Category Archives: relationships

Why gaydar is my Spidey-sense

It was the first day of swim lessons. My daughter was ready to go, adjusting her swim goggles and trying to guess who was going to be her swim teacher. As we waited, a woman approached us, little boy in tow, both of whom looked uncertain and more than a little nervous.

“Is this the Seahorse Swim School lesson?” she asked us.

“Yes,” I answered.

“I don’t know how he’ll do,” she said anxiously, pointing to her son. “He’s terrified of the water. His uncle tried to teach him to swim by throwing him in.”

“I think they’ll be able to help him,” I said. “We’ve had our daughter do lessons here for a while. They’re really good.” We chatted for a few more minutes before the lesson started. After the kids went off into the pool, the woman walked to the other end of the pool to watch. Amy took that opportunity to lean over and whisper, “She’s one of us.”

“Yup,” I said.

Now, how did we know that she was “one of us”? She didn’t sport any of the obvious indicators – no rainbow jewelry, no buzz cut, no keys on a carabiner attached to her belt loop, no T-shirt that says Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian. But somehow, we intuitively knew that we were playing for the same team. She must have had the same feeling about us – there were LOTS of other families there, but somehow she zeroed in on us. (Lest you think our relationship status would have been obvious, you’d be surprised how often people think Amy and I are sisters. Or they think I’m Amy’s mother – although I’m younger than she is, I’m significantly taller than her. Once someone assumed I was the grandma, Amy was the mom, and our daughter was Amy’s biological kid. No kidding.) Anyway, we were right – the next week, the other mom showed up at swim lessons with the little boy – and if we’d had just a mere inkling about Mom #1, Mom #2 set off loud, jarring alarm bells.

I’ve written about gaydar before – that “Spidey-sense,” as Urban Dictionary refers to it, that somehow allows people to figure out who’s gay and who isn’t. For decades, it was considered to be an urban legend – researchers who studied gaydar in the 1980s declared it to be a complete myth. However, since the late 1990s, there’s actually been a growing body of research focusing on the phenomenon. For example, Gerulf Rieger, a researcher at the University of Essex, has mostly focused on childhood masculinity and femininity to see if that’s a predictor of later sexual orientation in males. (He says it is, but I have my doubts. Maybe I’ll expand on this in a future post.) Nicholas Rule, who is at the University of Toronto, has done some fascinating studies that involve isolating facial features, showing them for a split second, and determining how accurately participants can determine the sexual orientation of the person in the image. (The answer, by the way, is “amazingly accurate.”) When it comes to “gaydar” involving women, Minna Lyons at Liverpool Hope University, and Mollie Ruben, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, both have conducted separate studies indicating that queer women are very good at pinging other queer women – and they do a much better job of it than straight women do. (At the risk of arguing by anecdote, it was a straight woman who assumed I was our daughter’s grandma, and that Amy was the mom.)

Clearly, gaydar is a thing – at least, according to a handful of studies that demonstrate statistical significance. But while these studies tell us that gaydar exists, they don’t really tell us why it exists. Obviously, if you’re looking for a same-sex partner (sexual or not), gaydar is helpful – and my guess is that, for most people, this sufficiently answers the why-does-it-exist question. But for me, that’s not enough. I actually think that gaydar potentially serves MANY purposes, one of which I’ll try to describe.

Let’s go back to the swim lesson. When this incident happened, I wasn’t on the prowl at a bar – I was with Amy, at a swanky beach and tennis club, waiting for our daughter’s lesson to begin. This woman walks in with her son, and because of her son’s swimming phobia, she’s a heartbeat away from an anxiety attack. She sizes up this unfamiliar environment, realizes she’s in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA, starts freaking out even more, and when fight-or-flight kicks in, she scans the area, looking for her people.  Her gaydar kicked in because she needed support. Our gaydar kicked in because we wanted to provide it (and perhaps we wanted a breath of queer familiarity in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA).

Gaydar might help you identify a potential partner – there’s no doubt about that.

Gaydar might help you find friends.

Gaydar might help you find community.

And if you’re a member of an oppressed group, and you’re in a situation that makes you feel anxious, scared, or threatened, gaydar might help you rally the troops, so to speak. Interestingly, I find myself doing that without really thinking about it – if I’m in an unfamiliar situation, my gaydar signal starts unconsciously sweeping the area. Whether I’m aware of it or not, I’m looking for my people.

Yesterday, when my daughter and I were leaving her swim lesson, I ran into the woman and her son. “Hey!” she said. “It’s so good to see you! We’re doing private swim lessons now, and that’s working out so much better!”

“That’s great!” I said. “I’m so glad he’s getting more comfortable in the water. Good to see you too!”

BFFs we are, now. All because of gaydar.

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Filed under coming out, gay-dar, homophobia, psychological research, relationships

My queer feelings about Twitter

At a conference session that focused on book marketing, the presenter made the following point:

“If you want your book to succeed, you should get on Twitter.”

A colleague of mine, over lunch, recently said to me:

“You’ve got great ideas. You should get on Twitter.”

At the end of this past semester, the feedback one of my students gave me was this:

“Your class was great. But you should get on Twitter.”

All snarkiness aside, I will say this: I LOVE Pinterest – it dovetails well with my crafty/home-decorating/gardening/DIY/fun kid stuff interests. In contrast, I really have no idea what Tumblr really is. (I hear that’s a generational thing. And it bothers me that the word “Tumblr” is missing an “e.”) I do know what Twitter is – and a web article I came across captured my feelings about it exactly:

“Twitter promotes a culture of narcissism and attention-seeking. In combination with the 140 character limit it also promotes stupidity and dumbs down conversation.”

Needless to say, even though Twitter was developed during the first wave of social networking (along with Myspace and Facebook), I never bothered to join. On a gut level, I suspected that, in addition to enabling narcissism and dumbing down society, Twitter was creating a false sense of connection – a dangerous thing for people who are already socially isolated. (Like at-risk LGBTQ youth, for example.) At some point, however, I realized that my “promotes a culture of narcissism” attitude is contempt prior to investigation. And I began to consider the very real possibility that I could be missing out on something big. Plus I was feeling like a bit of a hypocrite, deriding Twitter but constantly losing myself in Facebook (a social network that probably promotes a culture of narcissism  – just in a different way).

So I bit the bullet, and I joined. I created a Twitter handle (@GaylePitman, if you’re interested). I started following people. I began to tweet (although I much prefer true birdsong). I learned what a hashtag is (the thing #thatlookslikethis), and I started to use them. I started GETTING followers.

And, because I’m an intellectual geek, I started reading about the psychology of Twitter. Would you believe that over 650 scholarly articles have been published about Twitter? Here’s a comparison: Use “gay African-American” as your search terms, and you get 502 articles. Search for “LGBT aging,” and you get 109 articles. More studies have been done on Twitter than on African American gay men and LGBT aging combined. The sheer amount of research that focuses on Twitter is mind-boggling, to say the least. And as I’ve been combing through this research, I can see the utility of Twitter, particularly for marketing purposes. However, I also think that Twitter can be dangerous. (Yes, I used the word dangerous.)  Especially for youth, including LGBTQ teens and young adults, who rely heavily on social networking platforms as a means of staying connected.

As I read through the research, three major concepts jumped out at me. The first, which emerged in many of the early studies of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms, involves what’s called “self-monitoring” and “impression management.” In a nutshell, these terms refer to the ways people self-police what they post. They want to look good, and they want people to like them, so people craft their posts (or tweets) in a way that will potentially be appealing to others. As a result, “friends” or “followers” aren’t necessarily getting a true or genuine picture of you – rather, they’re getting the cleaned-up, packaged version that you’re deliberately presenting.

The second concept involves what’s called “parasocial interaction,” a term coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. When an interaction is parasocial, it’s imbalanced, one-sided, and non-reciprocated. Psychotherapy is an example of a type of parasocial interaction; ideally, the client is the one who’s revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings, and while the therapist is listening and responding, he or she isn’t reciprocating. If you love Prince William and Kate Middleton, you undoubtedly know a whole lot more about them than they do about you. Although you can have a conversation with someone on Twitter, typically a tweet is a type of parasocial interaction.

The last body of research involves what many researchers refer to as “herd behavior.” It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. Nietsche called it the “herd instinct.” Kierkegaard called it “the crowd.” Sigmund Freud developed what he called “crowd behavior theory” – and many people today on social media refer to it as the “hive mind.” All of these terms describe how people in large groups become deindividuated, losing their unique perspective and converging into uniformity. Some historians believe that Hitler capitalized on the herd phenomenon – it’s purported that, at his speeches, he planted German officers disguised as civilians within the crowd. These officers would then clap and cheer for Hitler, causing the rest of the crowd to follow suit. A related concept is what’s called the “spiral of silence theory,” which describes how people who hold a perceived minority opinion choose not to speak up, for fear of being criticized, threatened, or rejected.

OK, let’s recap. Social networking platforms (1) encourage the presentation of a false self, and discourage good-bad-and-ugly realness; (2) facilitate one-sided relationships, rather than exercising those give-and-take relationship muscles; and (3) trap you into the pit of the hive mind.

Let’s bring this back to LGBTQ issues. When I was coming out back in the mid-1990s, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. Hell, there was barely an Internet. (I know, I sound rigid and crotchety, but bear with me.) In many ways, this sounds like a terrible disadvantage, given the numerous information pathways that have opened up in the last 20 years. However, it forced me to get out of my house and meet real people. And I did. I met a lesbian woman who was an animation artist. I met a gay man who worked in the fab at Intel and wore one of those big bunny suits. I met a woman who danced at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I met a woman who had been exclusively attracted to women – and then was caught off-guard when she fell in love with a man. I watched people get into relationships, stay in relationships, and leave relationships. These were not stereotypes. These were not carefully crafted Twitter or Facebook profiles. These were real people, with all of their imperfections and vulnerabilities. And it was a true gift, because it allowed me to see that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of embracing your queer identity.

So I’m still on Twitter. It is actually a very useful marketing tool – if you have a need to market a product or an idea. It does get information out quickly – if you have information that’s useful to others. But for relationships, for connections, for community? I’d advise you to look elsewhere. Use Twitter for what it does well. Get out of your house and meet people if you’re looking to break isolation.

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Filed under mental health, psychological research, relationships, stereotypes

The “other” mother

When you’re a two-mom family, and your daughter’s school has a Mother’s Day event and a Father’s Day event, what do you do? Should both moms go to the Mother’s Day event? Should one go to the Mother’s Day event, and the other go to the Father’s Day event, so they each get their own special day? Should they stage a protest, recruit all of the families that are something other than one mom/one dad, and demand that the school adopt an all-inclusive “Parent’s Day”?

This is exactly the dilemma my family has been talking about this week. The Mother’s Day tea is this Friday. The Father’s Day breakfast is in early June. And all week, we’ve been discussing how to handle this. What’s interesting is that, for me, there is no dilemma. I’m the birth mom, and I’m planning to go to the Mother’s Day tea. Amy, on the other hand, feels quite conflicted. Because she’s The Other Mother. It sounds so Newhart-esque: “Hi. This is my mother. And this is my other mother.”

I joke about this, but it’s actually a source of mild stress in our family. As the non-birth parent, Amy tends to be perceived – and treated – differently than I am. Lots of times, we’ve been in situations where I’m clearly seen as “the mom,” but it’s not entirely clear where Amy fits into the puzzle until we explain it. Even when I was pregnant, Amy and I had lots of conversations about what our child would call her. It was clear that I’d be “Mommy” or “Mama,” but it wasn’t clear what Amy would be. (She came up with “Maddy” – a mash-up between “Mommy” and “Daddy.”) She has a different relationship with our daughter than I do – largely, I think, because of her non-biological status. In fact, from an institutional standpoint, because we had our daughter before same-sex marriage was legal in California, there was a short period of time where Amy had no legal tie to our daughter. That’s an incredibly othering experience – and it’s hard not to internalize that.

I have had lots of conversations with other two-mom families about these issues. We talk, for example, about the cultural script that exists for families who consist of The Mommy and The Daddy. Mommies do certain things, and Daddies do certain things. In the days of traditional gender roles, those scripts were more constricted, at least among middle-class families. Now that strides have been made towards gender equity, you’d think that those scripts in heterosexual couples would have evaporated – but they haven’t. Even researchers who talk about “modern marriage” note that gender roles still persist in even the most progressive heterosexual relationships. Mothers tend to do more housework than fathers – even when both spouses work full-time. Mothers are more likely than fathers to manage their children’s social lives – driving to sports practices, scheduling playdates, and taking children to birthday parties, for example. Even for heterosexual couples who are non-traditional and believe in equality, the tendency is, at least to some degree, to fall into these roles.

For us two-mommy families, however, those scripts just fly out the window, because gender doesn’t anchor us into specific roles. Because of that, same-sex parents (both two-mommy and two-daddy) are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have egalitarian relationships. In our house, for example, both of us alternate taking our daughter to school and picking her up. We take turns doing the food shopping and cooking. Amy cleans the house. (She’s better at it than I am.) I do the finances. (I’m better at that than she is.) Amy does most of the handyperson stuff, although I’m no stranger to DIY home improvement projects. I do most of our daughter’s social scheduling (it’s amazing how crowded a six-year-old’s social calendar can get!). Amy is usually the one to read stories to our daughter at night and put her to bed. We do what we do not because our culture provides a handy script for us. It’s just how we’ve figured out how to do things.

I’ve had many conversations with queer families about family roles and household tasks. And I’ve seen quite a few studies that focus on household and parenting roles among same-sex couples. However, there are almost no studies focusing on the ways The Other Mother – the non-birth parent – feels, well, “othered.” The thing we talk about the most is the issue that has been studied the least.

There is one study, by Kira Abelsohn and her colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario. Using qualitative data, she and her colleagues identified a range of factors affecting the mental health and well-being of non-birth moms. These include the following:

Having a biological tie. Many two-mom families find a way for the non-birth mom to have a biological relationship to their child. I know several couples, for example, where the birth mom was inseminated with the sperm of a male relative of her partner. In one case, it was a brother; in another, it was a cousin. The presence of a biological connection, according to Abelsohn’s findings, increased the non-birth mom’s sense of connectedness and relatedness, which, in turn, was associated with better mental health and well-being.

Social recognition. For non-birth moms, being seen as a legitimate parent is associated with higher well-being and mental health. If, on the other hand, one is seen as “The Mom,” and the other is seen as “something else,” that tends to undermine the non-birth mom’s sense of well-being. This social recognition is important on an interpersonal level, but it’s particularly important on an institutional level. Many states, even today, prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children – and many lack second-parent adoption processes. Having those protections in place, in addition to providing a legal tie, offers significant mental health benefits to the non-birth parent.

Social support. Having a community of people who support and validate your role as a mom helps tremendously in terms of positive well-being. That community could be anyone – family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors – but it’s especially helpful to have a network of n0n-birth moms who might share similar experiences.

Amy doesn’t have a biological tie to our child. She does have a lot of social support, and she does enjoy a good amount of social recognition (even with the differential treatment she sometimes gets). However, non-birth moms (and other parents who don’t fit neatly into the heterosexual template) will continue to feel “othered,” I’m sure, until our society moves beyond seeing the one-mom, one-dad family as “standard,” and everything else as “alternative,”

Regarding our Mother’s Day/Father’s Day dilemma: Last week, when Amy pulled one of our daughter’s teachers aside to talk about this, the teacher leaned over and whispered, “You could double-dip if you wanted to.” She may, in fact, do just that.

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Filed under children, LGBT families, mental health, psychological research, relationships, Uncategorized

Labels, labels, labels!

This weekend, I attended the LGBTQIA conference at the University of the Pacific, a biannual event that draws hundreds of people from throughout California. At this conference, I presented an overview of findings from my research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community. The room was packed. There were people sitting on the floor. I stayed for half an hour after my session ended to talk to a line of people. “I don’t think they liked it very much,” one of my colleagues joked afterwards.

Then there was The Question. The one I didn’t have a great answer for. “Did you consider interviewing someone who identifies as asexual?” she asked. I had not. Because, in fact, I don’t know anyone who openly identifies as asexual. I didn’t at that particular moment, anyway. Throughout the conference, I met several people who identify as asexual. I met another person who is a demisexual panromantic poly female. I met another person who described herself as an “amoeba.” I heard the terms “gray-A,”, “nonlibidoism,” and “queerplatonic.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I wrote these terms down and Googled them later, because I had no idea what they meant – and, like entering Narnia through the back of the wardrobe, I was introduced to a whole new nomenclature.

There aren’t a whole lot of studies focusing on asexuality, and I could only find one that addressed the question of how common it is. Out of a community-based sample of 18,000 participants, 1% identified as asexual – which doesn’t sound like much, until you crunch the numbers. One percent of 18,000 is 180. One percent of the U.S. population is over three million people. That’s a lot of people.

Other studies focus on who is likely to be asexual. Morag Yule and Lori Brotto, researchers at the University of British Columbia Sexual Health Lab, have conducted several studies investigating whether other characteristics are associated with asexuality. Interestingly, asexual men and women are more likely to be left-handed, according to one study. One of their studies focused on birth order – asexual men, according to their findings, are more likely than non-asexuals to be later-born siblings, while asexual women are more likely to be first-borns. People who are asexual are more likely, according to yet another study, to have alexithymia – an emotional blindness, detached from any experience of feelings. Not surprisingly, Laura Gilmour, a researcher from Grant MacEawan University in Ontario, found a higher-than-average rate of asexuality among people with autism spectrum disorders – which often involve some form of alexithymia. The asexual community seems to have made this connection on its own – one blogger calls himself  “Amoebageek.” (“Amoeba” is a slang term used to describe asexuality.) Another calls herself “LadyGeekGirl” and posts semi-regularly about asexuality. Like so many things in the queer community, I bet if an asexual-identified person read these studies, that person would say, “Well, I could have told you THAT!”

All of that came from about five different studies. No joke. In fact, the best information out there about asexuality isn’t emerging from the psychological literature – at least, not yet. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), on the other hand, provides an overview of asexuality, a series of FAQs, stories of the experiences of various asexual-identified people, a newsletter, and an online forum.  In fact, some people identify as “AVENites” or “AVENistas,” meaning that they are a member of the AVEN forums. It’s clear that AVEN is a strong fixture in the asexual community, and it’s chock-full of great information.

As I was reading through AVEN’s site for the first time, what intrigued me was their strong, repeated focus on research ethics. Emphasis on the word STRONG. Their “Rules for using AVEN for research,” for example, provides researchers with an extensive set of guidelines for recruiting participants or using existing data from AVEN. This is as rigorous as a university Human Subjects Committee, I thought to myself as I read through these documents. In addition to their lengthy guidelines, AVEN also asks researchers to read their “Open Letter to Researchers,” a document drafted in 2011 that provides further recommendations for conducting research using online asexual communities. 

Why so much focus on research ethics? Remember what I said earlier – that “the best information out there about asexuality isn’t emerging from the psychological literature.” Part of that is because asexuality is just starting to register on the radar screen. But part of it is that asexuality has already been extensively studied – but in an abusive and pathologizing way. You see, most researchers have assumed that asexuality is a psychological disorder. They get diagnosed with “HSDD” – hypoactive sexual desire disorder (or, since the publication of DSM-5, “SIAD” – sexual interest/arousal disorder). And then they get treated for it – well, subjected to reparative therapy, really. Sound familiar?

Think about it. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people continue to be subjected to reparative therapy, even 41 years after the “homosexuality” diagnosis was removed from the DSM. Transgender people often are expected (or forced) to undergo some form of gender-reparative therapy, often after being diagnosed with “gender identity disorder” (or, since DSM-V, “gender dysphoria”). And here it is again. While there truly are people who suffer from sexual dysfunctions and deserve to experience relief from them, AVEN – and a growing group of researchers – makes clear that asexuality is not the same thing as HSDD or SIAD. It’s a sexual orientation. And attempts at changing people’s sexual orientation via reparative therapy techniques – well, you all know how that goes.

At the conference, the question about asexuality wasn’t the only one that got the gears of my brain turning. Shortly afterwards, another student approached me and asked, “What do you think about labels?” (Actually, before asking the question, he prefaced with a series of comments about queer theory, post-structuralism, and radical deconstructionism. I won’t go into all of that here.)

What do I think about labels? I had to think for a minute. Years ago, feminist psychologist Laura Brown wrote a book called Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy, which influenced my thinking enormously. One chapter in the book was titled “Naming the Pain,” and it focused on the politics of diagnosis – a form of labeling, if you will. The Cliffs Notes version of that chapter is that diagnosis, as we all know, can be incredibly pathologizing and shaming. But it can also be liberating. Knowing what it is that you have enables you to talk about it, to find community, to experience some sense of relief.

The same goes, I think, for sexual and gender identity labels. Finding a word to describe your experience can be enormously empowering. Once you find the word “asexual,” you’re more likely to stumble upon AVEN – and find a large community of others like yourself. But labels can be hijacked by others (or they can create their own labels), and used to suppress and control. Sexual and gender minorities are all too familiar with this, I must say.

One conference. A semester’s worth of new information. Try it sometime.

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Filed under bisexuality, human rights, intersectionality, psychological research, relationships, reparative therapy

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