Reflections of a Sex Therapist in a Coffee Shop

I’m sitting here in my local coffee shop refining and developing materials for the CICS Diploma in Clinical Sexology, in anticipation of our next module. I am loving being re-immersed in the research required to fulfill the high quality promise of our course. Learning has always been high on my values hierarchy – ask my Mum, she says I’ve never left school, which at my mid life age always tickles me. I’ve just finished my daily cappuccino and I sit back to acknowledge the sense of gratitude I feel right now for my work and personal life.  

Learning has always been high on my values hierarchy – ask my Mum, she says I’ve never left school, which at my mid life age always tickles me.

I gradually become aware of a conversation between two men sitting near to my table. One of the men is older, probably in his 60’s, the other is younger man, I’m guessing early 30’s. The older man is talking about the pending arrival of the younger man’s first child. They don’t seem to be father and son. They don’t look alike and there doesn’t seem to be a family energy between them – don’t ask me why I think that. Maybe they are work colleagues, it is mid morning after all and part of the typical working day. Maybe the older man is the younger’s father in law? I’d guess the former. The first thing I hear is the older man talking about the colours that people put their new born children in to denote their gender. He’s saying that yellow is a good colour to buy ahead, as it is neutral. He also makes the point that the colour of clothes doesn’t matter; it’s the health of the baby that is the main concern. The older man is clearly taking an advisory, wise-owl position with the younger man, but not in a superior or lecturing way. I like him. He is speaking from experience and without force.  The older man then goes on to say that bringing a child into the world changes everything, specifically the choices and decisions you make when you become a parent.  He explains to the younger man that once his child is here he must think about how his choices might affect that child. He then says that the younger man’s focus needs to be on protecting and providing for his family, ‘Work hard, bring the money home, put the family first’ he says, firmly, in a matter of fact way that allows for no disagreement.  

This conversation fits so well with the themes of gender roles and the responsibilities of relationship and parenthood that I have been reflecting on since the last CICS module. Dr Alireza Tabatabaie, my co-Course Director, lead the last module, part of which focused on the bio-psycho-social aspect of gender. He asked us to consider the societal messages of gender roles -  men as providers, women as nurturers, men as initiators, women as responders. We have a culturally diverse student group on this years Diploma course so the experiences varied. We were all aware though of the binary nature of these gender roles and of the complexity that stereo-typing distorts.  

The older man in my overheard conversation is passing down to the younger man the male gender role that he believes to be right – work hard and provide for your family. Perhaps the younger man’s partner, if female, is wrestling with the decision to care for their child full time, or go back to work, which are central conflicting gender expectations for women today.

The part of the message about choices chimes with me too. We are in an age where the right to define ourselves in diverse sexual and gender terms is greater than ever – although being able to live without prejudice in anything other than a heterosexual, cis-gendered identity has been knocked further back by the global shift to conservatism we are currently experiencing. Although I fully endorse the right to a clear identity of ones own, as a person in a committed, long-term relationship and as a parent, I am acutely aware of the restrictions those commitments can have on the full, personal expression of self. We come back to that values hierarchy I mentioned earlier. If a person values monogamy, for example, but identifies as sexually fluid, there is a part of them that will not be expressed in the duration of their primary relationship. That can be experienced as a conscious choice or a repressed resentment. The pressure to conform to a ‘norm’ absolutely intensifies further when you have children. Just talking openly and accurately about sex with your children gets some ‘mainstream’ parent’s eye-brows twitching, never mind daring to be openly ‘different’.

I’m aware that I liked the approach and message of the older man. Not that I personally believe that men should be the ‘providers’ – not at all. I believe though that is takes effort, awareness and courage to be in a long-term relationship and to be a parent and that our choices are moderated when we find ourselves in either of these roles. This is why therapy has a part to play in our lives, allowing us to develop awareness of the tensions created by our choices and our values and to work out how we can navigate them without harming others.  

On that note, I’d better get back to working on the Diploma so that we can prepare more excellent professionals to undertake this important societal role.

Blog Post written by:
Julie Sale
CICS Course Director and Psychosexual Psychotherapist