A recent conference at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, looked at provocative issues like leather, kink and polyamory. But rather than provide merely scintillating glimpses into our sexual lives, the event sought to present clinical therapists and the public with a range of analytic and practical tools with which to approach what are often termed "alternative" sexual practices.
The 2009 Alternative Sexualities Conference was a one-day national conference organized by the Center's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Institute ( SOGI ) and the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities ( CARAS ) , based in San Francisco. In his welcoming speech, Conference Director Braden Barkey addressed a packed room at the Hoover-Leppen Theater and spoke about the need for such events, noting that while there were many broadly focused community events about alternative sexual practices, "there's nothing that addresses clinical issues."
Given our widespread cultural obsession with sex, we might assume that practices like polyamory are easily considered matters for therapists who work with individuals and families on matters of intimacy and sexuality. But Richard Sprott of CARAS, who gave the plenary speech, "Polyamory: The Question of Consensual Non-Monogamy," said that, in fact, clinicians had to unpack popular cultural assumptions and negative perceptions of the practice. Polyamory, according to Sprott, is a "broad category containing several specific forms of multiple partnering/relationships." It is distinguished from swinging, where two people in a relationship agree on sexual connections with others but without forming emotional connections with those outside the relationship. In contrast, polyamorous relationships involve intentional networks of desire and care that can develop into long-standing connections, and the people involved might even form non-traditional family units where they share childcare responsibilities. Sprott joked that polyamory is sometimes referred to as "swinging with breakfast."
For therapists working with polyamorous clients, Sprott said, it was necessary to clearly understand that concepts like jealousy and intimacy are constantly discussed and negotiated within polyamorous relationships. He added that many people are puzzled by the idea that someone might form intimate and romantic-sexual relationships with more than one person. Yet, they have no trouble understanding that parents might want and love more than one child: "Why don't we say, 'How can you think of having another child? Is there something wrong with your first child that you'd want another?'" He said that the mistake was to think that intimacy could only come about within monogamous relationships.
Sprott went on to detail the different ways in which people negotiate their polyamorous relationships, and also discussed the thornier issues of childcare ( polyamory can become a lightning rod in some child custody cases ) and the "impact of prejudice, stigma, and heteronormativity" that can affect the well-being of people in polyamorous relationships. He also said it was important for therapists to make sure that no one in such cases was being coerced, however subtly, into arrangements they might not really want.
Afternoon sessions of the conference approached a range of issues, including the prevalence of internet sex sub-cultures, and aging in the BDSM ( bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism ) world. A presentation by David Moskowitz discussed HIV in the leather community while another, by Benjamin Graham and Clarisse Thorn, considered the role of supportive social groups in the BDSM experience. Poster presentations included one entitled "Ultra-Vanilla: Non-Penetrative Gay Male Sex as a Healthy and Hot Alternative Practice." Conference participants ranged from those who had some to a great deal of experience with alternative sexual lifestyles, and the question-and-answer sessions appeared lively and engaged.