Monthly Archives: December 2013

Good moral character

It’s the end of the semester. My grades are done. The holidays are over. And now I can breathe. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Except not really. I may be breathing, but my brain is still going strong. This is the time when I reflect on what worked and didn’t work in my classes – and how I might do it differently the following semester. I do this with all of my classes, but probably the most with my Introduction to Psychology class. That’s the class that covers so much information – too much for one semester, really. Every semester I end up letting go of something because there just isn’t enough time.

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is one of those that usually gets kicked to the curb in some way. Most Introductory Psychology textbooks include Lawrence Kohlberg’s work in their developmental psychology chapter – along with Jean Piaget, Harry and Margaret Harlow, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Lev Vygotsky, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Erik Erikson, and the twenty-million other theorists that need to be covered in two class sessions. As you might imagine, his groundbreaking and influential work notwithstanding, one of two things usually happens in my class when it comes to Kohlberg. Either my students are treated to one Power Point slide and a breakneck-speed-rundown of the six stages of Kohlbergian moral development, or they’re told to pay close attention to that section of the textbook (like they really read the textbook anyway!) and be prepared for a question or two on the test. If anything, Kohlberg shows me just how low my teaching can sink – if I let it.

Oh, who cares about Kohlberg and moral reasoning, anyway?

That’s an easy way to let myself off the hook – to tell myself that nobody really cares about this stuff anyway. However, so many students wrestle with a range of moral questions – and often those questions involve sexual orientation and sexual behavior. One example: A student who was in my Introductory Psychology class came to my office one day with a dilemma. Religion is a very significant part of his life, and he plans on becoming a pastor when he finishes school. He believes, in accordance with the teachings of his religion, that homosexuality is a sin. But his brother is gay, and he loves his brother. “How do I reconcile this?” he asked me. I suggested that he take my Psychology of Sexual Orientation class, and he did. He respectfully took in all the information presented in the class, and he wrestled with his dilemma the whole time, eventually coming to grips with it in his own way.

These kinds of scenarios happen pretty regularly for me. So how can I possibly tell myself that students don’t think that moral reasoning is interesting or relevant?

Even though Kohlberg published his original article on moral development back in 1958, his work is in fact quite relevant today. In his original study, Kohlberg posed a series of moral dilemmas to a group of 72 males, ages 10, 13, and 16, asking them a series of questions to determine how they reasoned about moral issues. Based on their responses, Kohlberg identified three distinct levels of moral reasoning – the pre-conventional, which is an egocentric and self-centered way of thinking; the conventional, which involves following the rules and conforming to social norms; and the post-conventional, which is a more principled way of making ethical decisions. Within each level are two substages, resulting in six stages of moral development. From a bottom-up perspective, these stages look like this:

When we’re young, according to Kohlberg, our goal in making moral decisions is either to (1) avoid getting in trouble, or (2) maximize our rewards – and this is what we see in the “purple” and “blue” pre-conventional stages. As we get older, progressing into the “green” and “yellow” conventional stages, we become more concerned with following the rules, whether they involve actual laws or merely social expectations. When we reach the “orange” and “red” post-conventional stages (assuming we even get there), we engage in a more principled, higher-order way of resolving moral dilemmas, considering universal ethical principles as the highest guiding force.

Among my students, religion is often what guides their moral decisions – and what causes them to struggle with issues of sexual orientation. The student who visited me in my office that day is only one example. Many students have openly struggled with the morality of things like BDSM, polyamory, and bisexuality, to name a few – mostly because of what the law dictates (or has dictated in the past) or what they’ve learned from religious teachings. (As an aside, The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy is a good resource for helping people navigate these kinds of relationships with integrity.) If they’re in a Stage 3 (“good girls don’t practice BDSM”) or Stage 4 (“it’s illegal to have more than one partner”) level of moral reasoning – a common level for adolescents and young adults – there isn’t much room for a critical reasoning process to take hold. If you throw religion into the mix, research conducted at Texas Tech University suggests that the more strongly people hold to fundamentalist religious beliefs, the weaker their moral development – and their intellectual development – tended to be.  When someone says, “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong, and that’s that,” there’s no room for a conversation. That’s that.

But if a person breaks through into the post-conventional level of moral development, then issues can be wrestled with. Conversations can happen, both with others and internally. In a 1993 study, Stephanie Brooke of North Carolina State University surveyed members of 10 churches using Kohlberg-style vignettes and applying his stage theory – and found that the higher their level of moral development, the more accepting they were of homosexuality. Instead of saying, “it’s wrong, and that’s that,” they could engage in dialectical reasoning, increasing the likelihood of a more principled decision.

If I really evaluate what’s important to me in my teaching, it’s not so much the nuts-and-bolts of the content. Whether we cover everything, including Jean Piaget, Harry and Margaret Harlow, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Lev Vygotsky, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Erik Erikson, AND Lawrence Kohlberg, is somewhat irrelevant. But if my students can leave my class equipped to engage in a more principled level of ethical decision-making – now, that’s another story.

I’m still going to try to find a way to fit Kohlberg in there. And not just in one measly Power Point slide.

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Filed under BDSM, bisexuality, polyamory, psychological research, relationships, religion

A stranger in our home

On my Facebook page this week, my sister posted a link to an NPR interview about Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s anti-gay statements and commented, “Perhaps the topic of your next blog?”

On the schoolyard at my daughter’s kindergarten, one of the parents said to me, “That Duck Dynasty guy is out of control. Good for A&E for kicking him off the show.”

At a party I hosted this weekend, a guest commented, “So, what do you think about this Duck Dynasty guy?”

For those of you who might be feeling out of the loop, Duck Dynasty is a reality show about a Louisiana family whose business involves making products for duck hunters, primarily the “Duck Commander” duck call. Phil Robertson, the inventor of the “Duck Commander,” is the patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty,” and is known for his staunch Christian religious beliefs. In an interview with GQ Magazine, Robertson offered up these thoughts regarding human immorality:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

Later, in the same interview, Robertson gave this answer to the question, “What, in your mind, is sinful?”

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

There’s more, but you get the point, I’m sure. This is why Phil Robertson is the talk of the town. And this is why, not surprisingly, Robertson got booted off his show.

But you know what? Before this debacle, I had no clue who Phil Robertson was. I’d never heard of Duck Dynasty. And why is that?

Because I don’t watch television. At all. And I have to say, choosing not to watch television solves a lot of problems.

I’ll backtrack a little bit and share with you how we, as a family, came to this decision. Five years ago, back in 2008, I started learning more about the Waldorf approach to education. I had a friend who attended a parent-child program at a local Waldorf school, and I started taking my daughter to that program as well. Every week, the teacher gave us articles to read, addressing a wide range of topics – sleep, nutrition, play, discipline and limit-setting, creativity, toy choices, and the importance of nature, to name a few.

And media. There were lots of articles about media. Waldorf schools are known for their anti-media policies, some schools enforcing those policies more strongly than others. In a nutshell, Waldorf advocates believe that media exposure in early childhood diminishes their creative and imaginative power, and they connect media consumption (particularly involving screens) to delays in fine and gross motor development, sensory integration and processing disorders, and social and behavioral problems, to name a few.

This philosophy, interestingly, is consistent with what the scientific literature reveals. Hundreds of studies have linked extensive television viewing with social, cognitive, and emotional problems, and some studies have identified a cause-and-effect relationship. A 2012 study of 70,000 children in Hong Kong, for example, showed that the more television these kids watched per day, the lower their self-esteem. A longitudinal study conducted by Deborah Schooler and Sarah Trinh of the University of the Pacific indicated that, for girls, extensive television watching was associated with lower levels of body satisfaction. Nicole Martins and Kristen Harrison of the University of Indiana reported in a 2012 study that, for White girls, Black girls, and Black boys (but not for White boys, interestingly), more television watching was associated with lower levels of self-esteem. And, in an experimental study conducted by Charlotte Markey of Rutgers University and Patrick Markey of Villanova University, participants who watched a reality show involving cosmetic surgery were more likely to desire surgery for themselves than participants who watched a show with a neutral message. The research is clear – study after study after study shows that higher levels of media consumption impacts our well-being in a negative way. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 years old watch no television, and that beyond that age parents limit their children’s screen time.

I’ve been aware of these research trends for years, and in many ways I’ve heeded the warnings revealed by these collective findings. I made a decision a long time ago, for example, not to expose myself to the unrealistic body standards featured in women’s fashion magazines, knowing that consuming those types of images has a toxic effect on one’s own body satisfaction. But I hadn’t pulled the plug on my not-so-great television-watching habits, and certainly hadn’t considered protecting my daughter from television and other forms of media. However, one article we were given in the Waldorf parent-child class – actually, one single statement in that article – stopped me in my tracks, and got me thinking about television-viewing and overall media consumption in an entirely new way. The author of the article, Susan Johnson, M.D., said this:

“We don’t allow our child to talk to strangers, yet through television we allow strangers into the minds and souls of our children everyday.” 

A stranger in my own home. I’d never thought of media in quite that way. But it’s absolutely true. When I turn on the television, I’m inviting a guest into my home – and I’m also inviting all of the beliefs, opinions, values, and behaviors of that guest. But unlike interactions with real people, I can’t have a give-and-take conversation with the television-guest. I can’t tell it to quit saying offensive things, or to stop engaging in disrespectful behavior, or engage that guest in a dialectical conversation.

But I can set limits with it. If the television-guest is blaring offensive, derogatory, microaggressive, violent, and soul-draining messages and values, I can Turn. It. Off. I don’t have to watch it or listen to it. In fact, I can take it a step further and remove it from my house entirely. Guests who blatantly disrespect the physical and emotional integrity of my family have no place in my home, and television is no exception.

Even though they’ve come under fire for supposedly violating First Amendment rights, I think A&E made a smart move in deciding to suspend Phil Robertson from their show, for no television viewers (or GQ readers) should be subjected to his drivel. However, I also believe in the power of personal action. If I don’t watch Duck Dynasty or know who Phil Robertson is, then I won’t be assaulted by his anti-gay rhetoric. If nobody watches Duck Dynasty, and nobody pays attention to Phil Robertson, then his words have no power over us.


Instead, we can surround ourselves with as much positive messaging as possible – not just as a way of counteracting the harmful messages that are ever-present in our toxic media culture, but as a way of reinforcing the goodness and beauty we all carry within ourselves.


Filed under children, homophobia, media, mental health, psychological research, religion

Taking the long walk to freedom

I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s. I grew up during the apartheid years. I was in the eighth grade when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I was in college when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for Diana Russell, a South African feminist scholar and author of Lives of Courage: Women for a New South Africa (which featured an in-depth interview with Winnie Mandela).

So when the opportunity arose to travel to South Africa through my college’s international studies program, I jumped at the chance. For whatever reason, international leisure travel doesn’t interest me so much. But political travel – now, that fascinates me. I wanted to learn more about the apartheid years, and about post-apartheid South Africa.

I had no idea what I was in for. So many things I experienced on that trip changed me, in ways that are hard to explain. But I’ll try and share some of that experience with you.

First, the “township tours,” which are one of the ways South Africa has capitalized on tourism opportunities. Townships, if you’re not familiar with the term, are segregated areas, usually built on the outskirts of large cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, where non-Whites were forced to lived during the apartheid years. These townships still exist, and while non-Whites can now live within city limits, these areas are still largely non-White and poor. These guided tours are controversial – some, like anthropologist Shelley Ruth Butler of McGill University, see the practice of busing wealthy travelers through a neighborhood so they can gawk at the poor and oppressed as highly problematic. (The “Real Bronx Tours” in New York City were criticized for the same reasons.) Others see it as an opportunity to bring money into the impoverished townships, while educating people about the harsh realities of post-apartheid South Africa. I can see it both ways, and although I was conflicted about it, I decided to go on one of these tours. And, I have to say, it was by far the most powerful experience I had on that trip.

This particular “township tour” took us through the communities of Khayelitsha and Langa, both of which are located on the outskirts of Cape Town. Both of them have a combined population of about 450,000 people, which is similar to that of Sacramento, the city in which I live. However, consider this: Sacramento covers a little over 100 square miles. Khayelitsha and Langa are about 16 square miles. Four hundred and fifty thousand people packed into a space that’s one-sixth the size of Sacramento.

And this is what that looks like – today. Not in the 1980s, when apartheid was in full force, but now:

Most people in these townships live in shacks made of corrugated sheet metal, usually with dirt floors. Most of them don’t have indoor plumbing or running water – instead, spigots are located every few hundred feet along the streets. Most people work in very low-wage jobs, as domestic workers, service workers (often in the tourist industry), or manual laborers. And according to Jane Battersby of Queen’s University, the majority of residents experience what she calls “food insecurity,” meaning that they don’t have consistent, reliable access to safe, nutritious food.  Through the tour, I learned that crime rates, especially crimes against women, are incredibly high – in 2012, for example, 1,960 cases of domestic violence and 937 cases of assault against women were reported. Hate crimes, particularly against lesbians, are common in the townships as well. And HIV infection rates are through the roof – it’s estimated that about 40,000 people (roughly 10% of the population) are infected with HIV. I was struck by the number of AIDS ribbons I saw displayed on billboards and banners – in fact, I saw one painted on the wall of one of a church, and another on the side of an elementary school. Apartheid might technically be over, I thought to myself after that tour, but racism and oppression are alive and well. All of this outside of Cape Town, a highly industrialized city that, in many ways, is no different from what we have here in the United States.

Later, we traveled to Johannesburg and took a tour of Soweto (SouthWest Township), a township with a population of 1.3 million people. Again, to give a comparison, that’s about the size of San Diego, which is the fifth-largest city in the United States. But Soweto packs those 1.3 million people (98.5% of whom are Black South African) into 77 square miles, while San Diego covers about 325 square miles.

Many of the houses in Soweto are reasonably well-constructed – “matchbox houses,” they’re called, four-room boxy buildings usually built out of brick or cinder block. Nelson Mandela’s former home is a matchbox house. So is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s home, which is located a few houses down from the Mandela home. But corrugated sheet metal dwellings were common there, too.

Like Khayelitsha and Langa, violent crime is common in Soweto, particularly crimes against women, and increasingly hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Soweto is known for having among the highest HIV rates in the world. About 17% of the population is HIV positive. One in three gay men are infected with HIV. Three out of five women have HIV. And most of those affected live in the townships.  These statistics, in my opinion, are staggering.

I think about Nelson Mandela, sitting in his cell in the maximum security prison at Robben Island, with only a straw mat to sleep on. I think of his ongoing subversive acts – hiding news clippings in the lime quarry he was forced to work in, sharing knowledge with other fellow political prisoner-inmates, secretly writing his autobiography (and ultimately being found out – and punished for it). He devoted his life to social justice. “Real leaders,” he said, “must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”

But clearly the work isn’t done. The townships of South Africa, riddled by the effects of poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia, tell us that unequivocally. So do many communities right here in the United States, in fact – right in our own backyard. Mandela took that long walk to freedom – and it’s up to us to continue that walk until all of us have truly reached the destination.

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Filed under activism, hate crimes, health, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, racism, sexism, violence

Listening to HIV

Tap tap tap. 

One of my students peeked her head through my office door. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” she asked.

It wasn’t my regular office hour, but I always keep my office door open if I’m in there, in case a student needs to talk to me (and lately, that’s been a LOT). Usually they want to talk about their grades (the real-life version of the YouTube video “I Am Worried about My Grade” gets played out a lot). Not infrequently, probably because I’m a psychologist, they come to see me because they need help with some mental health issue. And it’s never just a little end-of-semester anxiety, or something easy like that – it’s always something heavy-duty. I had a feeling that this was one of those times.

“So I have a friend,” she said. That’s what they all say, I think to myself. But as she continued, it was clear that she was talking about a friend – and that she was very concerned about him. He’s HIV-positive. He’s in denial. He’s African-American, and has sex with men. He’s partying, doing drugs, not taking care of himself. She suspected he was having unprotected sex, although she didn’t know for sure. And she was very, very worried about him.

“How old is he?” I asked.

“Twenty-four,” she said.

Sadly, this friend is a textbook example of the highest risk demographic for HIV. According to a recent report from the CDC, although AIDS diagnoses and deaths continue to decline because of the effectiveness of antiretrovirals, HIV infections continue to rise. Every year, according to the CDC, more than 50,000 people in the United States become infected with HIV. More than half are men who have sex with men, and about half are Black or African-American. What’s particularly scary is that about one-third of those who are diagnosed with HIV will develop AIDS within one year of that diagnosis – suggesting that they could have been HIV positive for as long as 10 years before they were tested and diagnosed. This young man, I thought to myself as my student was talking, may have been infected a long time ago – and just didn’t know it.

AIDS diagnoses and deaths may have gone down significantly since the mid-1990s, but HIV infection is another story. Hundreds and hundreds of studies have been done, looking at everything from identifying at-risk populations, teaching safer sex practices, working to increase access to health services, improving sex education curriculum in schools, decreasing behaviors that are associated with risky sexual practices. And over the last twenty years or so, the research paints a depressing picture. Because none of this seems to be working.

Many people aren’t practicing safer sex. Many people don’t have access to health services. Many people don’t get great sex education in school (my students have told me many horror stories about what they’ve learned – or what they didn’t learn).  And what’s the common thread behind all this?


If you want a concrete example of how oppression increases the risk of HIV infection, take a look at Sacramento County, where I live. According to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento County has the highest rates in California of STD infection, including HIV as well as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis – all three of which commonly co-exist with HIV infection, according to the CDC. The highest rates of infection tend to be in the poorest and the most racially and ethnically diverse areas – South Sacramento, Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, and Florin. If we extrapolate from CDC data, it’s likely that many of those infected are gay or bisexual males, living in areas where there are few, if any, resources for LGBTQ people. Moreover, most clinics in Sacramento where people can get STD and/or HIV testing and treatment are located in the downtown or midtown areas – not in the neighborhoods where the highest percentage of cases are clustered. And young people between the ages of 14 and 29 are overwhelmingly overrepresented in these statistics. These are people who are poor, nonwhite, and lack access to health care, and, if they’re gay or bisexual, may also lack a direct connection to LGBTQ resources.

What’s interesting to me – and I don’t think this is a coincidence – is that this is the exact same demographic that’s at higher risk for depression and suicidality. In fact, when I asked my student if she thought her friend might be depressed, she didn’t hesitate.


Then she paused. “But I’m not sure if he’ll do anything . . . you know . . . .”

I knew.

“He’s already doing something,” I said. People who are HIV positive are thought to be seven times at higher risk for suicide than the general population – and it’s common for these suicidal feelings to be expressed indirectly through risky, self-destructive behaviors.

HIV and depression seem to go hand-in-hand. And that brings us back to our common denominator.

Oppression. It doesn’t just increase the risk of HIV infection – it increases the risk of depression as well. No wonder they coexist so frequently.

You know what’s ironic? The same day this student came to see me (November 25th), David Huebner of the University of Utah published a research article in Health Psychology that, in a nutshell, told this young man’s story. The title of the article? “Social Oppression, Psychological Vulnerability, and Unprotected Intercourse with Young Black Men Who Have Sex with Men.” With a title like that, you almost don’t even need to read any further. What this article does, in my mind, is connect the dots. Among the 1,2o0-plus participants in the study, those who experienced higher degrees of racism, homophobia, and socioeconomic distress were more likely to engage in a range of risky behaviors – unprotected anal sex, multiple partners, sex in public places, etc. What’s interesting, though, is that depression appeared to be the missing link. If racism, homophobia, and socioeconomic distress were all on board, then depression was likely to be part of the picture as well – which in turn was associated with risky sexual behaviors.

To me, looking at the equation from that perspective paints a different picture. For decades, public health researchers have been trying to stem the tide of HIV infection by focusing on risky sexual practices. But if you think about it, they’re not just “risky sexual practices” – they’re indirect suicidal behaviors. Whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, many people with HIV walk the line and flirt with danger, putting themselves and others in harm’s way. It’s a cry for help.

My student wants her friend to go to an HIV support group, although he was lukewarm about the idea when she brought it up to him. I hope he changes his mind.

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Filed under HIV/AIDS, homophobia, intersectionality, LGBTQ youth, mental health, psychological research, racism, transphobia