Indiana Governor Mike Pence continues to defend the state's new law authorizing discrimination in business transactions if it's based on "religious beliefs." Religious beliefs—you know, the kind that have previously defended civic virtues like slavery, child-beating, and denying women's right to vote. That's "religious freedom" in action for you.
The legislation is supposedly intended to protect people with strong religious beliefs who don't want to provide services for same-sex weddings.
America's Christian community (population 240 million) continues to be obsessed with non-existent threats to their freedom to worship. "You don't have to look too far to find a growing hostility toward people of faith," state legislator Scott Schneider of Indianapolis says. "This bill acts as a shield, not a sword."
With Good Friday around the corner—a 100% religious event that all Americans are forced to observe through the closing of public schools, the stock market, and most state and federal offices—this is a perfect time to examine the extent to which America's religious believers need "protecting."
Many of the law's sponsors and defenders won't even be honest about whom this is aimed at: gay Americans getting married or setting up households. If this law isn't about gays, let's consider all the other situations to which supporters say it will apply: none.
For example, no one is talking about how this law will protect:
- Orthodox Jews who don't want to sell milk to people who will use it in a meal with meat;
- Catholic photographers who don't want to work at weddings of the previously-divorced;
- Evangelical Christians who don't want to provide legal or mental health services to those accused of infidelity;
- Muslims who don't want to provide limo service for events serving pork.
- The idea of "protecting" people of faith from unwanted experiences out in the world started with the "conscience clauses" pioneered by opponents of abortion and contraceptive rights. As the 21st century dawned, pharmacists, hospital orderlies, and others discovered that their religion dictated that they couldn't do the jobs for which they were hired or, indeed, licensed—if it involved dispensing medication or facilitating medical services they didn't want people to have.
But our Constitution doesn't guarantee anyone's right to pursue their religion as far as they like. It simply says the government won't interfere with someone's "free exercise thereof." You want to worship, go ahead. You want to burn down a library because your religious beliefs require it, the government won't allow that.
So you want to preach against marriage equality, go ahead. You want to try to dissuade others from participating, go ahead. But you want a special "religious" exemption from the laws that govern how modern society works? No. For that, you need to move to Iran.
Some people say they can't obey anti-discrimination laws because they'd be helping others behave in ways they find unacceptable. That's like refusing to stop at a red light in front of a mosque because you'd be enabling people to pray to Allah. Or your taxi company refusing to take Blacks to White neighborhoods because you'd be helping the races mix.
- What are these people so afraid of? Every business person, tradesperson, and professional in America has already served gays without realizing it, and it hasn't sent them to hell. And these days, virtually every religious person is discovering that someone they love or admire is, gulp, gay. Hey, bad news for every Christian cardiac surgeon—you've probably saved a gay person's life!
- Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Corporation, is gay. If these religious people are serious about not doing business with gays, they should stop using Apple products, and they should sell their Apple stock.
- How perfect that Indiana uses the word "freedom" to name a law that institutionalizes bigotry.
- This law is a perversion of religion, anyway. Show me, people, where your religion says you can't do business with people who are non-believers, or people whose personal practices you abhor. Religion is simply an excuse for extraordinary narcissism, paranoia, and barely repressed rage. Because people cloak it with "religion" it's called freedom.
- Freedom of religion under attack? Shame on Americans who say that. A year of living in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria might help such people understand what it really means to lose freedom of religion.
- The non-gay response to this law across the country has been gratifying. CEOs, politicians, and entertainers from across the country have weighed in, attacking discrimination that in this case is against gay people.
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For two centuries, American society has generated a steady expansion of freedom—for groups, for activities, for individuals. Indiana, where freedom apparently requires discrimination—has interrupted this progress by making a zero-sum game. What a dangerous, authoritarian idea.
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To tell Governor Pence what you think of his new law, phone him at 317/232-9677.
He was 50, married, and he had all the symptoms of "sex addiction." Let's call him Joe.
As he travelled the country lecturing (he was a pioneering ear surgeon), he'd hire an escort to spend the night with him. He'd lie about it to his wife, of course. He became a regular—or rather he had a few "regulars"—in cities he visited frequently, such as Chicago and St. Louis. What had started 12 years ago as an occasional treat eventually became a virtual necessity.
While he wanted to be an attentive father and husband, he worked long hours and was emotionally distant from his sons and his wife. His sexual desire for her was erratic—sometimes overwhelming her, other times leaving her disappointed and confused. Always a frequent masturbator, he became a devoted consumer of online pornography. He put up a profile on Match.com and OkCupid, although it was only to cruise, never to actually hook up.
He eventually got caught. The escorts were the big headline of course, an institutionalized, long-term infidelity that completely outraged his stunned wife. But once the matter was opened, his over-involvement with porn, the mercurial desire for his wife that seemed not quite personally connected to her, his periodic inappropriate comments to waitresses, flight attendants, and baristas, all became fair game for her angry and frightened outbursts.
"I love you, which for me is simple," she said bitterly. "What's wrong with you?" For once, he told the truth: "I love you, but for me, that's complicated," he said.
He promised he'd stop with the escorts, but didn't. He agreed to share his online passwords, but simply opened new accounts. He took down his profiles on Match and OkCupid, but found other websites on which to cruise.
And that's how it was when they came into my office. Two years after he'd been caught cheating, they were trapped in a cycle of his promising, her believing, and him lying and getting caught again.
Over and over. She was terrified of losing her marriage, and outraged at the repeated humiliation. He was tired of her monitoring him, of her "still processing her feelings, after two whole years," and of her periodic suspicions.
When they came to me they were getting "sex addiction" treatment, which their individual therapists had both encouraged. As the spouse of an "addict," she was in S-Anon, endlessly talking about her trauma and her "co-dependence." He was going to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings, but not regularly, and he was reading about the 12 Steps, but not quite enthusiastically.
She wanted me treat his "sex addiction," and he was willing to do almost anything to end their nightmare of mistrust and chronic conflict.
But in the very first session, I told them that I don't use the category of "sex addiction."
"You don't treat cases like this? You won't see us?"
"I do treat cases like this, all the time, actually. I just don't use the ideas around sex addiction to explain people's behavior, or to make treatment decisions."
"What do you do instead?"
"I do therapy. Couples counseling or individual therapy, as seems appropriate."
Although they were skeptical, they decided to see me anyway.
And that's what we did—therapy. During the course of our work, here's some of what Joe realized:
- He turns to sex when he feels lonely.
- Because he knows his wife loves him, there's a limit to how proud he feels when she tells him he's great. He gets more emotional value from strangers' appreciation than from his family's. And sex workers are the perfect strangers.
- He makes promises about calling or texting his wife when he travels for work. But then he feels so controlled when it's time to contact her that it's a struggle to keep his promises. For him, not calling is a small adolescent rebellion that feels oddly satisfying. But her experience is that for him, giving into these feelings is more important than their marriage or his commitment.
In fact, we talked about what other non-sexual feelings he has that are so strong he finds it difficult to keep his commitments. It was eye-opening for both of them.
Mostly Joe talked about these things–with his wife. She didn't like some of what she heard. I gently encouraged her. When she tried to avoid or limit conversations by saying she was "being triggered," I gently insisted the conversation continue. When he tried to avoid or limit conversations by referring to her obvious discomfort, I wouldn't let him.
And so they talked. They fought, but they were fighting about new things, and eventually they were fighting in a new way—as partners attempting to find truths, rather than as adversaries trying to persuade each other about who was wrong.
I didn't tell Joe what he couldn't do (like use pornography), so he didn't have to defend his autonomy with me. Of course, he got defensive anyway, periodically feeling misunderstood and judged.
We talked about that as part of our relationship. She observed us. He thought about it. They talked about it. They were watching intimacy in action. They practiced it. They cautiously liked it.
He backslid, hiding a few inconsequential things for seemingly no reason. Of course. I interpreted this: yes, he was wrong, but he wasn't bad. This was big news for both of them.
He voluntarily disclosed more about what he had done in the bad old days—months after he had supposedly told her everything. She wailed about him victimizing her again. I reframed this, encouraging them to celebrate it. Backed by her therapist, she once again insisted on "full transparency." I suggested something slightly more modest, so he could succeed and she could enjoy it.
She's still waiting, I think, for the "full transparency." Do grownups really provide that to each other about important topics? Your favorite flavor of ice cream, sure. But your sexual fantasies, your sense of guilt for not being a better spouse, your secret flirtation at the airport? It isn't easy, and if it comes, it rarely comes all at once.
Therapy continued, all three of us working our butts off. He developed a new standard of sexual behavior for himself, which he's been living up to—at least, that's what he says, and I believe him. She's still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Her therapist says she has PTSD. That strikes me as a heavy burden to place on this woman, who is still upset, maybe a little too upset, almost three years after her husband's betrayal with professional escorts.
If there's an addict here, maybe it's her, rather than him.
"Yam tho." It's pronounced "yomm toe," except you form the syllables in the back of your throat rather than the front, and you end the words with a tight jaw rather than a loose one.
It means "vagina" in Chinese, and it became my secret weapon. When I can't get a non-U.S. group to loosen up and participate in a seminar, I have them teach me how to say vagina in the local language, and then a few bold ones and I practice together. By doing this periodically for the length of the seminar, everyone eventually gets involved. So I got good at saying Yam tho, and they got good at saying it as well as at hearing it.
Other than "yam tho," most of the group of 32 professionals hardly said a word; in fact, some of them looked down when I spoke to them.
I taught The Sexual Intelligence Approach to Therapy, and I worked my butt off. How many different ways can you say "Any questions? Any comments?" and still get silence in return? When I asked "does this material seem relevant to your work?" they still stared at me blankly. Did I mention that I was working my butt off?
Fortunately for me, I have taught in many Asian countries, and so I expected this. But it was still frustrating—all the more so because I had to respond to the silence and blankness with my own big smile and renewed energy.
But that's the Hong Kong way: respect the authority of the teacher. Don't talk about your own experience, even if the teacher begs for it. The interesting exception: over a third of the participants came late, straggling in by ones and twos during the first half-hour of the seminar. They apologized perfunctorily.
By the end of the day most participants were at least smiling, and I ended the day by talking about their silence and my informal style of teaching. I discussed how our patients want to show us deference, which can either help or hinder the therapy. And of course therapists have to find a way to show respect to patients—without hindering the therapy as well.
I told the group I understood they wanted to be respectful to me. I said that challenging their own inhibitions would be one way to do it, and that coming on time the next day would be another. They nodded, and the next day, they were all on time. They even spoke during the day. And we talked about it all as a therapeutic issue, which was a first for almost every one of them.
In Hong Kong, most young people live at home until they marry, which makes dating an interesting activity. Almost no one has a car. Pre-marital sex isn't that common, and so we have the interesting phenomenon of newlywed couples who are sophisticated in every way—except sexually. This is different than virginal couples in, say, Pakistan, who lack sophistication in most ways in addition to sexually.
Will that change with a new generation of young Hong Kongers? It doesn't appear so. The 79-day Occupy Central event was no Woodstock, no 1969, no anti-Vietnam War movement. Although young people did mobilize together for the first time, there was virtually no lifestyle component to it, certainly nothing involving sex or drugs (or even progressive music). No one is going to suddenly leave their parents' home and live a new way.
The power of sexuality to transform lives, then, is still a sleeping dragon for young people here. Sexual expression, of course, is the ultimate form of personal autonomy, which is why both authoritarian regimes and organized religion want to control and limit it. Most young Hong Kongers have still not personally experienced sexuality freeing them from the earth's gravitational pull. They're not demanding more access to it, and still rarely kiss or hold hands in public.
And so teaching therapists about sexual empowerment and integrity, and how to bring such topics into the therapy room, wasn't quite so straightforward as it is in the U.S.. Our two-day seminar at Tung Wah College progressed slowly, although the feedback was that it had been profound for many participants.
The following day I lectured about sexuality education design and delivery at the Hong Kong Family Planning Association. I had two primary messages: that we should be teaching young people life skills, which they can then apply to sexual situations and decisions, and that sex education should not be focused on harm reduction but on life enhancement.
Hong Kong's young adults need that just as much as their eight-year-olds.