by Bidushy Sadika
Interview originally published in the Section on Women & Psychology, 48(2), 23-28 - the newsletter of the Canadian Psychological Association's Section on Women & Psychology [SWAP] (a.k.a. the feminist section). Republished with permission.
Happy New Year! I hope you all had restful and enjoyable holidays. Welcome to the Winter 2022 edition of the Section on Women and Psychology (SWAP) newsletter. For this edition, I have had the honour and privilege to interact with Dr. Jem Tosh. Their work exceptionally exemplifies the intersection of psychological and feminist knowledge to challenge the prevalence of violence and trauma amongst queer, trans, and nonbinary persons. To engage in this work, Dr. Tosh founded Psygentra, an organization that specializes in psychology, gender, and trauma. She has authored the following books, The Body and Consent in Psychology, Psychiatry and Medicine: A Therapeutic Rape Culture, Perverse Psychology, and Psychology and Gender Dysphoria: Feminist and Transgender Perspectives. Without further delay, let’s hear from Dr. Tosh about their journey as a psychologist with a focus on decentering dominant narratives (i.e., heteronormativity, cisgenderism, and white privilege), promoting inclusivity, and advocating education on important issues such as violence, trauma, and gender nonconformity.
Their work exceptionally exemplifies the intersection of psychological and feminist knowledge to challenge the prevalence of violence and trauma amongst queer, trans, and nonbinary persons.
- Bidushy Sadika, SWAP Assistant Newsletter Editor
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your training, and your background?
I'm a Chartered Academic Psychologist with the British Psychological Society (BPS). So, I did a research PhD in the UK that focused on the psychology of sexual violence and gender, specifically looking at gender nonconformity. I included experiences of trans and nonbinary survivors in that. I'm also the founding director of Psygentra, an organization that specializes in critical and feminist psychologies regarding gender and trauma. That's where I do my research, my writing, consulting, and provide support - all through that space. I've published three books, all looking at issues around sexual violence or gender, gender nonconformity, and the transgender experience as well. That's because I'm a nonbinary psychologist and a survivor of abuse myself.
Why did you select this area of research?
Sometimes people think of me as a gender researcher, but my main focus is sexual violence and abuse. It’s just that you can't really study that topic without looking at gender. I got interested in that because growing up, I was exposed to it a lot. There were many people I could see around me who were suffering as a consequence of it. It seemed to be experienced by a lot of people and a really huge social issue that I wanted to work on and understand. Being a survivor myself, I had a personal interest and motivation to understand it – how do we work to prevent it? I also grew up during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. So, growing up in a situation of conflict, that also piqued my interest in violence in more complex ways. How does violence work in communities? How is it interpreted and understood? The focus on gender nonconformity was because I found that when I engaged with a lot of feminist work, there was the assumption that there was a gender binary of women victims and men perpetrators. But for someone like me, my abusers were both men and women, queer and straight. So, it felt like there was a lacking there. I couldn't find a space for myself within those areas of feminist psychology. So I am really trying to open up those topics and conversations so that we're including more survivors and their experiences so that they have a voice.
I couldn't find a space for myself within those areas of feminist psychology. So I am really trying to open up those topics and conversations so that we're including more survivors...
Can you tell me a bit more about Psygentra? What it is and what motivated you to start this organization?
Psygentra stands for— psy for psychology, gen is for gender, and tra is for trauma. It's a space where I do my research, where I do my writing, it's where people can find me and the people who work with me for consulting, support, advice, mentoring, PhD supervision - just anything really. I decided to set it up because I'd been working in the UK National Health Service (NHS) and in academia and it's very difficult to work in mainstream psychology or mainstream academia as a queer, nonbinary, and neurodivergent person. I found that it can be a very hostile environment to work in. You're expected to not only work alongside, but to also collaborate with people whose work and teaching advocates for your own eradication – they’re very harmful views. And it's not just one person or a group of researchers, but because they're also teaching that, you have students who have these views as well. It creates a really hostile and toxic work environment where abuse and violence can thrive. In one of my last academic positions in a university, I was actually sexually assaulted by a student. In that kind of hostile environment, I became a target for a lot of violence and abuse. I stayed in academia for a little bit after that, but it just became more and more apparent that I was spending most of my energy trying to survive in that space and spending most of my time justifying my existence. I didn't like putting all my energy into that when I wanted to be putting my energy into research, teaching, doing more productive things around social change, and making the profession more inclusive. So, I decided to create a space that not only included people, but actually celebrated and centered diversity, and that was to include anyone who felt marginalized or excluded from mainstream academia and mainstream psychology. So that's the goal, to create a space that is safe for people who are trying to make a difference.
I decided to create a space that not only included people, but actually celebrated and centered diversity, and that was to include anyone who felt marginalized or excluded from mainstream academia and mainstream psychology.
What do you hope to achieve with your organization?
I wanted somewhere where people could thrive instead of having to focus on survival. I wanted a space where we could make changes at different levels. So, I talk about how your research is on that bigger level. You try to influence academic discussions on what these things are, how we understand them and then training so that you're getting to individual professionals and how they practice, how they understand sexual abuse - like trying to encourage therapists to be more gender inclusive when they're working with survivors themselves or supporting them through consultations. I'm an immigrant, so I'm still getting my qualifications recognized here to be able to do therapy, but that's also a future goal. For me, it's three levels, individual support for survivors, training professionals who work with them, and then expanding and opening up the research so that we're being more inclusive. That's the goal.
How does Psygentra contribute to the field of feminist psychology?
I would say it contributes because sexual violence is an important theme in the organisation, and it’s an important feminist area of reducing violence against women, and violence against people of any gender. The work we do is about expanding that conversation to include more genders and more survivors. The other aspect is the gender research that we do, and we do that through a feminist lens. We use intersectionality theory drawing on black feminist work. Again, that's about expanding how we understand gender, looking at the gender binary critically, and analyzing it through an anti-colonialism lens. So, I would say that's how psygentra promotes and includes feminist psychology.
We use intersectionality theory drawing on black feminist work. Again, that's about expanding how we understand gender, looking at the gender binary critically, and analyzing it through an anti-colonialism lens.
Does your organization do a lot of knowledge translation that is not possible within the colonial culture of academia?
Yes, having an organization that's run by a survivor and a nonbinary queer immigrant, there are a lot of things that I don't have a lot of hoops to jump through. There aren’t committees or grants that are required, that are structured around colonial and white norms of how things are ‘supposed’ to run. Designing an organization from scratch means that you get to question everything about the organization. One of the concepts we use is slow scholarship to counter ableism in academia - we don't have deadlines, we just don't! We have an online journal publication that is in a rolling format, and we publish things when they're ready, because there's such pressure in academia to publish, not perish, to publish quickly, and to write in a particular way that assumes English is everyone's first language. It assumes this very professional quantitative style of writing is the only ‘good’ one or ‘right’ one. So, we're really trying to challenge that so that more voices get heard. It means that we can open up and do things differently. We have academic papers and books, but also, I've got the blog, which describes things in a way that's more accessible, more general. I write things for people who are studying, but I also write things for survivors who are maybe just looking for information. I do that around trans topics as well. Some people just want to support a loved one or a friend and they don't really understand it. We're very careful too, for example, our social media's private, because we know that these kinds of topics can create hostility. It can attract trolls. And again, I want to make sure that it stays a safe space so that we're communicating to people who feel safe hearing about it, talking about it, and asking questions.
One of the concepts we use is slow scholarship to counter ableism in academia - we don't have deadlines, we just don't!
How can feminist psychologists at different levels (e.g., students, faculties, clinicians, teachers, etc.) across Canada engage or get involved with your organization?
In a number of ways, one is, we have our publications that are available, and we have just set up a Psygentra Learner Subscription where you can access some of our more detailed posts. They also tend to have a little bit more personal disclosure as well. So, you have a mix of academic theory, but also making it accessible and personal with examples that people can relate to. We are in the process of developing webinars and online training. Part of our slow scholarship is we're working to make something really good, different, and unique. For example, the first webinar we are setting up is on academic activism, how to bring your activism to your academia, how to make your academic work help activism, and how to foster that relationship. So, getting involved in those, signing up for our newsletters so that you can find out about when those are released. But also, as an organization that isn't trying to replicate those rigid hierarchical structures that are out there, we are also quite fluid. So if people wanted to get involved or had ideas or wanted to share something or wanted to publish something, we encourage that and promote that! I've had people contact me because they want to publish things that have been rejected elsewhere because they were a trans author or they were rejected because their style of writing wasn't quite right. So, we definitely encourage people to get in contact and we can find ways to promote work that we find has an important message or is useful to people advocating for social change. Also, if universities or people want us to deliver a workshop or a seminar – virtually or in-person, depending on COVID and everything – we do that too.
Can you tell me a bit about your book, The Body and Consent in Psychology, Psychiatry, and Medicine? What motivated you to start writing this book?
The book is the result of about a decade of work in the area and noticing patterns, similarities, and things that connected from different projects I was doing. I really felt like I needed a book to be able to tell the whole story. It was one of those ideas that came to me at about three o'clock in the morning. I just woke up and had this clear idea and had to write it down. I pretty much wrote the proposal for the book for my publisher within a few hours that early morning. I just had the clearest idea of how it all fit together and that's what I did. The focus is on how sexual abuse is constructed within psychological discourse on therapy, but it also includes discussion of sexual abuse during therapy and sexual abuse that is framed as therapy. It traces the influence throughout the history of psychology from, for example, John Money's work with intersex children and the practices around gender ‘normalization’ and how that linked then to reparative approaches with queer and transgender children. One was called ‘sexual rehearsal play’ where they tried to teach children how to have heterosexual sex by getting them to mimic positions and movements.
So, it's this blurring boundary between what's classed as therapy and what's classed as violence. Who gets to define which is which and the harm that it can cause? And then how those therapies go on to influence Masters and Johnson’s sex therapy. I was able to trace these harmful ideas and concepts throughout a variety of really important influential therapies and how they create an environment in psychology where rape and sexual abuse occurred and thrived and got justified. Victims got gaslit and were told that it was therapy. That's why it ends up being a therapeutic rape culture. I talk about how the kind of environment and ideas and concepts that we promote in psychology can either encourage violence or discourage it. I talk about intersectionality a lot throughout the book. I analyze the topic in relation to gender, race, disability, class, and conclude that there are 14 conditions that create this context and that we need to dismantle those. That includes things like, sexism, white supremacy, and a contractual idea of consent (people tick a box to access therapy and assume that means they consent to all kinds of possible therapies that could follow it). That's what the book is. It's pretty big, it has a lot of stuff in it!
I talk about how the kind of environment and ideas and concepts that we promote in psychology can either encourage violence or discourage it.
How does your book contribute to the psychological understanding from feminist perspective?
Sexual violence and gender issues are key to feminist psychology but I think it expands on that by including more genders. I have a whole chapter about intersex folks, a whole chapter for trans people, a whole chapter on cisgender men survivors and several chapters on cisgender women survivors. So, there are lots of examples of how sexual violence impacts on different genders, but how gender is still really important in how that is experienced. I think it also forms that part of feminist psychology that critiques the profession, looks at it and thinks, what can we do better? What is oppressive either intentionally or unintentionally? What are we doing that's harmful that we don't realize or don't mean to? For me, it's a key part of that aspect of feminism, of constantly critiquing things, analyzing things and thinking, how can we do better?
Do you have any more comments about your other books? Like Psychology and Gender Dysphoria?
That book is probably the only book that doesn't focus on sexual violence. It was requested by an editor. An editor got in touch and they were aware of all the controversies around gender dysphoria and transgender people, all the different debates and disagreements, and they didn't understand them. So, they wanted a book that outlined and explained all the controversies, e.g. here’s why they exist, here’s what they're saying, here are the problems with them and so on. So, I wrote a book in two parts. The first part goes through how gender nonconformity and femininity have been framed very negatively in psychology and psychiatry for a long time. I go through all the different diagnoses and the debates within the profession about them - and the problems. The second half of the book looks at how feminism has addressed gender nonconformity, both from a positive part of feminism – those challenging gender norms – but also how trans exclusionary feminism has drawn on some of those pathologizing narratives from psychiatry and psychology to continue to harm and exclude trans people. At the end of the book, I flip the switch a bit and show how trans people have framed psychiatry and feminism. So, it's this discussion between these three areas that I've had quite a lot of feedback from parents and trans youth who've read the book, who aren't the target audience at all. It's an academic book. They said that they found it so helpful to understand why you see what you do in the media and the news, or from politicians and celebrities, and going, “oh, that's why they're saying that because it comes from that thread of argument or they are thinking in this way”.
Perverse Psychology was based on part of my PhD thesis. It was me analyzing sexual violence and gender nonconformity against these parallels. I'd say very briefly, what I noticed was how very often psychology would frame sexual violence as ‘normal’, as a part of ‘aggressive male behavior’. Like in developmental psychology aggression would be a part of ‘normal’ development for boys, or in evolutionary psychology sexual violence would have ‘reproductive value’ - all these really problematic, harmful, horrible kind of discourses. Then on the other side, they were saying that trans people and gender nonconformity are ‘dangerous’ and ‘perverse' and really ‘bad’. To me, that was really backward thinking. Actually, rape is really bad and trans and gender nonconforming people are just trying to exist. So, I argued that it was the profession that was perverse, not the people they were diagnosing.
It was the profession that was perverse, not the [gender nonconforming] people they were diagnosing.
What led you to write your book and what do you hope to achieve by writing books on these topics?
The main reason I wrote them was because I couldn't find anything else saying what I was saying, or talking about the issues that I was seeing at that time. Initially when I started writing and tried to get published in feminist journals the feedback was, “can you remove the part about transgender people?" I was saying, “no, that's key to what I'm trying to talk about”. So, books were a really good way for me to have enough space to explain everything and explain why it was important. That was definitely one big part of it. I think what else I was trying to achieve was about opening up the conversation and bringing awareness to it and giving voice to those who can't find themselves represented in other spaces. Like I said, there are books on sexual violence in therapy that focus on women, but those trans youth were the focus of that horrible ‘sexual rehearsal play’. They need a place to be able to see their stories, be validated, and recognized and outraged. I often give warning when people read my books that it's not an easy read and you will likely be outraged at some of the talk about things like the electric shock treatments that they used to give to gay and trans people. It is really horrific when you look at how marginalized groups have been treated in psychology. So, it's raising awareness and opening discussions, but the main goal is always about how to improve. I always think of it in that positive way. I describe myself as a critical psychologist and a feminist psychologist, and I think some people can be scared of both of those terms because they think they're very negative but for me it's a very positive thing to look at something and think, “okay, where has it gone wrong?” so that we can make it into a better thing. I think that's a positive goal in the future instead of thinking, “well, this is how things are and we're stuck with it”. I think that's a more negative thing.
...when I started writing and tried to get published in feminist journals the feedback was, “can you remove the part about transgender people?" I was saying, “no, that's key to what I'm trying to talk about.”
Part Two to be released in May 2022...
Connect with SWAP:
Check out the SWAP Newsletter for the Emerging Canadian Feminist Scholars Profile Series, recent member publications, awards, job postings, book reviews, and more.
To contribute to the SWAP Newsletter, contact the editors:
Jenna Cripps, Newsletter Editor
Bidushy Sadika, Assistant Newsletter Editor