Category Archives: Boys and Men

Dealing with Your Grief before it Deals with You

Bulldog

When it comes to caring for our own mental health, most Americans are asleep at the wheel. There are road signs, signals, and exits everywhere, but most Americans are committed to keeping their eyes shut and snoozing right through anything remotely resembling mental health awareness.

Okay. This judgment is a too harsh. But, I’m thinking this way because, not long ago, I watched the film, Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck plays the lead character, Lee Chandler. Obviously the film got me a little worked up.

Early on, Lee Chandler’s negligence leads to his children dying in a fire. By any and every measure, this is a trauma and tragedy of immense magnitude. Chandler is emotionally desperate. He tries killing himself. He ends up choosing to live.

But how does Chandler handle his traumatic grief? He continues to drink alcohol and numb himself. He lives like an automaton. Who can blame him? His grief must be so huge that it can’t be addressed. Right? Well, not exactly.

Not long after his children die, Chandler’s brother dies. This is terrible and sad, but suddenly, Chandler gets a second chance. His 16-year-old nephew needs an adult role model. Chandler is the best option.

The film is about pain.  Chandler is devastated. I get that. But instead of showing a glimpse of what it might take to face grief, instead, the film shows Chandler studiously avoiding anything resembling counseling or psychotherapy or education or the possibility of any genuine human interactions that might be helpful.

To be blunt and unkind, Chandler is an emotional chicken. He doesn’t face his emotions or embrace an interest in improving himself or his relationships. He doesn’t do that before or after his traumatic grief. Why not? One reason might be because doing so would be against the cultural norm for real men. . . because real men avoid looking in the mirror and engaging in emotional self-awareness. Seriously? Is this all we expect of emotional development for men and boys? I hope not.

Chandler could have done better than that. We can all do better than that.

What do we know? There’s substantial scientific evidence supporting several ways Chandler might move toward addressing his grief, his depression, his alcohol abuse, and his damaged relationships. He could have been a better person a better man, and a better uncle.

Okay. I’ll calm down now. I understand this is just Hollywood . . . which is why I feel so free to attack Chandler for avoiding what might have been good for himself and his nephew.

All this brings me to my point. In the latest episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara and I interview Dr. Tina Barrett about how to talk to children about death and loss. Then, in the following episode (watch for it next week), we interview her again about how to help children through the death of a loved one.

If you don’t know who Dr. Tina is, you should. I met her in the mid-1990s, hired her at Families First in about 1998, and have followed her amazing work ever since. In our podcast, she provides wisdom and guidance and insights about death and dying. I hope you’ll take time to listen (and avoid being like the character Lee Chandler). Tina has some great ideas that might just contribute to your (and your children’s) emotional development.

As usual, you can listen at iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or you can listen on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

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Let’s Do the Sex Talk Again

Rita Reading

Now, more than ever, we need to actively teach children about healthy and safe sexual behaviors. Why now?

First, pornography (which is arguably NOT the best sex education source for our children) is extremely easy to access.

Second, a former reality show star who was recently elected President has made statements that are likely to reinforce archaic ideas about female bodies being grabbed and groped and objectified–all in the interest of male pleasure. Personally, I’m against that message and hope you are too.

Third, parents have an important role in protecting their children from the range of different sexually transmitted diseases are associated with unprotected sex.

Fourth, well . . . why would anyone not want to actively teach children about healthy and safe sexual behaviors?

In the 10th episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast (PPPP), Dr. Sara Polanchek and I discuss why and how parents and caregivers should “. . . do the sex talk again and again.” Given the ubiquity of sex in the media, parents can’t afford to ignore this important topic. No longer is it good enough for parents or caregivers to toss an old sex education book into their child’s room and then hope that healthy sexual learning will magically occur.

Parents need to be brave. Parents need to face their own sexual issues and hang-ups. To get started, parents might want to listen to our latest PPPP episode titled: “Let’s do the sex talk again.”

Here’s the link to iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Here’s the link to Lisbyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

Please forward this post and these links to parents or guardians or grandparents who you think might benefit. Feel free to ask questions and engage in discussion. Our podcast offers ideas about how to get more comfortable with this exceptionally important topic. Listening to it is a reasonably good way to spend 28 minutes of your life.

Today, I am Captain America

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Today, I am Captain America

John Sommers-Flanagan

One of the hardest things about being a superhero is maintaining a secret identity. Sometimes I get so far undercover that even the Marvel Comics people don’t know who I am. This pretty much drives them nuts. But they deal with it, because, after all, I am Captain America.

I was born with the name John Sommers. This might be confusing to those of you who thought Steve Rogers was the original Captain America. That’s a myth Marvel and I perpetuated to help keep my identity secret. To further the deception, in 1985, I changed my name to John Sommers-Flanagan. This addressed the dual objectives of expressing an equal partnership with my wife and further obfuscating my identity.

Hyphenating my last name was a strategy similar to how my friend Superman is able to maintain his secret Clark Kent identity just by wearing nerdy glasses. Obviously, if you wear nerdy glasses, nobody will think you could possibly be Superman. Well, I wear nerdy glasses AND I have a hyphenated last name. Nobody in their right mind could possibly think I’m Captain America. Think about it. One time a guy I know asked me, “What sort of man hyphenates his last name?” I didn’t tell him because I was maintaining the secret identity thing, but the answer was and is: “Captain America.” #perfectdisguise.

I told Superman I was coming out of the secret identity closet and he asked me, “John, why are you choosing, at this moment in history, to give up your perfect disguise?” I said, “Hey Clark. . . ” (we’re on a first name basis because it always feels awkward when people call me Captain), “. . . radical times call for radical measures.” He just nodded thoughtfully. He’s like that.

The thing is, while growing up as Captain America, I realized early on that women were competent and I wanted to work alongside them, as equal partners. This eventually led me to be against the objectification of women and in favor of women’s rights to make their own healthcare decisions.

Being Captain American has also helped me clarify other values. I’m a big fan of the phrase “All men are created equal” but I’m inclined to substitute “people” for “men.” It seems only right that Captain America would support statements that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Over the years I’ve had Gay and Lesbian and Transgender friends and family and colleagues, and you know what, I found that they’re kind and competent and respectful and loving and safe people to have in my life who are equal to everyone else. I’m also pretty big on liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people, and that includes Muslims and Mexicans and Native Americans who have sacred lands threatened by oil pipelines and other minorities, including sexual minorities and persons with disabilities.

It might surprise you to find out that I really love music. I’m not that much of a dancer—although I’ve cut a rug or two in my time. Now that I’m older, I’m more into lyrics than swinging my hips. Like that phrase in the Star Spangled Banner about America being “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” To me and most Americans, I think the meaning of those words is simple. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to marry whomever we like, and we’ve got the courage to accept and embrace the goodness inherent in all this freedom and diversity. We also have the freedom to hate, although most people end up feeling so good about living in America that they usually find they prefer loving over hating.

Another musical reference that gives me tingles is the part of America the Beautiful where it goes: “May all success be nobleness and every gain divine.” That’s massively deep stuff, but right now it doesn’t feel like Wall Street, income inequality, and tax breaks for the wealthy fit with the idea of success being noble and divine. What would Jesus think? Well, along with Superman, he’s one of my besties and so I asked him. Wouldn’t you know, he got all analogy on me. He said something about rich people getting to heaven being as likely as a camel getting through the eye of a needle. My follow up question was about whether that meant it would be easier for Ant Man to get to heaven? At that point Jesus said, “Sure, Ant Man gets in, along with everyone else who makes himself or herself or their-self small and is interested in serving others instead of trying too hard to be bigly.” Then he giggled for almost a whole minute. Sometimes I’m not sure I get Jesus’s humor, but He thinks he’s funny, so that’s good enough for me.

Here’s another thing freedom means to me. Freedom means that we don’t have to register ourselves or be profiled or be put on watch lists because of believing in a particular God or because of having a particular color skin. It also means we’ve got the freedom to vote. And that means registering to vote should be pretty darn easy for all Americans and that voting lines should be equally short in poor and rich neighborhoods. Mostly we should be registering cars and college students, and, because I’m a superhero, I’m also in favor of registering guns. My reasoning is that in the real world it’s not as easy to sort out the good guys from the bad guys as it is in comic books and on television. What helps me is that I wear an easily recognizable spandex red white and blue outfit.  So I figure if you’re planning to carry firearms, you should register them and then at least have the decency to make it clear that you’re one of the good guys and if that involves putting on some spandex, so be it. That’s what my friend Thor would say. He always likes to say “So be it” in his loud, thunderous voice. He can be pretty convincing.

Here’s one last point on the gun thing. You may have noticed, I only carry a shield. Make of that what you will. I believe in the right to bear arms, but I believe even harder in gun safety.

Growing up, I went to public schools all my life. I even went to public universities. And as I’ve made clear, I ended up becoming Captain America. That’s not to say public schools are perfect, but Damn, American public school teachers are fucking amazing (I think that’s how my friend Pink would say it). Do you know how hard teachers work? Do you know how little they get paid? Did you know that John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States said something like (paraphrasing here), “there’s no way you can spend too much money on education for poor people.” Now, if you studied some proper history in a public school, you’d know that during his time, John Adams was just about the smartest and most persistent dude on the planet . . . and you’d also probably know the difference between educational measurements of proficiency and growth. Just saying.

I should confess right now that I’ve thought long and hard about whether to support the new president of the United States. The disrespect he’s shown for anyone he considers beneath him and who didn’t donate to his campaign make it difficult for me to endorse anything about him. But then I had an epiphany. I realized, “Wait, I’m Captain America, and that means I’m all about supporting values and not people.” This epiphany (BTW, “Thank-you Jesus”) helped me see and understand that I’m not a republican or a democrat and that I don’t support specific politicians. Therefore, whenever our new president upholds the values of equality for everyone, freedom for everyone, health insurance for everyone, gun safety, and better education for everyone—I’ll support him acting on those values. Also, whenever he sacrifices his own wealth and ego and treats women, minorities, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and everyone else with the respect they deserve, I’ll support those actions too.  However, to the extent that he advocates unequal treatment of individuals, restricts religious and other freedoms, meddles with women’s health decisions, or interferes with the common person’s pursuit of happiness, I’ll be opposing him along with my friends Jesus, Superman, and Pink.

That’s because I’m Captain America.

And you can be too.

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist, a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, the author of eight books, co-host of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, and Captain America.

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Cleavage, Revisited

It’s revision time for the Clinical Interviewing textbook (the 6th edition is coming). Revision time also means revisiting time. About three years ago I posted a new proposed section for the 5th edition cleverly titled, “Straight Talk about Cleavage.”

This time around I’m posting our slightly revised version of that section. What’s new is that I’m explicitly asking and hoping for your comments and feedback. Please note that this makes me nervous, but we (Rita and I) hope your comments and feedback will help us provide more perspective and depth to our discussion. We don’t want to come across as old fogeys or rabid feminists. Instead, we want to be reasonable, thoughtful, and balanced . . . and so we’re turning to YOU.

The section is below. You can post comments directly here at Word Press for all to see or email me privately at john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

Straight Talk about Cleavage

Although we don’t have any solid scientific data upon which to base this statement, our best guess is that most of the time most people on the planet don’t engage in open conversations about cleavage. Our goal in this section is to break that norm and to encourage you to break it along with us. To start, we should confess that the whole idea of us bringing up this topic (in writing or in person) and saying something like, “Okay, we need to have a serious talk about cleavage” makes us feel terribly old. But we also hope this choice might reflect the wisdom and perspective that comes with aging.

In recent years we’ve noticed a greater tendency for female counseling and psychology students (especially younger females) to dress in ways that might be viewed as somewhat provocative. This includes, but is not limited to, low necklines that show considerable cleavage. Among other issues, cleavage and clothing were discussed in a series of postings on the Counselor Education and Supervision (CES) listserv back in 2012. The CES discussion inspired many of the following statements that follow. Please read these bulleted statements and consider discussing them as an educational activity.

  • Female (and male) students have the right to express themselves via how they dress.
  • Commenting on how women dress and making specific recommendations may be viewed as sexist or inappropriately limiting.
  • It’s true that women should be able to dress any way they want.
  • It’s also true that agencies and institutions have some rights to establish dress codes regarding how their paid employees and volunteers dress.
  • Despite egalitarian and feminist efforts to free women from the shackles of a patriarchal society, how women dress is still interpreted as having certain socially constructed messages that often, but not always, pertain to sex and sexuality.
  • Although efforts to change socially constructed ideas about women dressing “sexy” can include activities like campus “slut-walks,” a counseling or psychotherapy session is probably not the appropriate venue for initiating a discourse on social and feminist change.
  • For better or worse, it’s a fact that both middle-school males and middle-aged men (and many “populations” in between) are likely to be distracted—and their ability to profit from a counseling experience may be compromised—if they have a close up view of their therapist’s breasts.
  • At the very least, we think excessive cleavage (please don’t ask us to define this phrase) is less likely to contribute to positive therapy outcomes and more likely to stimulate sexual fantasies—which we believe is probably contrary to the goals of most therapists.
  • It may be useful to have young women (and men) watch themselves on video from the viewpoint of a client (of either sex) that might feel attracted to them and then discuss how to manage sexual attraction that might occur during therapy.

Obviously, we don’t have perfect or absolute answers to the question of cleavage during a clinical interview. Guidelines depend, in part, on interview setting and specific client populations. At the very least, we recommend you take time to think about this dimension of professional attire and hope you’ll openly discuss cleavage and related issues with fellow students, colleagues, and supervisors.

My Father, Who Art in Vancouver (Washington)

That’s where he is (Vancouver) and where he’s been, mostly, since I met him on Thursday, October 18, 1957.

My father was born Jewish and usually says he’s an atheist, but he gives me faith in all things and hope for the world. He’s like solid ground after an earthquake. One time, when I was 15-years-old and riding on 39th street in Vancouver with my sister Peggy, she totaled her blue Toyota Corolla by ramming it into the back end of another car on a hot summer day. I still recall the song playing on the eight-track. “You put the lime in the coconut and drink them both together, you put the lime in the coconut, then you feel better.”

We did not feel better . . . until my dad magically showed up less than five minutes after the accident. This was long before cell-phones. Peggy had just been loaded into an ambulance and suddenly, there he was. He just happened to be driving by. He picked me up in his old yellow Ford van and just talked to me in his calm and soothing voice all the way home. I have no idea what he said, but it made everything okay.

How many times has he made my world safer? How many times has he made my world better? My best guess is countless or maybe double-infinity. And, being a scientist-type, I never use the words countless or double-infinity.

He was always stronger. He was always better. He was always smarter. No one could do mental math like my dad. Even now, at age 88, he’s a mental calculator to be reckoned with. He still beats me at gin, not so much because of using better strategy, but because he can still count cards and so he almost always has greater awareness of the cards I’m holding in MY hand than I do.

He was and is the most competitive person I know. He never gives in. He never gives up. He’ll play cards with you all night if that’s what it takes for him to win. But it never does. He wins long before we get very far into the night.

I know him pretty well. He’s honest to a fault. He would never cheat . . . at anything. He has a fabulous work ethic. He should have been a U.S. Senator. Can you imagine that . . . a trustworthy and hardworking American politician? Now there’s an unrealistic fantasy.

Let me tell you about his usual day. Despite his neuropathy, he’ll get up in the morning and take the dog for a walk. Then he’ll get back and read the paper until my mom wakes up. They’ll have breakfast together. It will be some terrible white bread or frozen waffles with syrup and maybe some bacon and eggs. He’ll probably do the dishes. Then my mom will take a nap and he’ll take the dog for another walk and then either read a book or watch the news or a bad television show until she wakes up again. At some point he’ll drag my mom out of their tiny room to play bean-bag baseball at the retirement home where they live. In the evening he’ll watch the Seattle Mariners struggle to score runs and, of course, the Mariners will lose another baseball game. Later, when we talk on the phone he’ll tell me that the Mariners will be getting a new hitting coach soon. . . and about three days later, they will. The only problem is they shouldn’t have hired Edgar Martinez; they should have hired my dad.

He’ll put my mother on the phone and we’ll talk a couple minutes. I’ll ask her about bean-bag baseball, but she won’t remember playing and so she’ll ask him and he’ll get back on the phone and tell me that she got three triples. All day he’ll cover for her and help her navigate the world that she’s mostly lost touch with. He’ll patiently answer the same questions twelve times over. When I ask him how he stays so calm and patient when my mom mostly has no memory, he’ll say, “I just remind myself that she’s not forgetting things on purpose. She would remember if she could.”

This is the man I can never live up to. But that’s okay. In fact, that’s the way it SHOULD be. To have a role model who is really a role model because he is so good and kind and compassionate and smart. Just being around someone like him makes me want to be a better person. I just have to ask myself: What would my dad do?

Before I get off the phone, he’ll do his usual (since 1982) good bye. He’ll say: “I love you.” And then, “Big hug.”

This is Max Sommers.

He is my father.

I have the honor of being his son.

I have the privilege of wishing him a Happy Father’s Day.

Hallowed be his name.

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Wishing for a Super Bowl that Promotes Non-Violence

It’s been a tough year for the National Football League. There was renewed emphasis (for a while) on the devastating brain damage caused by repeated concussions. Then there was the Ray Rice domestic violence incident. And then there was the Adrian Peterson child abuse incident. And now there’s the Aaron Hernandez trial for murder and weapons charges that started a couple days ago. All these scandals added up to big, bad publicity . . . so much so that the Fiscal Times noted in a recent headline that these incidents “Rocked the NFL.”

Then there was deflate-gate, the ridiculousness that led us to wonder if our football heroes might just be a bunch of cheats.

But wait.

Through all these scandals the NFL has continued laughing its way to the Bank with obscene gobs of money that could be used to wipe out Ebola or end child abuse. Last year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made about $44 million. Vegas odds are that he’ll do better this year. Super Bowl advertisings are doing just fine, thank-you. And Katy Perry may or may not have a wardrobe malfunction tomorrow evening, but you can bet there will be millions of viewers. The NFL is right on pace to increase its economic worth to something well over being a $9 billion dollar industry. Not bad. Talk about Teflon.

It’s clear the situation is hopeless and that the Juggernaut that is the NFL will stroll into the future without substantially addressing anything that might be remotely linked to a social virtue. Nevertheless, I can’t stop cheering for underdogs, and that leaves me with an array of dreams that are so silly that I’m embarrassed to admit them. That said, I’ll go ahead and embrace my embarrassment and tell you what I’m watching for tomorrow.

I’ll be watching to see how many advertising bucks are used to promote domestic violence or child abuse prevention. Will we see NFL players, coaches, owners, and the commissioner go on record to support sexual assault prevention? Might there be room for the tiniest of sprinklings of valuable educational public service announcements during the four hour Super Bowl feast?

I think not; but I hold out hope.

And here’s my biggest irrational wish. I’m wishing for the NFL to provide educational information about the dangers of corporal punishment. Adrian Peterson said something to the effect that all he did was send his kiddo out to get a stick so he could beat him with it, just like his Momma did to him. Peterson was talking about our great American tradition of believing that it’s a good thing for parents to hit their children.

Even more disturbing than the single Adrian Peterson incident is the fact that during a typical 4 hour time period (about the length of the Super Bowl broadcast) there are approximately 1,500 reports of child abuse . . . and so maybe, just maybe, we could use a little NFL-sponsored education here.

But what really smacks my pigskin is the fact that Adrian Peterson’s parenting philosophy is still alive and well on the internet. In particular, it’s featured on the website of Christian “parenting expert” James Dobson. Seriously. It’s on a Christian-based website. This is stunning not only because there’s a truckload of science telling us that hitting kids is linked to bad outcomes, but also because it’s pretty difficult to imagine the Jesus that I read about in the Bible hitting children with a stick . . . or advocating the hitting of children with a stick.

Now that it’s the 21st century and time for Super Bowl XLIX, shouldn’t we know better? Shouldn’t we know that we shouldn’t send our kids out to get sticks so we can beat them? Come on NFL . . . just share that fun fact. Just come out and say you don’t support beating children . . . and how about you take 0.001% of your net worth and use it to launch an educational campaign that will teach parents what to do instead of hitting kids.

That’s what I’ll be watching for tomorrow . . . if I can manage to stomach turning on the game at all.

Entering the Danger Zone: Why Counselors (and Psychologists) Need to Find the Courage to Talk with Boys about Sex and Pornography

This article was published in the Reader Viewpoint section of Counseling Today magazine this week. If you get the magazine, you’ll find it on page 52. If not, because it’s not available online, I’m posting the article (with minor modifications) in-full right here. To check out the Counseling Today magazine, click here: http://ct.counseling.org/

Here’s the article:

Reader Viewpoint

Entering the Danger Zone

Why Counselors Need to Find the Courage to Talk with Boys about Sex and Pornography

By John Sommers-Flanagan

For the most part, the United States lacks a coherent and systematic approach to sexual education. Instead, as lampooned in an online issue of The Onion, sex education is typically informal, unorganized, and inaccurate. The Onion article describes a scene in which a 10-year-old boy takes his 8-year-old cousin behind his parents’ garage with a page ripped out of a magazine and shares “the vast misguided knowledge of human sexuality he had gleaned from classmates’ hearsay as well as 12 minutes of a Real Sex episode he watched in a hotel room once.” The older boy recounts his rationale: “Every time people have sex the woman has a baby, and I just want [my younger cousin] to be completely prepared before getting naked with a girl.”

The good news about this is that The Onion is a fictional news source. The bad news is that the current state of sex education in our country isn’t much better than The Onion’s version.

Consider that a report this past April from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that more than 80 percent of adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 have no formal sexual education before actually having sex. If teenagers have no formal sex education, then what informal sex education do you suppose they take with them into their first sexual experiences?

One such source of informal sex education is pornography. In 2009, University of Montreal professor Simon Louis Lajeunesse designed a study to evaluate how pornography use affects male sexual development. He planned to interview 20 males who had viewed pornography and then compare their responses with those of 20 males who had never viewed porn. Remarkably, Lajeunesse had to abandon his project because he couldn’t find any college-aged males who hadn’t already viewed porn.

Other researchers report similar experiences. It appears that most boys, rather than learning about sex from a well-meaning, albeit uninformed cousin, get their information from the pornography industry … and my best guess is that the porn industry isn’t focusing on the best interests of American youth. This is one way in which reality may be worse than The Onion.

The absence of formal and accurate sexual education is a particularly American problem that may find its way into the offices of professional counselors. Many young males probably have very little basic knowledge or hold unhelpful ideas about sex and sexuality. Some will have porn addictions. Others will want to talk about how pornography may be affecting their real sex lives. You may also have clients who are concerned about their partner’s or potential partner’s porn viewing behaviors. Working with young (and older) males (and females) who want to talk about their sexual knowledge, beliefs and behaviors, including watching pornography, is both a challenge and an opportunity for professional counselors.

Counselors have an ethical mandate to strive toward competence. As articulated in the multicultural counseling literature, this requires cultivating personal awareness, gathering knowledge and developing skills.

Awareness: Expanding your comfort zone

Talking about sex, sexuality and sexual attraction can be difficult at every level. Think about yourself: How easy is it to talk about sex with your supervisor, colleagues, students, or clients? Your own experience may give you a glimpse into how challenging it can be to broach the topic of sex — even for professionals.

In comparison, it’s probably an understatement to say that it is especially difficult for boys to initiate a conversation about sex or sexuality with a professional counselor. This is why counselors who work with boys should become comfortable initiating conversations about sex. If you don’t ask at least a few gentle, polite, yet direct questions, you may be waiting a long time for the boy in your office to bring up the subject.

On the opposite extreme, some young clients will jump right into talking about sexuality and push us straight out of our comfort zones. Recently, I was working with a 16-year-old boy who described himself as a polyamorous “furry” (which I later learned involved sexualized role-playing as various animals). Admittedly, it was a challenge to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude. But without such an attitude, we wouldn’t have been able to have repeated open and useful conversations about his sexuality and sexual identity development.

Knowledge: The effects of pornography on boys and men

Many potential areas related to sexuality deserve attention, focus, and discussion in counseling. But because pornography and mixed messages about pornography are everywhere, it can be an especially important subject.

Most counselors probably believe that repeated exposure to pornography has a negative impact on male sexual development. This negative impact is likely exacerbated by the fact that most boys aren’t getting any organized, balanced, and scientific sexual information. Nevertheless, within the dominant American culture, there remains strong resistance to both sex education and pornography regulation. Even in a recent issue of Monitor on Psychology, the authors of an article questioned whether porn is addictive and blithely noted that “people like porn.”

It’s not surprising that porn has advocates. After all, it’s estimated to be a $6 billion-plus industry. In addition, media outlets explicitly and implicitly use pornlike sexuality to attract an audience and sell products. Recently, we’ve seen the increased use of hypermasculine male body types in the media, but most of the rampant sexual objectification still focuses on young female bodies.

Given that sexual development includes a complex mix of culture, biology and life experience, it’s not surprising that researchers have had difficulty isolating pornography as a single causal factor in male sexual developmental outcomes. However, a summary of the research indicates that as the viewing of pornography increases, so does an array of negative attitudes, behaviors, and symptoms. Generally, increased exposure to pornography is correlated with:
• More positive attitudes toward sexual aggression, increases in sexual aggression, multiple sexual partners, and engaging in paid sex
• Increased depression, anxiety and stress, and poorer social functioning
• Positive attitudes toward teen sex, adult premarital sex, and extramarital sex
• More positive attitudes toward pornography and more viewing of violent or hypersexual pornography
• Higher alcohol consumption, greater self-reported sexual desire, and increased rates of boys selling sexual acts

In contrast to these findings, a 2002 Kinsey Institute survey indicated that 72 percent of respondents considered pornography to be a relatively harmless outlet. This might be true for adults. I recall listening to B.F. Skinner talk about how older adults could use pornography as a sexual stimulant in ways similar to how they use hearing aids and glasses.

But the point isn’t whether people like porn or whether porn can be relatively harmless for some adults. The point is that pornography is a bad primary source of sexual information for developing boys and young men. As a consequence, it’s crucial for counselors who work with males to be knowledgeable about the potential negative effects of pornography.

Skills: How can counselors help?

A big responsibility for professional counselors who work with boys is to consistently keep sex and sexuality issues on the educational and therapeutic radar. This doesn’t mean counselors should be preoccupied with asking about sex. Rather, we should be open to asking about it, as needed, in a matter-of-fact and respectful manner.

As with most skills, asking about sex and talking comfortably about sexuality requires practice and supervision. But as Carl Rogers often emphasized, having an accepting attitude may be even more important than using specific skills. This implies that finding your own way to listen respectfully to boys (and all clients) about their sexual views and practices is essential. It also requires openness to listening respectfully even when our clients’ sexual views and practices are inconsistent with our personal values. As with other topics, if we ask about it, we should be ready to skillfully listen to whatever our clients are inclined to say next.

Case example
Some years ago, I had a young client named Ben who was in foster care. We began working together when he was 10 and continued intermittently until he was 17.
When Ben was around 13, I started routinely asking about possible romance in his life. He typically redirected the conversation. Occasionally he gave me a few hints that he wanted a girlfriend, but he mostly still seemed frightened of girls. As my counseling with Ben continued, I became aware that I had been conspiring with him to avoid talking directly about sex, possibly because I was afraid to bring it up.

I finally faced the issue when I realized (far too slowly) that Ben had no father figure in his life and, thus, I was one of his best chances at having a positive male role model. With encouragement from my supervision group, I was able to face my anxieties, do some reading about male sexual development, and finally broach the subject of having a sex talk with Ben.

Toward the end of a session I said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking we’ve never really talked directly about sex. And I realized that maybe you don’t have any men in your life who have talked with you about sex. So, here’s my plan. Next week we’re going to have the sex talk. OK?”

Ben’s face reddened and his eyes widened. He mumbled, “OK, fine with me.”

The next session I plowed right in, starting with a nervous monologue about why talking directly about sex was important. I then asked Ben where he’d learned whatever he knew about sex. He answered, “Sex ed at school, some magazines, a little Internet porn, and my friends.”

I felt a sense of gratitude that he was listening and being open, even if we were both feeling awkward. We talked about homosexuality, pornography, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, contraception, and emotions. I tried to gently warn him that too much porn could become way too much porn. He agreed. He told me that he didn’t feel like he was gay but that he didn’t have anything against gays and lesbians. At the end of the conversation, we were both flushed. We had stared down our mutual discomfort and navigated our way through a difficult topic.

Professional sex educators emphasize that parents shouldn’t have just one sex talk with their kids; they should have many sex talks. What I thought was THE talk with Ben turned into something we could revisit. Over the next two years, Ben and I kept talking — off and on, here and there — about sex, sexuality, and pornography.

Final thoughts

Boys are a unique counseling population, and sex is a hot topic. Together, the two provide both challenge and opportunity for professional counselors. As counselors, we should work to develop our awareness, knowledge, and skills for talking with boys about sex and sexuality. You may not be the perfect sex educator, but when the alternatives for accurate information are pornography or someone’s uninformed older cousin, it becomes obvious that having open conversations about sex with boys is an excellent role for counselors to embrace.

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a counselor educator at the University of Montana and the author of nine books. Get more information on this and other topics related to counseling and parenting at johnsommersflanagan.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

SIDEBAR
Readings and resources for working with boys and men
• A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men, edited by Matt Englar-Carlson, Marcheta P. Evans & Thelma Duffey, 2014, American Counseling Association
• “Addressing sexual attraction in supervision,” by Kirsten W. Murray & John Sommers-Flanagan, in Sexual Attraction in Therapy: Clinical Perspectives on Moving Beyond the Taboo — A Guide for Training and Practice, edited by Maria Luca, 2014, Wiley-Blackwell
• Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, by Michael Kimmel, 2010, Harper Perennial
• Tough Kids, Cool Counseling: User-Friendly Approaches With Challenging Youth, second edition, by John Sommers-Flanagan & Rita Sommers-Flanagan, 2007, American Counseling Association
• The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, by Jackson Katz, 2006, Sourcebooks
• The Good Men Project: goodmenproject.com