In Contract, each player is helped to choose for himself a learning-experience to further what he wants. He agrees (“contracts”) in public to undertake it, and to testify to the group about his experience; he may work out another contract after completing this one. In our sex therapy groups, contracts are usually quite specific: e.g., to be aware of body sensations twice a day, or to practice saying “no” to trivial things one doesn’t really want to do, or to meet a particular woman person-to-person rather than in a game of sex-stereotype roles. In general, compactness and feasibility are useful criteria for learning contracts. They gain power as learning-tools by being arranged in systematic sequence – in spectral sequence, covering a spectrum of topics; in graded sequence, increasing in difficulty, scope, or depth; and in bootstrapping sequence, in which each completed contract defines the next one to work on.
Our therapy groups use all three approaches to sequencing, and in time the material of the men’s contracts becomes the main meat of the discussion. Some undertake their contracts to develop or improve a relationship with a lover, others are not yet up to this; for each, his contracts are a record of the progress of his learning. All these principles of Contract can be applied to any subject matter.
Contract may be played alone; or one-to-one between peers, as by a couple working on their relationship; or under a tutor, as in Classroom Contract. The processes of reaching and discussing them are as important a ground of learning as are the experiences of the contracts themselves, and may be engineered in various ways. In our therapy groups, we use Open Interview as the process of developing Contract. Indeed, the entire process of each group can be understood as an extended Open Interview game, lasting from ten to fifteen weeks, and subsuming even the simultaneous Classroom game.
Quickly the collective phenomena of the open-circle process appear; for here testament fuels itself, as each man’s testament is itself an ice-breaking drama, with both cognitive and emotional resonances. Trust grows among the men, permitting them to speak of the private, the painful and shameful. Whether impotent or premature, as each speaks of his experience or feelings, the others find themselves spoken for, and come to understand themselves as one. For in truth, there is a universality to most male sexual dysfunction, whatever its species or personal quirk, a prototype problem of many dimensions involving the mind/body split, goal-orientation and performance anxiety, not living in present time, and so on. (Altogether, when sexual dysfunction is not based in actual physical dysfunction, it is itself largely a particular two-person game with specific rules; and the process of therapy often involves learning to play a different game, well-describable and learnable in an orderly way, though the details of this are too specialized to pursue here.)
As the men testify to this universal character, and to this collective struggle and progress, and also to their differences, the function of the open-circle process, “to define a group consciousness to which individual may be related,” is realized. The climate of support begins with honest attention, and as the men find their fears of each other’s hurtful judgment unfounded, it deepens, to be expressed in hugs and other evidence of solidarity, and in active attempts to help each other learn. What is at stake here, what is learned through the very process of their interaction, in the course of reaching into their own feelings, opening themselves to each other, and practicing warmth and support, is at heart a different game of Manhood, at radical odds with the current gender stereotype (itself underlying their dysfunctions, as the new game is a ground for successful reconstruction of sexual functioning.) This newer image of Manhood is an integral fruit of this open-circle process.
In all of the proceedings, the therapists are active agents of interview. At first they are alone in this, but as they model some ways to inquire into experience and indicate that there are more, the men begin to interview each other; and by the end of a good group, much of the power to initiate interview will be equally distributed. In this respect and others, our therapy groups strive, as I believe all learning groups should, to demystify and decentralize leadership, and to distribute power progressively. And so our therapists do not restrict themselves to process-tending, interview, and giving objective information, but testify as they are moved to in the open circle about their own experiences, and invite interview from all players. This is all a bit delicately done, so as not to invite fixation on their own experiences as definitive, but rather to have this enlarge the commonality of experience, and the spirit of breaking down distances. Still within their professional roles, the therapists are revealed also to be creatures of the same genre and community, struggling perhaps more successfully with the same problems of learning. Expertise and gamekeeper’s distance have still some place, and the group does not become a monolithic democracy; but a deep peership is developed.
In its terms, even the game of Classroom which runs through the therapy sessions becomes integrated into the process of Open Interview. The therapists come to give basic objective information less by planned lectures than in response to specific interview by the other men. They may cease to assign homework, and instead become only the most knowledgeable among the brothers whom each man may ask to help him design a next learning-contract. They themselves have direct personal stakes, beyond their professional interest, in effective sexual functioning and manhood, and are likely to learn something from the group. When the teacher is in truth one of the students, the game Classroom is quite transformed.
In these groups, I have rarely seen competitive behavior, or self-serving or destructive criticism—the games of male ego which help define the world of gender stereotypes, and dominate the usual species of conversation forged in this world. Their absence has something to do with the men’s personal needs to reform the consequences of these games; but it also is an integral consequence of the open circle process of therapy itself. The advantages of group over individual therapy are rooted in the peculiar character of the learning society thus formed.
It’s worth noting that in these groups macho behavior is neither directly forbidden nor punished. Instead, it is inhibited and unlearned by being made the subject of group discussion whenever it occurs. In this respect, the group’s process exhibits a reflexive consciousness of process -- a very general and powerful learning tool that I’ll discuss later.
This brings me, finally, to a quite general proposition. Sex therapy may seem an arcane subject of learning, but the principles of design beneath our groups may be applied to many other subjects. In particular, suppose that some people share a dysfunction, an impairment of a personal capacity or potential, which is engendered or supported by specific kinds of social transactions. An appropriate therapy may proceed by discussing and experimenting with the dysfunction, alone and together, within an artificial group society, a game whose processes embody the converse kinds of transaction. Sometimes, as in Totalitarian Classroom (discussed later), it may deliberately embody the original transactions for experiential study. In either case, the group’s own processes of operation should itself be a topic of discussion; and this reflexive character can be of great power in its learning. (All this may seem a roundabout way of saying that people can learn something by getting together and doing it; but as with men seeking sex therapy, such directness is not always possible.)