Touch, Part II

By Russell J Stambaugh, PHD DST CSSP
If a ban on CE for touch is not needed for CE reciprocity with APA, why is it important to have? Here is my understanding of the reasons AASECT has given for this policy:

  1. Touch is overstimulating. Traumatized and neuro-atypical trainees might be overstimulated by emotionally intense content.
  2. AASECT has a problem with sexual solicitation and harassment in its programs, and a strong barrier against touch in educational programs is needed to protect against such abuse.
  3. AASECT is assuming additional organizational risk to defend touch programing which could lead to pushback from powerful social conservatives and might threaten AASECT’s other work.  Educational touch is too dangerous to defend with AASECT’s limited resources.
  4. BDSM and other touching activities are more dangerous than other sexual activity and need special treatment by AASECT to teach with adequate safety to their trainees.
  5. AASECT is entitled to set its own boundaries, just like any individual is, so it has every right to declare educational touch to be outside its boundaries.
  6. AASECT has an obligation to protect the public, and that same obligation applies equally to trainees.  Therefore, if AASECT thinks clients should be protected from touch by our professionals, trainees must be protected in the same way.
  7. There are power differences among various members of the AASECT community.  Programs where trainees have the option to consent to educational touch constitute coercion to participate because of what powerful members of the AASECT community might think, and this kind of opportunity might affect later professional evaluations of trainees.
  8. Other organizations exclude educational touch from their training policies (perhaps not APA as noted in the previous post) so AASECT is behaving normatively and prudently to decide similarly using their examples.
  9. Implicitly, AASECT has argued that declining their proposed boundary rules constitutes unfair coercive treatment.  AASECT’s changing its boundary rules should not be cause for adverse consequences.
  10. AASECT also says that touch goes against their Ethical Code of Conduct because it forbids touch with “consumers.”

I will tackle these in turn:

1. AASECT, myself, or other outsiders do not get to decide what is triggering or overstimulating for others, including trainees. It is entirely possible that an AASECT trainee might be triggered by intense material. Because the ‘decision’ about what material is triggering is highly personal and subjective, any AASECT trainer might incorrectly estimate what is triggering. In fact, traumatized people may have imperfect ability to anticipate what will trigger them, even with content warnings. There is legitimate scientific question and mixed research evidence that such warnings significantly protect readers. However, AASECT does not shrink from presenting didactic material that might be triggering, and furthermore deliberately requires SAR material that might be triggering because AASECT has determined that the educational objectives of such programs justify the risks given the cautions and safety features of the program in question. It is therefore marginalizing to ban consensual educational touch programs categorically as it implies no adequate safety could be programmed, nor that educational objectives could ever justify the risk. AASECT’s own history of educational programs has repeatedly demonstrated such assumptions are not justified. Past complaints of triggering by AASECT trainees does not justify banning any programs categorically, there have been too few such incidents to constitute reliable and representative data. It is fair and reasonable to accurately describe content to be presented and allow trainees to decide whether they wish to undertake the risks and benefits of enrolling in it.

2. AASECT may have a problem with sexual harassment, although I am unclear that our problem exceeds that of similar organizations.  Many of them have genuine problems with this too. AASECT should act to further discourage sexual harassment.  What is clear that AASECT already has a good policy against sexual harassment and support for respectful communication, yet the incidence of such behaviors remains too high.  But AASECT completely lacks scientific evidence that programs containing consensual educational touch constitute any sort of additional risk of harassment than other AASECT programing including dances, fundraisers, munches and other activities that AASECT has not categorically banned, even though they carry no CEs.   AASECT’s Code of Ethical Conduct would suggest that regulation of professional conduct be based on sound clinical or scientific evidence.  No such evidence has been provided for this CE policy. Likewise, changes in sexual harassment policy need to take into account differences among diverse populations about how solicitation behavior is understood, and be evidence-based as to its effectiveness. The presence of some sexual harassment in the AASECT community does not constitute sufficient evidence for banning CE programs categorically.  This is evidence of prejudice against touch and kink, not of their association with harassment.

3. It is true that it is riskier for AASECT to support experiential programming, and to support consensual educational touch, than to avoid them. I argued earlier that AASECT cannot afford to cede responsibility for some of these risks and continue to claim leadership in the field of sexuality training. Indeed, AASECT has an important training role because other organizations declined to undertake the risks of human sexuality training. Yes, touch is riskier, but it is necessary risk given AASECTs Mission, Vision of Sexual Health, and AASECT’s role in the training community. While I am inclined to discount the risks of social conservatives per se, AASECT does deal with large hospitality corporations. Some, like Marriott, have policies against single women at the bar in the hotel restaurants and discouraging sex talk in the hallways where minors and families might hear. The law is very clear that Marriott has that right. This might require some training be conducted off-site to protect AASECT, but doesn’t justify a change in CE policy for AASECT’s strict adherence to business contracts. AASECT has less stigmatizing options it has failed to take.

4. Despite the prima facie evidence that some BDSM activities are dangerous, I hasten to point out that many sexual activities that AASECT undertakes to teach about are less safe than most kinky activities and that did not dissuade it from teaching about STI transmission, dating apps, sexual assault, child sexual abuse and exploitation, problem sexual behavior, and trauma, all of which are fraught content. It is stigmatizing to single out the risks of kink behaviors or touch as special cases of such risks given the severity of content AASECT routinely assumes the responsibility to teach. Indeed, AASECT has the responsibility of dealing sensitively with all content, touch or not. That requires sensitivity to context. This policy is an egregious example of marginalizing sexual diversity AASECT should shrink from modeling. It is setting a terrible example for education about touch, too, and marginalizes others who use touch completely unnecessarily and unprofessionally. Much of this content does not lend itself to being taught experientially or with educational touch. But where experiential training and/or touch can be effective, they should get full credit.

5. In claiming the right to set its own boundaries, AASECT is failing to acknowledge its powerful role as a regulator.  AASECT is depriving its trainees and its professional members the right to consent to programs that involved sexual touch by refusing to grant full credit for them.  That is boundary setting for everybody else, not just for AASECT.  This boundary analogy breaks down because of the inherent power imbalance between AASECT and its members.  I do not get to unilaterally set my boundaries so as to limit your professional freedoms.  The best analogy here is to the behavior of American fundamentalist religious organizations who are claiming that it violates their religious freedom to limit their ability to regulate the behavior of nonbelievers, a position AASECT rightly opposes as repressive.  Ultimately, AASECT does get to set its own boundaries. Prior to this policy it  was completely able to deny CE to any program, touch-based or not, that fails to protect it trainees or discredited the field in any manner and it had that power before this policy change without marginalizing anyone gratuitously.

6. It is my contention that AASECT’s primary responsibility is to protect the public first, and trainees second.  This is where their boundaries belong.  This does not license the abuse of trainees, but neither does it prevent training experiences that may be effortful and even painful to some.  If AASECT declines to certify experiential training that includes touch, it is reasonable to think AASECT will be unable to tell if trainees are emotionally and intellectual competent to handle such material.  That would abrogate its responsibilities to assess that trainees have adequate self-knowledge and emotional control to safely provide services to the publics the trainees intend to serve under the aegis of legitimacy conferred by their AASECT certifications.  While it would be better if no trainees were ever stressed or triggered by such instruction, it is far better that AASECT discovered their vulnerabilities now when it could support addressing such vulnerabilities than have them emerge in educational or therapeutic services later with clients.  Anyone evaluating whether AASECT certification provides any assurance that people are qualified to work with kinky clients should be alarmed to hear that it has entirely banned programs that might better assure that trainees or certified professionals can handle the emotional stressors of working with this population. This educational policy assures that AASECT is failing to guarantee that trainees are taught the skills to manage their personal feelings about content in the areas in which the trainees intend to practice.  All of this is emphatically true given that no AASECT touch based CE has ever been required for certification, and most such approved programs have had safeties, security arrangements to keep out the public, and even signed waivers as evidence of consent to participate.  Because touch is fraught content, mostly presenters who used it have been very careful with it. …

To read on, go to Elephant in the Hot Tub