Sunday, July 27, 2008

Public Practice

  1. The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it.
    - Mother Teresa

    I met another social worker at a gathering recently. I told her where I worked and she said, “I’m in private practice.” It’s like I said I worked at Target and she said, “I work at Saks.” Or whatever. Don’t misunderstand – some of the social workers I most admire work in private practice. My own dear clinical supervisor, one of the truly important mentors in my life, works in private practice.

    I’m a little envious, I suppose. I think it takes a lot to rent some office space and have enough confidence, courage, and self-discipline to go it alone. I don’t think I’d be good at it. I don’t know if I’d have the patience or focus.

    I guess I’ll start saying, “I’m in public practice.” That’s right, I deal with whoever walks in the door. Old, young, immigrant, bigot, alcoholic, meth/crack addicted, rich, middle class, shockingly poor, wheelchair bound, untreated mentally ill, angry, in denial, chronically depressed, perpetually victimized, troubled, hopeless, and absolutely amazing and inspiring. Those are my people. I often have “just when you’ve heard it all” moments.” Some days I might trade it for scheduled appointments and routine visits. I must like all the crisis and trauma because I keep coming back. I look forward to going to work on Monday mornings as much as I run out of there on Friday afternoons promptly at 5:00.

    A social worker friend of mine worked in a non-profit residential treatment program with children for many years. Her, I admire tremendously. Can you imagine an 8 year old in residential treatment who asks to call you mommy? She says that we are “secular clergy.” Sounds like an oxymoron, yes? But, an apt description.

    Next time I’m at one of those functions, “Oh, you’re in private practice? Well, I’m in public practice.” Should be fun.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Forgotten is forgiven.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

She posed with exaggerated sexually at the counter of the rural Texas working class restaurant, waiting for her lunch order. Her purposely selected clothes were probably a size too small. She was sending out a signal and occasionally looking around the room at the uniformed, blue-shirted workers on lunch break to see who was receiving it. A few were and giving her lurid looks. I felt like I kind of knew her. I’ve talked to many women like her over the years, women who are primarily defined by the approval of men – male defined women.

When we left the restaurant, my husband, who is a criminal defense attorney, remarked about the “ex-dancer” in the restaurant. I guess that makes sense since he represents so many of them. I said, “You mean the woman who looked like a sexual assault victim?” Maybe we’re both being reductionistic. Maybe we’re both right.

Sex workers seem to be perennial victims, at least the one’s I’ve met. Most of them have been my clients, victims of domestic violence. (And, mothers. Kind of takes away the lure to think that the woman gyrating in front of you at Babe’s has a 2 year old at home.) Maybe my view is skewed. I also meet a lot of teachers and nurses who are domestic violence victims. So – maybe I just see a lot of them because this is another profession that primarily employs women?

From what I’ve experienced and read, and what I think to be true is this: How is it that a woman feels like sex is her primary power? Is it because society tells women that to be worthwhile, we have to be sexually attractive? Is it advertising? Magazines like Cosmo? Playboy? Penthouse? Could it be that women who end up selling sex are taught at a young age that the best, most powerful thing about them is sex? And who taught them? An abusive step-father? Grandfather? Pedophile uncle?

Once a woman is defined as a sex seller – a prostitute, dancer – then she can never, ever get away from that role. Never. She will always be known as an “ex-dancer.” You can imagine at the PTA meeting that someone finds out. One mother whispers to another, “SHE used to dance naked.” Yet, we wouldn’t consider defining a man as a “sex-buyer” or much less and “ex-sex-buyer.” Could you imagine at the same PTA meeting, one father saying to another, “You know, he used to go to titty-bars all the time.” Even if they did, it would be said with admiration or jealousy.

A common defense in domestic violence cases is this idea that the woman is a whore. They don’t come out and say it like that. But, that’s what they mean. “She was cheating, so he lost it and hit/shot/stabbed/killed her.” Often in protective order court, the man’s attorney will talk about how she works as a dancer, or she’s been having a sex with many men. Uhhhh, and that has what to do with the fact that he beat her until her face looked like one big, swollen bruise? Once a respondent’s lawyer told us how the protective order applicant had been having sex with a lot of different men. I looked at him with a straight face and said, “You mean she’s a whore?” He said, “yes” without the slightest clue that I was being sarcastic. Wow. My co-worker had to explain it to him.

The point is this: We want sex-workers. We want male-defined women. We encourage and expect this behavior from women. The price they (we) must pay is that we cannot escape this role and we cannot be equal. It isn’t that sex or sexuality is bad or wrong. It is the imbalance of power that is wrong. Even if a woman temporarily gains power in her role as a sex seller, ultimately she will pay the price – her humanity, her self-worth, and inclusion in the “legitimate” world. Because, she’ll someday be at that PTA meeting or at church or try to get a job in an office – and they’ll say it…”you know, she used to…”