Classifying Sex: Debating DSM-5

ImageLast week, I had the pleasure of attending the Classifying Sex: Debating DSM-5 conference at the Center for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University.

It was a fascinating multidisciplinary event, which brought together social and political scientists, feminist scholars and mental health practitioners to discuss the implications of the most recent revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The conference mainly concerned categories of sexuality and identity defined within DSM-5, and the ways in which they are considered to be ‘normal, ‘abnormal’ or ‘pathological’.

Certainly, I have been to few conferences which have invited speakers from such varied backgrounds, and never before one which invited so much disagreement, heckling and large scale exiting of the seminar room!

Although, most people reading this blog would expect the latter to be the fault of American psychologist, Ken Zucker, it was actually Patricia Crittenden of the Family Relations Institute, Miami who was the cause of much audible laughter (and of many people taking an early lunch).

Crittenden’s talk entitled “The Functions of Sexual and Reproductive Behaviour; Short and Long-term Adaption and Maladaption” was outdated, heterosexist, ethically questionable and at times, as we could all hear – just plain laughable.

By opening her paper with the statement “all sex is about babies” she successfully managed to alienate approximately 99% of the room (the other 1% being Ken Zucker) within the first five minutes of the nonsensical hour she had been allotted. An hour made up of “research” concerning scales of human sexual arousal (which interestingly, had death at either end) and video footage of “consenting” service users’ interactions with their children – service users who are currently involved in legal battle for custody of said offspring.

I am hard pressed to isolate one particular element which I found the most offensive, but if really pushed it would have to be the point where Crittenden, when discussing the higher rates of rape and sexual assault during wartime, argued that the increased frequency was because soldiers, when faced with the threat of impending death tend to think to themselves “Hey! Best leave some sperm behind” – which, unfortunately is a direct quote. There was no mention of power, retribution etc. No, apparently rape is only ever about reproduction, too.

The rest of the conference, aside from some slightly tense discussions with both Ken Zucker and Alain Giami (who argued for homosexuality’s return to DSM) included a fantastic presentation from Lisa Downing entitled Sorting the Acceptable from the Unacceptable: Defining the Pathological in Classic Sexological Perversion Theory and DSM5’s Paraphilia Diagnoses and Zowie Davy’s discussion Will It Make A Difference or Is It Just Semantics: Diagnosing Trans People in DSM 5.

Overall the conference was challenging, engaging and incredibly well balanced, as well as a fantastic opportunity for networking.. and I would seriously recommend seeking out Lisa Downing’s work to anyone. However, unsurprisingly I might not endorse Zucker or Crittenden in the same way.

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