Censor Your Sexuality – Dr Stanley Siegel and the Future of Psychology

Posted: March 20, 2012 by Esteban in Interview

With the world of intelligently driven, literary minds dominated more and more by commercially driven brands and corporations, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate free thought from a well placed advertisement. The stifling idea that mentors, teachers, and therapists in possession of a superior intellect and doctorates from the most expensive colleges not only censoring the advice they offer to patients seeking help, but also filtering the type of individuals they are willing to offer their services to is frighteningly real scenario.

We sat down with Dr Stanley Siegel, recent exile of Psychology Today and visionary of Psychology Tomorrow, to out the reason (if any) behind his recent sexually transmitted censorship.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Dr Siegel. Please tell us, in your own words, what happened with Psychology Today?

As I usually do, I wrote a column for “Intelligent Lust”. This column was called
“Sex Worker or Sex Therapist”. In the column I explored a number of things. I
described a number of cases I had worked with over the years in which patients
of mine had greatly benefited from sex workers. One had been celibate all his
life and worked in South Vietnam. He finally retired, came back to the US, and
had never had sex in his life. His devoted friends got together and decided they
should cure that. They found a sex worker who was kind and patient and taught
him how to have sex.

Another patient was a woman who had been sexually molested as a child and
developed a fear of not only sex, but of touch. Similarly, her friends got together and had an intervention. They found a male sex worker for her who was also kind and loving and empathetic. Very gradually, over a number of months, he taught her how to be touched and how to touch and that relationship went on for three of four months. She felt completely transformed by it. For the first time in her life she was able to go out into the world and begin to have serious adult relationships.

I talked about how sex workers can use the same skills sex therapists use. I also
talked about sex surrogates in the field of psychology. Now, in this column I used words like “dick” and “penis” because of the quotes that were given to me by both patients and sex workers. So I submitted my column as I usually do and it was instantly flagged. I wrote a message to my editor asking him why it had been flagged. She wrote back a very curt note saying that it was too graphic and that we (Psychology Today) don’t write about sex surrogates or sex workers.

I had done my research and Psychology Today had already published at least
seven articles on sex workers and sex surrogates. I told her that couldn’t be the
reason and that there must be another, to which I got no response. The next
morning I opened my email and there was a note from the editor-in-chief saying that they were retiring my column, that they reserved the right to retire it, and that my column wasn’t going in the direction of the magazine.

Fair enough, except for a few of things:

1. There had been no discussion about this at all.

2. It was the most popular column.

3. I knew there was some other subtext I wasn’t being told.

Eventually, I gathered that my column was attracting the type of readers that
Psychology Today didn’t want reading the magazine.

That is very vague.

What it meant to me was that I had been building a huge audience of gays and
lesbians and transgenders and porn stars and sex workers because I did not fear writing about these subjects and I wrote about them positively. I also wrote about myself increasingly, which meant that I eventually came out in a column as a man who has had plenty of sex with men and women. I was writing in a very personal way. That, apparently, was not the direction they were willing to go.

Were these self references in your articles leading up to your “coming out” within the same time-frame as your discharge from Psychology Today?

Yes. What happened was that I had a very supportive editor who was always
sending me emails, telling me how popular the column was. She also made
“Intelligent Lust” a must-read column. Six weeks before this all happened that
editor took a sabbatical to have a baby. Almost instantly, all of my columns
stopped appearing on the most popular list. They were, however, still getting
published all over the world in all kinds of magazines.

When I inquired to this new editor as to why it wasn’t getting picked she said it
didn’t have a basis of merit, which was the same day the articles came out in
Opera magazine, so I knew it wasn’t a question of merit. I knew it was a
question of her taste. In addition to that, after this new editor came on, it was
asked if I was a man who has had plenty of sex with men and women and I feel
that she took offense to that. I think that is very much related to what
happened.

That specific editor was very much offended and I think that she may have had
an erotophobic reaction. I feel that she had her own fears and anxieties about
what I was writing about. Basically, she was looking for a reason to get rid of
me. When I seemed to step over the line by using the word “dick,” or when I
talked about my own experiences with sex workers, saying that during the
course of my life I had seen sex workers and that they helped me understand my sexuality and helped me to deal with shame, I feel that that may have been
stepping over the boundaries of what I now realize was a very conservative
magazine. Ironically I was hired because my views were unconventional and challenging to the views of traditional of psychology.

What did your old editor say?

My old editor was also unresponsive. I still haven’t heard from her.

Had you used terms like “dick” or self references in your articles in the past?

The self references began about the same time the new editor came on. I think
it was the self references in particular that she found offensive.

And these vulgarities?

I hadn’t used them before, either. What was happening was that I was increasingly finding my voice and the articles became increasingly authentic
about who I was and who I am.

Do you feel psychology leans on objectiveness?

Yes! Everyone else liked it, though. That is why it was the most popular column. Clearly I was doing something right. I was getting a record number of tweets and emails saying how affirmed and acknowledged people felt. There was this huge difference between what the editors felt and what the people who read the magazine wanted.

Had you seen these reoccurring themes of bias and prejudice while
working with Psychology Today?

I have since gotten emails from people telling me about other similar events.
There was a controversy around racism, as well as another column about sex
workers that caused quite a controversy. Presently, there is a column about
bullying that is derogatory to the victim and another on bisexuality in which
bisexual people have taken offense. I’ve gotten letters from all of those people in support of my column who have taken a strong position. Other people said that they have written in to the magazine with very discouraging results.

That’s not a very academic way of handling these topics, is it? In fact, it seems more juvenile than anything.

Exactly, especially when they refuse to speak to me about any of this.

I don’t understand how they (Psychology Today) could actively realize that you are helping a large number of people with these articles, be they racy or not, and still terminate the column.

Exactly. That is what psychology is about and that is what I assumed the
magazine was about. Here is what happened—a friend of mine wrote a letter to
the owner saying how much he liked the column and how much it benefitted him and asked for the owner to reinstate it. The owner actually wrote back saying that my columns were too risqué and attracting “the wrong reader”. I didn’t know there was a wrong type of reader for those in need of help from
Psychology Today.

What would be interesting to learn is what type of niche they think
they are writing for. What type of target audience does Psychology
Today want? Anyway, for the record, let’s talk about you, Dr. Siegel.
What type of work do you do in New York?

I practice psychotherapy and I have been for forty years now. In my longtime
practice I’ve written a number of books that have been well received and
reviewed. Over the years I’ve developed my own unique voice as a
psychotherapist, and increasingly, as a writer.

How has this issue with Psychology Today affected your work, if at all?

It is too early to tell. It was an excellent platform for making my point-of-view
known and helping people outside of my office. It was the reason I wrote books
from the start. I’ve lost that platform for the moment and I don’t know in what
other ways it will affect my work.

Other people’s response to it has been overwhelmingly supportive. People are
contacting Psychology Today after reading the column, which can be viewed on my website (www.stanley-siegel.com). People have reached out to Psychology Today. As soon as I reached out to the public, they took down all of my past columns.

Getting back to my response: I received one letter that struck me as particularly interesting. The writer said that I shouldn’t go back to Psychology Today should they ever reinstate my column. It is a known conservative magazine. This person suggested I start my own magazine called Psychology Tomorrow. That is that I’m doing. Psychology Tomorrow is going to look at psychology as an art, away from the more conservative movement, while also looking at psychology in art. We are building the magazine based on new ideas.

Brilliant. It seems like that is the only natural progression of how to
handle this. You have the complete endorsement of Ultra Vulgar Super Fiend. Please tell me more.

I’ve reserved the domain and email. I am now starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise money. I am looking for submissions from not only psychologists, but
people who want to write about the psychology in art. I want to explore that
concept because I think psychology is as much an art as it is a science.

What is your ideal distribution for this?

I think it will start out bimonthly online. With its success it will become a regular monthly, and then probably in print.

That is great to hear. We very much look forward to reading
Psychology Tomorrow. Last question before we go: If a community of intellectual minds has the right to censor, where does the censorship stop?

That is what is frightening. These are people in authority who are acting with a tremendous amount of prejudice and bigotry. It’s not a question of where it stops, it’s a question of how do we prevent it from starting?

Absolutely. Certain preventative measures should be put in place, but in the end they are a private print and they have the First Amendment on their side.

For a magazine that makes money on the idea of psychology, why would they choose who is allowed to read their magazine? It’s about helping people, and helping everyone, and to see this happen is really regrettable.

It is. Their audience should have rights as well—not just whoever they feel like taking money from or whoever has the right to literacy. On the other hand, that is American capitalism, so what can you do?

You are right, sir. So, we start our own magazine that is open minded and
embraces every reader.

It’s been a very informative interview, Dr. Siegel. Thank you.

INFORMATION ON PSYCHOLOGY TOMORROW MAGAZINE

For nearly four decades, I have sat and listened to people who present their stories. I still marvel at how unique are many of their problems and how well these problems also function as solutions. The more I explore a situation to find out what is right rather than what is wrong about it, the more creativity I discover and the deeper is my conviction that the human mind has a genius for navigating life’s challenges.

As I continue to teach and lecture among my colleagues, I have become increasingly aware that most psychotherapists train and practice within a paradigm that sees patients’ problems as rooted in pathology. These therapists wait and watch for a symptom to see how it might fit into a a category of identified disorders. That neatly solves the problem for the therapists, but not for the patients.

While an understanding of the science of psychology is the accepted basis for treating patients, a wider appreciation of psychology as art informs my practice. A therapist’s job may be less to cure a problem than to identify, respect and even revere how it solves or rectifies life’s dilemmas.
Much of the satisfaction from my work is the inspiration I derive from seeing over and over again how imaginatively and often unwittingly we address each other’s fears, loyalties and love. Therapy, then, is about decoding and honoring the creativity of the mind rather than the codification of behavior into diagnostic categories.  Only then can it achieve reverence for the power of the human spirit.
Psychology Tomorrow Magazine was created as a reaction to the current overemphasis in psychology for medical or scientific explanations and towards further pathologizing human behavior. It aims to explore the practice of psychology as art in all it’s complex possibilities. As daring, the magazine goes a step further by looking at the relationship between psychology and contemporary dance, photography, film, fashion, writing, and the visual arts.

Whether it’s in the photographs of Bill Hayward in which he asks well-known artists to create a backdrop and a pose that reflects the essence of who they are, or in one of my case stories in which I ask a warring couple to hang sheets throughout their house to symbolize and honor the division between them, or in a short story by Shelia Heti,  Psychology Tomorrow Magazine presents the art in psychology and the psychology in art.

Psychology Tomorrow will be published bi-monthly online and can be viewed by subscription.

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