dom. I want you to keep pounding me no matter how much I cry or beg you to stop." 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.

I have no objections to BDSM being included in the course materials because it is a genuine and vibrant sexual subculture. But I was surprised to discover how far the program's teachers went, demanding that BDSM practices, up to and including the sexual "Fight Club" sort of conduct described above, must be considered as wholesome and lovely without question. Students learned to sing from the same psalm book, with one student remarking, "I'm so inspired by the wisdom and beauty in the BDSM community!" and claiming 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's goal was to "emphasize" the experiences of minorities, namely sexual minorities. This meant that large chunks of time were spent in class after class discussing BDSM, LGBTQIA+ concerns, and polyamory, not to mention the required debates of oppression and privilege that were crammed into every conversation. Meanwhile, popular sexual health concerns like marriage, reproduction, and family life, which affect large swathes of the public, were viewed as specialized topics. Furthermore, despite the fact that many Americans perceive sexuality through the lens of faith, religion was barely mentioned. And when it did, it was usually in order to degrade religious ideals. 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.

As the program is aimed to transform therapy offices and classrooms from places of learning and self-discovery into settings for moral re-education, such self-flagellation was probably an appropriate response. When a therapist in the program approached one professor about a couple who had come to therapy because the husband's pornography usage was causing problems in their marriage, the professor advised that the wife's prudish anti-porn attitude was the underlying issue that needed to be addressed. This was too much for me, so I inquired if he had any other suggestions, since I have several customers who refuse to use pornography because of their moral values. 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.”)

Applying a moral lens to sexuality, according to the SHCP's teachings, is immoral. While it was accepted that some individuals feel "out of control" about their sexual conduct, it was widely considered that those who claimed to have a problem with pornography addiction were likely just coping with "sex-negative" brainwashing. (When it came to sex addiction, we received the same message—an problem that, as I'll explain below, lies at the basis of much of the academic radicalization I saw.)

Of course, there is a heated argument over how to comprehend our society's problem with compulsive pornography consumption. And it's undeniable that sexual shame is a problem, one that's frequently tied to religious views and upbringing. However, the proposal that therapists should "correct" the moral convictions of clients with whom they disagree appears to be in violation of the counseling profession's code of ethics. This is treatment dressed up as dogma.

When it came to pedophilia, educators and students came to the following conclusions: For clinical pedophiles, pedophilia is an inborn and immutable sexual inclination. 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.

On the subject of gender, the program completely lost touch with common sense and logical consistency. Gender dysphoria is, of course, a genuine thing, and some people spend their whole lives yearning to change their identity and looks to match their non-birth sex. However, some persons discover their trans identity later in life or decide to abandon a previously announced trans identity. Most trans-identified persons who appear for professional treatment, particularly prepubescent youngsters, end up returning to a self-identified gender that matches with their natal sex—boring old cis folks, 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 understanding of gender was linked to the notion that transgender kids should have ready access to puberty-blocking medications and cross-sex hormones. Both therapies were casually proclaimed to be risk-free, with little chance of side effects—something we now know to be inaccurate. Yes, we were taught that delaying confirmation of a child's self-diagnosed trans identity may result in their death: "Do you want a living trans-child or a dead cisgender-child?" was the question we were taught to use to drive parents into rapid affirmation. To summarize, a child's desire to have an adult pedophile stimulate his genitals should be ignored (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. We were taught that societal conditioning had artificially reduced many people's sexual impulses. Obviously, the phenomenon of openly gay men and women is not uncommon. However, I thought it interesting that the same dedication to unrestricted self-identification that is applied to trans-identifying children as young as Santa Claus is obviously not judged dependable when it comes to their adult parents' sexual preferences.

The concept that we wouldn't only be graduating into positions as therapists or clinicians arose as a meta-theme from the course. Our teachers expected us to be dependable soldiers in the cultural wars as well. 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.

While terminology like Critical Theory were not directly mentioned in the materials, every lecture was saturated with the idea that society is oppressed, and that it was our responsibility to use our knowledge to help the oppressed. The idea was that the reason sexuality is such a difficult area of life for so many people is primarily due to oppressive institutions that exclude minorities and create guilt in individuals, not because sex is complicated and humans are morally imperfect, as one might imagine. 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 these concepts, sex education will not be considered completely inclusive unless it includes explanations of every potential type of sexual behavior, up to and including kink, polyamory, and BDSM. When I questioned one of the program's professors if very young children were mentally ready for exposure to certain types of information, he said that "age appropriateness" was a conservative fallacy. No age is too early, according to the AASECT faithful, to teach a kid to consider if they are non-binary, polyamorous, kinky, or pansexual. We were also given tips on how to get around local rules by cleverly incorporating prohibited sexual elements into courses. (Pro tip: Research your local school district's "anti-bullying" rules and teachings.) Unlike sex-education curriculum, parents seldom have easy access to the substance of these courses, and they rarely have the option of opting their children out. As a result, some activists are exploiting these sessions as a cover for teaching gender ideology to children without their parents' knowledge.)

Dr. Green let the class vote (anonymously) on the age they thought a range of sexuality education subjects should be taught at in one class activity. The majority of the students chose "elementary school" for each issue. 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?

Despite the lack of range of viewpoints I encountered during my course, there is public debate among sexuality experts on specific subjects, like sex addiction. AASECT did not take a clear stance for or against the sex addiction paradigm in the not-too-distant past. However, some members of AASECT, such as Dr. Michael Aaron, a sex therapist and clinical psychologist, believe the organization should speak out against the sex addiction model, which he claims is "extremely destructive to clients" because it "often addresses 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.”

In a 2016 Psychology Today feature, Aaron detailed the entire event, including a list of more than a dozen ideological friends who helped him alter AASECT's established attitude on pornography and sex addiction. That essay explained why the substance of my academic program appeared so tense and partisan: some of my teachers at the University of Michigan were the same folks who'd "won" this civil war inside AASECT, and who now use militant rhetorical strategies and an us-versus-them attitude in the classroom.

The objective of this article is not to support or oppose the so-called sex addiction paradigm. However, seeing AASECT reps utilize their classroom soapbox to praise one side of the discussion while mocking the other was uncomfortable. Their arguments were not based on science or logic, but rather on a moral aversion to the thought that anybody would belittle pornography and promiscuity (this from the same people who, in every other context, view morality as a four-letter word). And after what I've seen in the SHCP, that shouldn't come as a surprise: despite their scientific credentials, many of my lecturers' discussions never went beyond a Gender Unicorn handout for kids or I Am Jazz.

When I first started at the SHCP, I assumed that education should accomplish two things: introduce students to a reservoir of wisdom and understanding about a certain issue, and encourage them to think critically about it. These are not AASECT's objectives. To be fair, the program did include some genuine instruction and high-quality therapeutic training. But the majority of what I saw was brainwashing. SHCP's primary purpose is to transform participants into AASECT evangelists who will root out heretical notions in schools and treatment offices.

The SHCP's tale is more complicated than a single specialized program at a single American institution being co-opted by radicals. 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 organization, then become the foundation of an academic course, which in turn trains legions of professionals, who then spread the same gospel to children, parents, and vulnerable patients. While we aren't quite past the point of no return, physicians, therapists, and instructors who haven't yet bought into this philosophy are hesitant to speak out for fear of being labeled bigots, transphobes, or conversion therapy proponents. After all, the ideologues have AASECT and the University of Michigan on their side, right? What chance do dissenters have of keeping their jobs and reputations?

I confess that I, too, am tempted to follow the crowd—to utilize virtue signaling to demonstrate to others that I have internalized the orthodoxy I was taught. That is the road with the least amount of resistance. But I'm well aware that such concessions just serve to accelerate the radicalization process. I think I'll be able to say anything while privately rejecting it. Others, particularly youngsters, may be tempted by it. That is why I have decided to speak up. I also urge others to do so.

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