Volunteer Spotlight: Andrew Pari, LCSW

Andrew Pari, LCSW, distinguished speaker, and Center for Positive Sexuality Board Member, is not one to shy away from difficult topics. In fact, he likes to address them head on. Where many see taboo or controversial topics, Andrew sees access points to understanding and healing. As we talked about in our interview, he brings a sex positive perspective to even the most difficult topics and as Robert Frost puts it, “that has made all the difference.”

Emily June: What was your journey like to your current area of work?

Andrew Pari: I sometimes say I was destined to become a social worker because both of my parents were very involved in civil rights. I have memories at 4 years old carrying a flag in anti-Vietnam war protests. My parents were also staunch civil rights activists. In the very conservative town we lived in in New Jersey, they put forth the first black candidate for mayor in history.  They lost the election but the candidacy itself was historic. They formed a small but powerful liberal coalition in that community, so I was brought up in that milieu.

But I think one of the defining things that led to me doing so much work in sexual assault recovery, trauma work, and work on behalf of girls and women, is I still remember at 15 years old seeing a documentary called Children of the Night, which was a documentary about child sex trafficking, by Dr. Lois Lee on tv one night and I was struck and impacted by it, thinking these are my friends, these girls are my age, like the girls that I go to school with everyday 14, 15, 16 year old girls, so it stuck with me and when I got my Masters in Social Work, I decided my thesis would be on female adolescent runaways. I ended up doing the first research of its kind interviewing actual runaways on the streets of Hollywood. I was surprised to find during my lit review there had not been any direct studies about this on the streets of Hollywood. My N was about 20, so I’m not sure of the wider impact of that research but it was a piece that defines my work.

I often give talks and research on the taboo. Going back to the early 2000’s I started writing online about victim arousal response, victims who report orgasm or arousal during assault, and I thought it was a well-known topic in the field. It wasn’t until I was talking with a coworker of mine about a case I had where my client was dealing with orgasm during assault, and my colleague said, ‘well secretly psychologically she liked it and that’s why she orgasmed’ and it was then I realized people don’t have a clue about desire and arousal being a separate issue. So I gave talks about this and around 2012 or 2014 I did an AMA on reddit and, usually those last for a few hours, but this one went on for weeks.  It was one of the biggest AMA’s and I was invited to speak at a conference on the topic and its grown from there. Next I’m heading to the Congress of the World Association of Sexual Health in Mexico City to present my work. I’m also working with a grad student and university in San Diego doing the first research of its kind in arousal during sexual assault. I’ve done qualitative work on how arousal during sexual assault affects support seeking (law enforcement reporting and seeking treatment), and its already difficult to report, but then add in arousal and support seeking plummets. My focus is always about reducing shame and stigma in sexuality in general, and then in sexuality around sexual assault because shame is such a big barrier in seeking help.

EJ: Why is sexualized violence research considered taboo and why is it such a necessary area of study?

AP: Why it’s taboo is really interesting, because I think universities and researchers and academics have bought into the perception of the myth, not the actual myth but the common perception of the myth that women enjoy rape, ‘oh she was dressed for it, asking for it, went to the club, went back to his place, wanted it’ … and I think there is, and it’s been told to me a number of times, that there is a deep-rooted fear in looking at this issue even though they know it exists. That if we demonstrate that women have an arousal response to rape then we are somehow confirming that women want rape even though we know that the neurobiological response is a completely different response than desire and they are in completely different parts of the brain and they operate differently. Still there’s a fear in academia that the general public might not be able to differentiate, and that fear has been confirmed by leaders in the field when I was trying to see if others were looking into this and they were like, ‘yeah we know it happens but good luck getting a university to back that type of research’.

EJ: So it’s the framing around the conversation that needs to change.

AP: Absolutely, and that’s a lot of what I talk about when I speak. And it’s always the grad students that are the type of grad student I was, who say, ‘I don’t care what people say, this is really interesting and we need to do research’ so Kayla Bunderson is the grad student who is doing the research at Alliant with me. So we put together a research protocol and we’ve had to battle a bit but we got it through and now we’re in data collection.

EJ: Where do you think these study outcomes will have the most impact?

AP: I was a clinical supervisor for many years and there’s so much focus on evidence-based practices and models of treatment that I think we lose sight of the fact that the connection between the client and clinician is the biggest change factor. We have very simple psych tools that we use and we all learn in school, but people often overlook them as not relevant or important, and those two things are “validation and normalization.” Validation of who a person is and what they’ve experienced, and normalization of how they’re feeling about that experience. And I think those are two of the most powerful tools we have as therapists. People are always looking to learn the next big thing, but we need to develop these foundational tools because the other stuff just builds on top. If you have those strong clinical tools and skills, you’re going to be a good therapist. So I think validation and normalization for sexual assault survivors is going to be the biggest outcome for us to be able to say this is something that happens, here’s how it happens, here’s why it happens and now we have research, not just talks, but substantiated proof of that, at least in one study.

EJ: Have you found something that is key (or common) in trauma resolution after sexual assault?

AP: Yeah, it’s what I was just talking about. Therapists aren’t talking about it in the room, they aren’t trained to bring this in the room. I was talking about it for 20 years because I didn’t know not to. So I would talk about it as one of the normal outcomes of assault, ‘there can be anxiety, depression, arousal…’ just listing it. So when someone says how do you bring it up in the room? There’s 100 different responses the body has to being sexually violated and arousal is one of them so just list it. It goes back to the validation and normalization thing; we freeze, we fight, we mute, we scream, and we might have arousal or not, and when I do that, it’s rare for a client to bring it up early on, but what usually happens, I will go over the list and some weeks later they will bring it up and then we’ll talk about it. I applaud them for bringing it up in the room.

EJ: How have you been able to maintain a sex positive view while studying sexual assault?

AP: I bring in healthy sexuality, positive sexuality, as one of my healing tools to help women and girls rediscover themselves. So exploring their own body in a safe healthy way privately, masturbation, fantasy, how to incorporate fantasies and how they can use them to move them towards the positive kinds of sex views they want. Often times the mind or fantasies are intruded upon with images of the assault or the abuse, so helping them to use that in a positive way. Because some will say ‘well I’m just not going to masturbate’ and that’s not really the answer.  The answer is to learn how to masturbate and how to love your body and enjoy yourself in a healthy sex positive way so you can get to where you want to be. And if your decision is that you’re not ready to have sex, that’s fine but you’re allowed to enjoy yourself and we are able to help decrease the fantasies you’re having and shift them to a more sex positive view.

That’s one of the elements and there’s another element, speaking about the taboo and the controversial.  One of the outcomes for some survivors is that they end up having erotic dreams, nightmares, or sex fantasies about their assault that are pleasurable. So they start exploring, developing what is sometimes called “rape kink”, being aroused by images or thoughts of being sexually violated, harassed or assaulted. For some women that’s really horrible and they don’t like it and, for others they enjoy it or they have already, pre-therapy, incorporated that into their sex lives and they have all kinds of feelings about it and it can be very confusing. So, for some women, it’s about validating and normalizing that you’re allowed to have fantasies about whatever you want and you’re allowed to play sexually with any themes you want. Just because that thing happened to you doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to enjoy role-play and sex-play with a partner around those themes and that is incredibly difficult and complex for a lot of survivors to approach. So to even have survivors talk about it and explore and examine it and to free them from the shame, and then explore if they want to keep it or not is important. And it goes both ways, I’ve had women say they don’t want these thoughts or fantasies and we can work on that, lessening the intrusive thoughts. And some survivors kind of like that part of themselves and don’t want to lose those fantasies and desires. And that’s where we can separate out desire vs. the primal response of the assault. There’s a lot of psychodynamic techniques I use and CBT techniques and a lot of sexual assault trauma recovery techniques. I’m not married to one technique and it’s important to have a variety available.

And I must say CPS has done a world of good for me in reinforcing and validating my own thoughts and feelings about this work. I was doing a talk in Chicago about post-sexual assault fantasies and one of the members of CPS had come to hear me speak, thinking I was going to talk about it being a bad thing, negative, basically expecting the opposite of what my talk was about. I love telling this story. So there’s this guy in a trench coat and he’s watching me and kind of mad dogging me and after he walks up and tells me “Man, that was one of the greatest talks I’ve heard” and gives me a big hug and that was Matt.  So that’s how I became familiar with CPS and later became involved. And then also learning the 8 Dimensions of Positive Sexuality and it fits so well with my work, it’s been great.

EJ: What advice would you give those interested in sex positive study or work?

AP: There’s a quote I use in every presentation it goes something like ‘Curiosity more than bravery is the key to unlocking human connection’. [The actual quote is: Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will. – James Stephens] I believe that curiosity and fear are opposites, so I open my talks with that and I ask my audience to have an open mind to the ideas, and as long as the audience can stay curious and interested then we’ll be moved to a place where we can better support sexual assault survivors, create healthier sexuality, and my bigger hope, reduce shame and stigma around sexual assault and sexualized violence around the world.

EJ: Wonderful, any closing words?

AP: I will paraphrase a quote from Emily Prior, “I do believe a positive healthy sexuality can save the world.”

We thank Andrew for making the time for this interview and sharing his sex positive work and perspective with us.

You can learn more about Andrew Pari’s work at www.saawareness.com.

Thank you to intern Emily June who conducted this interview. 

Emily June (she/her/they) is a student of psychology. Her positive sexuality perspective comes from understanding that the body has its own unique ways of knowing, and championing bodily autonomy. She encourages individuals to explore themselves by listening, appreciating, and developing their relationship with their body. Emily June is based in Los Angeles, California.

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